When CEOs or sales leaders are asked what their biggest sales challenges are, the answers will sound something like this:
We need people making more calls.
We can’t get past the gatekeeper.
Our sales forecasting is terrible.
We need people with a bit of initiative.
Our message is not getting through.
Nobody uses the CRM.
Our distributors don’t see us as a priority.
Notice how the sales challenges range from the small and the frustrating, to the big and the strategic, which means that “sales” has many moving parts and is even difficult to talk about, never mind manage. How can you go about tackling these issues?
Move the Conversation to Sales Capability
Sales Capability is a much more useful way to talk about sales. We can think of sales capability as an engine or a machine with many moving parts that can be organised into 3 connected components:
1.0 A System
2.2 Value Messaging
3.1 Talent Acquisition
3.2 Talent Development
1.0 A Sales System
1.1 Measurement of progress is the cornerstone of sales capability. Measurement provides clarity and requires accountability. To measure sales progress accurately, you need a common language with rules that determine the location and quality of an opportunity as it progresses on its journey to lost or won.
There are several big questions to answer when it comes to developing a strong standard of measurement in the “sales system”:
1. What is a Qualified Opportunity (for sales purposes)?
2. What defines an active, income-producing opportunity?
3. What stages does an opportunity pass through during the sales cycle?
4. What is the average, acceptable and expected sales cycle?
5. When should an opportunity enter the forecast?
6. What defines an opportunity that is in the Commit Forecast?
Have You a Commit Forecast Standard of Measurement?
In strong (elite) sales organisations, accurate short-term income forecasting is the highest valued metric. Essentially, you are asked to call a forecast number – once – for the month or at a stretch, the quarter. You can’t revise it and it doesn’t come with conditions nor a supporting narrative nor story. Like an accountant reporting the revenue results, it’s a single number, except it hasn’t happened yet, so you have to stand over it. This drives very focused opportunity management and the right levels of activity that support your forecast call. If it’s currently the case that you are dramatically revising the sales forecast – downwards – late in the month, all of the measurement items above probably need to be re-visited.
1.2 A Review Procedure for auditing accuracy of the forecast, the quality of the pipeline inventory and the levels of activity. In other words, the system includes an accountability check (ideally weekly).
Now Add a Compelling Scoreboard
A Common Language and Review are not quite the full “system”. You also need a scoreboard, a scoreboard that measures progress in a compelling way. Ideally, the scoreboard should be big, visible, “physical” and updated daily. Opinions differ, but in this author’s experience, by far the most effective and useful scoreboard for tracking opportunity creation and capture is one borrowed from manufacturing that displays two things: the totality of active opportunities and their movement (or lack of movement). Today that scoreboard would be called a Kanban or even a Trello-style board. (Click this link to learn how to set up a common language-based compelling scoreboard)
We said earlier that “sales” carries two responsibilities: opportunity creation and opportunity capture. To create and capture opportunities, we need the tools and the messaging.
– Data for intelligence-gathering, research, nurturing and targeting.
– CRM or related automation for data, pipeline, forecast and communications management.
– Call Planning Tools (e.g. Discovery framework, meeting planners).
– Messaging Decks (Off-line, Online).
2.2 Value Messaging
As a CEO or sales leader, you have a particular responsibility to ensure that the company has developed not just “messaging” but value-based messaging. The reason is this; even in the simplest or most automated B2B sale, you create value through your messages, language and conversation, long before you deliver your product or service. There is a very good principle to follow when developing messaging, that while not scripted, is prescriptive: your goal is to enable everyone on the sales team to say the same thing in their own words.
Value Messaging Points
There are several critical value messaging points that belong in or have a huge impact on sales capability:
• Messaging for Prospect Nurturing.
• Messaging for Outbound Prospecting (Online, Telephone,).
• Messaging for Inbound (easily overlooked and wrongly treated as junior telephone type work).
• Messaging for the Consultative Sales Conversation.
Sales Playbook: Larger companies develop a formal, written Sales Playbook, which prescribes toolkits, systems, messaging and approaches. Smaller companies will lack or feel they lack the resources and know-how to do this. Even if you can’t get to the Playbook level in the shorter term, it’s useful to think about sales capability as if you were building a playbook tool. It removes a lot of the informality, opinion, emotion and “magic” that surrounds sales.
3.1 Talent Acquisition
Roles: Many salespeople are not clear about their roles and what they do on a daily basis is not what the manger thinks the role is. A role is something we “act” out; it has measurable outcomes, tools, practices, responsibilities and accountability. The sales organisation should be carrying out the manager’s view of the role.
Ideal Candidate Profile: Stick to between 3-5 top criteria. No more, and even then, you will have to trade off between them. (That “holy grail” salesperson truly does not exist).
Hiring: This is a big topic to deal with, but here is one guiding principle: don’t allow your hiring process to descend into an informal, never-ending search for the perfect personality who seems to have something that pleases everyone. Whoever a new sales hire reports should be the primary hirer; it’s not a responsibility you can delegate.
Onboarding: Sales onboarding is often done very informally with a big emphasis on the technical or operational aspects of the role. But here is a golden rule of onboarding: what a new sales hire believes is their role on day 1 is what they will believe for the rest of their tenure at the company. You have 8 hours to set the foundation for success.
Compensation Models: This is a complex area, but if you want to attract people who are goal-driven the compensation and rewards approach needs to support that. As a general principle, all compensation should be designed to deliver a win for the company and a win for the salesperson or, if one loses the other should lose. (It’s either win-win or lose-lose). Win-lose or lose-win never works, because it’s not working for one of the parties.
3.2 Talent Development
Training: It is better to distinguish between training and coaching. Training is not coaching. You need to train your salespeople in the systems, the use of your enablement support and the core messaging you want them to bring to the market, and if necessary, how to deliver that messaging. Training is a prescriptive approach to teaching critical skills, concepts and approaches. For example, your value proposition needs to be trained because it’s an absolute thing; it’s not a matter of opinion.
Coaching: Organisations that have built up true sales capability have extensive modelling-based coaching i.e. where effective behaviours are modelled by the sales leader or senior salespeople. In my experience, it’s the only form of coaching that works in sales i.e. that gets the respect of the salespeople. When people don’t respond, usually it means you have the wrong people.
Career Development Path: For many sales professionals, the primary career development path is higher earnings i.e. most salespeople want options to earn more income and are less interested in becoming managers. They are much more productive as individual contributors. A minority percentage have ambitions to manage people, territories or business units. A good way to see if someone has management potential is to provide a player-manager path, where they carry their own number for a period and help other team members lift their performance. These make the best frontline sales managers and leaders and are more respected by the people they lead.
The Two Tests for Sales Capability
There are two ways you can test to see if your sales capability is improving.
1. The first is that your sales forecasts will become more accurate because people now know what constitutes an income-producing opportunity. This is one of the great strategic leaps in sales capability and it’s why top-performing sales teams use an accurate sales forecast as the key indicator of performance.
2. The second test is externally focused; prospects and customers start to have a better experience when engaging with your sales organisation; your CE (Customer Engagement) scores will increase. Prospects will get value right from the first point of contact, because you have been working on your value messaging. When you get to this level, you now have a source of differentiation through your sales organisation as well as your proposition. It’s a very powerful way to create preference for what you do in the market, especially if you are not a big brand.
Sales Capability is not the Same as Salespeople
Hiring or having salespeople is not the same as developing your company’s sales capability. Salespeople don’t come co-packaged with a working system or an out-of-the-box sales capability plug-in. It’s much more effective to bring people into your “system” than try to find holy grail type salespeople who bring their “own” system, which will become a black box in terms of a shared set of practices and standards.
Sales Capability is Built on Commitment, Not Compliance
We now have our three components of Sales Capability: A System, Enablement and Resourcing. For sales capability to become a competitive asset you will need more than compliance from the sales team or even one salesperson; you will need commitment. In sales you need a level of commitment that survives the daily grind of setbacks and recovery. Sales is a world of high risk and small progress. The big lesson therefore is to hire against the standards you have set and don’t take on people who dilute your sales standards. A community of people promoting high standards and shared values that protect individual and group welfare, is the strongest foundation for any endeavour.