Are You Overcomplexifying Your Sales Opportunities?

Our hiring model was no longer working for us. As the largest player in the Electronic Design Automation market, we had developed an unconscious hiring model which was primarily dependent on taking the best sellers from our two main competitors. They were largely Electrical Engineering types who had migrated to sales. After a period of time, this process  left us with only “B” and “C” players to recruit.

Out of necessity, I issued a mandate. From that point forward, we could hire from outside our industry, but they had to be “A” players. Taking a play from “Good To Great”, by Jim Collins, I defined “A” players as anyone with an aptitude for learning. I suggested we look at their SAT scores as a guide.

One of the first hires we made with our new model was Jack Bartell. I called him the band-aid sales guy. He came to us from Baxter International, and had been selling general medical supplies to hospitals. Jack had a Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State in Marketing/Finance. This was a radical departure from the hordes of electrical engineering types we had amassed over the years.

Jack validated our new direction within a few short months. He uncovered, developed and closed an opportunity for something north of a million dollars. While not at the high end of our largest deals, it was noteworthy for its size, breadth of products and short sales cycle time. Not to mention the best ramp up example we had ever witnessed.

During a debrief of the sale, I asked Jack how he managed to pull off such a feat in such a short time period. He said,

“Kevin, I quickly realized I could never be an expert on these complex electrical engineering solutions we sell, so I decided to become a problem expert. After talking to a lot of experts around the organization, I made a list of the problems we help solve. I would literally take out the list, and ask my new prospects if any of the problems hit close to home for them. When they resonated with any set of problems that were worth solving on their side, I would assemble the team of experts from our side to help them understand how we addressed the problems. That’s how I found this opportunity.”

What I learned from Jack is becoming a problem expert is a lot easier than becoming a solution expert. There are other dynamics at play as well: Jack’s prospects were happy to help him out as a new guy trying to learn the ropes, and the solution experts he brought in were better prepared to connect with the customer’s problems based on Jack’s pinpoint diagnosis. In general, the interaction dynamics around this type of dialog were less contentious and more collaborative than the “show up and throw up” pitches used by most of the other sellers in the organization..

I applied this problem expert model for Dell when they were struggling to branch out from PC sales to include servers, storage and services in their selling efforts. After we switched from drowning their sales people in useless specifications, and focused on the problems we wanted to surface that create the need for servers, storage and services, they cited a 26% increase in their attach-rate in just 30 days. That fueled the growth of a $15 Billion business for Dell.

Over the years, the problem expert model has proven itself over and over for myself and my clients. Cisco has used it to dramatically reduce ramp up times for new hires. Imprivata, a single sign on provider, used it to navigate through the 2009 economic decline with 47% growth. While WindRiver Systems (now a division of Intel) used it to learn how to combat free open source competition while growing revenue 19%.

After all these years, I’m still amazed to find mature companies saturating their sales people with solution information. If you are a new hire trying to navigate a complex learning curve, a sales leader worried about ramping up a horde of new hires, or a product marketing expert frustrated by the lack of sales adoption for an exciting new technology, the problem expert model can add tremendous value to overcoming these challenges.

Thanks Jack!

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

Buyer Psychology In Times Of Crisis

It was mid January. When Steve began the PowerPoint overview of his annual sales plan, I wasn’t expecting any surprises. Steve was one of the top performers nationally, and was always very consistent in forecasting and productivity. But something was out of place on a spreadsheet showing projected bookings by account. 

After several years of consistently booking over a million dollars a year with a division of Unisys in the San Diego area, Steve’s revenue projection for the year was a big fat zero. Nada. Nothing. 

When I asked about the anomaly, Steve was prepared. He described a tumultuous situation at Unisys. This was at the time when PC sales were exploding, but the by-product was a slow down in orders for higher end computing solutions. This particular division of Unisys designed mainframe computers for large scale enterprise applications. They were caught in a market transformation. As a result, they were in the process of scaling from five different products down to one. Now, Steve explained, they had too much of our electronic design products on hand, leaving them over saturated with our software. He was basically crossing them off of his list.

“I wonder what the psychology of the organization is at Unisys as a result?” I pondered out loud. Steve knew the answer. He told me they had even bigger problems now. Since the writing was on the wall for pending layoffs, all of their best people were shopping their resumes for employment options. “Unisys could be a ghost town in a couple of months”, Steve explained. “If they can’t do something to stop the exodus of their best people, they won’t be able to ship their one remaining product.”

I smiled and said, “then you have a gold mine on your hands.”  Steve looked at me quizzically, and I suggested he set up a meeting with the General Manager of this Unisys division. I was confident we could help solve both problems.

Steve set up the meeting with the GM, and he confirmed what Steve had learned from hallway gossip. They were already losing people, and the GM said his number one concern was about losing his best people and missing deadlines for the remaining product set. In anticipation of his confirmation we had prepared a very tailored solution. We suggested the GM sell us his design organization (for one dollar, it turns out), and then enter into a design services contract with us to deliver his key product on time. In essence, his team would change jobs to a high growth, attractive and stable company without changing offices. Plus, we had enough growth in our services business to employ everyone on his payroll, negating the need to job shop for those on culled product designs. The contract would net my organization $75M over a multi-year period; the largest transaction in our company history.

Since that transaction took place, I’ve grown to appreciate buyer chaos from a selling perspective. Here’s what I learned about buyer psychology in a crisis situation:

  • The door is open. It’s much easier to get on someone’s calendar if you connect your topic to their current crisis. Although it seems counter-intuitive, it’s also much easier to get sponsorship to the top when the house is on fire. People become desperate for solutions when the world is falling apart around them.
  • Don’t sell what you have, sell what they need. Situational crisis creates other problems. Spend some effort to understand the new problems arising as a result of the crisis, this may enable you to sell products or services you normally overlook.
  • Creativity is welcome. There were tax and write off implications for Unisys which resulted in the buy out of the organization for $1. They couldn’t write off the monetary loss of the good will of several hundred employees without a tangible exchange, but they didn’t want price to slow down the process with a protracted negotiation.
  • Politics take a back seat. In normal buying situations, politics can muddy the waters considerably, creating delays and slowing adoption of new solutions. In crisis, the usual political instigators tend to want to get into any feasible lifeboat. 

Next time you’re prospecting, consider placing the companies in chaos at the top of your list.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

Six Buyer Questions Relevant To Every Culture

Years ago, I worked for a great sales manager named Pete who told me selling was different in different parts of the country. He grew up in New Orleans, while I was from Los Angeles. After I teased apart his perspective, I came to understand his point was that customs are different. For example, he would have a hard time closing a large sale in the south if he failed to take a client out for dinner. Whereas, for me on the west coast, getting a buyer to dinner is a challenging task and not usually viewed as a requirement. My clients in Japan have told me that getting a meeting with a senior buying executive in their culture requires having a same level executive or higher from the selling side. In many other cultures, that helps, but its not a requirement. After having conducted business in over 40 countries around the world, I have no argument with Pete’s observation, however, what I have found is that buyers have consistent behaviors regardless of culture or customs. (As I write this article, I’m in client’s office near  London, reviewing opportunities from Russia to South Africa and places in-between.)

Over the years, I’ve literally asked thousands of people from around the world to share the questions they would need answers to before funding a large purchase. Translated from many languages, the core questions are universal among buyers around the globe regardless of culture:

  1. Why should we change?
  2. Why now?
  3. Why this alternative?
  4. What’s the impact?
  5. Who does it impact?
  6. Who can we trust?

The first question is really about impetus. It includes the identification of people/process/technology problems and the connection to the current business issues the executive staff is trying to overcome. When connected together, they form an effective argument for change. Left unconnected, the argument for change can be overshadowed by more effectively articulated options – resulting in no decisionoutcomes for the poorly articulated purchase requests. I’m reminded of a sales person who told me his software sale was delayed because the client wanted to build a parking lot. In that case, someone successfully argued the scaling of the company was being hampered by a lack of employee parking, easily overshadowing the weak plea from engineering for a better code development platform that was not connected to the scaling issue, but could have been.

The second question is about aligning priorities. This is achieved by connecting the people, process and technology problems identified to a business issue that has the attention of the executive staff. If it connects to a business issue that isn’t on the minds of senior leaders, it’s at risk for being delayed until the business issue elevates in priority (if ever).

Weighing alternatives is a multifaceted question. At first glance, it seems like a simple differentiation question, which it encompasses, but can go even further. As pointed out above, it can also be about alternative uses for funds. Or it can be a “make versus buy” question. And lastly, its a test of the current approach, assessing if they can get by with the current solution, albeit potentially lacking. 

Impact is about value.  The return on the investment will need to align with the metric that has their attention, so it’s context relevant. While one company may be focused on improving revenues, the next company may be more concerned about reducing costs. Developing a value proposition that will motivate action requires attention to the customer’s current business issues as the focal point, and it’s their metric, not the seller’s metric that matters.

“Who does it impact” also has multiple levels. The first implication is about sizing the solution. For example, does the problem set impact one person or a hundred? The second implication can be a funding question. For instance, if it impacts sales and marketing, who is going to pay for it? And finally, there’s a political implication; if it does impact sales and marketing, can they collaborate to succeed with the new solution.

Lastly, the question of trust comes in many forms and includes many time consuming activities on the part of buyers and sellers. On-site product evaluations are educational for the buyer, but overall they are a test of trust and credibility. If your product has severe bugs or other quality problems, your credibility suffers and so does the trust.  Reference checks and now social media posts are a test of trust and credibility. Your existing customer list is a testimonial to the trust others have put in your company. Most buyers execute multiple credibility checks to evaluate your trustworthiness.

Although you may have thought of a question that’s not on my list, I’ve typically found its either simply stated differently but aligns with one of the questions above, or its a packaged combination of two or more of the core questions. For example, “what’s the ROI?” is really a concrete example of the “impact?” question. And, “why should we buy the premium provider?” is really a combination of “why this alternative?” and “whats the impact?” providing a means to weigh the added value of their differentiated capabilities. (But please add yours to the comments below if you’d like to dialog about it!)

I’ll leave you with one last thought. This list is potentially the most important list a sales professional can keep front and center. If you are helping your buyers to answer these questions effectively, you are enabling them to buy faster, buy bigger, and insure a measurable return to their business. Conversely, if you are not helping them answer these questions effectively, you’re leaving your opportunity open for risk. Just one unanswered question on their part can lead to a delayed decision, a no decisionoutcome, a loss to a competitor or a loss to a better use of funds.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

How To Differentiate

Years ago, I worked for a start up company that carved out a niche in the electronic design automation field with a new product. As the only player in this niche it was like shooting fish in a barrel. It seemed like all I had to do was show up and demonstrate the product, then collect purchase orders. (Ok, it was tougher than that, but it was more about need creation than competitive differentiation.)

When one of the big players in the overall design automation market decided to compete with us, our general consensus was we were three years ahead of them on development, so they couldn’t be much competition. Wow, were we wrong!

One by one, all of my largest target customers started talking about the offering of this particular competitor. Not one to stand around, I did my homework on their product. “But…” I would say in my defense, “they don’t have this capability, or that capability.” Unfortunately for me, it seemed like no one was listening. I started losing orders and growing in frustration.

Then one potential buyer helped me out by accident. When he brought up the competitor’s name, I listed a number of important capabilities they were lacking. His response, “So what, why would I care about those capabilities? Their base product does everything I need, and it’s less expensive than yours.” I pointed out several problems he had identified in his current development process, then I connected those problems to my unique capabilities, challenging him to decide if he could do without solving those problems. Long story short, he bought my solution at a 50% premium over the new contender.

His basic question of why should he care, helped steer me to the most important part of the conversation; his problem set. Then it dawned on me, the key to differentiation is identifying the problem, not the capability.  I repeated this process with every new prospect and turned my win ratio dramatically in the right direction.

Coincidentally, during the same time frame, I witnessed this connection from a buyer’s perspective for myself.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, I took my (then) four year old son along with me to run some errands. I had recently purchased a new television, and now my focus was on a surround sound system to compliment it. We stopped in the local Best Buy store, only to find too many choices. There were probably 15 different models on display. I was trying to make heads or tails of the differences by reading the summary spec sheet listed next to each one, while my son was getting antsy to leave. They had the less expensive models close the floor, with the more expensive models placed at eye level. I was bobbing up and down making notes on a piece of scratch paper, but it was too much information to process especially with my impatient son in tow.

The sales attendant stepped up to me and asked, “trying to figure out which one is the best value?” I sheepishly nodded my head, and he added, “I can help you with onequestion.”  He looked down at my son, then looked back at me. “Do you ever envision yourself entertaining guests on the patio with some nice background music, while the kids are in the family room watching TV?” I nodded in light of the obvious answer. He pointed to one system on the rack and said, “there’s only one system that will let you do both at the same time.” He got me. I walked out with the most expensive system in the store.

The lesson I learned from these two experiences is that no matter how many differentiators you have, the only ones that count are those that can be tied to problems the buyer is, or can anticipate, dealing with in their environment.

If you are a new salesperson, or you’re dealing with some formidable competition, here’s a simple exercise you can run on your own, or even better, with your whole team. Make a list of your top five differentiators for a particular product or solution. Then make a list of the customer problems each differentiated capability can address. Try to word the problems with problem sounding adjectives. Words like, “difficulty with”,  “lacking”, “frustrated by”, and the like. This will insure that you are articulating the problem and not just rephrasing the capability.

For example,

(Capability) I teach sales teams how to differentiate more effectively.

(Problems to surface) Are you having difficulty winning against lower priced competitors? Are you frustrated by your win/loss ratio in a crowded market? Are your new product introductions taking too long?

In your next discovery meeting, if the buyer doesn’t bring up the problems you’ve identified, try to surface them yourself, just like the Best Buy sales person did for me. When you get to the capabilities part of the discussion, connect each important differentiator back to a problem you discussed earlier.  I’m confident you’ll find more buyers who resonate with your differentiators.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

Winning the Hearts and Minds of Your Sales Team

My first job as a professional sales representative for a major computer company was more like a roller coaster ride than a career step. During the first 12 months I had five different sales managers. (The first one was committed to a mental health facility by his family, which led to second guessing everything I learned from him.) The subsequent managers were never in the role for more than a couple of months for a variety of reasons.

When number six showed up, the entire team released a collective sigh of frustration. Bob was a former clothing textile sales professional, not the normal profile for this computer company of 60,000 employees. I’m sure all of us drew some opinions about his ability to survive as a square peg in a round hole.

Bob spent the first few days asking a lot of questions. He wanted to know what was working and what wasn’t. He showed a lot of interest when I complained about  the call reports we were required to fill out every Friday. I explained that each of his predecessors followed company policy by holding us accountable for the weekly report. It would take a couple of hours to fill out, and for the most part, the previous managers wouldn’t even look at it. They would just file them in the row of filing cabinets in the hallway. I wasn’t the only one frustrated by this valueless activity. He heard the same thing from most of the sales staff.

(The information I left out of my complaint was I had been occasionally photocopying the same report and altering the date, just to see if the last manager would catch it. He didn’t.)

When Monday morning rolled around, we all showed up for Bob’s first 8:00 am staff meeting. We could all see through the glass wall into the hallway. Bob was talking to a couple of men with hand dollies. When he wrapped up with them, he came into the staff meeting and started with a summary of what he had learned the previous week: The team hadn’t achieved quota for three quarters in a row, the technical support team felt under appreciated, and we had failed to land a single account for a new product that was showing promise with other sales teams within the company, among other things.

What happened next caused all of us to gawk. One by one, the moving crew began to cart the filing cabinets out of the hallway and out of the office. The person to my left and the person to my right both simultaneously nudged my shins with their shoes under the table as if I was missing the spectacle. Bob, paused for a minute to let the vision sink in, and then announced that he was putting an end to the weekly report. Instead, he said, he wanted to join each of us for three sales calls a week to have some fun and learn the business.

As the meeting progressed, the filing cabinets were completely removed. Bob wrapped up the meeting with some positive comments about how much he was looking forward to working with each of us.

No less than four people stopping by my desk that morning to comment on how much they liked the new boss. “I think he’s exactly what we need around here”, was the common sentiment.

When Bob joined me for a sales call on a new prospect the next day, I was actually surprised that he didn’t say anything the whole meeting. The previous manager would have taken over the sales call by minute five.

When I got to the point in the discovery meeting where I asked about stakeholders who should be included in the dialog, I took my pad of paper and slid it across to my prospect with a pen. I asked if he could outline them in an org chart so that I could better understand where they fit in the organization. The prospect nodded his head and proceeded to draw the org chart for me, adding notes on relevant character attributes of each stakeholder as he went along.

I wrapped up the meeting after building an action plan with the prospect. Bob and I shook hands with the prospect on the way out of the building and silently walked back to the car. When we got in the car, the first thing Bob said was that he learned something very valuable from me during the sales call. I was a little taken aback, being used to sales managers that started a debrief with a critique. However, my curiosity was piqued, so I asked what that would be. He said he wouldn’t have thought to hand the pad and pen to the prospect to write down the org chart, but witnessed how naturally the contact accepted the task and added even more insight into the story.

When I asked if there was anything I could have done better, Bob said he thought the sales call was really productive, and asked if I minded sharing the story about the the org chart with the rest of the team. He concluded by observing that he might have missed something while he was taking notes. He asked how much money the problems I uncovered were costing this company. I replied that we didn’t explore that subject, so he just nodded his head. I thought it was a good question so I made a mental note to myself to follow up with that subject in my next meeting.

Bob continued this process with everyone in the office. As I found out from hallway chit chat, he didn’t take over calls, and started each debrief with a compliment. My org chart example wasn’t the only positive example he shared during the next staff meeting. Everyone received a compliment about something that went well during their sales calls.

During my subsequent sales calls with Bob, I never missed the opportunity to uncover the value proposition associated with each problem set. That’s when I learned something powerful about asking, rather than telling. I took ownership for the question since I didn’t have the answer. Had Bob told me what I missed, it was likely that I wouldn’t have taken ownership for the question as much as I had.

Bob continued with this pattern of listening, asking questions and complimenting success. He also engaged on other activities that further cemented our loyalty to him like removing obstacles, brainstorming on strategy, and breaking bread with us. The team would stretch their achievements for Bob on a regular basis, accomplishing quota that quarter and every quarter thereafter until I departed the organization for my first start up experience.

Although I learned even more from Bob, here’s a summary of what Bob taught me about winning the hearts and minds of your sales team in just a couple of weeks:

  • Be a good listener. It doesn’t mean you have to take action on everything. Part of the process is allowing the venting to occur and strategically picking roadblocks to remove or assignments to cull based on context and payoff. 
  • Symbolism. Take action on the team’s behalf in a demonstrable way. I label the filing cabinet removal as “symbolism” of change. The more visual the symbolism of change, the more profound its impact.
  • Coach by asking, not telling. Bob demonstrated how to coach by asking good questions to help me uncover the holes for myself, not by telling me what I missed. In my own leadership roles, I’ve noticed the more a sales person takes ownership for a hole in their process the more likely they achieve a higher result in the future.
  • Catch them doing something right. A small compliment shared in front of others goes a long way to building trust and rapport.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.