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Mastering Virtual Web Based Selling Helps Act-On Software Increase Average Contract Value 28% In Less Than Two Months

If you or others in your organization rely on a web meeting platform like WebEx or GoToMeeting to conduct sales calls this article should be very interesting to you. While the advent of web based meeting platforms have improved the efficiency and volume of sales calls, the environment adds challenges to a discipline that relies heavily on reading body language and non-verbal communication. We’re proud to announce the outcome of our project to help Act-On Software improve the results of their web based virtual sales calls!

Act-On Software is the leading provider of marketing automation for fast-growing businesses, helping more than 4,800 brands maximize customer lifetime value. The company relies on an inside sales team that interacts with customers via dual screens and the WebEx web conferencing platform.

Act-On retained ESG to help it increase revenue productivity in a market segment characterized by price sensitivity and a growing number of low cost, low frill competitors. Sales engagements often started with a demo, were limited to a few marketing contacts and resulted in small contracts.

“Our team has improved dramatically at dual screen selling with the help of ESG. They are now qualifying customers better and more quickly, focusing on the drivers of customer value, and connecting our solutions to customer problemsDavid Satterwhite, Chief Revenue Officer

ESG helped Act-On’s reps learn to read customers even when they couldn’t see their faces or read their body language. They became skilled at having meaningful conversations about customer problems rather than monologues about Act-On solutions. They qualified customers better and sold value connected to customer business issues.

The transformation was fueled by management’s commitment to the process, and by a company culture focused on continuous improvement. ESG and Act-On’s sales leadership used the company’s instance of to review sales calls, guiding sales reps to listen more and talk less, and ask the right kinds of questions to expose underlying business needs.

ESG’s dual screen selling coaching methodology, combined with Gong’s sales diagnosis capability and WebEx’s interactive features provided the recipe for increasing Act-On’s ACV.

Ramp Up Time Impacts Revenue Growth

One of the most common sales challenges I hear is ramp up time. Even the best sales organizations can experience 10-15% attrition, and if you add some reasonable growth to the picture, like another 10-15%, they can end up with 30% of their sales staff in some stage of ramp up.

The more complex the solution and the longer the sales cycle, the costlier a ramp up challenge can be.

Unfortunately, the knee jerk reaction by most organizations is to pile on more. But drowning your new sales people in product specs, features and benefits can be counterproductive and slow down their ramp up.

While product knowledge is important, insight from CEB and other research firms indicates customers value and trust sales professionals who understand their problems. Moreover, uncovering a problem is the first step in need creation.

A few months ago, I wrote an article about Jack Bartell, who mastered the art of becoming a problem expert, and used it to sell a huge deal within three months of taking a sales role with an organization that sells very complex design solutions to computer manufacturers. If this subject is important to you or your organization, you’ll find his story compelling.

Several years ago, Cisco engaged me help them with their ramp up challenge. They were experiencing nine to twelve months before their reps were hitting quota level revenue production on a monthly basis. We took Jack’s lesson about the problem expert approach to heart – teaching their new sales people about the problems customers have maintaining and managing their network. The result was a dramatic reduction in their ramp up time, shrinking the 9-12 month ramp up cycle down to 3-4 months depending on their vertical territory assignment. That’s a factor of three or four improvement! Imagine how much revenue that accelerated for a company the size of Cisco.

Cracking the code on ramp up and helping reps get productive is one of the most critical issues for high growth companies.  Please weigh in and let us know what you’ve seen and learned about the topic.

Survey results: love and hate for dual screen selling

The good news is that sales pros love selling over the web. The bad news is sales pros hate selling over the web.

The split is understandable. It’s easier and less expensive to schedule and conduct a web conference than align travel and in person meetings. Yet according to our survey respondents, golden opportunities to engage and qualify customers are missed when the connection is virtual and online.

When selling via web conference:
– a small percentage of sales professionals use the polling and interactive features of their web conferencing solutions to solidify the problem definition
– the majority find it challenging to qualify or disqualify opportunities
– a similar majority think it’s difficult to reach agreement and connect their solution to customer’s underlying business problem

Not surprisingly, few have received web conference-specific training to address these challenges.

For better or worse, selling via web conference isn’t going away. A large percentage of B2B sales cycles will continue to start with a conversation via GoToMeeting, Zoom, WebEx or similar solution.

We’re listening and we’ve got a response: we’re piloting a new program to develop skills for selling via web conference, applying the proven Agile Framework for the online experience. We’d love your input, so please reply to this post or contact us to share your thinking.

Take the 30-Second Survey on Dual Screen Selling

A number approaching “all” of B2B sales cycles start with a web delivered sales presentation.  This holds for both inside sales teams and also field sales reps.  Yet, according to our clients, few sales professionals of either stripe take full advantage of the interactive capabilities of web conferencing platforms to better qualify and engage customers on the other end of the second screen.  Nor are they executing critical sales process steps.  And according to those clients, opportunities are compromised and lost as a result.

There is no sign that dual screen selling is going to slow down any time soon.  Since it will continue to be with us, we’re curious about your experience with typical B2B sales challenges and the dual screen environment – take our 30-second survey (for sales leaders and sales professionals) and we’ll report back on what we learn from your colleagues and peers.

Three Qualities of Top Sales People

I was interviewed recently by, a site dedicated to sharing sales best practices. During the interview, they asked me to identify the top three qualities required by sellers in today’s marketplace. (The full interview is here.)

At first, I thought is was a trick question. Consequently, my mind jumped to “it depends” as my first answer. Every situation is different; with different product capabilities, product quality, market dynamics, buyer personas, marketing support and more. But as I chewed on the question, the answer crystallized. Namely, because situations are so different, and they change continuously, and because sales people tend to change jobs on a frequent basis, the top three sales qualities have to do with staying on top, especially in chaos.

Attribute #1: Agility

Let’s explore some of the many challenges that sales people face, They have to battle competition that can change overnight, deal with ever shortening product life cycles, cross chasms from one buyer type to another, navigate political structures and gain access to more power stakeholders, and adjust their messaging to fit each customer, just to name a few challenges.

All of this translates to Agility being the most valued skill a modern sales person must possess to succeed. The Agile Seller is constantly in learning mode, looking ahead, and customizing their sales messaging for each contact on a consistent basis. They embrace the opportunity to engage unfamiliar stakeholders, modify corporate presentations to become more interactive, and tailor their business proposals to resonate with each individual prospect. In a nut shell, they are in a constant state of tweaking, iterating, experimenting and learning.

Attribute #2: Self Awareness

Border Collies are truly one of the most agile creatures on the face of this planet. And my border collie, Lizzie, is no exception to this generalization. However, as she has aged, I’ve noticed her adapting her skills to navigate the challenges brought on by age.

Where she would once chase her cattle dog friend, Cal, from behind, nipping at his heels to trip him up, she now let’s him run in a circle and times an attack when he’s least expecting it, usually with a flanking move when he looks the other way. She knows that she’s not as fast as she used to be, so she has adapted a new strategy to stay on top of her game.

Just like Lizzie, today’s top sellers have to leverage self awareness to succeed in an ever changing environment. My suggestion is to develop a list of situational awareness topics to check yourself against on a regular basis. For example, here’s the list I use with my clients to help them sell more:

  • Have I mutually identified and confirmed the problem set with this client?
  • Have I identified which of these problems will help me to differentiate my solution?
  • Have I identified and confirmed the current business issues that have the attention of their senior management?
  • Have I uncovered the impact of taking or not taking action in terms of money, time, or intangible results?
  • Have I identified all of the stakeholders who have a say in this purchase and developed a plan to gain access to them?
  • Have I developed a formal plan with my sponsor for proving our capabilities (To mitigate what I call “proof creep”, see Foresight below)

They only sure way to stay on top of change is to check yourself against your current challenges. If you come up short, your self discovered observations will provide you with more motivation to change then having it come from your manager or others.

Attribute #3: Foresight

The best sellers track buying behaviors and plan ahead. For example, most buyers change their minds about common commitments they’ve made to the seller, such as the duration of their evaluation. The Agile seller will document the agreed upon evaluation duration (among other commitments) in anticipation of the buyer changing his or her mind. When the time comes and the buyer asks for an extension, the seller references their agreement, but agrees to change the duration for something in return. Then they ask for something that was denied earlier, overlooked, or presents itself as an opportunity. Examples might include access to more powerful stakeholders, a collaboration on developing the buying justification, or an introduction to a colleague at another company. In any case, the seller knows that buyers change their mind and uses that to maintain control on the buying process.

As another illustration, Robyn is a sales person for a company that I’ve been consulting with for about a year now. She tells me that she has integrated a request to meet with the security organization into her daily pattern. “I started noticing that almost every prospect would go through the whole evaluation phase, get funding approval, and then suddenly realize they had to get the buy in of the security team to make a purchase. Now I ask up front for their engagement to avoid delays in purchases.” Robyn has demonstrated the foresight skill and leveraged it to her advantage.

Please share your ideas on the top qualities a sales person must possess to succeed in your market.

Agile Selling is Like Agile Development, Except it’s Different.

Chances are if you’re in tech, your company is doing agile development.  The engineers are down with stand ups, but what does it have to do with sales?  Turns out, a lot.  And a lot of the same factors that led to agile becoming the way to get things done in development are also taking hold in enterprise sales.

Agile development is in part a response to the unpredictability of customers, their requirements and time pressure.  It values individuals and interactions over strict processes and tools, and customer centricity and collaboration over…not being customer centric or collaborative.

Sound familiar?  A lot of enterprise sales professionals sum up their selling environments as “unpredictable.”  Many are navigating highly dynamic markets, where customers are far more informed than ever before, and where requirements change in the middle of a sales cycle.

There’s often a boatload of internal and corporate unpredictability too.  Companies reorganize more often than before, make acquisitions, forge new partnerships and otherwise move the chairs around the deck to keep up with, let alone stay ahead of, their customers and markets.

Traditional forms of waterfall development gave way to agile development when it became clear the old ways were less and less suited to changed circumstances.  Traditional solution and challenger sales techniques are similarly falling short in changed, highly dynamic selling environments.  For similar reasons as their colleagues in development, enterprise sales professionals are getting more agile.

So what does an agile seller do?  They embrace the change around them.  They know more about their customers and about the real issues that are driving them.  They think customer centric is more than a slogan and live it as a value.  And in the truest sense of the word, they collaborate with their customers.

OK think about this:  you get a marketing qualified lead (MQL), and the customer is asking you for a demo.  Cool.  Well, maybe.  Because starting with a demo takes you down a path where you’re showing the customer what you’ve got.  Which may or may not be what is actually fueling their need. Some call this “premature elaboration”.

Agile sellers qualify their customer.  Certainly to find out traditional qualifiers such as if they’re the decision maker, have a budget and are ready to buy.  They also qualify on the customer’s underlying problem and potential value proposition before ever reaching for the demo.  Only by uncovering the real motivations can you determine whether what you’re showing is really what the customer needs and if they are well prepared to buy.

Agile sellers collaborate with their customer: To map their solution to the customer’s problem.  To map their process to the customer’s process.  And to map the value they deliver to the customer’s value driver.

Agile sellers develop their sense of situation awareness and adapt. They respond to change rather than following a proscribed script.  They iterate constantly and collaborate with their customer to uncover and deliver real impact.

Agile sellers are a like agile developers, but with a number.

Web Delivered Sales Presentations: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Sam is stuck in a grind. He works for a large software company, delivering web based sales presentations day in and day out. Like most large organizations, this company has specialized roles in the overall sales process. His role is to present his solution, and then, if the prospect is interested, he hands the lead to a field rep. . His company has a well developed marketing automation solution so he gets plenty of appointments for sales presentations. He could deliver them in his sleep and often does. He told me he dreams about delivering sales presentations as a recurring nightmare. He’s bored, feels like he’s got more potential than this assignment, and worse, the conversion rate for these prospects is trending down so the answer seems to be to do even more of the same just to keep up.

When Sam related his story to me, I conjured up a vision of one of those dystopian movies filmed in sepia tone where dozens of other young, smart and talented sales professionals are chained to their desks enduring the same grueling process day after day. 

We talked about his career goals and what would make his current assignment more fulfilling. Then we reviewed his current sales presentation.  It was supplied by the marketing department, included very slick looking graphics and followed a familiar pattern:

  • Let me tell you about my company…
  • Let me impress you with the logos of our Fortune XXX customers…
  • Now let me tell you how this product works…
  • And, lets end by talking about next steps.

I was tasked with delivering this format as a young sales person, have witnessed it in full swing at dozens of companies around the world, and just this week, subject to it when I expressed interest in a new technology solution. 

It reminds me of the quote attributed to many including Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein (while neither probably actually said it), “The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

I suggested we turn his grueling process into a more engaging dialog and have fun experimenting with different ways to implement it. Here’s what we did to the format:

  • A discussion about the problems and challenges the customer has getting the job done with the current solution. (The variation was starting with a blank slide to have the buyer lead the list, versus a partially filled out list to let the seller lead the dialog and encourage the buyer to add to it.)
  • A discussion about how these problems roll up to create executive level headaches. (Which I call “business issues”) For example, how a broken process delays the time to market for a new product or increases development costs. (Again, varying having the buyer lead or having the seller lead and guiding the buyer to supplement the dialog.)
  • A discussion about how these problems are impacting the business in terms of time or money. With the dialog lead variation option as well.
  • Segue to how the seller’s solution addresses the identified problems. Specifically tailoring the presentation to the problem list.
  • A short overview of a similar customer with similar problems and the resulting outcome. (Try the logo slide here as another variation.)
  • A dialog about who else is impacted by the problems identified.
  • Next steps.

After the first day, Sam called to tell me the results. Some of his observations included how the day flew by, how he was looking forward to each new meeting, and how much more dialog oriented the meetings were versus monologue centric. 

After about 30 days, Sam noticed that his choice to lead each diagnosis subject with examples or let the buyer lead was most productive based on the apparent presence of even keel attitude or lack thereof. If they were even keel he would lead, if they sounded like they had done their homework and were really serious about a purchase, he would encourage them to lead.

Now came the interesting part. Sam reported that after 90 days of this experiment, his conversion rate (from interest to purchase) almost doubled, he was told he was on top of the list to take on the next open field assignment, and he no longer experienced recurring nightmares about sales presentations!

If you’re one of those people stuck with a marketing presentation that doesn’t fulfill you, or a sales leader trying to get more performance out of your team, try this and let me know how it goes.




B2B Selling: Five trends from 2016 and predictions for 2017

One of the joys of our business is that each day we get to work with some of the smartest sales and business leaders on the planet. While our job is to train their sales teams, we often learn as much as we teach. With this in mind, there are a handful of themes that gained traction in 2016 and we expect will have an even greater impact on enterprise selling in 2017:

Customers are more empowered than ever. Buyers are in control and they know it. This isn’t new, but it’s accelerating at an increasing rate. The implications are more and more clear, with some enterprise sales leaders reporting that buyers are as much as 90 percent of the way through their journey before they ever talk with a sales rep. Data sheets and solutions briefs are no longer a starting point for sales conversations, and the salespeople who fail to adapt to this dynamic are simply not going to make their numbers. Sales people need to become masters at reframing the problem set to differentiate their offering in the face of often unknown competition.

CEOs will increasingly abandon incremental changes in favor of big shifts. A 2016 study by KPMG says that four out 10 CEOs expect to be running significantly transformed companies in as little as three years. Our clients tell us market, competitive, regulatory and pricing challenges are forcing them to adapt quickly. And that leaders no longer have the luxury of time to see how their strategies play out. In short: the race will be won by those who adapt and move fast.

Tech spending will slow and the fight for budget will intensify. Gartner predicts sluggish growth in IT spending through 2020. Gartner also predicts that in 2017, the CMO will spend more on IT than the CIO, yet another indication that technology spend is shifting from the IT organization to lines of business. Sales organizations will need to adapt to smaller budgets by getting stronger at justifying the need for their solution. And they will need to develop the skills to navigate across customer organizations, new buying stakeholders and budget centers.

There will be more turnover of senior executives as CEOs look to spark growth. The average tenure of a CMO in Silicon Valley is about 18 months, far less than for B2C companies. We’re betting the axe won’t be limited to marketing, with leaders in sales, IT, product development and other areas on a short leash as well. Sales professionals are used to the perform or perish model in their own careers, but will need to learn to adapt faster to a changing landscape of buyers, competitors and influencers.

New roles and functions will become the locus of power and budget in the pursuit of growth. Old titles and portfolios are giving way to a new C-suite populated with executives responsible for revenue, digital transformation, privacy and security. Old customer entry points and buying processes are likewise being replaced by new centers of power and budget, which will vary from customer to customer. Sales professionals will need to become adept at understanding and managing the new buying landscape.

And one more: sales leaders will demand even more from salespeople. It’s true, the goalposts have always moved, so why is this a prediction? We see a new urgency driven in part by the need to capitalize on recent investments in sales force automation, sales performance management, sales enablement and related technologies. Our clients are telling us they will be placing more emphasis on change management and skills development to drive more productivity and effectiveness from their teams.

How To Close Every Year End Deal

It’s that time of year again. If your sales team is shifting into gear to close out the year, this article may help you optimize your outcome.

I’ll introduce two very valuable tools for managing the closing process more effectively, the Mutual Activity Plan and the Close Plan.

The Mutual Activity Plan (MAP) is a document developed with the prospect to identify the activities required to reach a decision. These activities might include meetings with other stakeholders, conducting evaluations, talking with references, proposal reviews and more. It’s organized with due dates and action owners as if it’s a project plan – because it is a project plan. Further, it’s a “map” to a destination point; placing the order.

The value of the MAP is getting the buying sponsor on board with you with a timeline. Moreover, if they fail to meet an action item, they have broken an agreement of sorts, providing you with the platform to ask, “why?”, or better, ask for something in return. If they fail to meet a commitment, I suggest asking for something in return that will help improve your chances of closing on time, such as meeting with the final decision maker, or reviewing the prospect’s internal justification document to add suggestions for example.

Here’s a simple example of a MAP:

Activity                                                                           Owner                  Due Date

Discovery meeting with all stakeholders         Smith                    11-25-15

Demo for entire team                                                Smith/Jones        12-1-15

Review with Legal                             Smith/Jones        12-7-15

Engage Purchasing                            Smith/Jones        12-14-15

Place order                                                                    Jones                   12-20-15

Given the complexity of your sale, the MAP may be short and to the point, or it may be several pages long. The longer it is, the more important it is to establish it as a tool to manage the process to a predictable outcome.

Recently, one of the sales leaders in a client site of mine reviewed the previous quarter closing results for one of his struggling sales people and found that every opportunity that closed had a MAP, whereas, the opportunities that slipped into the next quarter did not have a MAP in place. The lesson for the sales rep: it’s difficult for the prospect to meet expectations if they don’t know what they are.

The Close Plan is the MAP plus the internal activities the customer should not see, or should not be bothered with, but need to be managed to closure. These might include examples such as a credit check on the customer, approvals for special options, new product capabilities that are required, discount approval and more.

I typically see more complex close plans required for professional services or other applications where there are multiple contingencies to address, several internal approvals required, and heavily customized solutions. However, sometimes they are more complex because of the nature of the selling company’s culture or bureaucracy. Regardless, the more internal obstacles you have in the way of closing an opportunity, the more important it is to have a close plan in place to keep every required activity front and center.

Finally, having a plan in writing is good, but it also needs to be managed to success. Use the MAP or Close Plan as a review tool to help the sales person make progress on their plan. Check off items as they are achieved and identify activities with high risk to brainstorm on alternatives and contingencies.

I feel compelled to wish you luck closing out your quarter, but we both know that it comes down to great leadership and disciplined sales professionals.

How To Sell YUGE Deals

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames
Years ago, I had the privilege to meet Hank Johnston, a former EDS executive. Hank was recruited as a board member for our technology company. Our CEO sent him my way to learn about our sales organization. When Hank showed up to my office, I thought it must be a joke. He had jeans, boots, a plaid shirt with snaps, and a belt buckle that screamed “Texas”. (Not the word, just the size.) In the end, Hank taught me a lesson about judging a book by its cover, and a lot more.

Hank sat down and proceeded to explore our sales model and the outcomes. I could tell by the grimaces, raised eyebrows, and head shaking he wasn’t impressed with our approach or key metrics including average contract value, large deal size and discounting practices.

When he was done grilling me, he said, “Kevin, do you mind if I make an observation?” I gave a nod with my head, Hank continued, “Y’all are a bunch of coal miners in a gold mine!”

I’m sure my face was red with anger. I felt certain he insulted our sales organization, and every fiber in my body was on fire with rage. Before I had the chance to blurt out something I would regret, somewhere in the frontal lobe of my mind, a simple question formed; “What do you mean by that?” To this day, I’m still surprised I said it out loud given the strong emotional reaction I was experiencing. Hank smiled his approval at my curiosity.

Hank went on to paint a verbal picture that has stuck with me for years. He said, “Every day your sales people go to work through this long, dark tunnel in order to hack a few hundred dollars’ worth of coal out of the walls. On their way, they keep tripping over these large yellow rocks. In order to make their path smoother, they kick the yellow rocks out of the way. What they don’t realize is those yellow rocks are gold. They’ve been mining coal for so long they don’t recognize gold when it’s staring them in the face.”

Hank could tell I “got it”. He smiled as the concept cemented itself in my mind. Then, we engaged in a longer conversation about how to turn coal miners into gold miners. Although Hank got up and left my office, my journey had just begun. Our coal mining sales organization transformed into a gold mining team within a few short months.

In retrospect, we executed on a major exercise in sales agility. We learned to call on more powerful stakeholders outside of I.T. We learned how to leverage a wider product portfolio and introduce services as a game changing differentiator in the face of competition. And we learned how to uncover the value proposition that could motivate our new stakeholders to take action on our behalf. As a result, our largest deal sizes quadrupled, discounting dropped by 50%, and we continued on the path to raise the average productivity per rep from $1.4M per year to over $10M per year.

In the years since my introduction to Hank, I’ve had the privilege to bring these lessons in sales agility to sales teams around the world. Cisco learned how to box Juniper into a corner by bringing the conversation to the business side of the opportunity. Dell used it to expand the product line into servers, storage and services, successfully executing a multi-billion dollar growth opportunity. And most recently, Polycom has used it to learn how to create opportunities outside the grasp of I.T., delivering market share gains in a business surrounded by free alternatives.

In a recent example, Polycom engaged a regional bank and asked about the biggest problem they were facing in their business. The executive in the bank was happy to share. They had 110 branches, but only about 50 loan officers. If a potential customer walked into a branch looking for a loan, there was almost a 50% chance they would walk out without any help. Polycom proposed installing a video collaboration solution in every bank, making a loan officer available in every circumstance. After a short time period, they discovered that one loan officer could actually support upwards of ten branches and still generate more business than sitting in one branch by themselves. The bank was able to restructure their staffing, saving millions, and improved their loan business substantially. That’s gold mining!

If you look at a typical operating statement for most publicly held companies, I.T. is usually allocated about 2% of the overall budget. Compare that to upwards of 50% of revenue allocated for the combined sales, marketing and general administration budget. Where would you rather hunt for a sale? Most technology sales organizations sell to I.T. as if it’s the only way. As a result, they spend tons of resources on long evaluations, face a high number of no decision outcomes, get small orders, and not a single thank you for improving the customer’s business.

Is your sales team ready to learn how to gold mine?