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Sales Agility: Gaining Access to Decision Makers

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from sales people is the frustration of being held at arm’s length from the actual decision maker. In the course of my sales effectiveness consulting career, I have helped countless sales people overcome this challenge on a consistent basis, and many of my client companies have gone on to establish executive access as a cultural norm and competitive advantage. Access to power is a sales agility challenge. It takes an effort to tailor a message that will resonate with the power person, and motivate the sponsor to take you there.

Let’s break this challenge down into one simple concept. You will be taken to the person you sound like. If you sound like a technical person, you will be sent to the technical evaluator. If you sound like a VP, you will eventually be taken to the VP. If you sound like a CFO, your request to meet the CFO will be earnestly considered.

Your messaging should be crafted to interest the person you want to access. If you unconsciously repeat your sales messaging without crafting it, you will find yourself stuck at the same level of every organization you approach, usually an evaluator level.

Crafting a message sounds easy right? Unfortunately, most people get into a habit, and are not self-aware of their own behaviors. Let’s test our self-awareness and our agility in crafting a tailored message.

Here’s a simple test: Take a pen or pencil and jot down the most critical business issue facing your top prospect.

If you don’t know it, and can acknowledge you don’t know it, that’s the first step in self-awareness. Go to their website and look at their recent press announcements. Look for business problems. Next, go to your favorite search engine, type in their company name with an added word like “problem”, “issues”, or “challenges”. See what pops up. Then look at their operating statement. Are they any numbers that are worse than they were the year before? Do any of their numbers look worse than their closest competitor? Going through this five minute exercise will usually give you a better understanding of their business issues, find at least one business issue you can contribute to, and will prepare you to craft a compelling message that attracts more powerful stakeholders.

If you think you know the business issue, and the answer has any of your solution description in it, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Nine times out of ten, when I ask a seller to describe the business issues’ facing a prospect, their answer is a solution request, “They need our XYZ product…” or, “They’re not happy with the competitive solution and want to evaluate ours.” In either case, the seller is seller focused, not customer focused. Until they become self-aware of this orientation, they cannot craft messaging that will attract decision makers.

Let’s assume you found the most current business issues facing a company. Now write down the top three to five problems they have addressing this business issue. The unaware seller will usually describe the situation with answers that don’t specify problems, such as, “They have 50 offices.” or “their existing solution is out of date.” These answers might insinuate a problem, but they don’t explicitly disclose a problem. They need to articulate the problems more succinctly, such as, “They have so many offices, management can’t scale to cover them all effectively.” Or, “Their existing solution caps out at 50 users, and they have several hundred requiring access at the same time.” Most executive buyers don’t have the time or the first hand usage experience to be able to connect situational information to a problem that is impeding the resolution of their business issues. An agile seller is specific in the problem diagnosis.

Lastly, describe the business issue in terms of impact. Most sellers want to describe the quantified benefit of their solution through the eyes of other customers. “Research shows our customers’ produce 15% more widgets than their competition.” While this is a valuable proof statement, validating your success, it does not equate to their value proposition. Instead, quantify and confirm their business issue from their perspective. “From what you’ve told me, your cost of sales are 18% higher than your competition, creating a $75 million profit problem. Who would be interested in solving this issue?”

When you can string these three topics together, you’ll find doors opening to more influential stakeholders. Contrast Seller A and Seller B:

Seller A: “We have the fastest widget in the industry, used by 450 of the Fortune 500.”

Seller B: “I noticed your new product revenue is down 22% over last year, complicated by a lack of skilled talent, longer development cycles, and the currency crisis in Europe. Who in your organization would be interested to hear how we can address these problems?”

Seller B has crafted a tailored message that is customer focused and does not rely on a solution description. They have a much higher chance of being taken to more stakeholders than Seller A.

Access to power is an agility challenge that requires self-awareness, some research, and an effort to deliver a message that fits the customer’s issues and problems. Falling into the pattern of talking about your product without the context of the customer’s parameters, will box you into an evaluator level dialog.

Are you agile enough to learn how to create a tailored message and use it to gain access to decision makers?

Kevin Temple helps sales teams optimize their behavior and improve revenue outcomes. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

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Sales Agility: Cross Selling

Almost every sales leader is familiar with this problem. Pareto’s law, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, applies to most sales organizations. Eighty percent of their revenue comes from less than 20% of their solution portfolio. If you combine this with Forrester’s research finding it’s five times less expensive to sell to an existing customer than a new one, you will probably reach the conclusion that selling across the product line to existing customers should be a major component of any revenue growth strategy. Unfortunately, most sales teams lack the agility to execute on this skill set. But the good news is it can be learned at an individual contributor level and at the organizational level.

There are two factors that dictate the agility of a sales organization when it comes to selling across the product line. First, the learning model they apply to the challenge, and second, the accountability factor.

Left to their own devices, most organizations unconsciously apply the same failed learning model for new products. They shovel facts and capabilities at the seller, load on a couple of reference logos and call it a day.

Unfortunately, most sellers, even the brightest, hit learning saturation and can’t digest nor retain this information. Worse, this information does very little to prepare the seller to create need for the target product or differentiate in the face of competition.

I’ll share a real life example.

Years ago, I received a call from Brian Powers, the director of training for Dell at the time. Brian said my name was handed to him by a Gartner representative. He was calling to get my input on a cross selling challenge they were facing. At that time, Dell was in transition. They were attempting to fuel revenue growth by adding servers, storage and services to their solution line up. This was not a single new product addition; they were expanding their portfolio dramatically in an instant across three new product lines!

When I asked to see their training materials, I would describe them as glorified data sheets. They were attempting to shovel facts and specifications into the minds of their sellers, thinking this was going to get the job done.

I was not surprised to hear the initiative was not meeting expectations.

I was taught a lesson by a stereo sales person a long time ago. When I went to buy a home entertainment system, I was confused by the long system specification lists displayed in front of each product. The seller approached me and asked if I was overwhelmed by the choices. I acknowledged I was. He glanced down at my then five year old son, standing next to me, and said, I could ask you one question that will make this very easy to figure out. He had my attention. He asked, “do you envision entertaining adults in one room or on the patio with some nice music while the children are kept occupied in another room with a movie or TV show? I said yes. He then pointed to the system at the top of the shelf and said there was only one model that could do both. I went home with the most expensive system he had.

With that lesson in mind, here’s what we did to reshape Dell’s outcome. First we broke down each major product into a set of need creation questions. These questions come from analyzing the problems that can be solved by the new product, not the capabilities. For example rather than asking, “Would you like services to install a consistent operating system image on all 200 PC’s you’re buying?”, we had them alternatively define a problem set first. “Does your support team run into problems when the operating system installs are not consistent across the organization?” This creates the need for the solution by focusing on a problem rather than the solution itself.

As humans have evolved, we’ve developed pattern recognition for identifying problems, not solutions. We learned to identify a predator, feel the temperature change, or stop at the edge of a cliff with very little coaching. The answers to each of these problems took much longer to learn, pass on, or execute with consistency. From a learning perspective, problem identification is a more productive learning model than solution definition. This applies to sales as well. As exemplified by my stereo example, the seller only had to remember one problem definition to make the sale, versus digesting hundreds of specifications for comparison.

But learning isn’t the only obstacle. Accountability is as well.

Customers don’t typically demand the secondary products in a seller’s portfolio. Worse, if a seller spends time on a new product and gets beat by a competitor, they shy away from a similar time investment to insure they spend time on the in demand products.

In order to apply some level of accountability to cross selling, some teams stratify the quota by product line. Some incent with SPIFF’s. While others simply set expectations, measure, provide feedback and reward in other, non-financial ways. The success of any accountability strategy is highly dependent on the culture of the organization and leadership bench strength. Dell’s approach was the latter of the three. They maintained visible scoreboards, and publically acknowledged the success of the early adopters.

In any case, the learning model needs to be supported by an effective accountability model that compels application and rewards outcomes.

Within 30 days, Dell was able to track a 26% increase in their “attach” metric, an indicator of multiple products being sold in each transaction. This fueled their new product sales which grew to become a $15B contributor to their business. This is an example of a large organization learning to become agile again.

How well does your team sell across the product line? Do they need to improve their cross selling agility in order to continue reaching revenue growth expectations?

Kevin Temple helps sales teams optimize their behavior and improve revenue outcomes. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.