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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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The Trump Effect On Enterprise Selling

This is not a political opinion piece. I’m not commenting on policies in favor or against the new administration. I’m simply spotlighting a challenge and an opportunity in sales given the current transition in power.

The inspiration for this article came recently while listening to Jim Cramer’s show called Mad Money, where he evaluates investment opportunities and makes recommendations on buy/sell actions. The segment that caught my attention was focused on the Trump effect on Wall Street. Also a non partisan assessment of the ups and downs on Wall Street related to recent policy announcements with some insight into investment opportunities. It got me thinking about the effects of recent policy changes on sales people and sales campaigns.


The most obvious implication is for sales people who sell healthcare solutions or solutions to help companies comply with regulatory requirements. Both of these topics are front and center for the new administration which is likely to cause prospects in these categories to go into “wait and see” mode. For sales leaders in these segments, no decision outcomes are likely to increase and create havoc on forecasting and close ratios.


Secondarily are companies or industry segments that are spotlighted but have not yet experienced a policy outcome. This includes pharmaceuticals, companies with foreign manufacturing, and potentially even travel related businesses. There may be others in the weeks to come.


The point I want to make is that now is the time for sellers focused on these industries to pivot from their standard operating procedure. For example, when the dot com bubble went bust in 2002, Cisco’s sales retracted about 15%. But their closest competitors reported a 30% reduction in sales. Cisco pivoted while their competitors stayed the course. In the face of a frozen market, Cisco consciously branched out from their focus on IT and began a campaign to call on the C suite to compel investment into networking to deliver business results, not just implement updated infrastructure which was the focus of most IT purchases prior to the bust. Their pipeline from non-IT centric opportunities grew by 300% and mitigated the sales retraction that would have happened had they not pivoted. (As you may have guessed, I was consulting with Cisco on this pivoting strategy at the time.)


If you are selling into a market that might freeze like a deer in the proverbial headlights due to potential changes in policy, here are some practices you might want to sharpen:


1. Identifying the compelling reason to change. Whether your sales proposal is battling other uses for funds, or trying to unstick a frozen buyer, being meticulous in uncovering, articulating and confirming the reasons for change are of paramount importance. This means identifying the people/process/technology problems the buyer is experiencing, connecting these underlying problems to C level topics I call business issues (time to market, cost management, competitive differentiation, and more.), and calculating the cost of not taking action. The three components of a compelling business proposal are critical for overcoming the distractions of potential policy changes or mitigating the impact of an actual policy change if the business proposition is compelling. This orientation requires the seller to get out of a capabilities focused dialog and into a problem hunting, value articulation and stakeholder threading dialog.


2. Incorporate more powerful stakeholders.  As Cisco found out, the more powerful the stakeholder the less difficult it is to compel action in the face of uncertainty. Lower level stakeholders tend to get scared and withdraw during times of crisis, so they need help overcoming this natural behavior mode. An Agile seller will announce the requirement to incorporate more powerful stakeholders as a result of concerns about wasting time given policy implications, and hold the line if pressured to relent. Use the potential waste of time as a reason to bring more powerful stakeholders into the conversation.


3. Qualify, Qualify, Qualify. When markets freeze, your time allocation becomes critical. As I’ve said before, a prospect that won’t buy robs you twice. First they rob you of the time you spent with them with no results to show, and second they rob you of the time you could have spent with a different prospect that was in a better position to buy. In times of crisis, BANT (Budget, Authority, Need and Timing) is no longer a viable qualification model. The Agile seller shifts to a disqualification model. In effect they put the buyer in the position of having to convince the seller that they will buy even under unusual circumstances. In 2009, at the height of the great recession, Imprivata, a provider of single sign on solutions used this model to separate tire kicking prospects that had too much time on their hands and no money to spend from those that were willing to help Imprivata sell more effectively. Their business grew 47% during the worst year of the recession. The secret to their disqualification process? See items 1 and 2 above. Or read more here.


In a nutshell, the new administration is and will probably continue to create crisis in specific industry segments. The Agile seller will learn to use the situation to compel their contacts to collaborate more effectively given the obvious potential for wasting time. And they’ll take the opportunity to sharpen their selling skills and turn adversity into an advantage.