Years ago, I participated in a sales leadership roundtable, bringing technology sales leaders of every rank together for two days. Eagerly I jumped in, hoping to make new connections, learn some best practices or both. The most significant takeaway was something different entirely.
First order of business, introductions. Going around the room each participant stated what their company did, their title, responsibilities, number of direct reports, and probably some other annoyingly corny ice breaker. One after the other the introductions went something like this:
“Hi I’m Bill McBoatface. VP Sales at XYZ Cloud McCloud Co. I have twenty direct reports, all strategic planning responsibility, and a $3 million quota of my own.”
When it was my turn, I fit right in. Perhaps that’s why everyone carved out two days at the beginning of Q1; we were miserable, desperately searching for a better way.
It’s More Difficult for Sales Leaders Today
Fast forward to present day and I have yet to see anything that convincingly tells me the above situation is outside the norm. In fact, recent data confirms the intimate link between sales productivity, hiring, quota attainment, and rep turnover all contributing to the decline in sales leader tenure, from 26 to 19 months (there’s a zillion articles pertaining to this, one of my favorites is Chris Orlob’s, find it here). Each of the previous topics deserves its own treatment and will undergo continued scrutiny – rightfully so.
What McBoatface probably knew intuitively but could not put the numbers to is that over half of sales reps today admit to lacking the proper skills to be successful. About the same percentage of sales leaders admit to lacking enough time to properly train them. The operative word in that last sentence being admit – hook up a polygraph and the results will be closer to 100%. Put another way, the company growth plan, underpinned by a sales capacity plan that the CEO put in front of the board is in trouble before it starts. Seems bleak, but there is hope.
To escape from this trap here are some tactics I found valuable, delivered with some delicate caution:
Easy Tactics for Boosting Productivity
Hire from Competitors – Not exactly a trade secret but too good not to mention. Every company knows which competitors they really fear, and many companies know of the individual personally responsible for one defeat after another. Make them an offer they can’t refuse and get them on your team. Don’t delegate the task. Make the call yourself. A-Players like to be recruited by senior executives. I’ve always been a fan of moves that help you and hurt competitors at the same time.
Team Deal Dissection – As part of your normal, weekly cadence make time for team deal discussions. It’s really easy. Pick a live opportunity, preferably a big important one and let the team shoot as many holes in it as possible. This is separate from the forecast meeting. I found this useful for stuck deals as well. The point is to leverage the collective wisdom of the org and examine business problems/goals, testing champions, timeline, compelling events and next steps. The atmosphere should be constructive and the team, not your managers ask most of the questions. Not only will excellent advice and perspective be gained on critical deals, but your company’s sales methodology will be reinforced for the tenured crew and new hires will gain immediate exposure. This is an easy way to start chipping away at the numerous dungeons containing wonderful company tribal knowledge.
Make the Team Teach – Right now you probably could list off 20 items you wished the team understood better. If they did, more deals would be won. You probably have the data to prove it. Take those topics and assign one to each team member. Calendar them all out. The team teaches the team, everyone learns best practices, the collective game is elevated, and the burden is off your shoulders. Delegation 101 folks.
The Playbook – Continuing the theme of tribal knowledge and how it is harmful, create a playbook. These things get a bad name when they take a year to make, are entirely overengineered, and created by people who never talk to customers. You don’t want that playbook. What you want are the top 10 questions, objections, case studies, flanking maneuvers, references, etc…see what I’m getting at? It’s the repository for the collective best practices in your org. And you already created the content when your team started teaching it.
Have a Prescribed Ramp Plan – From day one through thirty, here is each task, reading, meeting, best practice, and on and on that they need to follow. The new hire is self-sufficient, leaving the manager with a lot less work.
Stop Rewarding Bad Behavior – Sometimes, the stick is what it takes. We’ll call it the constructive stick. In certain situations, it’s ok to take a deal away from a rep who is ruining it. If you see a rep come back from a prospect meeting but they can’t articulate anything beyond features desired, meaning no sense of business value – send them back. It will be one of the most awkward sales calls of their career and you’ll never have to do it again.
Use Skill Positions – Most companies have formal alliance or channel programs in addition to direct sales. That’s not what I’m talking about here. If someone in your org excels at top of funnel activity (and I don’t just mean outbound calls) but cannot close a paper bag, put them at the top of the funnel 100% of the time. I’ve seen small and large companies alike parachute strong closers into critical deals to pull them across the line. I even had a turnaround artist who never experienced anything less than a hostile introduction to the customer. Not everyone can sooth a flaming customer, emerge with an incremental order, and a new member of their fan club. If there are unique skills at work in your company embrace them, use them, reward them, but don’t punish them. Use deal % splits and work within the existing comp plan structure to prevent a huge time investment with other departments. Be creative.
There are times when sales leaders might feel the deck is stacked against them. For a variety of reasons, it probably is but that’s the job and sympathy is in short supply. Taking steps to elevate sales proficiency doesn’t need to be complicated or hard. But the methods sales leaders decide on must be consistent, constant, and reinforced…just like the capacity plan.
Here we are, Q4. The grand finale for both purveyors of technology and their buyers. End of year budgets must be spent, and sales plans launched in January are ripe for harvest. Even your favorite experts agree. Early in the year they released their outlook reports for 2017, stating that “Yup, companies are going to spend a lot on technology.” Now is the time. I can’t tell you who trained who to operate this way; the buyer or the seller, but this is a phenomenon that is deeply ingrained in B2B life. Yet there is another dynamic at work in Q4, one less well understood: the Q4 Runway. In short, for sales leaders who are about to miss the annual plan, the fourth quarter provides silent avenues for a strong launch into 2018.
For a bunch of you, this holiday season is going to be awesome. Nothing like a commission check so large it feels like a dump truck should be delivering it. But there’s another group (and you know it now) who will be polishing resumés in a few weeks. In short, this wasn’t your year. What went wrong? You probably already know but if you don’t, you’ll soon have plenty of time on your hands to figure it out.
And for the Sales Leader?
For the sales leader, the dynamics are a tad different. Call them the VP of Sales, VP of Revenue, Chief Revenue Officer, even the CEO; it’s the person on the hook for delivering the whole number. At least 40% of them fail to hit plan each year. Sometime in August or September (hopefully earlier) they started to see the writing on the wall. “The plan is not working; current trajectory says we are going to fail”. The implications are manifest, everything from hiring plans, new product development, current headcount and shareholder value are at stake.
Not to worry, the sales leader is the leader precisely because they’ve done this before. Instead of panicking, they put together a gap plan with scenarios A, B & C to cover the hole. You know the rest: for some, these plans will work out and for others…it won’t.
Immediate Actions to Avoid a Repeat
For sales leaders who know this year will not be one to remember, Q4 poses its own set of opportunities for course correction. To be blunt, the plan didn’t materialize, so take advantage of the hidden runways in Q4 to make sure you launch the team into 2018 prepared to take down the year. Here’s a few steps I’d recommend to any sales leader looking to avoid a repeat:
Does this all sound simplistic and overly obvious? If so, that’s because it is. No rocket science or brain surgery here; this is day one stuff. But if it is so obvious, then why are so many sales leaders in this position right now, in November 2017?
Take advantage of the hidden ramps in Q4, launch into 2018 and make sure you don’t end up in this spot again.