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The presentation of a proposal often leads to what has become a common problem; the supplier believes significant progress is being made and they expect a response but the prospect becomes un-contactable and/or previously discussed actions and timescales are forgotten.
Proposal: “a plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration by others.”
Three points jumped out at me when I read this definition which might explain this misunderstanding:
Plan or suggestion. Many of the proposals that I review fail to put forward a plan but lots do make suggestions or try to commence a discussion. For a proposal to stand the very best chance of producing a successful outcome it must present a plan for the delivery of what has already been discussed and agreed between the supplier and buyer. Using a proposal to “make suggestions” or have a discussion is a recipe for failure. Documenting suggestions before a meeting may be a useful part of the process but this document is NOT a proposal.
Selling tip: Do not provide a proposal until every aspect of the problem, and your solution, has been discussed thoroughly and all points of contention have been resolved. The proposal documents what is already agreed.
For consideration by others. This raises the next big issue that contributes to proposals becoming interminably stalled or failing altogether. If your proposal is going to be reviewed by people you have never met the chances of that proposal failing increase significantly. Your proposal can only be based on what you have been told by the people you have met and while they can give you an impression of what might matter to others who will review your proposal those impressions can never provide a complete picture. How many times have sellers been told “sorry, I liked the proposal but the FD didn’t”?
Selling tip: Take the time to find out the name and position of everyone that will be involved in reviewing the proposal and do everything you can to meet them or at least speak to them on the telephone. If you do end up with decision makers or influencers where you have had no direct contact you will need to work hard on your contacts to ensure you know as much as possible about their decision making criteria. One of the most important parts of a proposal is the Executive Summary .
Formal or Written. Written documents, paper based or electronic, are still the most common format for proposals and in many cases they are the appropriate format to summarise and document an agreed offer. Note the word agreed; the proposal should contain nothing that would be unexpected or new to the prospect. The cardinal rule of proposals is NO SURPRISES!
An alternative approach that we have found to be very effective is to present your proposed solution in a workshop with all the stakeholders who will be involved in the decision. Using this interactive format does permit you to; make suggestion, float ideas, try out alternatives and the end result is a consensus as to what the solution should look like. Following the workshop you will simply need to confirm what is now agreed and for a simple case that can be in an e-mail and for more complex situations you will present a plan including a schedule of activities and the timetable for delivering them.
Selling tip: At an early stage in the engagement cycle with a prospect agree the process, format and timing for the creation and presentation of the proposal. It’s all tied to their buying process.
Why produce a proposal? Most business sectors, industries and markets come with a set of this is how it is done behaviours and habits. For many B-2-B environments the habits will include formal, probably written, proposals.
Business tip: have a rigorous, proportionate process in place to review all opportunities ensuring the deal is something the business; wants, can deliver and stands a reasonable chance of winning. Such reviews should be conducted at key milestones from first contact with the prospect through to a final review before committing the effort to produce a proposal.
Why not consider breaking the mould; the supplier should ask the prospect how they would like to proceed and whether a written proposal is what they want. If it is agreed that a proposal will be done the supplier should produce it with the sole purpose of documenting and confirming what has already been agreed and accepted during conversations with all stakeholders in the prospect’s decision making unit. The proposal is then useful to both parties as it functions as a common understanding of what will be done, by when and for how much. It defines the obligations on both parties thus avoiding many of the potential causes of conflict once the project is underway.
For larger opportunities prospects may have a formal process including a number of steps such as; Request for Information, Request for Proposal or questionnaire type tender documents. If this really is the way the prospect wants to proceed, the supplier will have to play to the rules, but there is always scope to provide a compliant response whilst also taking the opportunity to present an option that differentiates you as a supplier. This technique is at its most powerful in situations where the tender request demonstrates that the prospect is ill informed on some aspects of the problem or alternative solutions.
When? The proposal should come after all points of discussion and negotiation have been resolved. It is also important not to present the proposal too early in the decision cycle; it should be the only thing left to do before the prospect is ready to make their decision. There is a sound argument for presenting a proposal in two steps; the first describing the solution you are proposing and why it might be the best and then separately, once the prospect has accepted your solution, you confirm (you will have already discussed it) your quotation for providing the solution.
Just to be clear; a quotation is NOT a proposal unless you are quoting for something with a recognised publicly available specification or something the prospect has bought from you before. A true proposal effectively represents a specification for a bespoke solution.
How? The only answer to this question that really matters is; as agreed between the supplier and buyer. If the market or business sector has accepted ways of doing things this may be the way forward but challenging the norm may produce a better result for all concerned. For the supplier, challenging the norm with a better idea will help to differentiate them from their competition.
It is common, especially where a company provides complex or custom solutions that the sales people will need to work with colleagues from different disciplines to produce a proposal. Common scenarios include working with:
In many cases, especially where just a few proposals need support, this will be done informally with the sales person making the decision on a case-by-case basis; deciding who to involve and when. In larger companies or where every proposal requires support this will normally be done in a formal manner by, for example; sales support, bid support or by a recent manifestation, the sales enablement function.
If there are circumstances where a sales person is going to require the support of colleagues, even on a few occasions, it will serve the company well to put in the effort to create a formal process for such eventualities. Arguably, it is even more important to have formal processes established in these cases as this will help everyone to quickly step from their day job into their support role without having to re-invent the wheel.
A lot of time and effort can go into working with a prospect getting them into a position where they want to hear about a solution to their problem. To avoid spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar it is very important that the production and presentation of a proposal is taken seriously and that it is accepted as part of the day job by the specialists who will contribute their knowledge.
In times past the sales person would engage with a number of people in the prospect’s organisation but would rarely get to meet the senior executives who would be involved in the decision. This lead to the provision of a short, easy to read, section that those executive decision makers could use to gain an understanding of the key points of the proposal without the need to read the whole document. It has become common practice with written proposals that the first section is an Executive Summary; but is it still good practice?
Regardless of whether, as previously recommended, you have met all decision makers before submitting a proposal, there is still an important role for an executive summary as everyone is time poor these days so providing a concise overview of the key points of your proposed solution for all readers makes perfect sense. But, should it be an “Executive Summary”? We recommend Proposal Overview or Solution Summary.
The summary should always be created before the rest of the proposal; yes before! I am always horrified when I hear that a proposal has been written by a number of people in the supplier’s business then passed to the sales person to top and tail; to add the summary and financials. The sales person should own the solution being proposed and the way to make this happen is that they describe that solution in the summary before any other work is done on the proposal. The summary is then used by the sales person to brief everyone else that will be involved in creating the proposal.
When the proposal is presented to the prospect, some people will read just the summary, others will read the summary and the sections that cover their area of interest and others will read the whole document. So, the content needs to be structured to ensure whichever approach is used, the reader will understand fully what you are proposing and the implications for them.
Here are some tips on creating and presenting a good proposal summary:
The sales person can now use the summary to walk through their proposed approach with their key contacts and coaches in the prospect and take the opportunity to:
The sales person now has all the guidance they need to complete the document ready for that presentation deadline.
If the prospect doesn’t want a written proposal, perhaps preferring our recommended approach of an interactive workshop as the vehicle to present your solution, how can you provide a proposal summary?
Basically nothing changes. The sales person should still summarise the proposed solution and use it to brief colleagues, they should still walk through what they will be saying with the main contact in the prospect and finalise it ready for the interactive workshop. The workshop will be built around a number of presentation slides, one for each main section, commencing with the summary. Following the workshop the sales person is in a position to write and present the final proposal based on the original plus modifications agreed during the workshop.
Other than with the most-simple proposition, selling will involve the sales person in multiple touches or points of contact with a number of different people in the prospect’s organisation. Touches could involve, for example; phone calls, e-mail, texts, social media messaging, meetings, demonstrations or presentations.
Which people you speak to and the sequence and timing of the steps is crucial to achieving a successful outcome within an optimum timescale.
This is partly about increasing your chances of success but also about shortening the elapsed time taken to get to the point of decision. This is somewhat of a virtuous circle as getting to the decision point quickly usually increases your chances of winning as you wrong foot the competition.
Here are a few simple techniques to ensure an engagement cycle with a prospect stands the very best chance of producing a successful outcome; successful both for the prospect and the hopeful supplier.
Be flexible in your process; one size may not be the appropriate fit in all circumstances. The philosophy revolves around risk management and required outcomes.
If you consider applying just one new technique to your own engagement approach then make it this one.
This is all about keeping things simple; I see a lot of situations where the tendency is to over-complicate the processes of customer engagement and opportunity pursuit. This often leads to protracted timescales and an increased risk that the prospect will do nothing or they will go ahead with a supplier who is willing and able to move quickly. Make sure it’s you that moves quickly and you will win more business.
First published on LinkedIn Pulse
The question was inspired by a book; Who Moved My Cheese, written by Dr. Spencer Johnson first published in 1999.
In our earlier article we explored two areas where many businesses are suffering imposed change; the way they define and present their propositions and the way they take those propositions to market. While both issues are still very important as they continue to cause problems for many businesses this article explores some additional “cheese moving” forces that are impacting on business performance and productivity.
In the book, the mice handle the unexpected change in different ways and basically two of them stubbornly keep returning to the same place hoping the cheese will be there while the other two, aptly named sniff and scurry, immediately go looking elsewhere.
“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind-set that created them”
The message for any business; you must be in a permanent state of anticipation, ready and willing to adapt and ready to quickly embrace change as soon as the need is foreseen.
Let us assume your proposition and the way you take it market is working well but performance is still below expectations e.g. fewer new customers, less repeat or add-on business, longer sales cycles, or completely stalled decisions. Two key areas that are often found to contribute to these problems are your sales & selling processes and the way the sales pipeline is populated and managed. It can be difficult to spot these issues especially if your processes and pipeline management approach have been in place for a while and they used to serve you well. If change is slow, like the trees in a wood, it can be difficult to spot when you are inside the wood.
It is also the case that the change is often externally driven; someone has moved your customers’ cheese, which again makes it difficult to spot unless you employ a rigorous account management approach which focuses on the relationship as well as the work you are doing for the customer. This is a topic in itself that we will look at in a later newsletter.
The question I am usually asked is; what is the difference between sales and selling in this context? Basically, the sales process is used to create and build a relationship with a prospect or customer while the supplier deploys the selling process when pursuing individual deals with a prospect or customer.
Many would typically expect this to come after the sales process, but maybe if you first look at how you are going to close deals based on how your customers will buy, might that provide better information for designing your sales process?
“Begin with the end in mind”
All elements of the sales and selling processes should seamlessly mesh into the business, with someone given responsibility for ensuring it all works as a single entity – the trouble spots are often at the interfaces so this would be the starting point for exploring performance weaknesses.
The sales pipeline should provide a reliable and accurate indicator of two key things; how many suitable prospects and opportunities you have moving through your sales funnel and how many of them you convert in a timely manner into profitable business.
This enables you to fine tune your targeting such that the pipeline can provide the essential source of reliable forecasting information enabling you to predict future revenues. If the prediction shows revenue below target for the next quarter you have time to look for additional business to fill the hole. Knowing with reasonable confidence what revenue will be each week, month and quarter facilitates more cost effective resource planning; cash, people, materials, external partners, etc.
Unreliable pipeline information is the most common complaint we have been hearing from our prospects over recent years and here are a few clues as to the cause of the problem and also a few suggestions to start fixing it:
Everything in the pipeline should stand up to the rigour of an evaluation against the SMART formula (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-based); of these Agreed is the most important.
To ensure you can recognise when the cheese has been moved (for you or your customers), you need to periodically review the way you are monitoring your business, your market and your customers. You must ensure your sales & selling processes and pipeline management system provide you with pertinent leading indicators; it is much less painful to dodge the pothole than to repair the tyre after you’ve hit it.
The entire sales and selling operation should be systematically focused on business as usual and in particular delivering on the business plan for the current period. This enables identification and assessment of minor and major changes required to deliver on the current and future business plan.
Two final points to take into consideration:
If you would like a high level view of how your sales and selling operation is performing try our free assessment.
Good account management is a process that sees the relationship build and grow each time the parties interact. So, rather like a snowball that you roll through the snow, the relationship between supplier and customer gets bigger and stronger as you accumulate more knowledge about the way the customer operates and what really matters to them. Executed well, this is good for both parties.
“You don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell” is not what I had in mind but if you approach account management in the wrong way then your opportunities may indeed melt away.
A good account manager (AM) should always:
Manage the relationship as well as the project.
Time spent managing the relationship with an existing customer is never wasted but it is important to do this in a proactive way focusing on developing the relationship as well as the contract.
Although account management is oft considered a farming role; hunting skills will still be essential to protect your flock of customers from your competitor’s wolves!
Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy festive break and a successful 2017.
As you will soon be thinking about winding down for a well-earned break at Christmas we thought we would provide some food for thought some of which might help you hit the ground running as soon as the new business year starts.
Following are a range of business tips, many focused on sales and marketing, which we hope might help you and your business. Some are based on topics we have previously covered while others will be expanded in future newsletters throughout 2017.
Read in sequence or click the button of interest:
Most businesses are doing well these days but it is unusual to find one that doesn’t want to do even better. If this is you, why not do something different or try doing the same thing differently? Try something counter intuitive; what is there to lose if what you have been doing isn’t working as well as it did …
to keep doing it hoping for a different outcome was defined by Albert Einstein as insanity.
The question relates to the idea put forward in Dr Spencer Johnson’s book “Who Moved My Cheese?” that the source of whatever feeds you (in business; customers and new opportunities) may dry up at some point. The book draws a parallel between the fruitlessness of continually returning to the now shrinking source and the alternative proactive approach of going out and looking for new sources. If you have all the business you need to grow to plan don’t give this a second thought, but if new business has been tight in 2016 perhaps you need to look somewhere new. Read more here
If they come from/via a known source, a prospect you have been working with for some time or an established customer, you might choose to respond as you have enough information to assess the risk of losing. But, if it has come from a company that you barely know the received wisdom suggests your chance of winning is 1:20 or even worse so I recommend you invest your time elsewhere.
Many businesses use the word client in the misguided belief that it adds some sort of professional gloss to their image through an implied association with the real professions such as the law. The problem is that client relationships are typically infrequent or transactional being built around specific event(s). In our view using the term client may say the wrong thing about your brand image and what your business stands for.
A common model these days is account managers who manage and “farm” established customers while hunters take care of new business; a good model that I have seen work well in many companies but there is one potential big weakness. Your customer is, in the eyes of your competitors, a new business opportunity so their hunters will be trying to steal “your” customer. The risk for you is that if your account managers use a “passive/re-active” style to manage the customer they are matched against a hunter who will be assertive/pro-active. This is not a fair fight so you need to ensure your farmers also know how to hunt. Read more
We all understand this word but not everyone considers it when planning how to engage with a prospect or to maintain a continuing relationship with a customer. Simplistically; you must communicate with your prospects and customers in a manner they can understand. Discover more here
There is a lot of negative chat these days about cold calling and while some of it is justified it is a mistake to confuse cold and unsolicited. Every time you approach someone for the first time it is unsolicited – fact! I see a dangerous trend these days that people are so fearful of being seen as one of those horrible cold callers or spammers they have backed off completely from all forms of proactive one-to-one communication with prospective customers. So how are you going to find new customers? The key is to ensure your unsolicited communications are warm not cold. More on cold calling here
How do you feel when you receive a call from someone you don’t know, offering something you either don’t need or have already got? To earn time for a conversation why not use the wealth of data publicly available to learn about your prospect, their business, the problems they may have, the problems in their business sector, etc., etc. Take that data, process it into useful information and use that to empower your contact strategy – ask pertinent questions so you can talk about the benefits and value they will gain from the solution, rather than the products and services you provide.
If 2016 has been littered with delayed decisions and prospects disappearing off the radar you may gain value from reading this article. The key message is that you need to put in the work to qualify your prospects and to quantify the opportunities before you can use the sales pipeline as a source of reliable forecasting information.
The oldest documented sales and selling philosophy but as true today as it was when first published almost 120 years ago. The sequence is key and all too often these days’ sales people assume because they are in a meeting with a suspect that they have achieved AID so they focus on action; shall I do a proposal, would you like a quote or demonstration? The sales person may be ready to do these things, and the other party will probably agree as it is free information for them, but until the suspect has been developed into a true prospect free consultancy such as proposals will almost certainly be a waste of effort as you may have their Attention but you are mistaking courtesy for Interest and Desire.
Assuming you have arrived at the right point in the cycle and there is genuine interest and desire then a proposal may be a good thing provided you use it in the right way. A proposal should only ever document and confirm what has already been discussed and ideally acknowledged and accepted by the prospect. A proposal can be a very dangerous thing if it contains information, conditions, costs, etc., that the prospect was previously unaware of. Think about it; you inform the prospect there is a delivery and installation charge calculated at 10% of the selling price, but you are not there to see the response, justify the extra cost or deal with the inevitable objection!
No not our wonderful air force but a mnemonic for the way sales engagement should be pursued – Ready, Aim, Fire. Sadly, all too often what I observe is; fire, aim, ready. The sales person feels good because they are doing something but doing the wrong thing or in the wrong order is worse than doing nothing at all.
Many sales people think it is their role to talk so they can tell the prospect how great their product or service is. Problem is, while you are talking you are not learning and the most important thing for you is to learn about; your prospect, their challenges and above all what you need to offer them in a solution that they will buy.
A term used in the film Door to Door which is one of the greatest lessons in effective sales and account management techniques I have ever seen. It is common that suspects and prospects will say no or, just ignore you, innumerable times so how can you keep calling without offending? Two things; make every attempt to connect different from the last so the prospect keeps seeing/hearing something new, and always be positive and polite hiding your impatience or disappointment.
Being systematic is the best way to gain a predictable outcome. I have often heard it said that sales people won’t follow a process; they are free ranging, creative people who want to do their own thing. Don’t kid yourself, the best sales people have their own process running in their heads like a background computer program and if they refuse to follow the company process it is because theirs is better. Find out how your most successful people work and build that into your process for all to follow.
When a sales person tells me about the great meeting they had with a prospect that then becomes un-contactable, it triggers two thoughts:
A very effective classic sales technique that is little used these days. Simplistically the technique involves asking the prospect, at logical points in the engagement cycle, whether they are ready to go ahead and purchase from you. If they say no then it triggers “why not?” and the answer will give you early insight to the reasons or objections the prospect might have that will stop them buying from you. Knowing early enables you to more effectively deal with the objections and a better chance of winning the deal. Give it a go; what can you lose?
In the majority of cases your prospects are someone else’s customers so part of your prospecting run must involve exploring why your prospect may be dissatisfied with what they are already getting, what they might like in addition and what needs to happen for them to change supplier. So, rather than knock your competition, ensure you highlight all of your strengths and in particular those that trump the incumbent suppliers weaknesses. All is fair in love and war!
Whether what you are selling is a product, a service or a blend of the two you need to present it in terms of the solution it delivers. You need to help the prospect or customer visualise what they will gain from trading with you. Read more here.
The crucial component in all aspects of business performance and in particular customer facing roles such as sales and account management. Here is a very brief introduction to four crucial aspects of people performance. We have written much about this in the past so there is plenty more for you to read if you wish.
“sales people who receive as little as four hours regular structured coaching per month outperform those who do not by 17% on their sales targets” source: Sales Excellence Council 2007
Possibly but; it is a mistake to make the assumption that deploying technology will automatically deliver effectiveness or even efficiency. If the sales people spend a day a week populating the CRM is that really a good use of time? Do they actually sell 20% more by spending a day a week in this way?
News just came in that the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix is to cease in 2018 due to poor attendances (40% of capacity) and the reason cited is ticket prices but as they were pretty much the lowest of the 21 races in 2016 and had been stable for a couple of years is that really the reason? Many of us who follow the sport are becoming disillusioned by what is now very poor entertainment. So; is it not the price that turned Malaysian fans off or is it the value, or lack of, they gain from the experience? The price is what you pay, the cost is the price plus all other expenses required to use the purchase and the value is what you get – make sure your customers are VERY clear on the value they will gain by buying from you.
The typical approach to objections is to wait until they happen and then react which generally puts the seller on the back-foot. Managing objections is about being pro-active and pre-emptive; raising the issues, before the prospect does, by answering the questions they have yet to ask. All businesses have a set of common objections so you should use these to build standard rebuttals that the sales people can use pre-emptively.
Many claims are made for the role of social media in sales and I even see the term “social selling” being used. I will make just two observations on this and leave you to mull over whether your use of social media in sales is likely to work. Firstly, while social media is clearly a useful marketing tool, can it really be considered to be a selling tool? Secondly, because of the nature of social media is it possible your sales people have slipped into the mode of broadcasting a message then sitting back waiting for the answer – this is what we call a passive reactor approach and it is dangerous as your competitors who are proactive hunters will have eaten your lunch before you even knew a meal was being served. There is a time and place to broadcast a message but this can only ever be a marketing activity not selling.
When promoting or selling what you do it is important to address the question the potential buyer will have in the back of their mind “what is in it for me?” There is no point telling them about your features as that just tells them about you; you need to tailor your messages for their ears so they can fully understand the value they will gain if they buy from you.
I spend my time working with businesses helping them to become more successful and the starting point is always to look at the way they take their proposition to market. Simplistically, how they approach; marketing, sales and selling. Of the many issues that can have an impact on success, I find the most common is the productivity of the marketing and sales operation(s).
In considering productivity I refer to a dictionary definition “the effectiveness of productive effort as measured in terms of the rate of output, or the yield, per unit of input”. Immediately I can see a clue as to where the root of the problem may be found as the definition says productivity is about effectiveness whereas most businesses that I know are focused on efficiency. So while productivity is based on undertaking activities that will produce the desired results efficiency focuses only on minimising things such as time and cost.
First do the right things; only then focus on doing those things right.
While efficiency and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive making efficiency the primary objective usually stifles the very things that would make the business more effective. To gain competitive advantage the aim should always be to work smarter not harder although there is merit in maintaining an appropriate blend of the two.
Why might you want to spend time, and possibly money, making your marketing and sales operation more effective? There are many reasons but by way of a simple illustration; if you employ five sales people and you help them all to become 20% more productive you have in effect gained another whole sales person without having to spend money on; recruitment, induction, training, managing and of course paying them.
It isn’t just me talking to businesses providing anecdotal impressions, the quantitative evidence that there is a crisis in sales performance is clear to see; the data is everywhere.
At the beginning of October during Dreamforce 16, the annual sales conference of Salesforce.com, there was much discussion about “time available for selling” I think this must be an exaggeration but it was reported that in many cases the time available for selling had plummeted to less than 30%. This feels wrong to me but I have observed plenty of situations where the sales people are only engaged in actual sales and selling activities for 50% – 60% of their time.
Other evidence that there is a real problem can be found in research data from CEB (also reported at Dreamforce 16) which shows that the cause of a lot of stalled/lost deals is due to internal organizational complexity rather than action or inaction by the prospect. This chimes when I hear sales people say getting the customer to say yes is the easy part; getting things done internally is when it gets tough.
A few more examples from the research included; less than 50% of sales people achieve their target, high staff churn (voluntary and involuntary), the average tenure for a sales leader is less than 18 months and the average sales person tenure is around 22 months.
Extracts from research undertaken by Accenture, show 59% of sales reps believe they are required to use too many sales tools, while 55% feel that their CRM is more of a hindrance than a help. It is of course well observed that sales people don’t like what they see as admin and many have a personality biased towards freedom of expression so these results are not surprising. However, from my own observations I see many CRM systems that collect low level meaningless data that provides little of value either to the sales people or their managers. I also tend to agree with the observation about sales tools and in particular the lack of integration leading to situations, such as that observed on a recent customer project, where sales people had to look at three separate systems to understand the complete picture about the products and services being used at the clients they managed.
There are also impacts on the quality of life for many sales employees including; working longer hours, being constantly tied to technology sending emails and other messages and being contactable 24 hours a day. I see a lot of dissatisfaction as people struggle to keep up with work while feeling pressured by their managers to do even more.
This brings me back to the point about efficiency and effectiveness. All too often the sales managers’ answer to every ill is do more and do it faster; a perfect example of efficiency (working in a well-organized and competent way) but without regard to the effectiveness of the activity.
If current activity isn’t producing the desired result, then why should more of the same be any different?
Consider a different approach; doing less but doing it better will usually be more effective as it will produce more of what you really want – more customers and deals.
It seems ironic that today, when technology can deliver an endless supply of sales and marketing tools, all intended to make people more productive, that the trend is in the opposite direction. It is often the misused technology that is the great thief of time and sapper of innovation.
There has never been more advice available to people through; books, videos, conferences and networking groups (on and off line), but still the trend is for people to be less effective and therefore less successful.
So, it is important to explore whether technology is the solution to, or perhaps the cause of, the problems. Working on a recent customer project I observed the sales people spending at least one hour per day (14% of their time) entering data into the CRM system. The only thing they got in return was e-mails from the boss saying “do more”. What was being recorded in the CRM was very low level activity such as “a call was made” which meant the system provided the boss with nothing that would help him identify issues the sales people might be having as a basis for performance coaching. You cannot manage people by e-mail and spreadsheet!
Technology enables sales and marketing people to access huge amounts of data both internally and also externally about prospective customers and their markets. However, we see cases where sales people are literally swamped by data that swirls around like a fog making it difficult to see the actual target. This presents an opportunity for Marketing to provide concise insights and pointers based on analysis of the market/industry and also for Finance to provide sales ready insights based on a prospect’s annual accounts – or at least a tailored guide to help the sales people spot relevant opportunities within financial figures.
It is also the case that before making a call a sales person uses technology to check; CRM, LinkedIn, Social Media, Google, the customer’s website, credit rating agencies, maybe Companies House, plus they will typically access internal documents such as support call logs and sales visit reports. After the call they send a meeting invite, populate the calendar, send a confirmation e-mail, prepare some material for the meeting (perhaps a PowerPoint), check with marketing for case studies and other sales enablement material, and so it goes in a never ending cycle. Some of this is necessary and useful but not all of it every time!
All of this activity looks like work but the ultimate test is whether it makes the sales people more productive or just busy; are they getting a better yield from effort expended?.
Here are a few things to consider:
So for the outputs from sales enablement to be of real use they need to be delivered within the context of the business issue(s) they are intended to address; this is where coaching and mentoring from an experienced manager will really deliver great value.
You might also be interested to read:
I know the world of social media uses as one of its main platforms the idea of trending as an indicator of what someone should follow. However, this means that a few will have set the trend while many others will simply be hanging onto their coat tails. I am reminded of the quote from James Goldsmith
“if you see a bandwagon it’s already too late!”
I have always considered benchmarking to come with similar problems to trending. You look around to see what other companies are doing, use this to create a performance benchmark and adopt it as your own approach. The problem then is that most companies are doing similar things in similar ways which feels like a gentle progression towards mediocrity.
By all means look at the trends and also benchmark what others are doing but the clever thing is then to do something different, even consider doing the opposite. I saw a post on LinkedIn recently suggesting in-bound marketing has lost its advantage due to overuse and too much poor quality content – is anyone surprised by this? The post included a question as to whether outbound direct might be the way forward – again the person asking the question is looking at the dust from a bandwagon – some of us have always done it this way and may be reaping the benefits of fewer competitors.
When choosing which fashion to follow, assess the risks, not just the benefits
I once met Stanley Kalms, when he was still chairman of Curry’s, and he explained his “contradictory management” philosophy. Basically, he would observe how managers were doing their jobs and as soon as a pattern emerged he would issue an instruction to do things in a different way. His view was that it stopped people getting into a rut and forced them to regularly have fresh thoughts. A similar philosophy was used by someone I once worked for whose advice was to clean house regularly; suppliers, customers, markets, products and sometimes even our people.
So give this some thought.
The bottom line is; if you really want to differentiate yourself from your competitors you need to be doing different things or the same things differently, but whichever way, they need to be done well. Just ask your customers; they are a great source as they have the only opinion that really matters.
First published on LinkedIn Pulse
… and does it matter if you don’t stand out?
For me what makes a stand-out business is that it delights me in some way that is actually useful in my dealings with that business which in turn makes me happy to not only keep using the business but also to recommend it to others. So, in judging whether you have a stand-out business start by asking yourself “do customers like using our business, keep coming back for more and willingly recommend us to others?” This can be done informally but will probably provide more useful information if you do it formally through a well-constructed** customer satisfaction survey.
**open to input of true feedback, not worded to elicit only the answers you want.
Other perspectives can be achieved through the eyes of employees and suppliers and along with customers these are the three major commercial stakeholders in any business. The other main stakeholder is the shareholders who will typically want to see the value of their holding grow over time and many will want to feel their investment is in safe hands. In most cases getting the position with the customers, employees and suppliers right will automatically give the shareholders what they want.
Surveys can be used with employees and suppliers to establish how you are doing but another indicator will come from looking at churn; how easily you can recruit and retain people and how readily suppliers work with you.
Making sure customers, employees and suppliers are happy to be a part of the wider business should present itself as a virtuous circle; unfortunately it is sometimes the case that what is good for one maybe bad for the other. For example; if you have customers who are only interested in the lowest price then this puts pressure on what you can pay your suppliers and also the salaries and employment benefits you can afford. In this case the circle is somewhat out of balance as the needs of one party outweigh the needs of the others so other mechanisms may be required. With staff this could be, for example, allowing flexible working and with suppliers guaranteeing them a defined amount of regular business.
For me one of the things that makes a business stand out is when I get excellent service from people that go the extra mile to make my life easier and point out things that could be useful to me that I had not thought to ask about. These staff are not even being paid a king’s ransom for what they do, but they are creating a competitive advantage for their employers.
In summary; what makes a business outstanding is creating competitive advantage through either being different, or being better at being the same and both are comparative positions against the norms of the market and the behaviour of your competitors.
There was a time when there were probably more “me too” businesses than those that stood out in some way but life is much more challenging these days so I think it does matter. If there aren’t some aspects of your business that make it memorable you will struggle to grow and relative to the growth in the economy you may even shrink.
A familiar line from consultants advising companies on growth is “to think outside the box”. It is generally thought that this term was coined by one of the big name consultancies and it stemmed from one of those puzzles in common use in the 1970s and 1980s where the participants were asked to join a matrix of nine dots, organised in a square, without lifting the pencil from the paper. To achieve this you have to take some of the lines outside the box and hence the saying.
I find a more useful application of the idea of “thinking outside” the box can be found in the concept known as the Ansoff Matrix.
As you can see from the diagram, the matrix positions existing (known) and new (future) markets against known and future products.
The majority (some 88%) of business won by established companies falls into the known product sold to known market category. To stand out among their competitors here, they have to add real value to their offering, e.g. through product quality, responsive customer service, being smarter in what they do.
Could it be that those who truly are stand-out businesses, actively seek out and bring about change by looking for growth and expansion outside the box?
Returning to an earlier argument; if you are struggling to make a decent margin, putting pressure on employee rewards, in your traditional market then looking for a more lucrative market, outside the box, might make a lot of sense.
I have observed a number of examples where food suppliers have eventually found it impossible to run a sensible balanced business while supplying large supermarkets so they have re-invented themselves as suppliers to small independent shops and/or grow an on-line business.
Other than the known/known box there are three other boxes and moving to each carries different levels of risk. New product to known market carries the lowest risk followed by known product to new market and finally new product to new market. If you are going to consider a proactive process of moving your business to a different quadrant risk assessment is important; knowing the risks helps you plan to handle them.
Considering new products and new markets will certainly keep your suppliers on their toes while also providing employees with new and interesting challenges. So, it could be argued that an Ansoff Matrix approach to business planning could help to maintain the virtuous circle of customer, employee and supplier satisfaction while also delivering what the shareholders need from the business.
One other thing. Today’s new box is tomorrow’s known/known box so rather than a one-off exercise you should consider an Ansoff review of the business as a part of the strategic planning process perhaps formally re-visiting the topic according to the volatility of your markets. This should be backed up by informal monitoring through measures such as revenue, margin and market share growth. This evolutionary approach to business planning is sometimes labelled as agile; an approach to software developed that first appeared in the 1990s. I think in our rapidly changing world being agile makes a lot of sense and if the Ansoff approach helps such thinking all to the good.
It is common that at the beginning of many of the sales performance transformation assignments that we undertake for our customers the start point is a disciplined review of the proposition the customer takes to market and the markets they target and where their competitive advantage resides. Using tools such as the Ansoff helps us to facilitate the creative process with a cross section of people from sales, marketing, production and the executive team. The outcome may be a recommendation to remain with the current proposition being sold to the current market but often it is other quadrants in the Ansoff Matrix that show where the future lies.
A few thoughts
Remember; if you keep doing what you have always done you will typically get what you always got. Your only real option is to engender a regime and process of exploration and forward motion focused on continual improvement.