Snakes and Ladders anyone?


It’s the festive season and a time for games; but what game will your business be playing in the New Year?

Snakes & Ladders was a family favourite at one time but I am sure it won’t be played in many homes in 2015. However, it is still seems to be a firm favourite of many businesses. snakes-and-ladders-games2-e14495011718631You know the feeling; you work hard, get warm feedback and seem to be progressing up the ladders but suddenly the decision on your proposal is delayed with no new date set; you’ve hit a square with a snake’s head, you slither down a few layers and have to start climbing back again.

Such interruptions to progress can manifest themselves in many parts of the business but we are focusing on three leading areas of the business where landing on the snake’s head not only retards your progress but can also have a domino effect:

  • Relationships with prospect or customers; seem to be developing well but at some point suffer a sudden reversal that proves difficult to recover from.
  • Proposals; seem like the final stage in a smooth bidding process but suddenly the prospect is incommunicado or stalls about making the decision.
  • Sales recruits; had great promise but fall short of your expectations once they are doing the job.

There is one common factor that applies to all of these; you think you know how you are positioned but unbeknown to you the other party has a different idea. There is a closer link between the root cause of this issue and Snakes and Ladders than you might think.

It is easy to feel out of control and blameless when playing Snakes and Ladders as progress through the game is dependent on the way the dice fall which is of course random. All too often the approach to developing customer relationships, pursuing opportunities and recruiting sales people is conducted like a game of chance. Imagine how easy things would be if you could determine the score that would come from each throw of the dice; fortunately such certainty is achievable, not with Snakes and Ladders, but in the aforementioned areas of business performance.

Customer relationships

The key to creating solid customer relationships that will endure and strengthen over time is to base them on what the customer needs from the relationship rather than what you need. Of course if what the customer needs fails to deliver something that is acceptable to you then the relationship will not last and should therefore not be started. You need to ensure that your engagement process enables you to spot these situations early enough that you don’t waste a lot of time before deciding to abandon the pursuit.

Getting customer relationship building right is relatively simple but it does bring with it the potential for conflict and this is something that many people avoid. In my experience, rather than avoiding conflict, appreciating the potential for it to arise and managing it successfully will always deliver a better result and it is a crucial commercial skill to employ when building relationships.

If your objective is to avoid conflict this also means you will be avoiding asking important questions. For example; in the process of building a relationship with a potential new customer you will need to discuss and agree the commercial terms for any business that you might do together so you will need to ask questions. But all too often suppliers do not ask the questions early enough to effectively handle potential objections for fear that it will create a disagreement that might damage their chances. Surely it is better to get this topic out of the way early, before it becomes the primary deciding factor, than do a lot of work before discovering business that you might do will be unprofitable or will involve unacceptable commercial terms?

A few tips on relationship building:

  • At an early stage ask the punchy questions. Here are few examples to get you thinking. Do we meet your criteria to become a supplier? How likely are you to ask us to tender for business? Is there anything about our company, our proposition, or the people you have met that might put you off working with us?
  • Ensure you fully understand the decision making process and landscape; who gets involved in decisions and what process do they have that you will be expected to align with? Once you understand the full list of those involved in decision making ensure you meet all of them. This will equip you with multiple lines of communication that will help you if the primary point of access becomes difficult to contact at some point.
  • Don’t confuse relationship building with pursuing specific pieces of work. If you start to pursue a piece of work before you have a complete relationship your chances of being successful are diminished. Many companies have a sales approach whereby sales people do not spend time with a prospect until there is an opportunity to bid for and while this may seem like an efficient use of time it is not an effective way to maximise your success rate for winning new work.

Following these steps will help to ensure the dice falls more favourably and you are better prepared to avoid the squares with snakes’ heads.

Proposals getting stuck

We have discussed this issue in other articles so I will just provide a refresher on the key points of the approach we recommend.

  • Picking up from the previous topic; don’t bid for work until you have a sufficiently established relationship to understand the dynamics of the customer’s decision making process and what will motivate them to decide. Understanding your customer and what matters in their business will help you to craft winning proposals.
  • The right time to present a proposal is when the customer is ready to evaluate what you have to say in the light of a decision they are trying to make – not when your sales process says it is time. All too often I see sales people who have a first meeting with a new prospect and they close the meeting by saying “would you like a proposal?” – few prospects will say No either because they are too polite or because they would like some free research and insight.
  • A quotation is not a proposal. A proposal is “A plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration.” The whole point about a proposal is that it should provide a vision of what the future will look like if the prospect goes ahead with what you are proposing. With a quotation the only thing the prospect can consider is the price you are quoting in which case they are likely to haggle.
  • Before presenting a proposal ensure you have an agreement with the prospect for all the steps and stages from proposal presentation through to final decision. If they cannot tell you what is going to happen it probably means they don’t have a real intention of making a decision at all. Don’t be shy to politely decline to bid – they will respect you for this, it will probably strengthen the relationship and you are more likely to be told when there is a real opportunity to bid for.

Again, the above steps will help determine the score you get on the dice.

Sales recruits falling below expectation

I regularly hear complaints that recruiting good sales people is very difficult these days. As we undertake recruitment projects for customers I can confirm that it is tough but it is still doable. Early in 2015 we undertook an assignment to recruit 12 account managers and completed the project in just under six-weeks – so it can be done.

One of the main difficulties arises because the investment in training and development in sales and selling skills has been progressively cut since the mid 1990’s. So; finding well trained and qualified sales people is difficult and as a result a lot of recruitment decisions are made on the basis of taking the best of the bunch rather than just the people who meet the standard you are seeking. In effect, the seeds of disappointment have been sown even before the person joins you.

If you want sales people to be successful you need to create a fully integrated contiguous process that consists of ALL of the following steps:

  • Create a job definition that truly matches your expectations for the role – don’t try looking for a ‘Superman’.
  • Create an advert or other candidate sourcing techniques to match the nature of the job.
  • Ensure your evaluation and selection process is rigorous and independent of any influences other than the desire to recruit people that fully match the job profile. If you use external agencies to source candidates use different people to help in the final selection.
  • Once you decide you are recruiting someone prepare thoroughly for their arrival. You need to consider on-boarding but also a comprehensive induction into your company.
  • During the selection process you will have identified their strengths and weaknesses; ensure their manager is fully briefed on the particular support they will need and an appropriate training programme is scheduled early in their tenure.
  • Ensure that all tools and collateral they need to do the job are ready for their arrival, but more particularly ensure that they understand the nuances of what you provide that makes you different from competitors.
  • To be truly successful sales people need to operate within a regime of proactive sales leadership where the most important facet is regular one-on-one coaching by the line manager and periodic training/refreshers.

Regardless of experience or track record a newly recruited sales person is raw material to your organisation and the responsibility for turning them into a fully effective employee rests with you, the employer. This may sound like hard work but it is much less effort than will be expended struggling with under-performance, or staff churn and the need to regularly re-recruit. Doing all of the above goes a long way to helping you to dictate the score on the dice.

In summary

If you want to load the dice in your favour and avoid the snakes’ heads you need to create the right foundations as outlined above. If you get all of this right you can begin to play with a reasonable expectation of winning as you will progressively be able to accurately forecast the outcome.

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