Miracle cure; courtesy Microsoft Clipart

Sales Enablement – really?!

Sales Enablement … or is it Disablement?

Sales Enablement (SE) has emerged as a business role or function over recent years and it has its origins in some work started by Forrester in 2008.  Since then SE has grown into an industry in its own right consisting of technology, training and consulting businesses that exist to support the creation and operation of SE functions in their customers.  But what is SE?  There are many, many answers to this question so for simplicity I will use the most basic definition that I could find; “The processes, practices, technologies and tools that improve the performance and productivity of the sales organisation”.  This must seem like a good thing to most readers but as someone who has worked in the field of sales performance improvement for many years I can see how SE can damage the productivity of sales organisations and, in particular, individual sales people.  To understand why I raise the original question it is important to appreciate some key points in the recent history of the evolution of sales and selling in B2B businesses.

  1. Until the mid-1990s in-company sales training schools operated by companies such as IBM, Rank Xerox, Mars and, my former employer, British Olivetti, provided the primary mechanism for the training and development of raw recruits into skilled professional sales people.  Very few such schools still exist which is why recruiting skilled sales people is now such a difficult task; there aren’t enough of them out there.
  2. Until 10 – 15 years ago, the most common model would involve a sales person; generating their own appointments, conducting the complete new business sales cycle and then going on to manage the relationship with the customer growing and expanding the amount of business being done.  Some companies still work this way but in many cases; lead generation, new business hunting and account farming have been split into separate roles.
  3. Nowadays, although the primary role of the sales leader has always been to help their individual sales people, and the team as a whole, to be more successful by using their most powerful weapon – one-on-one coaching –  it is not uncommon to find sales leaders who NEVER accompany their people on sales calls and apart from a monthly sales meeting that focuses mainly on talking about past and future numbers little time is spent with the team as a whole.
  4. It is now common that SE (incorporating what may once have been called sales support) is removing further aspects of the selling role from the sales people.

In my view there is a clear case of cause and effect at play here. Companies stopped training sales people and managers stopped coaching leading to a reduction in general skill levels, this led to the fragmentation of the selling role in the hope that a more limited scope would mitigate the lack of a complete skill set. In most cases this didn’t really work so the next move was to implement tools (CRM being still the most common example) in the hope this would make the sales people more successful.  Tools didn’t really solve the problem and in many cases made it worse as sales leaders withdrew further away from the selling front line, where they should be, in the belief that tools would replace the need for coaching whilst also increasing their oversight of selling activities.  All that happened in most cases was an increase in the administration workload for sales people.  So, we arrive at SE, the latest attempt to make the sales and selling functions more effective but this just adds to the fragmentation of the selling role and it further de-skills the sales people who are the ones in the front line actually meeting prospects and customers.

Do you honestly want inadequately trained and skilled people doing the most important job in the company?

So, my answer to my own question is; I do believe that Sales Enablement is part of a continuing process of disabling the individual sales person that commenced when companies stopped investing in the development of individual sales professionals leading to the fragmentation of the role.

This is not to say that sales and selling “processes, practices, technologies and tools” are unimportant, far from it, but these things need to be fully embedded in the day-to-day operation of the activities of sales and selling not contained in a separate function.  Close inspection will find such arrangements to be neither efficient nor effective.

Does this matter?

If your business lends itself to a go-to-market model involving sales people who are the main interface with your prospects and customers then it matters a lot.  Surely, you need those sales people to be as well-equipped as they can be as they not only represent your products and services they also represent your brand.

While taking up references on someone we recently recruited for one of our customers I was told “X made the difference; she lost very few of her customers and even some who did leave came back citing X as the reason.

I do believe that in some markets and businesses, splitting the role of new business hunting and account farming makes eminent sense and using dedicated appointment makers can also be a good solution in many cases.  However, if the journey to splitting the selling role is about addressing unsuccessful attempts to make an integrated model work then there is a clear danger that you will just make matters worse if you continue on that journey.  My observations of many actual businesses suggest the creation of SE functions is often a reaction to earlier failed attempts to improve sales performance and productivity and hence SE is just a continuation of the journey away from where the real solution can be found.Before continuing the process of de-skilling and fragmentation we recommend that our customers first undertake a root cause analysis to understand the origins of the problems they are having.

So, I am clearly very anti Sales Enablement? Wrong!

If you consider some of the most common components that go into a SE function I do think it is crucial that a company provides such support to its sales people. Examples of things I have in mind include:

  • Collateral; not just product specifications but real meaningful material that supports each sales case by describing clearly the benefits and value that can be delivered; the focus must be customer centric; what they will gain not what the supplier can provide. This is about making sure it is selling collateral not marketing collateral.
  • Bid support;  a dedicated function that pulls together all the threads of the bid and crafts the proposal is especially valuable in the case of complex deals for large corporations or government departments.  Just ensure it really is a sales proposal that matches the customer’s stated needs and do not cut the sales person out of presenting the proposal. The key word in bid support is support!
  • Developing the skills of the sales people.  Training is important to provide a foundation but the real development work is done in one-to-one coaching by the sales leader.  The primary task of sales leaders should be the development of their people, not attending internal meetings or poring over spreadsheets and other historical data.

While I think all of the above will to varying degrees improve the performance and productivity of sales operations and individual sales people it is key to recognise these things must be structured to support the front line not replace it.

Reality Check: Sales Is Like an Orchestra, Sales Enablement Is the Maestro
Spotted recently on a LinkedIn discussion

This did make me laugh! 😂

So, where next for Sales Enablement?

believe there is an important role for SE especially in B2B companies and even more so those with complex propositions.  However; there is a real and present danger that companies will look to SE as the sole means of solving sales performance issues and if nothing else is done e.g. better processes, better recruitment, training and coaching of the sales people, then SE won’t deliver the required improvements.  There is in fact a danger that over focus on SE will exacerbate the problems leading to good sales people leaving the organisation – I know of a recent example.

I think SE is at a crucial fork in the road and the chosen direction will be very important as it will impact on the effectiveness and productivity of B2B sales and selling for many years to come. Strictly SE should be unnecessary as its purpose has been dictated by key mistakes made over the past two decades:

  • The lack of investment in people leading to the progressive de-skilling of the selling role thus falsely increasing the need for support.
  • The deskilling or misdirection of the sales leader role away from people development towards spread-sheet management.
  • The over complication of the selling role caused by, for example, a misguided belief that the “empowered” buyer is now in the driving seat so selling has become subordinate and reactive.

Companies, who decide to fix these problems at their root will probably find they still have a need for SE but it will clearly be as a support function not as a substitute for an effective professional sales force. 

Meanwhile for those who do not tackle the root causes today, preferring to add more tools whilst further fragmenting the selling role. They may see SE as the solution but in many cases it will be little more than a sticking plaster and they will eventually have to address the root cause so – why not do it now?

growing your business

Want to increase sales without increasing the payroll bill?

There is plenty of research indicating that sales people typically spend less than 50% of their time actually selling.  A recent research report put the figure at just 33% spent on selling – scary!

How good would it be to double the amount of business generated by your sales team without increasing the payroll bill other than paying more bonus or commission?  After all you shouldn’t mind paying well-targeted bonus or commission as this is just a success fee!  Doubling the business generated could be achieved more easily than you might think.

So let’s look at three key strategies that can be used to make sales people more efficient, effective and productive. This focuses on; what the sales people do, how much of it they do and what support, or interference, they get from technology and support functions.

What should sales people be doing?

This seems both too simple and too obvious but my answer is just SELLING; nothing else, just selling!  This begs the question what is selling and what does it consist of.  Strictly, selling is the name of the final transaction that sees the ownership of goods or services pass from the supplier to the customer in exchange for a consideration which is normally payment of money.  However, a common understanding of the selling function embraces all of the activity involved in the engagement between a hopeful supplier and a potential customer.

A classic engagement cycle would see the sales people; making first contact or responding to an inbound enquiry, exploring the needs & wants, qualifying both the company and the opportunity to establish they are a genuine prospect, proposing a product or service solution, closing the deal and taking the order.  This can be simplified to; find, explore, propose and close.

So it seems to me that if the sales people are doing anything other than find, explore, propose and close, they are probably wasting valuable selling time.  I do believe there are valid activities that would fall outside my strict definition but even then those activities should be directly aligned to one of the four primary activities.

For example; we believe strongly in the value of desk research so before attending a meeting with a new contact the sales person should use the internet to find out enough background about the company to ensure the meeting is fruitful.  In the case of an appointment arranged by the company reaching out to the prospect the research should have been done prior to attempting to make the appointment.  When dealing with an inbound enquiry the research should still be done including deciding whether the enquirer has the potential to be a customer or whether they fall outside your profile for an “ideal customer”.  The time for this will vary according to how complex your solutions are but we are talking 5 – 10 minutes in most cases not hours.

If you had someone tasked with doing the desk research your sales people are currently doing, would that enable your sales people to attend more meetings where the real selling will be done?

This would be an example of the work done by a sales support or administration function or to use a current term a Sales Enablement function.  Doing the research is about making the sales person’s time more effective; who does it is a question of efficiency.  Another example would be appointing a specialist, internal or external, to make appointments for field sales again freeing up more time to attend meetings.

Consider: splitting the activities might also permit a more realistic definition of skill sets leading to more certain recruitment outcomes and focused management.

Time management

This topic usually focuses on the mechanics of time planning, journey planning and the like. So if the sales person has a meeting in a particular location the idea is to get them to fix other meetings close by to make best use of the travelling time.  However, this is about efficiency not effectiveness.  All too often the sales person will book additional meetings and will often go for what is easy to achieve so they visit their old mate Jim who is always good for a chat and a cup of coffee. In considering this scenario through an effectiveness filter I would question whether the sales person would be better served getting back to the office to start producing the proposal for the exciting new prospect rather than wasting time having a nice chat with Jim?  Just a question to ask yourself.

People will do what they are asked to do and if one of the parameters you set your sales people is to do XX meetings per month that is probably what they will do.  It would be much better to set more meaningful criteria that relate directly to the selling job; find, explore, propose and close.  So the measure should be something like “arrange and attend at least X meetings per month where the result is the customer having an actual requirement that we can satisfy” or “attend XX meetings per month that generate a follow on action (further meeting, site visit, demonstration, request for a quote or proposal, etc.)

It is often said you cannot manage what you cannot measure and this should be extended to include “… and don’t measure what doesn’t matter”.


  • Explain to your sales people that you want to understand how they spend their time as you are looking to eliminate counterproductive processes and targets which waste their valuable selling time. This needs to be handled carefully as it can be a sensitive subject.
  • Sit down with each person and get them to describe their typical week or month.  It may help to break this down to half or even one/two hour slots.  Use as the basis for this; find, explore, propose and close, and add a fifth category – other*.  This will give you a high level picture of how the sales people are spending their time plus a guide to how you may need to re-position the definition of an ideal sales productivity model.
    * Other may identify missing as well as counterproductive factors.
  • Understanding the ratios between the four main activities will also provide a useful aid when comparing the performance of different sales people and also different sales territories or product groups.  It will also provide a very useful input to individual; training, development and coaching plans.
  • Modify the; processes, goals, objectives, targets and, if necessary, the compensation plans that you set for the sales people to ensure they align with the ultimate goal of maximising the time spent actually selling.
  • Measure only what matters.

Ways to support your sales people

The basic tools for pretty much any sales job are a phone, computer or tablet and maybe a car or access to good public transport for field sales. Now however, courtesy of technology, there are literally tens and probably hundreds of tools vying for attention in the sales and selling space.  Here we have focused on just a few that we think can help to make the selling function more effective and productive.

Note: in our time we have used and investigated various tools which serve the purposes described below, each have their strengths, weaknesses and sweet spots, so feel free to ask.

  • CRM will be top of the list for most people; we agree that when a CRM is properly implemented as a selling (not marketing) system it will definitely help the sales people to be more effective.  It is not uncommon that sales people cite the CRM as extra admin they have to do.  The word “extra” is the warning bell as it indicates the CRM requires people to do things outside or beyond their normal selling activities so the sales people often see no benefit in using the CRM leading to resistance.  The most common cause for this is that the design of the CRM took little heed of the needs of the sales people or their processes, resulting in two discrete systems; the ways the sales people actually do the job and the way the CRM designer thinks they should do the job.  Hence the view that CRM Ξ extra admin.

So, when implementing a CRM; first analyse the existing sales processes, fix any gaps or weaknesses, publish the new processes inviting feedback, amend appropriately and then produce the final specification for the CRM system your company really needs.

  • Don’t fall into the trap of creating a system that expects sales people to record lots of low level activity. For example; how many times they pick up the phone is of little consequence; what matters is how many meaningful conversations they have as measured by a positive outcome such as a meeting or request for a quotation.
    Tip: measure outcomes not inputs.

Now select the CRM tool that best fits the process you have defined and use it to “computerise” that process. Better still consider implementing a sales process automation system; as the name suggests this seeks to automate the processes not the selling activity.  This will definitely minimise the “administration” aspects of the selling job thus freeing more time for the sales people to spend with prospects and customers.

In this way the sales people have one system to work to; one which actually helps them and you.

  • Company search tools to help build better more informed profiles of prospects.  There are a number of such search tools on the market that enable you to set comprehensive parameters that are then used to search for suitable potential contacts.  Simple criteria such as; industry, location, size are easily catered for but it is also possible to build much more sophisticated profiles including, for example “any company that has static or falling profit over two or more consecutive years”.  If your solution is focused on helping to address profit issues any message you communicate to a company with falling profit will have greater impact – they will realise you have done your research and this alone will encourage them to want to speak to your sales person.  There are a number of well-established data aggregation tools that we have used for this purpose and we are in the process of trialing a tool that uses web crawlers and similar techniques to seek out new contacts with a fit to your ideal target.

Helping sales people to be better focused will contribute to all three criteria; efficiency, effectiveness and productivity.

  • A sales support function has been a feature of sales and selling operations for many years but it has no clear definition.  The essence of a good sales support function will be to provide a (centralised) set of services that all sales people can draw upon which frees them up to focus on the core selling activities.  An example, stemming from the previous point, would see a central function doing the work to search for and profile potential new prospects which would be given to the sales people to follow up.  It is also quite common that telemarketing is centralised (in-house or outsourced) to generate appointments for sales people.  In cases where proposals and other responses to prospects are large, complex and time consuming a good strategy is to create a centralised bid support function again freeing the sales person to focus on the key activity of engaging with prospects and customers.
    Tip: if all sales people have to do a small amount of a particular activity consider whether it could be centralised such that one person can become the expert.

Sales support has been morphing into Sales Enablement of late and it is worth considering whether such a function would add value to your business. We do have some firm views on this and will be covering the topic in detail in our next newsletter.

Making your people individually and personally more effective

Much of what we have discussed above is about the environment and systems the people operate in but of course there is plenty of scope to help the people themselves; paying attention to the inner person.

We have covered these topics in previous newsletters and blogs so I will just summarise the key topic areas here.

  • Recruitment; it seems obvious but if you recruit the wrong people to join your sales teams you are starting from a weak position.  What does wrong mean?  The answer is about the fit with your job requirements and culture not an absolute description of the candidate.
    Tip: define the requirements of the job and recruit against that specification; don’t just recruit the best of the bunch if they don’t meet your criteria – you and they will probably live to regret it.
  • On-boarding and induction.  When you recruit someone, no matter how experienced, they are in effect raw material to you.  To help that person become an effective employee for you then you must make the effort to bring them on board and induct them into the role you have recruited them for and how that fits into the overall company activity and objectives.  If this takes, one, two, three weeks don’t be concerned, the investment of time will pay you back handsomely.
    Tip: I said “induct them into the role you have recruited them for” which means no surprises; ensure you have described the role very clearly during recruitment as people leaving jobs shortly after joining a new company is all too common if they feel they are a square peg in a round hole.
  • Training is a crucial step in completing the process of converting your new recruit into an employee.  You need to train them in everything they need to know to do the job as you want it done and this is of course about your products, services, solutions and your proposition but it is also about the processes they need to follow and if during recruitment you detected gaps in their selling skills then they need to be addressed as well.
    Tip: a part of the recruitment process should involve the creation of a personal development program for each new recruit and this should include training needs.
  • Ongoing development through; leadership, management and coaching is also key to creating happy employees who will want to stay with you.  Recruiting the wrong person who stays with you for a few months then leaves or you have to let them go is a huge waste of money and time and with sales people it can also come with a huge lost opportunity cost if they fail to convert qualified opportunities, which you have provided, into revenue for your business.  Of the three disciplines; leadership, management and coaching, coaching is the one that will deliver the best return in terms of gaining better performance from your sales people.  Sales people receiving regular rigorous coaching typically out-perform those who do not receive such support by as much as 20% more business sold.
    Tip: build into the sales managers’ objectives the need to undertake a minimum of four hours field coaching per month per sales person.  If the sales managers don’t know how to coach, teach them.
  • Retention is as important as recruiting and if you pay attention to the points above people will want to stay with you.  While paying people appropriately for the work they do is of course important, how you treat them is even more so.
    Tip: when people do leave you always do an exit interview; this should be a professional structured meeting conducted by someone not involved with the person on a day to day basis, maybe even consider using an external person to do this. 


Efficiency, effectiveness and productivity, like the legs on a three legged stool, provide a strong and stable platform but if a leg is missing or unequal to the others then the stool will be wobbly and unreliable in use.  Don’t let your sales and selling operation be like a wobbly stool.

The really good news is that all of this is available at no additional cost to payroll as it is all about doing what you already do, that you already pay for, better and faster.  What’s not to like!?

Salesman, handshake, courtesy of Microsoft ClipArt

Acquiring new customers

Health Warning – Selling still required!

It is now common that businesses of all sizes choose from a wide range of mechanisms to generate contacts who might have the potential to become new customers.

In a recent informal poll on the LinkedIn IoD group there were 41 unique responses to the question “What approach do you use to acquire new customers?”  The poll provided a range of options, most people ticked three or four and the scores were;

  • 40  word of mouth referrals
  • 34   face-to-face networking
  • 14   public speaking
  • 12   social media
  • 10   website
  •   8   PR/writing
  •   2   Direct mail
  •   2   e-mail marketing

It is of course a good thing that mainly as a result of technology we all now have so many options for the way we engage with our markets.  However, a common problem we see is a misinterpretation of what a contact made through, for example, networking, social media or website enquiry, actually means.

All too often what is simply a very early stage contact is seen as a hot prospect to become a new customer.  Of the various options outlined above face-to-face networking followed by social media carry the greatest risk of providing misleading messages.  The other party is polite, enthusiastic about what you are telling them and says how you must stay in touch.  They may even promise to introduce you to someone they have referred to but usually someone who remains unnamed.

Don’t delude yourself!  All of the above is a perfectly valid approach to creating initial contacts, step one in a sales prospecting cycle, but that is all it is; step one.  From this point onwards the hopeful supplier must deploy sales and selling strategies and techniques if the potential in that contact is to turn into an actual revenue generating opportunity.

Salesman, handshake, courtesy of Microsoft ClipArt

Face to face selling is still very much alive!

Simply being active on social media, attending lots of networking events or rejoicing at the number of unique views of your website is not bankable.  To generate revenue that you can bank you need to sell – sorry; probably not what you hoped to hear but it is a fact – turning suspects into prospects and prospects into customers is only possible through a rigorous process of sales and selling.

And be careful what you say.  If you are the person hoping to gain a business opportunity from or via the other party then you will typically have only a limited time to get them sufficiently interested to agree to a longer meeting.  Even if they don’t actually ask, they will want to know an answer to “What do you do?” before they agree to meet you again or introduce you to someone they know.  The answer should not be a stream of the things you do or even your perception of the benefits or value you deliver; reading this may help you to understand why.  This also looked in some detail at this issue in your initial conversation.

I wish you happy hunting.

Mind's eye, courtesy Microsoft ClipArt

Benefits going the same way as Features

… and Value is close behind

Change how you do it not what you do!

Some decades back a common approach to selling saw the sales person running down a list of the features of their product or service expecting the prospect to stop them at some point saying “Ah, that sounds interesting, tell me more”.  By the 1970s, the more sophisticated suppliers, Rank Xerox being a good example, had come to realise this approach probably lost more customers than it created and the practice was given the derogatory term “spray and pray” or “doing a features dump”.

The next evolution involved teaching the sales people to apply their questioning skills to uncovering the prospect’s issues; then they would mention the features that were relevant to addressing those issues. This worked for a while but over time prospects wised up to the approach and expected the sales person to put in more effort by demonstrating that they actually understood their business.  This led to the idea of sales people telling prospects the benefits they would gain by using the supplier’s product or service.

The problem with the benefits-driven approach is that it puts the sales person in the position of stating things they typically cannot know about the individual prospect’s business.  The sales person can learn about the general issues of a particular business type, industry or market place but before engaging with each prospect they cannot appreciate the specific and individual issues.  As a result, most benefits are taken from a generic list based on assumptions such as everyone wants to save money or do things faster.  We call this the “faster better cheaper” approach.

Things have since moved on and the current fashion is for suppliers to express what they do in terms of the value it will deliver if the prospect buys from them.  Unfortunately, in many cases, the expression of value is basically a re-badging exercise as it involves using the same benefit statements but giving them a new name ‘value’.

Mind's eye, courtesy Microsoft ClipArt

In their mind’s eye, how do they see their world?

So, what is the poor supplier to do? As is often the case with problem solving in business the answer has been around for a long time but it got swamped by the desire to do something different or just new and by knee jerk reactions to short-term problems; “we need more orders!”  The answer is really simple; sales people must learn and apply the techniques of structured questioning, empathetic listening and interactive conversation.

If you do want to employ an approach based on benefits and value here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Do the research to understand the generic and common issues that companies in your target market sectors have or will soon have. This work is often done by the marketing department or perhaps the sales enablement function if you have one.
  • Before attending a first meeting do specific research; the individual prospect, their market, their competitors, relevant news/web items, and from the common and generic issues, identified above, which ones might apply that businesses like theirs have to deal with now and in the future.

You can now begin to create a profile of the prospect and identify what you need to find out so that you can design a solution that will really excite them.

  • Use the profile to plan the first meeting especially; the questions you will ask to start finding out what issues the prospect actually has, what they might consider as beneficial, and how they will evaluate and measure the value of a solution.  Note I said “start” the process; building a profile of a prospect, especially where your proposition is complex and the sales cycle long, cannot be achieved in a single meeting.
  • At various points during the engagement journey check with the prospect that you have understood what matters to them; the benefits and value they want to enjoy.  Approach this using a process of trial closing – “if we were able to do this for you and as a result you were able to (reduce stock levels, increase your customer satisfaction score, etc.,) would you go ahead with our proposed solution?”  If yes, good you can move forward and if no, excellent; you can explore why not and this will provide further insights into what the prospect really wants, needs and values.

Using a feature-based approach to selling and doing it well will actually deliver better results than a benefits or value based approach done badly. However, if all you talk about is features, the other party typically thinks about price and discount and the basis of negotiation will be crude haggling which will probably get you the deal but lose you margin.

So, isn’t it better to learn how to do the benefits/value approach properly?

We’re here to help.

Timing is Crucial

Time may be of the essence …

… but timing is crucial when selling!

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.

  • Keep in mind your own ideal engagement process that you have created to give you the best chance of winning deals the; events & actions, steps & milestones, timing for each, and overall elapsed time required to get to the decision point.
    Aenea&Micah on the trapeze

    Customer-Supplier process handshake

    • As soon as you start meetings with the prospect test your engagement process to see if it works for them and if it doesn’t, agree to an amended process and timetable that works for both of you.
    • If the prospect wants to skip steps that are important to you negotiate; seek their agreement to include the events and activities you really need in the process.

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.

  • Continually be mindful of the stage you are at and behave appropriately. A simple example; if you are calling someone to arrange the first meeting, focus purely on that objective; don’t try selling them anything other than the meeting.
  • Allow time for the two separate functions of relationship building and opportunity identification & pursuit.
    • Plan time to nurture each separate contact and don’t assume because you know one person well the good karma will automatically transfer to others; account engagement is actually a series of new business encounters.
    • Be clear in your mind as to what you want to achieve at each touch point and focus on that.
    • Be sincere; don’t pretend you are trying to become best buddies when all parties know your sole objective is to secure a deal for your company. No one minds this but what people don’t like is pretence.
  • Identify or create requirements? If the prospect says “I need/want ….” then of course you respond to that in a positive manner but there could be hidden opportunities that the prospect may not have recognised.
    • When talking about a stated requirement always look for opportunities to upsell or cross sell.
    • Be ready to be pushed back; explore the objection politely and positively and if the prospect is adamant then revert to dealing with the requirement as stated, but don’t forget, the additional opportunity you spotted is something for the future.

If you consider applying just one new technique to your own engagement approach then make it this one.

  • NEVER consider a step in your agreed engagement process to be complete until you have agreed a date and time for the next step; don’t leave a meeting having agreed to produce a proposal without putting a date in the prospect’s diary for the meeting when you present your proposal.

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

Rejected proposal

Sales Proposals

…why, when and how?

Rejected proposalThe 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.

OK, so why, when and how:

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.

Further reading; timing of a proposal or  proposal production or getting your proposal due consideration

Proposal production through teamwork

Working with “sales support” when producing a proposal.

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:

  • Technical people who use their skills to specify and configure the correct solution for the individual need.
  • Estimating specialists who can work out how much time, material and other resources may be required to deliver a particular solution.
  • Manufacturing and logistics functions that will make and deliver the solution.
  • Health and safety, HR or legal specialist.
  • External suppliers who may be required to contribute to the make-up of the complete solution.
  • The project or programme manager, who will be responsible for delivering the solution, to ensure the estimates and delivery schedules are realistic. If any part of the brief cannot be achieved it is important to let the sales person know as soon as possible giving them the opportunity to re-set the prospect’s expectations.

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.

  • The sales person is nominally the owner of the requirement and will be responsible for briefing everyone involved in supporting the production of the proposal. It is important not only to brief on the requirement but also to establish the timetable including specific milestones when things need to be delivered.
  • If there is a formal bid function, they will normally be responsible for the physical production of the proposal document but if support is less formal this responsibility will usually fall to the sales person. The key is to leave no doubt – decide all roles and responsibilities during the initial briefing including who does which sections of the writing.
  • If the document is to be written by several people it is important to ensure consistency of style and language and this is best done by someone not directly involved in the writing.
  • If there is a need to involve external suppliers, briefing them and gaining their agreement to meet your timescales is crucial.
  • The vehicle for briefing everyone involved in producing the proposal should be the proposal summary. This summary contains the sales persons’ complete understanding of; the requirement, the solution, how they plan to convince the prospect of its worth, timing, financial parameters and key differentiators the sales person wants to be able to demonstrate.
  • It is important for the bid team to work towards a date when the proposal will be completed that is a few days before the sales person is due to present it to the prospect. This allows time for final editing and physical production avoiding the need for anyone to “burn the midnight oil”.
  • If the sales person is following the process of a trial presentation to the prospect, which will lead to amendments prior to final presentation, time to achieve this edit step needs to be scheduled into the bid team’s diaries.
  • When the proposal will be delivered in the form of an interactive workshop, rather than a written document, it is even more important that the sales person has ready access to all the specialists who can help provide the facts to support the sales arguments they will present.

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.

Proposals – first impressions count

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 should by now have a clear picture of the problem the prospect needs to solve and an equally clear idea of what they need to do to win the business – the win strategy.
  • Having established that a formal written proposal is what the prospect wants to see, agree what the proposal will cover and whether the prospect has a preferred structure.
  • The sales person should now create the proposal summary that will address the following:
    • An overview of the problem the prospect needs to solve and their vision of the desired outcome
    • An overview of the supplier’s understanding of that problem which will include their experience of solving similar problems
    • All the key selling messages that will be expanded upon throughout the document.
    • The key points that differentiate your solution
    • A summary of the financial offer
    • Embedded navigation aids to help people find further detail in the rest of the document.

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:

  • Identify any points which may be contentious and test them; if they are uncomfortable agree how you will re-word or re-present the point.
  • Leverage their knowledge of the other people who will read the proposal to ensure everything you are saying will be well received.
  • Take the opportunity to conduct a trial close – effectively asking the question “based on this summary how likely are you to go ahead and award us the business?
  • Agree a date and time when you will present the final document.

The sales person now has all the guidance they need to complete the document ready for that presentation deadline.

One final thought

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.

mouse in maze hunting cheese

New year, new challenges?

As you start a new year, and reflect on the old; does your business feel the same?

When we last looked at this topic we asked “Did someone move your cheese?

The question was inspired by a book; Who Moved My Cheese, written by Dr. Spencer Johnson first published in 1999.
mouse in maze hunting cheese
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

Albert Einsten

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.

Sales & Selling Processes

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.

Here are a few pointers on what makes for good sales and selling processes.

Selling process:

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”

Stephen Covey

  • The essence of a successful selling process is that it aligns with or better still mirrors the buying processes used by prospects and customers. There are two aspects to this; the generic buying processes used in your industry and by the sort of companies that become your customers and then the specific buying process used by each individual customer. As an example of generic buying process, consider how an owner managed business with 10 employees might go about it compared to the approach that a multi-million pound turnover global enterprise might approach it.
  • The selling process must be flexible enough to work with the whole gamut of customers and customer types you want to trade with.
  • The selling process is sometimes characterised as being a series of techniques and even tricks. If this is an indication of how sales people behave then it is easy to see why some get such a bad press. Executed properly a selling process is like any other professional discipline being built from a series of connected steps with rules that govern the progress across the steps leading to a predictable outcome.

Sales process:

  • Needs to be completely joined up enabling the evolution of a customer relationship to proceed smoothly. This is especially important where different departments are involved; web design & digital marketing, PR, marcomms, tele-marketing, sales enablement, etc. There was a time when these functions would have been under a single manager but this is often not the case which can lead to a silo mentality when what is required is absolute cooperation. The need for cooperation and joined up thinking becomes even more important when some of the functions are undertaken by external companies or contractors.
  • Needs to be fully integrated with other functions that are not directly associated with the sales process, but do have a contribution to make, such as; finance, logistics or technical support. All elements of the extended sales team need to have the same level of information and understanding of the strategic objectives so they can “sing from the same hymn sheet.”
  • Needs to be fully integrated with the selling process. One of the most common complaints that we hear is “they don’t understand what we need/do” and this is made by marketing people about sales people and also the other way around. If , for example, a decision is made to attend a trade show all too often marketing see this as their project which can mean they do not involve the sales staff until the 11th hour when it is realised they will need to follow up on people who visit the company stand at the show.

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.

Pipeline – population and management

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:

  • The information in the pipeline should be in a consistent format, based on consistent objective criteria used by all sales people. Sounds simple but few do this well.
  • The information in the pipeline should be supported by; details of the product or service quoted for, the quote calculation, the competitive position, the decision date and criteria, and the win strategy. None of this should be down to gut feel; any assumptions need to be challenged.
  • We suggest a process of quantification is used as the basis of the formula used to calculate probability. What this marks is a move from the qualitative information used when developing a contact relationship to the factual information required to generate a reliable forecast.
  • All items in the pipeline should be the subject of regular scrutiny in a one-to-one review between the sales person and the sales manager. If there are doubts e.g. as to the decision date, the sales person should be tasked to confirm with the prospect; in the knowledge that the sales manager may reserve the right to also contact the prospect to discuss the opportunity. All too often decision dates are put as the last day of the month which typically means the sales person hasn’t done the work to really know. The decision date must be linked to a specific event, such as a board meeting, not to the sales person’s hopes.
  • A useful quick way to test an item in the pipeline is to ask three questions; Why, why now and why you. Good sales people ask these questions of themselves and their prospects but the sales manager should ask them as well.
    • Why; do they have the need or want, what is the problem they are trying to avoid or solve, and what benefits and value do they want to gain from making the purchase?
    • Why now; is there a sufficiently compelling reason for them to definitely make the purchase now? One of the most common reasons for stalled deals in sales pipelines is that the prospect does not have an imperative to make a decision; the pain isn’t bad enough so it feels less risky to do nothing.
    • Why you; can they fix it themselves, is there an incumbent supplier in place, who are your other competitors, and do you have something special or at least different which matters?

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:

  1. Keep it simple! You will all have seen horror stories of sales people who spend just 20% of their time actually selling and while I think 20% is very much the exception I frequently observe 60% to 70% which means three sales people are as productive as two would be with better designed systems and processes.
  2. I haven’t mentioned; CRM, ERP or any other computer based systems. While such tools can make an invaluable contribution they often exacerbate a bad situation. The introduction of such tools should be applied to existing processes that actually work in order to make them more effective and efficient. But, all too often, the introduction of a CRM does little more than computerise an inadequate set of generic processes.
    Similarly, using the introduction of a CRM as a means to impose sales and selling processes rarely works; shoehorning an artificial view rather than reflecting the way the sales operation actually functions. This leads to the oft observed situation where sales people see the CRM as an unhelpful administration burden on top of a very busy day or week doing the real job.

If you would like a high level view of how your sales and selling operation is performing try our free assessment.

A rolling snowball gathers more snow