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.


The ABC of Selling

ABC – Always Be Closing? No, not that nonsense.

While there is merit in the concept of exploring what will be required to successfully close the deal throughout the sales engagement process, as opposed to waiting until the final meeting after you have submitted your bid, most prospects will spot the classic ABC technique and be inured to it. So, rather than enhancing your chances of winning, Always Be Closing may well have the opposite

So, what do I mean by the ABC of selling? Assume nothing, Believe nothing, Challenge everything. This is a simple framework that helps to structure sales engagements that if followed will increase your chances of winning more business, reduce the time wasted on deals you cannot win or that will never happen and earn the respect of genuine prospects who are looking for a professional company to become their next supplier.

Assume nothing

Well actually making assumptions is fine and it is a valuable part of a professional sales engagement process. What is wrong is acting on assumptions before you have tested them with your prospective customer.

For example, you may have concluded from publicly available information that your prospect is on a drive to reduce costs and as a result you plan your first meeting around explaining just how cost effective your solutions are. You can see how dangerous this could be if the prospect does actually have a cost reduction initiative underway but in the area of their business where your solution might fit they drive is for a safer more reliable solution. Perhaps they are just coming to the end of a three year contract with a supplier that came in on a low price ticket but has failed to deliver on time and to agreed quality standards on many occasions.

So, before you go headlong into your “we provide very cost effective solutions” ask questions to establish what the prospect wants and needs and what things will motivate them to decide in favour of one supplier over another. Ask questions, listen carefully, interpret and modify your planned approach accordingly.

Believe nothing

Strictly I am not saying prospects and customers lie, although some do! Really what I am saying is that you should believe nothing without first ensuring you fully understand what you have been told.

For example, the prospect tells you they are looking for a safe and reliable solution in some area of their business. That seems quite straightforward but could it have different meanings or nuances? Again this is about the effective use of questions to explore and delve into and behind what you think you are hearing. The words safe and reliable are not absolute terms so you need to explore the requirement in terms of how safe and how reliable. If, for example, you have an IT solution that will provide guaranteed up time of 99.99% 7*24 you may think telling the prospect this will impress them and indeed it might. However, if what they are looking for is 99% between 08:00 and 18:00 Monday to Friday they are likely to conclude that your solution may be more expensive than they need to pay, yet they probably won’t tell you so.

So, listen to what you are told and ask questions to ensure you fully understand what the prospect really wants and more importantly needs before you offer or suggest anything.

Challenge everything

Consider a scenario where the prospect tells you they need an IT support service that provides up time of 99.99% 7*24. You could take this at face value – they said it so they must mean it is a reasonable position to take. However, let’s say you know a bit about their business and you know they work five and half days; 08:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday plus 08:00 to 12:00 on Saturday so why would they want full 7*24 support? There may be a good reason but you won’t know until you ask “could I just clarify; I thought your working hours are … so why would you want the expense of full 7*24 cover?” The answer might be something that supports why they want it or it might be “Good point, I suppose we don’t need that level of cover.

If they are currently paying for full 7*24 cover or your competitors are quoting for it and you can offer something that will cost them less while delivering exactly what they need you will have made progress towards becoming their new supplier of IT support services.

Some people fear the idea of challenging in case it seems rude or impertinent to the prospect or customer. Getting this right is all about being courteous and using the right sort of words; “I hope you don’t mind me asking”, or “perhaps I am wrong but I thought your working hours are …

In summary

Make assumptions but test each one to destruction. Listen to everything you are told but don’t believe it without checking and double checking you are all meaning the same thing. Challenge everything that you do not understand or agree with; be polite but do it.

The ABC formula provides a useful framework for structuring and conducting sales prospecting calls and meetings. This is not a onetime thing and you should repeat the process every time new information appears and with each new person you meet in the prospect’s or customer’s organisation.

This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse by Phil Shipperlee