If you are a B2B sales leader experiencing sales performance issues, with sales teams that must execute a complex, solution, or value sales model — what do you plan to do?
These are some of the actions you might be taking, or considering:
A performance improvement “initiative” – reps often refer to this as the “program of the moment” – messaging work, prospecting training, account strategy planning, sales coaching, etc.
Re-organize – teams, managers, adjust sales resources
Change sales tactics — specialty teams, named accounts, vertical teams, product specialists, changes to individual rep’s sales bag
Re-work territories – add or remove accounts
Make product and/or pricing changes
Manipulate incentives – (will spiffs work as well for a complex, value sale, as they do in a high-volume transactional sale?)
We hear sales reps comment on it this way, “every six months it’s the same drill, people run around asking ‘why isn’t this working?‘”
When this is the case, it seems no one can accurately identify primary causes of the sales performance problem.
Some of those actions might be necessary. But are they the right place to start? What will make the difference this time? What adverse impact on your number, and on rep morale is at risk? Does it feel like you’re on a hamster-wheel of tinkered adjustments?
What if a core cause of your sales performance problem is the inability of your reps to conduct effective conversations with buyers?
Aren’t conversations what B2B selling fundamentally involves?
What if fixing sales conversations can provide a “tipping point” opportunity?
Here’s a first move you may not have considered.
Start by analyzing the critical sales conversations at each key customer engagement point.
How do you know these conversations are conducted well? If they are producing the desired outcomes. If yours are not, read on.
Most sales leaders see this as a “messaging” problem. But messages are only source elements to a conversation. Reps and partners still must figure out how to engage buyers effectively to get prospects to:
- Agree to talk
- Do the work to understand the nature and cost of their current situation (status quo)
- Enroll others to decide to change
- Conduct an effective, timely buying decision process – especially if this is a new or infrequent experience
- Acquire budget
- Have urgency to complete the process, in a timely manner
- Decide favorably for you
- Negotiate contracts successfully with you
- Implement effectively
- Drive use and adoption
- Produce expected improvements and results
- Stay, renew, and buy more
- Refer you to new prospects
These are conversations. Actually, each is a conversation category. Probably several conversations within each category!
This is where your sales performance breakdowns are occurring. B2B selling is fundamentally about conducting effective conversations, at critical engagement points, not simply delivering messages.
- When you’re experiencing disengaged buyers, you lost them with the conversation.
- When pipeline is anemic, deals push, or must-win deals fall through, your conversations didn’t fuel urgency or value recognition.
- When you are being outsold, your conversations were less compelling then your competitors.
The B2B value sale is inherently complex. This is why we ask:
Why require each rep to figure out every critical sales conversation?
Is this the sales competency you hired for?
Does this really make sense?
Consider how long it takes for every rep to become proficient with each critical conversation, when:
- New reps are on-boarded, or existing reps move into new selling roles
- You sell more than one product, service or solution
- You introduce new offers
- You address multiple but different business problems
- You engage multiple industry verticals
- You work with buying groups comprised of multiple roles, personalities, agendas, and competing priorities
- Reps haven’t had many of each critical conversation, or it’s been a while
- You need partners to succeed under similar conditions
- You need customer sponsors (champions, mobilizers, etc) to conduct effective internal conversations, when your reps aren’t present (allowed to be)?
A B2B value sale also requires a different mindset, skillset, and conversation approach than the traditional, product-feature-benefit sale. Taking a customer-centered, “outside-in” approach to sales conversations is a new competency for many reps. This behavior shift requires good support, both initially and over time.
In addition to low individual sales performance results, common symptoms you have a sales conversation problem include:
- Too few first conversations with new targets (prospecting)
- Low conversion of initial conversations to a substantive second conversation
- Ineffective when engaging target buyers who are not actively looking (create opportunity)
- Misaligned with customer’s conversation objectives
- “Premature elaboration” — compelling desire to tell, pitch, demo
- Poor questioning — and listening
- Little to no situation fluency — inability to tailor conversations
Of course there are many more. Examples of others will emerge throughout this article.
When reps conduct an effective conversation at each key point, they get in and stay in the game. They help buyers. They might even have a shot at influencing the decision criteria. Mess up the conversation, they’re out. Or worse. They’re carried as a check against preferred vendors. Or, as pricing fodder, while thinking they’re actually in the game!
- Do you know what those decision-gates are for each critical engagement point?
- Do you know what information buying teams need to make those decisions?
- Have you identified the questions they will ask to obtain that information?
Answers to these questions might indicate sales teams are less prepared than you think.
The value selling goal we have for you and your sellers is they are able to “create value for buyers and differentiate through how you sell, as much as what you sell.”
How to Proceed
If you have sales performance issues, it’s a pretty safe bet your teams are conducting less than stellar conversations.
We’ve developed a relatively simple, although not easy, approach to remedy this problem.
Your first move is to analyze critical conversations at key engagement points. Here is a list of example conversations. Note the questions and conversations that frequently buckle the knees of all but the best sellers.
Base your initial analysis on your buyer’s decision process.
Business buying teams follow a process that progresses through a series of go-no-go decision-gates. The job of an effective sales conversation is to assist customers in making those stage-specific micro-decisions.
Knowing what buyer questions align to which specific stages provides a “tell” for reps. It’s not perfect, but with a few checkpoint questions, reps can quickly confirm where buyers really are in their decision process. Then they should know how to tailor the conversation to the buyer objectives at that stage. But how well do they know?
“Design” each critical conversation.
This work figures out the best way to conduct each conversation. Best performers are interviewed. A framework template guides the process. Conversation design experience helps.
It involves thinking through, mapping out, and developing all the elements required for each conversation to be effective. This includes potential scenario paths the conversation could take. The checklist shows some primary categories to be developed and documented.
To get started, focus on a few of your most critical, and challenging conversations.
Document your findings as a Conversation Framework
Frameworks define what good looks like, for each critical conversation. A baseline is established. An overview of the conversation flow is visualized. Key inputs, like questions to ask, and in what sequence, are provided. All the information reps need to prepare, conduct and follow up effectively, on one page!
How else can an organization achieve consistent execution across sales and partner teams? How else can you reduce excuses, and complaints?
What This Approach Delivers
We’ve come to really appreciate this uncommon approach. Designing key conversations with frameworks can provide a “tipping point” effect within sales organizations. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New York Times article, and later a book on this entire premise, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
According to Gladwell, the percentage of actions and effort required to change the direction of a group is usually much smaller than most people assume. The tipping point concept can explain why change often happens quickly and unexpectedly.
Designing key conversations isn’t just “another initiative.” Rather it should be a standard way an organization enables sellers, partners and buyers. Sales organizations should require this with every new product introduction.
Designing sales conversations is the best first move to resolve sales performance problems. It produces fast results, starting in about a business quarter. It makes it easier for reps to do what they find challenging.
Sales coaching becomes more effective (maybe even possible). A natural ability to collect feedback is set up. This more accurately identifies the real source of shortcomings — poor execution by an individual sales rep, or missing elements in the conversation design. A continuous improvement process is now possible.
As a first move, the conversation design process also identifies your next priorities. It informs improvements to your sales playbooks, sales process, on-boarding, training, hiring methods, and more.
A natural by-product of this work, are requirements for your sales-ready, information and content needs. This is the second move you can make to improve flagging sales performance. These are critical, and usually under-served sales tools. They support direct and partner sellers, but also customers.
To learn more about improving this essential success driver, read Why B2B Sales Organizations Must Requisition Sales Content.
David Brock — Thinking About “Conversational Intelligence”