Hands down, the one question I get more often than any other is, “How do we shorten our sales cycle?” It’s no secret that over the last few years, sales are taking longer to close. Our economic realities have resulted in increased competition and more centralized decision-making, especially for higher dollar purchases.
The indirect cost of the lengthening sales cycle is staggering and the cost of not being able to reallocate resources to bring in new business is mind-blowing. Last week, I spoke with the CEO of a logistics company. He told me that 3 years ago a typical deal took 2-3 months to close and now it’s taking twice as much work and upwards of 6 months to achieve the same result. Their bottom line revenue has shrunk by 30% over the last 24 months.
In my experience, shortening the sales cycles is more about RPM’s than MPH's. It is not about going faster, it’s about being more efficient and working smarter with the resources that you have.
6 things that have the greatest impact on this are:
1. Sales Effectiveness - Salespeople, who can truly sell consultatively and effectively, uncover their customers’ compelling reasons to buy by asking the tough, but necessary, questions and taking the time to thoroughly qualify their prospects to determine fit. They must have ongoing training to develop these skills. There must also be a continual recruiting process that identifies potential candidates who possess these skills.
2. A Culture of Resilience – Sales is hard! Not every opportunity will close. The more quickly your people can bounce back from rejections and difficulties, the more successful they and you will be. Click here to learn more about developing resilience.
3. A Clearly-Defined and Staged Sales Process - Click here to learn more about the Baseline Selling process.
4. Effective Pipeline - A pipeline should accurately track the quantity, quality and timing of your opportunities in the context of your revenue targets.
5. Ongoing Training - The skills required for sales success are not easily learned.
6. A Progressing Recruiting Process - This is necessary to identify potential candidates who possess these skills.
In my experience, if you focus on tightening these 6 things, it will have a huge impact on shortening your sales cycle as well as the overall effectiveness of your sales organization.
If you’re a CEO, VP or Director of Sales and you’d like to learn more, join us at the Park Hyatt Washington DC on Tuesday, June 26th when best-selling author, Dave Kurlan, and I will discuss this topic in further detail. This is not your typical business event. It will be a highly-selective group of senior executives gathering in a small intimate setting (no more than 15) to discuss real solutions to the real business issues of the day.
I'm currently reaching out to my online community with 2 spots available. If you're interested, contact me ASAP as space is limited. Click here to learn more.
In my nearly 20 years of sales and sales leadership experience, I have noticed that the most successful salespeople share one major commonality: the ability to snap back quickly after a difficult experience. Resiliency, a subject that has intrigued me for a very long time, is a key competency in sales. Can someone learn to be resilient? If so, how do you nurture it? Recently, while at my 9 year-old son’s baseball game, I was able to gain some real clarity around this.
The team had just blown a 7-run lead to fall behind by a score of 10-11. The fact that they later came from behind to win the game on a last-inning homerun was not the symbol of resiliency that so moved me as much as the moments that preceded the victory. This play captured the essence of resilience for me: immediately after the other team scored 5 runs to move ahead, our shortstop, catcher, pitcher and third basemen all ran hard for a foul ball. I heard the opposing team's coach yell to his players, “You see that? You guys should be running like them!” Just moments before, our team had blown the lead, yet they came right back and played their hearts out. I thought, “Wow! This is what being resilient is all about!”
This experience illuminated and reinforced that, yes, resiliency can be learned under the right conditions. Internally, there needs to be a high level of commitment, desire and a positive outlook. Externally, there needs to be a clearly-defined goal that is attractive, as well as strong leadership who can coach, hold people accountable and motivate.
Most sales organizations have a dilemma. Do they take the time to nurture and develop their sales people and/or do they look to hire salespeople who already have the those traits and sales leaders who already have the skills needed to nurture and develop resiliency? Depending on the business reality, both approaches have merit. The issue is how to identify those people who either are resilient or have the potential to make the turn.
A great way to identify these traits in both your existing team and potential new hires is through a sales force evaluation and sales candidate assessments. In my experience, this is the key to efficiently determining, 1.) who on my current team can and cannot make the turn and 2.) of the potential new hires, who already has these traits and has been resilient in the past?
Hands down, it is much more difficult to sell today than ever before! In almost every industry, there's been an increase in competition. Technology makes it possible to reach more people, faster and easier than ever before. However, calling and getting someone to either pick up the phone or call you back is more difficult. If your salespeople aren’t able to be resilient, your sales efforts will surely fall short. The upside is that you can fix it!
Before I get to the sales lesson, I’d like to share a story. On Sunday, I ran a marathon. While running, I learned the distinction between practice and preparation. Perhaps the following narrative will help you understand as well. It did for me!
I’ve been training in earnest for about 4.5 months, 6 days’s a week between 50-60 miles a week. I think it’s reasonable to assume that I’ve trained adequately. I would even go so far as to say that I’ve acquired the level of skill and conditioning that I should have come closer to my target time than I did. A few things happened that in hindsight impacted my time:
- I ate kale for lunch the day beforehand resulting in a disagreement between my stomach and me. The argument was resolved through a 4 min mediation session held in a disgusting Porta-John. Said argument started at mile 2 and lasted until mile 18.
- I slept only 4.5 hours the night before the race and 5 hours the night before that.
- Non-waterproof tape does not stick to wet surfaces. I learned this the hard way. (Don’t ask - let's just say that I have greater empathy towards breastfeeding mothers.)
All of these misfortunes had an impact on me not hitting my target. Had they not existed, the likelihood of me succeeding would have been greater. Unfortunately, my daily training did not have an impact on whether or not I was prepared for the race. The truth is that I should have been more mindful. I broke some of the golden rules of marathon running: never do something, wear something or eat something that you have not already tried in practice. I hit all three! Sadly, all of them could have been avoided through more careful preparation. The bottom line is that I did not train effectively.
At mile 23, I had an epiphany. I was pondering the “how” of more “mindful preparation”. No matter how far out there I got on this idea, I kept finding myself drawn back to the simplicity of it all. The key to successful execution is to simulate the conditions under which you’re required to perform when training.
Leading a sales force is no different! In order to reach and exceed targets you have to be prepared to execute your skills in a way that’s appropriate to the situation. Being prepared is about being able to use the right tools at the right time and in the right way. This approach leads to a level of knowledge that translate into the type of preparedness that minimizes the likelihood of things going wrong. I know this! My boss and mentor, Dave Kurlan, has been preaching this tactical approach to sales leadership for 25 years.
I hear it all the time from CEO’s. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on training and nothing changes. I tell them that it’s not what they’ve been taught that’s the problem, it’s how they’ve been asked to learn.
3 things to consider when working with sales teams to be prepared:
- What are the unique challenges to working in your organization and marketplace?
- What are the typical objection and inherent vulnerabilities of the product or service?
- What systems and processes can be changed and/or implemented to aid in being more prepared to execute?
Taking this information into consideration in the development of your sales people allows you to replicate the real life sales experience as closely as possible. This is the key to the skills needed to execute effectively and consistently. As a sales leader, Role-Play, Simulation and Coaching are the driving force.
Luckily, my lack of marathon preparation only cost a little pride and about 7 minutes. In sales, not being prepared is far more costly.
If you would like to learn more about how Kurlan associates can help companies be better prepared, please click here.
I have been coaching Robert (not his real name) for a while. He’s a VP of Sales for a small tech start-up company. He’s a smart guy with much desire and drive. He’s successful and talented, but he still has some work to do in order to take it to the next level.
One of the big things that he’s been working on is being concise and pointed in the way that he speaks. Sometimes he uses too much jargon and when he’s feeling less confident, he tends to overspeak. For a salesperson selling into the C-suite, this is a big problem.
We’ve talked about this for as long as we’ve worked together. A few months ago, he asked me to sit in on a meeting with a big potential client. I do this often, sitting in on a muted conference line giving feedback after the call. The meeting was going great. He was in the process of closing a very large deal. As a matter of fact, he had buy-in from the CEO. I was waiting for him to wrap-up, but he kept going on and on and on; I wished I could send him telepathic messages!. Nothing worked; worse, he started to over speak and began talking in circles. At that point, the CEO began to question and press him on what he was saying. Robert began talking not just big-picture, but huge-picture! I could tell he was getting nervous and feeling vulnerable. And then it came, the prospect said “I’m confused. I thought that I understood, but I guess I don’t. Before we proceed, I’ll need some clarification.” He proceeded to give him a laundry list of questions that he would need to answer before they could speak again. I could tell he was frustrated. I felt sick to my stomach. As a sales development expert, there is nothing worse than to see momentum achieved and then be thwarted by mistakes.
When Robert and I debriefed, he was devastated. He said that he knew it was a problem, but never realized the magnitude. Last week, he said to me that it was not until he felt the resulting pain of the mistake that he owned it. And owning it made change easier. The change was now more meaningful to him.
As a coach, I know that behavior change doesn’t usually happen without a compelling reason to do so. In this case, the pain of the mistake was the catalyst. For him, this was a breakthrough experience. Mistakes are essential to learning. I’m not saying to go out and try to make mistakes. But don’t let the fear of making mistakes get in the way of doing something. They’re just evidence for the need to change.
In my experience, here are the 5 steps to successfully managing mistakes:
- Suspend judgment – Blaming and excuse-making is not helpful at this stage.
- What happened? – Analyze the situation.
- Why did it happen? – What was the trigger? What is it telling you about yourself?
- Take ownership – Hold yourself accountable for your actions.
- Make a plan – What are you going to do so that it doesn’t happen again?
A mistake without a follow-up plan is a wasted opportunity! The bottom line is, that if you’re going to make mistakes (and you will make them), be grateful that you have the opportunity to grow and DO something about it!
As a sales development expert at Kurlan and Associates, Inc., we see the dark side of missed opportunities all the time. The real frustration comes from the fact that most of the time it's avoidable with the right people, culture, systems, processes and coaching. Your sales people and organization can thrive even through mistakes. To learn more about how to achieve this, check out our 3rd Annual Sales Leadership Symposium or listen to a 5-minute interview here.
What was the last great story that had you fascinated? It could be from a book, a movie, a family story, a TV episode or even some spicy gossip! Close your eyes, recall the pinnacle of the story and ask yourself how much of your attention it captured? Chances are, it was most of it! That’s what good stories do. Storytelling is one of the oldest modes of communication. This narrative form of conveying information is extremely powerful because it’s conducive to the way our brain wants to work. (To read more of this, Buyology by Martin Lindstrom, is a great book on the neuroscience of how and why we buy
A story expresses how and why life changes. It unites an idea with an emotion and at the same time invites and invokes both energy and emotion from your listener.
Selling is about uncovering your customers’ compelling reasons to buy and in return providing solutions which they deem of value. Our ability to convey information, in a way that our customers will find appealing, is key to opening them up to listen, identify and buy-in. Storytelling is a very effective tool to capture the attention of your customer. It excites the limbic system, the region of your brain responsible for emotions like empathy. Mirror neurons carry what we observe and then processes it in a way that we feel like we’re the ones who are actually doing what we saw. A sales example would be when I tell a client, “Yes, I can help your business!”, and proceed to tell them a story about another client whom I had successfully been able to help with a very similar set of issues. If the story that I tell is perceived as relevant, they will mentally process the story and the solution as if they were actually engaged in the narrative! The story itself won’t close the sale, but an effective story will capture your customer’s attention. This is what Dave Kurlan describes as “Speed On Base”: “When you’re able to get your customer to pay more attention to you than to your competition.”
Why are some stories more memorable than others?
It comes down to message and structure – the what and how:
- The message must be memorable, relevant, or as Chip and Dan Heath would refer to as, “Sticky” (Chip and Dan Heath’s are the authors of, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. ) From a sales perspective, a good story is important but if the message is not remarkable, or does not serve a purpose, than it is ineffectual.
As explained in their book, a sticky message has;
- Simplicity: Get to the core of your idea. Create ideas that are both simple and profound.
- Unexpectedness: Generate interest and curiosity.
- Concreteness: Explain your ideas in terms of sensory information and human actions.
- Credibility: Create ideas that carry their own credentials and show authority.
- Emotions: Make people feel something about your idea in order to elicit emotions.
- Stories: Stories captivate but also prepare us better for the future.
2. The Structure of the story is the framework that keeps your listener stimulated. The ideas that you convey are meaningless unless they’re presented in a way that is organized and thoughtful. Specifically, this refers to how and when you introduce the different elements of the story . Kaihan Krippendorf wrote a blog post about formatting an effective story structure. He points to 2 key variables:
- Use the language of the senses. Or as he puts it: “Describe what you saw, what you heard, what you felt…” When you trigger someone’s senses, it brings them into the story in a deeply personal way.
- Build a “story spine” that unfolds as follows:
- Introduce reality
- Introduce conflict
- Describe struggle
- Conflict resolved
- Describe new reality
in terms of an effective story; it's not just what you say that matters it how you say it, and what words you use to describe it that counts. Lets face it; our economic enviroment is saturated with noise, everyone wants to be heard. The key to get your prospects to listen is to be given their attention. My friend and "Word of Mouth" marketing Guru Jeremy Epstien refers to this as the "Attention Economy". A story is a time tested vehicle that if executed correctly has the potential to captivate your prospect!
The other morning, I was running on a trail by my house when I became mesmerized by how the deep brown tree branches overhead contrasted with the blue sky in such a cool wintery way. The next thing I know, “thwack” I was down on the ground, having tripped on a root. As I brushed myself off and took inventory of body parts, I realized that this would make for a great blog post - sales management is a lot like trail running! As a trail runner, you’re constantly scanning the horizon, to see what’s coming, while at the same time, looking at the ground to make sure you don’t trip. Sales management is very much the same. As managers, our objective is to strike a balance between our current reality and the ever-evolving demands of the future.
This dual focus of understanding what’s coming up, while being deeply in tune with what’s in the present, is the core competency of sales management. In practice, we have to look into the future and ask ourselves, “What will it take to be successful? How many widgets will we have to sell to reach our targets? Which processes need to be in place? Which metrics need to be measured?" At the same time, we have to look inward and ask ourselves, “Do we have the right people in place and what skills do they have? What skills will my people need to have to reach their goals? What weaknesses are getting in their way? Do I have a constant flow of potential candidates and a replicable and consistent process for hiring new ones? Am I coaching, mentoring and motivating in a positive way? Are we being effective in the development of our sales people skills?”
To do all of these things at once, the key is balance. Like trail running, if you pay too much attention to any one of these focal points, you run the risk of getting tripped up! This is not easy, and it’s why most sales managers are not effective. According to our research, of the hundreds of thousands of sales managers, who Kurlan and Associates, Inc. assessed, 86% do not possess the skills to manage effectively.
A huge shout-out to Eric Gregg and his crew at Tech Media: What an amazing conference! A true convergence of brilliance, innovation, talent, vision, opportunity, leadership and raw entrepreneurialism. It was exciting to see all the different parts; startups, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, bankers, students, and service providers come together and transcend into a living, breathing, business ecosystem. This was no fluffy show. As I walked around, real business was happening. The conversations that I was having were authentic, meaningful and actionable.
What I was most struck by was the collective sense of urgency that I felt from almost everyone with whom I spoke. Not a desperate urgency, but an urgency that emerges from a deep sense of purpose. There was a real sense of optimism and hope.
This was very important for me to see. So often in my practice, I see companies where the sparkle of youthful optimism has waned. It was a great reminder to me that the energy of a start-up is amazingly powerful. If you can harness it, hire for it and inculcate it as a corporate value, you can't help but be successful. All to often, I hear CEO’s describe to me the way it “was”. They talk about the excitement they felt, and as they’ve grown bigger, the idea of a unified vision and shared purpose is no longer as much of a priority as before. I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I work with companies every day to recapture that energy. It works, but it is difficult. It takes time and is costly to implement change on that level. The most frustrating part is that this is avoidable, by taking care to hire the right people and building a culture that values your initial purpose for being.
Thanks for a great experience!
My first job selling was as a licensed real estate agent in New York City, while my wife and I were in graduate school. I remember one of my very first deals. I was taking a couple to look at apartments in the East Village. After seeing a few properties, I took them to one where, as I opened the door, I realized that the floor was not level. Actually, it was more than not level, it was downright crooked. It reminded me of one those funhouses that you find at carnivals. Before I could get out the words “I’m sorry”, they both shouted, “We’ll take it”. I was in shock. I think my initial response was an incredulous “Why?!”.
As it turned out, there were a number of valid reasons to answer “why”. Unfortunately, I did not know the reasons because I didn’t ask the right questions. I felt confused and a little dumbfounded as to how this could have happened. I was not a seasoned sales professional by any stretch of the imagination, but I knew enough to ask questions. I read a couple of books on selling consultatively. How could I miss this? I realized that asking questions was not enough. I needed to ask the right questions in the right way. I needed to know what drove their decision!
I have found the following four questions to be most important:
- What is their compelling reason to buy? – This goes far beyond why they’re buying and focuses on how the solution impacts them. For example; what would happen if they didn’t buy?
- What motivates them? – Motivation conjures the energy to act. We're all motivated by different things. Our job as sales people is to figure out what motivates our clients to buy. Our motivation is connected to the things that give us meaning and sense of purpose. For example, if your customer values buying from people with whom he has a relationship, then you’ll have to invest the time to build trust. If your customer values analytical data, then you’ll have to convey the value proposition in those terms.
- What is their preferred learning style? - There are three main Learning Styles: a.) Visual - people who prefer to learn through seeing, b.) Auditory - people who prefer to learn through hearing, and c.) Kinesthetic - people who prefer to learn through experiencing and/or doing (A great way to sell to someone like this is through storytelling.)
- What is their preferred mode to take in and process information? - This refers to the preferred way that people make sense of the information that they are receiving. In terms of the sales process, I have found that it is most important to determine whether your customer employs emotion or logic. Your job as a salesperson is to deliver information in a way that mirrors their preferences.
A great way to gather this information is to ask the following question: “Can you tell me about the last time you were in the market for something like this? Make sure you stop, listen and then follow-up with clarification questions.
Important information you want to know is:
- What did the process look like?
- How did you know you wanted to buy it?
- How did you make your decision?
- Were you happy with your decision and why?
I heard a quote the other the day, “Data is the new oil.” I’m not sure whether this is true, but even if it’s not, the more we understand why and how our customers buys, the greater the capacity we have as salespeople to provide solutions of value!
Trust: a Primer
Trust is integral to selling consultatively. Nobody would argue this point. Why then as salespeople are we doing such a poor job developing trust with our customers? (see findings from OMG’s Trust Project)
It’s unfortunate, for a word that is used so often in describing what salespeople should ascribe too, very little time has been devoted to understanding what trust is and how it’s cultivated.
Trust is less about doing and more about being. You can ask all the questions you want, engage in “active listening” until your ears fall off but if your focus is not on being “in relationship” with your customer you will not be given access to their true and compelling reason to buy. Trust is not something to arrive upon, but rather it is a process that unfolds at each interaction. Trust is difficult to establish and very easy to lose.
Trust is – the reciprocal exchange of value over time. More specifically, trust is the belief that the behaviors, interactions and outcomes that have preceded will continue in the same way into the future.
In order to build trust with your customer you must behave in a trustworthy manner. How do you do that? See below:
The 4 Must’s of Trust!
- Follow through – do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. One component of trust is that we impart on others the faith that the desired behaviors that have proceeded will continue on into the future. It is this faith that catalyzes the on going exchange.
- Expectations - Set reasonable and accurate expectations – Meeting expectations are the tangible benchmarks by which we measure effectiveness. By bending to pressure to set expectations that are unattainable we are assuring the perception of failure.
- Be an expert - Strive to be to be an expert at what you sell so you can be an advisor. The more you know the better the advice you can give. Knowledge is not a destination but a process that evolves. By striving to be an expert we prepare ourselves to be continual learners which enables us to remain relevant.
- Act with integrity – do the right things, for the right reasons, at the right time. This is the filter by which we assess all behaviors.
Doing these things in isolation will not lead to the development of trust. In order to reap the benefits, these behaviors they must be guided by the intent of creating mutual value.
I run every morning! Most mornings I run the same route. It includes a sizable hill. The hill is steep and goes on for about 3/4 of a mile; a real leg burner! I start obsessing about this hill as soon as I wake up. It gives me real anxiety, I fear the discomfort I’ll experience trudging up that hill barely able to catch my breath. Even as I approach it I doubt whether i’m ready, whether i’ll be able to get to the top, and every time I get about half way I say to myself “ I can do this, it’s not so bad”. When I’m done; the anxiety I had is a distant memory, it’s been replaced by a feeling of accomplishment, and satisfaction. So much for pattern recognition! I became aware that my perception of the hill is directly related to my relationship to it. The closer I am to that hill the more accurate my vision of it is, the further I am away the more distorted.
Of course, my mind automatically turns to sales! Specifically, consultative selling;
the process of asking thoughtful, mindful, questions in order to uncover a customers true and compelling reason to change. This is the hill! I realized the more clarity I had around the problem, and the more I was able to see the problem from the customers perspective, the closer I was able to get to it, the more effectively and efficiently I could provide solutions of value.
When i’m running it’s simple to figure out how to get a non distorted view of the hill; I just run to it. When i’m interacting with a customers it’s a little more tricky to ask the right questions at the right time and uncover a customers true and compelling reason to buy. The answer for me, comes down to Perception and Perceptual Objectivity. Perception is the uniques way we experience a given situation. Perceptual objectivity is a competency, a learned skill that enables one to perceive a situation with relative objectivity by not limiting our view through excessive subjectivity. In other words, by keeping our own biases, assumptions and thinking errors in check, we allow ourselves to be more open to seeing the multiple perspectives that make up the problem. This increased clarity allows us to ask better questions which gives us the ability to provide solutions of greater value.
Like running, you have to dig from within and challenge yourself! There is no easy way. To leverage perceptual objectivity you need to look inward and really understand what makes up your own perceptions. My experience has been that the more I look inward, deconstruct, and listen to my own stories around certain situations, the more aware I become when excessive subjectivity is getting in the way