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Within the very best enterprise sales organizations you will hear a common refrain: “Never win alone and never lose alone.” From the earliest sales execution machines (IBM/Xerox), to the latest sales execution leaders (Salesforce.com/Oracle), you will find that a key theme is ‘connecting the dots’, meaning that any opportunity plan will include executive access and relationship strategies for anyone who can impact a transaction.
If you have experienced any of the following, then this post is for you:
– Deals going to a competitor at the last minute (and you aren’t really sure how it happened)
– Budget going away or a ‘no decision’
– Deals stretching out due to the need to get buy-in from a broad stakeholder set
– Getting crushed on price negotiation
The strategy behind connecting the dots
Connecting the dots relies on sketching out all the players, documenting their motivations, alliances and operating style, which is a topic for another time. Assuming you have this in place, you should have a deal review session with your team to determine the following:
– Who already knows whom
– Who would be impressed by whom (Do you have a rock star on your team who would be a drawcard for your prospect)
– What is your relationship objective for each person with who you are connecting?
Key roles that you should ensure you have coverage with include:
– Any approver
– Anyone who has the ability to reallocate the budget for an alternate purpose
– Decision makers and Influencers
Getting access to executives
Gaining executive access can be daunting, but drawing from the following tactics will cut through in most situations:
Option 1: Higher authority for resources
If you are in a deal where you have been asked to provide additional resources (e.g. engineering, consultants, free trial etc) then this is a great opportunity to introduce an executive into the mix: “John, I will be pleased to get this organized, but I will need some help from you. In order to get approval for [resource request], I will need to get [my executive] engaged with your team so that she is familiar with whomever is sponsoring on your side and will approve what we need.”
Option 2: Executive outreach
This is the technique to use where you have a contact who is blocking access to higher ups. Draft an email for your executive to send to a prospect executive for a call. Here is a hierarchy of approaches beginning with the most likely to succeed, through to the least likely (Which happens to be the one I see used most often):
1) Rock star executive on your team reaches out to a peer on the prospect’s team to discuss the project in the context of providing some valuable advice based on their experience.
2) Peer executive reaches out to a prospect executive to share perspective based on what other comparable customers have done with these types of initiatives (Bonus points if they can share proprietary data that impacts the business case)
3) Executive reaches out to a prospect peer and invites them to lunch with other executive peers who would have relevant experience, with bonus points for being networking draw-cards.
4) Peer executive reaches out to prospect executive for an ‘executive sponsors’ introductory meeting to ensure that there is a mutual escalation point for alignment during the process.
A final note – If you are getting price pressure early in the deal, this presents the perfect opportunity to gain executive access – It can be explained that your discount approval matrix will require that your [CxO/VP] will need to offer approval, in which case you can use the ‘higher authority’ explanation for access.
Keep your powder dry: Be wary of introducing an executive to your standard contact, who may be a gatekeeper. If access to your executive is perceived to be standard faire, then it is likely you will have limited success in getting higher up the totem pole at your prospect by using them as a drawcard.
Use your internal experts: An oft overlooked resource within enterprise sales is the peer role within your own organization – EG. If you are selling to CTOs, then review your opportunity plan with your own head of technology first! It amazes me that sales executives often make all sorts of assumptions, when they could be validating approaches with an in-house expert.
If you are a bit too slow in stepping backward, or you have a burning desire to reduce your over-achievement compensation, then you may find a sales leadership position in your future. This post addresses the must-have skills/competencies that you need to have in order to succeed as a first-line sales manager. Before we get into it, I would like to posit that success as a first-line sales manager should be defined in terms of the financial outcomes and development progression of your team, discounted by the time it took you to deliver it.
When thinking about your intentions for your fiscal year, you should be thinking only about how you can accelerate increased capability and attainment of your team – From this standpoint all other goodness flows. With this in mind, I would offer the following skills that you should acquire, many of which you need to gain through mentoring and observation, rather than through courses:
Coaching and Mentoring
I have been deliberate in this distinction because these are separate skills to be used in different contexts:
Daily coaching and 1:1’s: Successful leaders know the behaviors and skills needed to excel in a sales role – Conversations are around well defined tasks (like prospecting) with a clear focus and specific outcomes in mind. A great leader will have developed conversation frameworks for delivering corrective coaching that leaves team members feeling energized and enthusiastic, as opposed to deflation and feelings of inadequacy.
It is key that you have a 1:1 format that is truly effective – If you want to know how, read this: How to conduct 1:1 meetings
Mentoring during development reviews: Mentoring is about the individual and broader work life topics. The focus here should be on career and personal development, rather then the specifics of task performance or skills. I think the quickest path to learning mentorship is experiencing it as a recipient – If you don’t have a mentor, you should get one.
The biggest bane of a first line manager is the annual territory review – A good sales leader balances the portfolio and has a defensible, consistent process for allocation. That being said, ALWAYS give the best opportunities to the best reps, regardless of politics or egos. You are not operating an egalitarian society, but rather a meritocracy.
Learning the art and science of forecast aggregation and discounting is key – Find a coach. If you don’t know the difference between a pipeline and a weighted probability forecast, then put this at the top of your list. Every time a sales manager describes their open pipeline to me as a forecast I lose another clump of hair.
The new sales manager needs a diagnostic framework for determining the development/training/collateral/systems needs of the team.
Internal influence and organizational politics
If you come from an enterprise sales background, this will come naturally – Key to success of a sales leader is accepting a quota that is reasonable and can be attained with reasonable certainty. No one respects a pushover that gets excessive quota laid upon them. Having strong internal influence and negotiating power is essential to sales leadership survival.
The key success metric
Aside from hitting quota, the catch-all metric can be delivered as the following question:
“How many of your team would want to work with you again if given the opportunity?” That’s it…. It likely means you provided the environment for success, were a strong advocate, respected, enjoyable to be around and a great coach.
The estimated average tenure of a sales person varies wildly but it is safe to say that most of your stints will last somewhere between 2-5 years, which means that on average you will have something like 5 different employers before you hit your mid-thirties – One of the side-effects of switching institutions is that you have both overlap and gaps in your sales development*. Combine job switching with spending a bunch of time with under-resourced, early stage start-ups and you could find that you have a Swiss cheese sales education that really slows down your progress.
If you are looking to be a world-class salesperson, then I would advise you to sit with several experienced salespeople that you respect and make a note of all the skills that they deem critical; then set about investing in yourself by attending conferences, workshops and seminars to start carving out the sales professional within. The areas you will need to cover include (but are not limited to): Territory analysis/planning, Large Account Planning, Discovery meetings, Call planning, Political mapping, Opportunity management, Business writing for sales, Commercial negotiation, Finance for non-finance people, pipeline & forecast management and presentation skills…
My suggestion is that you make a list of all the skills you need based on interviewing top sales performers and then set about finding courses to build out your knowledge, with or without your employer’s sponsorship.
*I have an acute understanding of this at an academic level because I attended no less than 8 schools due to international travel as I grew up and I can tell you that my maths was horrible…. Different approaches, progression rates and emphasis depending on location meant that I never really caught up until I realized that I was going to have issues at college and chose to get tutoring from my friends to catch up.]
Perhaps the most critical function of a sales leader is the ability to hire well – The opportunity cost of bringing on the wrong person is immense and if nothing else, is an annoyance to you. This post gives you a specific process you can apply in order to improve your hiring outcomes.
There are four elements to prepare for interviews:
1) Determine who will be involved in the process
2) Write down the skills, experience and personal qualities you need for the role
3) Design behavioral questions that can test for (2).
4) Brief your team and execute
Determine who will be involved in the process
Know this – A greater number of interviewers does not translate to better hiring outcomes. I know it is tempting to share the responsibility of hiring by having everyone from the office manager to marketers interviewing your next hire, but it just doesn’t equate to better outcomes. In fact, I think it gives bias in that every person who gives the nod causes you to question your own judgement less. I recall one of the worst hires made at Salesforce.com had 12 interviews! In fact, I believe that you should have no more than 4 interview interactions:
1) Initial skills based screen (By your recruiter if you have one, or by yourself if not). Typically via Skype.
2) In-person interview with yourself and one of your sales team.
3) In-person interview with you and your boss + any other key collaborators for the role*
4) Final presentation/Skills demonstration by the candidate (I usually do this with field sales people only, but I accept you may want to do this with everyone).
Write down the skills, experience and personal qualities you need for the role
Write down role specific requirements for skills/experience and personal qualities – This is specific to your company, product and the territory, so don’t be tempted to grab some boilerplate from the internet. Examples are:
Skills: Capital markets knowledge
Experience: Selling complex 7 figure solutions to CxO level
Personal qualities: Embraces change and collaborates to find new solutions
Design behavioral questions that can test for (2).
I have been convinced that behavioral interviewing is the best predictor for success with sales people. The technique is predicated on the idea that past behavior predicts future outcomes. It works by asking the interviewee about specifics of situations/experiences from their past, whereby precision questioning is used to guarantee that you are hearing facts.
The format is as follows:
1) [Situation] Describe a situation (Interviewer to use specifics to get into the detail – See below)
2) [Task] Explain what you were trying to achieve
3) [Action] Explain specifically what you did to achieve the outcome
4) [Result] Explain what happened.
For example, if you want someone who has sold complex million dollar deals, the flow may go like this:
Q. Can you tell me about a time when you did a deal that was sold to the c-suite and resulted in a 7 figure TCV outcome?
‘Precision questions would follow the answer and depending on what they said you would drill in to find verifiable data points:
– What was the name of the organization?
– Who was your main buyer?
– How many people were in your bid team?
– What specifically were you responsible for?
– …. [Questions about names, locations, processes etc]
By doing this you avoid people representing a bigger role than they had. I guarantee that you can interview 5 Account Executives at Oracle, all of whom can claim Bank of America as their account, but when you get down to it you may find that they have sold $20k to a marketing division that noone has ever heard of.
Another key technique is to take notes verbatim. Write exactly what they say, not your interpretation, because then you can compare notes with colleagues afterwards and get consensus on what it means (See below).
Brief your team and execute
Key to ensuring you are getting the most value from this process is having a corpus of questions that are repeated by different interviewers – It is very instructive to compare answers to see if there is any variation between interviews.
An example may be:
Interview 1: Recruiter or you – Focus on skills/experience
Interview 2: You plus key team/collaborators – skills/experience and personal qualities
Interview 3: Experience and personal qualities
Final presentation: Skills
I hope this helps – There is plenty of additional information on the specific techniques of behavioral interviewing and I would encourage you to do further reading.
Bonus content for hiring field account executives:
– Never hire anyone that you can’t get background references on through independent means.
– Always ask for 2 customers, 2 colleagues and 2 former employers as referees.
– Ask how much they earned for their biggest ever year and how much last year – Then ask for a copy of their W2s…. I only hire A-Player field reps who have smashed quota and earned ‘telephone numbers’…
*It is arguable that they meet your boss after the final presnetation, but I won’t tie up my team watching a demo if they haven’t passed the boss hurdle yet. In my opinion 30mins of an exec time is outweighed by taking 30mins of 6-8 sales people.
I was prompted to share some experience with respect to revenue retention on the back of Ben Sesser’s recent post that references a Pacific Crest study, clearly showing the impact of even small changes in renewal rates. The big question is, “How do we best structure our sales organization and practices in order to ensure renewal?”
I have 3 strongly held beliefs based on my experience with renewing contracts that apply to not only SaaS, but have origins in my early career when I was concerned with renewing field services maintenance contracts – The principals are universal:
1) Always be recording value
No matter what you are delivering to your customer, the initial investment was predicated upon a business case and related ROI. Whomever is responsible for customer success and ultimately renewal, should be checking in to ensure that this ROI expectation is being met and then course correcting along the way. Importantly, mutually recognized successes and ROI impact moments should be documented, ready to be presented to the customer at renewal time. Remember, every year your customer is competing for budget and they need to demonstrate that return on your service beats the investment hurdle.
The key to success here is a business process management system that ensures that an Account Management or Customer Success program doesn’t rely on memory or sticky notes (It can be built into your CRM as a standard set of timed activities).
2) Account/Customer Success Managers (AM/CSM) should be accountable for renewals, but not negotiating the order
This point usually starts a rigorous debate, but my perspective is this: The ultimate measure of success for an AM/CSM is the renewal value. If this were not the case, then we would not invest in the role – Having an ecstatically happy customer that doesn’t renew is no good to anyone (Unless you are early stage and they serve as powerful references).
So, my contention in a nutshell is that the AM/CSM should:
- Use customer sat metrics to guide their interactions and allocation of time
- Be incented (annually) on renewal rates (Not pure satisfaction metrics)*
- Work with a salesperson to ensure that the quarterly reviews are on plan and line up a successful renewal
- Not engage in any commercial discussions with the customer at all because this reduces the trust in the relationship. The act of renewing or expanding the relationship should be done by a salesperson (There is no one-size fits all here – It may be the original salesperson or a renewals focused team, depending on the maturity of your business).
3) Account Managers/Customer Success Managers should be industry or domain experts
Given my assertion that the primary goal for AM/CSM is renewal, their core value to a customer is ensuring that they get the highest ROI from the service/product. Implicit in this is the need for the AM/CSM to have sufficient knowledge of the domain or industry to provide real insight. The common mistake I see here is an Account Manager with a revenue focus being put in charge of an account where they have no real value to contribute to the customer in terms of best practices or industry insights.
*A renewals based incentive will ensure that a CSM/AM appropriately allocates their time across their territory. It means that the time-sink, low value (but often demanding) accounts don’t distract from where the real value is. I have seen pure satisfaction based plans and they simply don’t work from the standpoint of good commercial outcomes.
The situation: You have an enthusiastic supporter who needs to present your offer to an approving panel of executives or the CEO and for whatever reason, you can’t present to this group/person. What now?A caveat: This post isn’t designed as a cure for not getting executive access during a sales cycle – If you don’t have a sponsor that resides within the political inner circle, then you are behind the 8 ball.. However, it is a common scenario where there are approvers (finance comittee etc) where vendors don’t get access and here is where good deals go bad because an IT team member or operations person flounders due to their inexperience with influencing outcomes and articulating investment rationale to executives.
Don’t send a messenger without giving them the message
When your sponsor tells you that they need to present to the approver(s) next week, don’t be like most people and thank them for the insight and cower in death valley until you hear what happened. Get on the front foot and help your sponsor to deliver an impactful message that will inspire action and deliver the approval that you need.
We know that sales is a profession that takes years of development and experience to become skilled – Don’t let a prospect flounder and fail because you haven’t afforded them the benefit of your sales skills in order to secure the signature (Pro golfers don’t drive to the green and then leave it to the caddy to putt it in). You need to arm your sponsor with a compelling, executive agenda focused business case that can be delivered by anyone.
Conspiring with your sponsor and arming them for battle
When you are told about the meeting, the key is to ensure that you and your contact are psychologically sitting on the same side of the table and can work together to get the right outcome. Follow these steps to get your deals across the line:
1) Express your excitement that as a team you are at the final hurdle and that you would love to help.
2) Ask whether there is a standard format for business case submission or a proposal template that the exec like to see. If they do, jump to (3).
If not, then offer to provide one based on your experience of having done many executive presentations previously. A short format presentation would have the following broad headlines:
Opening slide – Outline of the executive agenda. What are the key strategic drivers/factors that the exec care about, which will be impacted if action is not taken?
Middle slide(s) – Outline the situation and the specific impact it has on the previously stated strategic factors.
Middle/End slides – Solution and how this rectifies the situation
End – Investment requirement and specific next steps.
Almost without exception, a non-salesperson will do a Problem-Solution proposal that has weak approval potential because it doesn’t focus on the impact to strategic factors that executives care about.
3) Offer to review their first draft as a second pair of eyes and provide additional reinforcing proof points or commentary to assist.
The key here is to ensure that your collaborator feels that you are working to assist them, not being self serving.
In closing, you don’t want your sponsor going off half-cocked, so give them the benefit of your sales experience to get the outcome you both want.