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.
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.