Firm Future Commitments in Strategic Sales

I recently came across an extensive thread in a LinkedIn sales group related to the number of phone calls one should make to follow up and close the deal. The responses were quite telling of a large segment of sales reps that seemed to generally recommend an unlimited number of follow-up calls and emails once a proposal has already been delivered to the client, all in the name of tenacity. While I can certainly agree that tenacity is a good quality in a sales rep, let me recommend a more strategic approach to shorten sales cycles, improve forecasting, and improve your client relationships.

Solution selling is about positioning yourself as a strategic business partner and advisor to your clients. One of the first steps in accomplishing this is to lay a foundation built on mutual respect between yourself and the client. Good business relationships should always be characterized by a mutual give-and-take among all parties involved. Just because one party may be selling a solution while another party is on the buying end, this relationship need not come unbalanced. In fact, by cultivating a business relationship built on mutual respect, a sales rep can avoid situations that require multiple unanswered follow-up closing calls, reduce sales cycle uncertainty, and present themselves as a valued consultant on an equal playing field as the client.

How can we achieve this seat at the table with our clients? A tactic I have used successfully since my time as a National Account Manager at Oracle, is the approach of using firm future commitments with clients in strategic B2B sales cycles (note I would not necessarily recommend this approach in a commodity sale). At its core, the concept is very simple. As a sales rep, I will do something for you if you, if and only if, you as the client agree to do something for me. I might agree to send you a case study if you are willing to set up a call with me in a couple days to discuss the implications of the case study to your business. I will send you a proposal if you agree to tell me yes or no and tell me why you don’t think there is a fit, but please don’t tell me maybe, and let’s set up a meeting or call to discuss the proposal in a couple days. Hopefully you get the idea. If I am providing the client with something of value, I fully expect to receive something in return for every step of the sales cycle. This may seem uncomfortable for many sales reps, but it will improve your numbers and clients will actually appreciate you for it. This tactic also has the added benefit of qualifying your deals and flushing out objections. If for instance a prospect or client will not agree to the next step you propose, now is the time to find out why. We have all heard of the 80/20 rule, and the quicker you can get to an actual no, the quicker you can move on to spend time on the 20% of clients that will yield 80% of your business.

One method I have been able to use effectively to get firm future commitments from clients is the use of a Joint Execution Plan (JEP). Once an initial meeting takes place indicating preliminary interest from a decision maker, I might set up a subsequent discovery call including other members of my selling ecosystem for a deeper dive into business challenges the client is facing. I would then create a document with “Joint Execution Plan” in the title and send it to the client for a signature before moving forward in the sales cycle. The JEP would include numbered steps for every stage of the sales cycle, tentative dates for their completion, and the initials of all members required for each step. If the client signs off on the JEP, this indicates that proper mutual expectations have been set and the sales cycle can continue. If the client does not sign off, now is a great time to find out why. Should the dates be adjusted? Are we missing a step? Is your prospect really the only person involved in the decision making process? Is the prospect simply shopping me to get a competitive quote? The answers to these questions are best discovered at the beginning of a sales cycle. By tightly managing my deals in this fashion, I seldom face any big surprises at the end of the sales cycle when asking for the deal and I certainly do not have to hound prospects to no end without any acknowledgement from the prospect. I have also been able to achieve a forecasting accuracy of around 85% when using this approach. While this method may not be for everyone, setting a goal to create a climate of mutual respect and expectations with your prospects and clients can only help drive success for yourself and your clients. Try it out! I’d love to hear how it works for you.

Ship My Pants

Here’s an example of an effective piece of marketing. Whether you think the content is sophomoric or not, this video accomplishes the goal of getting people to talk about Kmart! As of Monday 4/15/13 this video has almost 8 million views on YouTube and almost 40,000 likes. Of course there is the slight potential of brand damage but as a struggling company like Kmart, what do they really have to lose. Ship your pants!

Systematic Selling and Data Driven Sales

Many of us know the importance of systematically measuring our marketing efforts and making data driven decisions that result in more email opens, more website visits, and higher conversion rates. Today’s marketers seem to “get it” when it comes to using data to achieve better results. But how about B2B sales? It has been my experience that successful sales reps do, in fact, leverage information from previous engagements and shared information to impact future results. It has also been my observation, however, that this learning process is quite informal and quite difficult to share. Is it possible to replicate some of the lessons learned from data driven marketing to shorten sales cycles and improve results? I say, emphatically yes!

A google search of the term “systematic selling” will yield all sorts of results for books and training programs that teach a standardized methodology for navigating the sales cycle from prospecting to closing and fulfillment. Based on some of the excellent results I have seen selling for companies like Oracle that have a very standardized process, I realize how impactful such processes can be. So how can we improve on these processes by incorporating data driven marketing techniques? Below, is a list of some of these marketing techniques with ideas on ways to apply them to a B2B sales process:

Marketing Techniques

  • Split testing content to discover what resonates the most with visitors and results in higher conversions.
  • Use buyer personas to provide the most relevant content to users based on their categorized motivations for buying. Track conversions for each persona and adjust your number and type of personas if necessary.
  • Track ROI of various campaigns. Improve or discontinue failed campaigns and redirect resources to the most successful ones.
  • Because data is tracked, information sharing to colleagues and new employees becomes an easy exercise.

Sales Application

  • Maintain a spreadsheet of your buyer personas i.e., CEO, and VP of Finance, listed as column titles. For row titles, list various conversation topics and pitches. Track which ones result in higher rates of progression to your “next step” by entering a number from 1 to 3 (worst to best) in the cell that corresponds both to your buyer persona and to your content. Repeat this process for every conversation and strive to have data in each cell combination. Once you begin repeating conversation/persona combinations, simply add the number result of the most recent interaction to the previous one. By keeping track in this fashion, your most successful interactions will begin to reveal themselves and you can refocus your efforts towards interactions that produce results.
  • Maintain a similar spreadsheet with vertical markets (ie finance, education) listed as your personas and per-metric (ie cost/user) quote costs listed as rows. Track your success as above with the number 3 denoting conversion. In similar fashion, you can begin to detect patterns which will assist you in future negotiations with your diverse prospects.
  • Build a collaboration schedule with set times dedicated for sales reps to share and compare their data. Compile data from all reps and integrate this information into your new sales rep training to shorten onboarding times.

Hopefully, some of these ideas are useful which you can implement immediately and begin taking some of the guess work out of your B2B sales engagements.

Combining Sales and Marketing Strategies

As I have mentioned in previous posts, technology has caused a dramatic shift in the buyer landscape and is forcing us to reassess the relationship between marketing and sales. Most of us can relate to the fact that when buyers are considering a major purchase they, more often than not, conduct their own online research and find (and perhaps purchase) your product/service all on their own. In fact, this buyer behavior has been quantified in the 3-1-1 rule which is a ratio of what content buyers “find on their own” to what marketers “can send them” to what “sales can deliver”. Daniel Kline from Forrester states that 70% of the content buyers consume in the buying process is found on their own. 15% is what marketers send them, and the other 15% is delivered by sales.

This buyer behavior is a departure from the traditional purchasing process. Now more than ever, buyers have access to a virtually unlimited amount of data related to your product. An effect of all this information availability, is that traditional outbound sales techniques that have been effective in the past are becoming less effective in today’s environment. As sales professionals, we often strive to add value to our clients by positioning ourselves as valued consultants and industry experts. I have personally seen this strategy to be extremely effective as it builds a mutually beneficial relationship between yourself and your clients. Based on the 3-1-1 rule, however, we must not forget that in all likelihood, your clients have already substantially educated themselves on your product/service before you ever get the chance to speak to them.

So what does this mean about the relationship between sales and marketing? In the current environment, sales and marketing departments cannot afford to reside in silos, interacting with each other only to hand off marketing leads. Constant communication and a feedback schedule must be put in place between the departments to ensure a highly coherent strategy. Sales teams must share information such as common objections which should then be incorporated and addressed in marketing content such as blogs, whitepapers, and email. Marketing should also share information they proactively discover regarding your product on multiple outside blogs and competitive whitepapers. If this process is conducted effectively, the sales process becomes more efficient and effective. Leads become instantly more qualified, and the sales cycle is shortened as reps engage with more informed prospects and are better able to anticipate conversations based on information provided by marketing.

As organizations see the results of tightening the feedback loop between sales and marketing departments, we will see more and more of these departments combining as one. As Mark Stevens states in Entrepenur.com, sales and marketing are “inexorably linked”. As information availability and consumability increases with big data, this link should steadily tighten to the point where they become virtually indistinguishable. The time is past due for us to reexamine our preconceived notions of what the terms “sales” and “marketing” mean if we are to continue being relevant and effective for our clients and organizations.

Buyer Personas in Sales and Marketing

How would you like to improve your email campaigns by 2x for opens, and 5x for click-through-rates? If you are in sales or marketing the answer to that question is probably an emphatic yes! You absolutely can improve your offline and online marketing and sales efforts, with buyer personas.

In the webinar titled “The ROI of Buyer Personas”, John Sweeney and Richard Harris from DemandGen and James Ollerenshaw from Forrester, dive into more detail regarding attaching an ROI to a buyer persona strategy. The results are real, and measurable. So what is a “buyer persona” and why do they work so well?

Just about any product or service is purchased for a variety of different reasons. Take any energy drink as an example. Some might buy the drink to help them fuel a workout, while others are looking for a product to help them get through the workday. A buyer persona is a profile of your various client categories and their motivations for purchasing your product/service. Experimentation has demonstrated that targeting specific personas yields far better results than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Why are buyer personas so effective? One of the primary reasons for this is that the buyer landscape has changed dramatically. More than ever before, your prospects are consistently bombarded by all kinds of advertising across a host of different media that may or may not be relevant to them. A fatigue, of sorts, sets in where buyers are trained to go out of their way to disregard most types of advertising, especially email marketing because these efforts do not resonate with them in any profound or meaningful way. In fact, Return Path states that 70% of spam complaints are related to email marketing.

Incorporating buyer personas into your marketing and sales efforts allows you to connect with your buyers for precisely the reasons they might consider your product. If i’m a workout enthusiast and potential buyer, I might want to know that studies show caffeine has a measurable effect on workout performance. Or if I’m sitting in my office chair, I might want to know that caffeine is proven to enhance cognition and focus. Buyer personas allow you to position your product as a solution to a real world problem your prospect faces.

There are many great ways to incorporate buyer personas into your sales and marketing efforts. One great way, is to segment your website to appeal to your various personas. On your energy website, for instance, you could display two main segments on the same page. One might ask “How can I boost my workout performance?”, and the other might be “How can I be more effective at work?”. Once the user makes their selection, they are guided through a series of highly targeted content and conversion calls-to-action.

I encourage you to take another look at your targeting strategy and begin building out your buyer personas. There are many resources available to help you get started. One such resource would be Up Close and Persona which will guide you through this process. You could also try running experiments on Google AdWords to find out which keywords are resulting in the highest conversions. Ultimately, if we learn to truly identify with our target audience and their motivations, they will in turn reward us with higher conversion rates and increased revenue.

Startup Price Strategies – What Works?

In my startup experience at Picmonic designing a sales and marketing strategy for a SaaS offering, we were faced with the challenge of pricing a disruptive technology that would result in the highest level of conversions. Working closely with a startup accelerator and many mentors it became obvious to me that the answer to this question varied almost entirely depending on the source. Some would suggest formulas that priced based on input and labor costs, designed to output a pricing strategy that would ensure profitability. Others would take a more competitive landscape approach and price based on market trends. Further, some would argue for including pricing questions when validating the product via focus groups and surveys. Then, of course, there were suggestions to A/B test once we went live. We ultimately ended up incorporating many of these suggestions into our strategy, but here are some challenges with each technique that will result in less than optimal pricing:

  • Pricing based on input/labor costs: This model is very self-centric and largely ignores the fact that clients could care less about these data points and are focused solely on  what they are willing to pay based on the perceived value of your solution.
  • Pricing based on market trends: Market trends are great if you are selling a pure commodity. If I decided to sell rice, for instance, these trends might be terrific indicators of pricing the market will bear. If, on the other hand, you are selling a disruptive technology, focusing on these trends will likely undervalue your offering.
  • Pricing with focus groups and surveys: This technique can be a good start, but unless participants actually purchase your product, it’s likely you will receive feedback that is appeasing yet not grounded in reality.
  • Pricing with A/B testing: This strategy works extremely well if you have sufficient resources to build multiple landing pages and have a robust testing and analysis plan. In order to test your pricing model you would need a minimum of 2 rounds of testing 3 pricing pages concurrently. This presents an additional strain on technology resources/personnel that may be unsuited to a startup environment where these resources are already stretched to capacity. This method also does not ensure you price correctly from the date of launch, and a period of experimentation becomes necessary.

So what was our solution? We initially employed some of the strategies above as well as a more value based approach to arrive at our pricing. By monitoring feedback on social media, however, we began to realize that our pricing needed work. Through our advocate network we disseminated unique discount promotional codes (which we tracked) and found out that our sweet spot (higher conversion rate) was quite a bit different than what we had launched with. The lesson gained from this experience is that despite your best efforts in developing your pricing strategy, you have to keep your ear tuned to the chatter and be ready to pivot when necessary. There are also several unique options out there that allow you to easily experiment with your pricing even before you launch. One such strategy is offered by Tim Ferriss in his New York Times best-selling book “The 4-Hour Workweek”. He suggests mounting a Google Adwords campaign to begin testing your keywords as well as sending users to a landing page which lists pricing. After the user submits basic information (name/email) and actually selects a payment option, a message would inform the user that either the product is out of stock, or that the service is not yet available but that they will be contacted once the status changes. By varying the pricing on your landing page, or running multiple such pages concurrently you accomplish a few things. You find out how many people are actually interested in your product/service. You find out where the pricing sweet spot is, and you build a hot target list you can engage as soon as you actually have inventory or a product to sell!

Regardless of how you develop your pricing strategy, you are guaranteed much quicker success if you adhere to a client-centric approach and adapt your business model to cater to what your clients are actually willing to pay.

Marketing is BS

I recently attended a very interesting panel at SXSW Interactive 2013 sponsored by Adobe titled Marketing is BS. By far the most outspoken panelist was B.J. Mendelson the author of “Social Media is Bullshit”He spent a considerable amount of time arguing for his notion that marketing via social media is BS because you cannot demonstrate an ROI. I would contend that you absolutely can demonstrate social media ROI, it just happens to be difficult.

A perfect example would be the success we saw at Picmonic with our social media campaigns. Where we saw the most success was with our highly targeted social media platforms. Picmonic provides a service for medical students studying for the USMLE board exam. Based on our buyer persona, we knew that medical students routinely seek advice on prep materials from other students. We also knew that they sought some of this advice from online forums. Based on this information, we became extremely active on USMLE Forums. This is where we knew we could reach our specific demographic exactly at the time they are looking for such solutions. We started a thread on the forum in addition to purchasing ad space that showed up on those very targeted threads. Each ad included promotional codes specific to the forums which allowed us to track the ROI of our forums campaign. We also actively engaged with potential clients on the threads and spread our discount promotional code on our posts as well. The results speak for themselves. At the conclusion of our forums campaign we were able to demonstrate a 1009% ROI. Social media is not BS! It’s just not easy.

I would further contend our demonstrated ROI was also conservative. Here are other factors which may contribute to ROI, but which are harder to measure:

  • The benefit of converting one more client which quite possibly would discuss the solution with a friend in a target market where word of mouth is everything.
  • The boost in SEO when Google discovers users clicking to our site from various forums. To Google, this means we have something people want. Google likes to give people content they want.
  • It is also difficult to quantify whether a prospect who might engage in a forum discussion on the solution but does not convert at that time, might at a later date find the solution via search and convert. In this scenario ROI might be inappropriately attributed to search. It is hard to measure campaign cross-assistance.

In conclusion, social media as a marketing vehicle can be extremely effective when extremely engaging and targeted. And although ROI might be difficult to measure, it is very real. As technology progresses I would expect that we see it becomes easier and easier to track a prospect’s engagement from first exposure to conversion.

Sales & Marketing 2.0

I am writing this blog simply to share my ideas on sales and marketing that are relevant to the times. I believe this topic to be extremely important as many companies continue to focus on dated methodologies simply because they have worked in the past. The only problem though, is that all other variables have changed. The ecosystem that allowed old sales methods to succeed has collapsed. Technology has changed. Buyer perceptions have changed.

I began my sales career conducting essentially brute force door-to-door cold calling. While the experience was invaluable, it became obvious that I was essentially annoying just about everyone that I encountered in the process, as much as I never wanted to. As I continued through my career and personal growth it seemed almost obvious that there had to be a better way. A typical sales funnel involves sales people “running the numbers”. Translation: virtually annoying 80% of “prospects” in order to reach the 20% that actually want your product/service. Or even more recently, blasting out non-targeted advertisement emails that make most of us cringe upon noticing their arrival in our inbox.

An ironic example I recently encountered was when visiting the Sales 2.0 Conference website. I am naturally intrigued by anyone interested in more updated methods of selling. I noticed they offered a download titled “Emerging Best Practices for B2B Sales and Marketing”. I naturally wanted to download this whitepaper. To my dismay, upon clicking the link I was directed to a form wishing to capture my information before the whitepaper was available for download. This would appear to me as a bait-and-switch tactic, albeit subtle. Because I have been repeatedly exposed to non-targeted, mass email marketing the first thought that came to my mind is that the last thing I want to do is get on another email list which I will then have to shortly unsubscribe to. I honestly also felt a bit like a sucker for being drawn into a promise with caveats. People and clients undoubtedly experience this feeling on a regular basis. We often lose trust with our clients in only a couple clicks of the mouse. We are lured by immediate “leads” and ignore the potential for longer term sales.

The great news is, there absolutely is a better, more effective way! Become a thought leader and educate me with no strings attached and I will be drawn to your product/service. For one, you will get far more downloads so Google will like you better and rank you higher. You will also build an experience built on trust. I might suggest the Sales 2.0 Conference to take a word of advice from David Meerman Scott in his book “The New Rules of Marketing and PR”. His advice is to provide real, helpful content at no cost, and have a call-to-action within your free content for additional content that would then require contact form submission before download. When we provide clients with targeted, meaningful, free content we create a true “win-win” positive scenario.

I do not, by any means, intend to address this issue in its entirety in one post. I intend merely to set the stage for topics I am truly passionate about which I will be discussing on this blog.