5 Tips to Optimize Your Sales Funnel and Avoid Stagnant Revenue

For business owners, it’s not uncommon for stagnant levels of revenue generation to creep up on you. Most often, this is because of a problem with one or more stages of the sales funnel.

Unfortunately, it typically takes one to three months to realize that your revenue is stagnant. By the time you become aware of flat revenue and start addressing your sales funnel, another quarter has gone by. It may even be that you realize there’s a problem halfway through the year, and it’s too late to fix it.

By not identifying problems with your sales funnel early, you risk setting the stage for an entire fiscal year of flat revenue. So, what can you do to prevent this?

Top 5 Tips for Addressing Stagnant Revenue from a Fractional VP Sales

To avoid a long stretch of stagnant revenue, it’s crucial to put in tangible fixes on time and at the right time. Here’s how you do that.

1.      Assess Your Revenue Generation Levels Monthly

To address a problem, you must understand what it is. By looking carefully at your numbers each month, you can identify flat revenue and then ask yourself what the reason behind it may be. You need to dig deep and search for the “why” behind the “what”.

Consider three different levels to find out why your revenue is flat:

  • Are you not getting enough deals into the top of your sales funnel?
  • Are the leads in the middle of your sales funnel not moving to closing fast enough?
  • Are you not closing enough of the later-stage leads at the bottom of your sales funnel?

Once you’ve identified which of these (or which combination of these) is the problem, you can do something about it.

2.     Fix the Top of the Sales Funnel

You may find that you’re not getting enough prospects into the top of your sales funnel. If this is the case, you need to assess how your sales team is doing with business development and ensure they are addressing the correct customer profile to increase their likelihood of finding prospects who are a good fit.

To determine whether your sales teams are doing enough outreach, you need to examine your activity-based metrics. If you don’t have any, there’s your first problem! If you do have them, are they at the right level? If you have goals for business development, determine whether your team is hitting them and consider whether the goals are the right ones.

3.     Fix the Middle of the Sales Funnel

If you’ve determined that the main reason behind stagnant revenue is a clog in the middle of your sales funnel, then you know you’re dealing with a lack of sales velocity. In other words, your deals are taking too long to close (and note that “too long” here depends on your product in your particular industry and market).

Once you’ve determined that your sales are taking too long to close, you need to drill down one level deeper and ask your sales team why – they have the answers. Next, you need to examine the reasons they identified and figure out which of those you can control or influence so that you can improve your process and nudge your deals forward.

4.     Fix the Bottom of the Sales Funnel

If your sales team is not closing enough, it’s a sign that something is amiss in the process that precedes asking for the sale. Again, speaking with your sales team should give you the valuable insight you need to course correct.

Walk through the sales process with your team and double-check how effectively and efficiently they are executing those steps. If they are ineffective or inefficient on some of those steps, you know where to make improvements.

5.     Map Out Your Sales and Business Development Processes

As you’ve seen from tips 1 through 4, it’s crucial to have your sales and business development processes mapped out so that you can easily assess where things are going off the rails. If you don’t have your processes clearly mapped out, then you can’t do any of the preceding steps.

This involves sitting down with your team and asking them exactly how they go about moving a customer from being a prospect to being a paying customer, writing it all down, and then determining how you can make the process more efficient and effective.

This comes full circle right back to the first tip, which is to assess your teams’ performance and processes regularly. That way you’ll identify where the problems are, put the fixes in place, and deal with stagnant revenue effectively.

What If These Fixes Don’t Improve Your Revenue?

If you assess your revenue every month, make fixes, and then reassess at the end of the quarter to see how effective your fixes were at getting your sales unstuck, you should be able to make up ground on declining or stagnant sales. Then all you need to do is continue with this cycle and optimize.

If, however, you find that none of the fixes worked, it could be that you don’t have a sales problem. You may have a product problem, meaning it’s the wrong product fit for the market or customer. Or, you may have a service delivery issue in which you’re not meeting client expectations, preventing them from coming back to buy from you a second time.

In my role as a Fractional VP Sales with a manufacturing client, I’ve optimized a client’s sales process to be effective and efficient only to find that production couldn’t keep up with sales. Interestingly, in this case, sales were a part of the fix because the way they were communicating with production was insufficient to have production be successful and meet demand. Internal collaboration turned out to be the fix, but if we hadn’t optimized the sales process first, we wouldn’t have identified this issue.

The bottom line is that in sales the opportunity cost of time is very high. If your salespeople squander their time doing the wrong things, they won’t have enough time to do the right things, and your revenue will suffer. By following the steps above, you can ensure your sales team is effectively and efficiently executing each step of the sales process so that you can make the fixes necessary to keep your revenue growing. Get in touch with me if you’d like to discuss this further.

How to Retain Your Top Sales Performers

As a business owner, retaining your top salespeople is important for consistently hitting your sales targets. After all, recruiting is a costly and time-consuming process, and when you hire someone, you want them to stick around for the long haul to minimize disruptions to productivity.

As a Fractional VP Sales, I’ve seen how common it is for the resumes of salespeople to show a pattern of job jumping. So, how can you ensure that you hold on to your top salespeople? If you’ve ever had salespeople jump ship and found yourself wondering why, or if you simply want to avoid this from happening in the future, keep reading.

How to Find the Right Management Mix to Keep Top Performers

Retaining your top talent needs to be a purposeful exercise, and you shouldn’t manage all people in the same way. If you try to take a one-size-fits-all approach to management, there are going to be people who don’t respond well and often they will speak with their feet by walking out the door. Here are four ways to ensure you’re finding the right balance to keep your top performers motivated.

1.     It All Starts With Your Company Values

To address employee retention, you first need to have a clear understanding of your company’s fundamental values and principles. A strong values-based management foundation is the toolset from which you, as the business owner, and your managers can draw from to help manage your employees.

It’s worth noting that it’s not a matter of completely different management styles for different employees. The magic lies in the nuance of how you apply your company values and principles to manage and lead your people from day to day.

2.     Recognize That Top Performers are Always Different

In any team, you have top performers, middle performers, and some at the bottom of the pack. Whatever makes your top performers different from the rest of your staff is typically what makes them successful in their roles. These differences are precisely the reason you need to take a different management approach with them than with other staff.

Understanding exactly how top performers are different will help managers and other leaders figure out which leadership style or approach to take to keep them motivated, and ultimately, loyal to your business.

3.     Understand What Motivates Your Top Performers

Different people are motivated by different things – that’s as true in business as it is in life. Top performers often value different things than your lowest performers. That’s why if you want to hold on to them, you need to be able to recognize what your top performers are motivated by, and to what degree.

When it comes to sales success, top performers are typically more motivated by money. If you set up a compensation plan that does not richly reward those who are motivated by money, they will go elsewhere to find a plan that does. For people motivated by money, financial incentives like commissions are important.

Another trait typical of top performers is a high degree of initiative. Top performers who value freedom and independence will not respond well to micromanaging. If you try to make them always stick to rules, they are likely to feel restricted and leave.

Similarly, you need to consider whether your top performers are motivated by teamwork before setting team-based sales goals. A top performer who is a team player and feeds off team motivation may prefer this, but someone who is more of a lone wolf motivated by independence won’t want their performance tied to someone else’s. If a top seller who prefers to work alone has their income tied to something they can’t control, they’ll leave.

4.     Inventory the Traits and Characteristics Needed for Success

Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for how to manage top performers, there is no blanket solution for retaining talent across industries. As a business owner, a manager, or another leader, it’s necessary to inventory the traits and characteristics needed when it comes to success in sales for your industry, with your products or services, and in your market.

Then, you need to provide those motivators for your top performers to keep them happy so that they can be as successful as they want to be. This may involve doing it in a slightly different way for different salespeople – as mentioned above, the magic is in the nuance of the day-to-day application of your values to how you manage your people.

After reading this, the steps for holding on to your high-achieving staff may seem fairly obvious. Yet, the loss of key talent is something I see business owners struggling with all the time in my role as a Fractional VP Sales. Maintaining a stable, productive team depends on your ability as a leader to identify, understand, and apply different motivators in your management of top performers.

Once you can successfully do so, you’ll not only be able to hit sales targets and reduce staff turnover but also create a more appealing environment for recruiting new hires. I’ve given you a lot of ideas here, and there are a lot of layers to consider. I’d be happy to help you think through how to apply these tips to keep your top performers. Contact me today to start a conversation.

 

Ways to Eliminate Over Promising by Sales Reps

You’ve probably personally experienced the pain and frustration that results when your Sales team over promises to a customer. Nobody’s happy – especially the customer – and you are left to unravel the mess.  Luckily, there is a simple way to short-circuit such confounding situations.  Given that revenue generation is a team sport, ramp up your communication between team members.

When consulting in my role as a Fractional VP Sales, I find that companies facing over promising challenges always have poor communication between Sales and the departments responsible to deliver on those promises. 

When there is such disconnection, incorrect assumptions, misinformation and lack of mindful forethought results. It’s up to leadership to lay the groundwork for regular and open dialogue between departments as staff are often hesitant or feel it is not their place to do so.  Taking this approach institutionalizes interdepartmental communication and makes it “the way things we do things around here”.

Reaching Out

I recommend that Sales take the lead in initiating outbound communication between themselves and other departments. As they are immediately customer facing, the more timely and accurate their delivery capacity information the better positioned they will be to make appropriate commitments to buyers.

The simplest way to make connections with other departments is to have a representative from the Sales department sit in on their meetings. The frequency with which this should happen is entirely dependent upon your business. If you are in a fast moving industry where things change rapidly, maybe meeting weekly makes sense. If your industry moves slowly perhaps a monthly cadence would suffice.

Context

The presence of Sales in another departments’ meeting must be endorsed by the leaders of each department. They should position with their team why Sales is sitting in and the outcomes both departments desire. Without this context the presence of a Salesperson in an engineering meeting may be seen as weird.

Give to Get

Have the seller arrive at the meeting prepared to share Sales related happenings or voice of the customer feedback that is relevant to the rest of the people in the room. Giving in this manner sets the stage for the seller to ask questions about what the department in question is working on & challenged with. It also sets the stage for them to be happily invited back to the next meeting.

How Sales positions the information they’re sharing affects how it’s received. If it’s positioned as “Sales can’t sell if you folks don’t do this stuff for us!” it will of course be received poorly. If it’s positioned as “here’s what we’re seeing in the market and here’s what customers are saying – what do you make of it?” it invites dialogue and problem solving, both of which are healthy.

Send the Invitation

Now it’s Sales’ turn to extend the invitation to other departments to attend their meetings. Be strategic and invite the right department at the right time. Be prepared with questions to ask and input to provide so that all parties leave the meeting having moved the ball forward.

Such regular interactive communication between Sales and production, engineering, customer success, finance [and any other department that has a stake in finding-securing-retaining happy paying customers] significantly decreases the incidence of Sales overpromising. When they understand the needs and challenges faced by their colleagues they’re better positioned to be appropriate with what they commit to with customers.

As always, there is a great deal of nuance around how to initiate interdepartmental communication across your organization. I’d be happy to discuss this further with you.  You can reach me at [email protected]

You Are the Differentiator

It’s safe to say that there are probably a thousand firms that do pretty much what yours does. This is why your sales team needs to stop selling the products and services you provide, and start selling why partnering with you will bring buyers more value than buying from anyone else.

Differentiation Is the Key

Selling based on product features and benefits is a risky proposition. Products and services can be so similar across providers that buyers are hard-pressed to spot the differences. If they happen to be adept at doing so, they then are likely put into a trade-off situation. Your offering does many amazing things but is light in one or two particular areas. The competitor’s product is strong where yours is weaker but is missing some features that yours has. This situation elevates price as a key deciding factor in the sale and the race to the bottom commences.

Shifting this buyer decision-making dynamic requires your team to sell fundamentally differently. Making your firm, your people and your approach to excellence the heart of the sale [rather than product attributes] is a powerful way to clearly differentiate you from your competitors.

Telling Your Company’s Story

In a previous post I discussed that customers don’t buy what you do, they buy Why You Do It.  Communicating this Why is part of communicating the larger picture of your company and what makes it so great.  How did the company start? What were the driving factors that brought it through the tough times and into today? In my role as a Fractional VP Sales I work with sales teams to tackle this deceptively difficult task.

Here’s why it’s difficult…The objective in telling your company’s story is to make an emotional connection with your prospects. If a salesperson attempts to tell it by listing how many years you’ve been in business, how many successful customer implementations you had, the impressive list of banners that sell your products etc. they don’t accomplish this.  They may be building credibility, but they are not making an emotional connection.

Making the Emotional Connection

We are all innately wired to be moved by the power of story [a quick Google search on this topic will give you more information than you can read that explains this].  Given this reality, to differentiate your firm from the others and ultimately increase your sales win rate, have your sales team put focused effort into developing Your Firm’s Story.

A compelling story has a clear beginning, middle and end.  It takes the listener on a journey where they experience the ‘aha’ moment that was the genesis of your firm. They come along as you tackle the challenges and climb the mountains required to refine and expand your offering. They feel how other customers have felt as a result of working with you. It’s the classic three act play.

Crafting Your Story

Another quick Google search, this time on the topic of storyselling will give you many references [and sales consultant options if you so desire] to help you get started constructing your story. In working through this with clients it’s been a fun and engaging experience for all.  It’s a different kind of sales training.  Everyone learns more about the company than they knew coming into the exercise. The excitement level rises as the story is constructed and the team feels its power.  Once completed the sales team knows they have created something that will help them connect with buyers in a far more personal way than they have been able to prior and can’t wait to use it.

Utilizing Your Story

Your Firm’s Story should be leveraged in the first meeting with a prospect. It should be woven into this conversation in a way that is most effective based upon your industry, market and buyer. Most effectively done, it is positioned as “Before we get deeply into talking about our products and services let me tell you a bit more about us…”.  Doing this at the start of the sale positions your sellers to come back to this touch point of differentiation along the way. As a buyer goes through their comparison of product attributes and price points they will have clarity around why they will get maximum value by partnering with you rather than the competition.  It’s true that some buyers simply want the cheapest price. It’s also true that many want to partner with the firm that can bring maximum value and meet all of their needs. Which one would you prefer?

There is of course a great deal of nuance in crafting your company’s Origin Story. If you would like to discuss this in further detail I of course would be happy to do so. You can reach me at [email protected].

Sales Process vs. Technique: Which Matters More?

If your sales are not at the level that you’d like, the best thing you can do is have your salespeople brush up on their sales techniques so that they perform better, right? Wrong! Achieving predictable, long-term revenue growth is not as simple as sales training.

If you’re guilty of repeatedly investing in sales technique training hoping that it will boost your sales, you’re not alone. As a fractional VP Sales, I’ve seen many business owners fall into this trap.

Why Sales Training is Not the Way Out of a Slump

When your revenue generation is not at the level you’d like, you may assume that it’s because your salespeople are under skilled and that sales training is the easy fix.

What my experience as an outsourced sales VP has taught me is that virtually 100% of the time, the problem lies in the sales process, not in the skills of the sales reps. You could have the most talented salespeople in the world, but if your sales process is flawed, they will not perform well.

When I go to work with a team, the first thing I do is assess whether they know what to do. Because you need to know what to do before you perfect how to do it.

A story for you about this concept…I asked my son to paint the front porch this summer. I spent some time going over the painting technique (the “how”) and left him to decide the best way to apply that to get the job done. Well, he ended up doing a great job with the painting itself but he also managed to [literally] paint himself into a corner! I shouldn’t have been too surprised, since I hadn’t told him he should start on the opposite side and paint himself to the stairs (the “what”).

Aside from being a funny story, this is an example of why someone needs to understand a process before honing their ability to do specific parts of that process. In the context of your sales team, that’s why sales training won’t help if your sales team doesn’t understand the sales process.

A Diagnosis of What’s Most Often Wrong

When sales are down and business owners come to me for help, they’ve usually already self-prescribed sales training. My analysis of their sales process usually reveals one of the following:

  • There are things they should be doing that they’re not
  • There are things they shouldn’t be doing that they are
  • They’re doing the right mix of things, but in the wrong order
  • They’re doing things to the wrong degree

Let’s use a baking analogy to examine the difficulty business owners often have with diagnosing the problem with their sales. My clients come to me saying their soufflé is continually flat- they just can’t get it to rise. They wonder whether the temperature of the oven is wrong, or if there’s something wrong with the way they put it in the oven.

When we go back and look at their recipe, it usually turns out that they’re missing some ingredients or mixing them in the wrong order. When you have the process incorrect, the results are not going to be what you expect.

A Recipe for Sales Success

Speaking of recipes, a recipe for increasing sales is the magic 4 R’s formula. Sales training and a bit of extra motivation are not going to cut it. Your sales team needs to be doing:

  • the Right Things
  • the Right Way
  • to the Right Degree
  • at the Right Time.

If they do, you are guaranteed to get reliable and predictable revenue growth (you can read more about each of these 4 R’s here).

Where the magic comes in is the particular mix of these things that is right for your business, depending on your industry, your specific market, and your geographic area. Although there’s generally a list of the ‘right’ things to do in sales, the right way to do them usually varies according to the culture and customs of different regions. The right time refers to the need to approach buyers at the right time; sending a salesperson in to meet a prospect at the wrong time is setting them up for failure.

This is why the sales process is a bigger priority than the sales technique. If you don’t have the right 4R mix for your business, even the most highly skilled salespeople won’t get the results you hope for.

So, When Does Sales Technique Matter?

I’m not saying that improving sales technique isn’t important- just that it should come second to optimizing your sales process. Sales techniques such as rapport building, mirroring, and knowing which questions to ask and how to ask them are obviously crucial parts of sales.

Sales technique is about understanding buyer pain points, figuring out how their situation can be improved, and the business value they want to get from making that change. In chapters 4, 5, and 6 of my book Sell More By Selling Less, I outline in detail how salespeople can strategically identify pains, desired gains, and value drivers.

The way salespeople ask these questions is technique. Understanding the responses and putting together a solution that will solve pain points, make an improved situation a reality, and deliver value increases the likelihood that the buyer will say yes. To do these things is process, not technique.

Most people think sales training is the priority, and process optimization should come second. In reality, it should be the opposite. Process optimization should be the first thing you tackle if you want to see a sustainable increase in sales.

If you’re spending money on sales technique training without sales process optimization, you might as well be throwing that hard-earned money out the window. If you’d like to discuss more about why optimizing your sales process is more important than technique, reach out by phone or email. I’m always happy to help.

Revenue Growth Isn’t Everything

One of the most common traps I see business owners fall into is making revenue growth the most important driver for their business. As ironic as this may sound [coming from me, a revenue generation consultant], revenue growth isn’t everything.

Why Growth Shouldn’t Be Your Only Metric for Business Success

Obviously, growth is vital for the long-term survival of your business. As a fractional VP Sales, I certainly appreciate the importance of revenue growth as an indicator of business health.  To ensure long-term success, growth of course needs to go hand-in-hand with profitability.

When you focus purely on growth, your attention gets shifted away from the efficiency of your processes and profit is likely to take a hit.

There are plenty of examples of companies that adopted the “growth at all costs” model of doing business only to realize they had scaled unsustainably, had customer acquisition costs that are way too high, and ultimately experienced a drop in profits.

Why Declining Revenue Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing

A plateau or even a dip in your revenue is no reason to panic. In fact, sometimes it’s a good thing.  It causes you to pause and reassess all things revenue generation.  Before you start worrying about decreased revenue, take stock of your cost of sales.  The resulting profit picture will tell you more about the efficiency of your sales processes than your revenue does.

Tips for Lowering Costs of Acquisition from a Fractional VP of Sales

When it comes to sales, your profit is related to lowering your cost of client acquisition. To do this, you need to optimize your sales processes so that you not only increase your throughput of leads but also increase your ratio of paying customers to leads worked. Here are some key factors for you to consider in order to streamline your sales function and decrease your costs.

Put the Right Processes in Place

Establishing repeatable, reliable processes is the first thing you need to do to optimize sales performance. Having a purpose built sales process in place guides your sales team through each sales stage and empowers them to provide a consistent experience to prospects.

Not only does this contribute to a higher win rate, but it also makes it possible to measure the effectiveness of each stage of your process to help you determine how you can optimize further.

Find the Right People for Each Role

Once you’ve got the right pieces in place, you need to make sure you’ve got the right people executing each of those process steps.

As Jim Collins points out in his influential management book Good to Great, it’s crucial to ‘get the right people on the bus before you decide where the bus needs to go.’ In other words, you need to ensure you’ve got the right talent in the right positions so that your team can operate as efficiently as possible.

Unsurprisingly, when you’ve got the wrong people in the sales department, they will be slower, less efficient, and less effective- not to mention quite unhappy about having to execute on those steps. Let’s look at a specific example of why this is the case and the knock-on effects it can have on your business.

Keep Your Closers Free to Close

Different roles require different skill sets…obvious, right? Yet you’d be surprised how often business owners have their best salespeople doing business development work or account management, to the detriment of the business. Sure, you may have that anomaly salesperson who happens to be excellent at both research and sales outreach. But chances are that’s not the case.

What’s more likely is that you have a great salesperson who hates research, who when given a business development task may take 2 hours to do what a research person who enjoys that task could do in 20 minutes. This is bad for business for multiple reasons:

  • It’s an inefficient use of time and resources.
  • A salesperson who isn’t good at research won’t get great data.
  • The salesperson in this scenario probably won’t want to record the detail in the CRM, leaving a weak point in the historical data your company needs to draw from.

Now consider these impacts in the context of how many salespeople you have and it’s clear why assigning a business development function to the right person is an easy win!

Similarly, once they close a deal, your star salespeople shouldn’t be responsible for onboarding the client and keeping them happy. After all, the first rule of business is to keep what you have, then to grow – so keeping a Closer bound to an existing account is a surefire way to have new sales grind to a halt as that salesperson focuses on keeping that customer satisfied and on board.

This responsibility can and should fall on the shoulders of someone who has the time and talent for nurturing accounts. Depending on your business, this may be an implementation team, an operations team, or some other type of internal support team.

Focusing on Growth Without Addressing Operational Issues is Lethal

As we’ve seen from the above examples, single-mindedly pursuing growth without addressing areas of weakness in your sales process and sales effectiveness can harm rather than help your business.

By taking the time to strategically address operational issues, you can improve the efficiency of the sales process, lower costs, reduce sales staff churn, and ultimately achieve sustainable revenue growth.

Want to know more about why it’s more advantageous to focus on profit than simply striving for growth? Reach out to me, and I’d be happy to draw on my experience as a fractional Vice President Sales to discuss how this is relevant to your business.

Increasing Revenue Through Your “Why”

As Simon Sinek has famously said “customers don’t buy what you do, they buy Why you do it.” Your “Why” is your number one differentiator. When your “Why” isn’t front and centre your company is commoditized, you don’t stand out and buyers see you as being just like all the others.

Getting to Why is a deceptively challenging task. When working as a Fractional VP of Sales with my clients, I typically hear classic statements like “we help our clients to increase profitability” or “we assist our clients in becoming market leaders in their industry”. These statements, though they may be true don’t get at the heart of Why.

A true Why statement articulates your company’s existential reason for being. It communicates how your products and services improve your customer’s situation down to the personal level.

I know that examining your Why to this level is daunting. You are likely saying “how do we articulate it?!”. There are many great thinkers out there and an equal number of models and processes to follow to help you find clarity around articulating your Why. It’s a highly satisfying experience that when best done engages all team members across all departments.

Why have a “Why”?

Whether you are a distributor of office supplies, a reseller of complex software or a custom designer of fine furniture there are hundreds of providers who do precisely what you do. It’s vital that your buyers see and feel at a visceral level how you are unique, different and worthy of partnering with. If they don’t then you run the risk of being commoditized and have every sales interaction proceed quickly into a downward price negotiation.

Once crafted, your Why will become the most powerful communication tool you have. It will inform your marketing messaging, be the bedrock upon which your employee engagement stands and serve as the foundation for your sales conversations.

The buyer’s journey with companies who leverage their Why is fundamentally different from those that don’t. The Why companies start with the statement of who they are and Why they do what they do. The questions they ask buyers are less about features and functions and more about how their products and services will be used to help the buyer’s enterprise as a whole – along with helping their customers. Next time you are being sold to ask, “is this person selling from their Why, or are they just trying to sell me stuff?”

Companies that sell from their Why will outsell the competition. Further, they have more engaged employees and lower turnover rates. This increased continuity leads to a better customer experience for their client base. Investing in uncovering and capturing your Why is absolutely worthwhile.

There is of course a great deal of detail and nuance around capturing your Why and leveraging it in your sales process. It never hurts to call in some outside expertise to help you navigate the process of defining your Why. This is one of the things I can help with as an outsourced VP of Sales. I am happy to chat if you’d like to learn more.

Telling Isn’t Selling

Knowing your product catalogue verbatim is not enough to make you a top producer. Knowing the buyer pains your products resolve and the gains they facilitate will get you there. This is needs-based selling.

Espousing your products’ features and benefits is educational and sounds impressive, but it is not selling. This approach is severely limited in its ability to get a yes. Brochures, web sites, and catalogues can do the education. The seller’s role is that of Helper.

Buyers need help in two specific areas. First is working through the logical exercise of “shopping” — that is, narrowing down the list of options to the best two or three.

Second, and most importantly, they need assistance navigating the actual purchase. The moment of saying yes to one provider over the others can be a turbulent time. The best sellers hop in the navigator’s seat and help the buyer find their way.

Fear of making a mistake (“Is this the best option?”), loss (“Am I overpaying?”), and impacts (“Will others in the organization like my choice?”) all weigh on your buyer’s mind. A poor decision can cost a small business thousands, a corporate buyer her job.

Needs-based selling is an effective way to help your buyer work through their purchase decision. When it’s done well, the buyer gets what they want — the best purchase decision for them. And, you also get what you want — a long-term relationship with a buyer who most often chooses you.

Needs-based selling differs from traditional sales approaches in several ways.

Let’s use the example of two Chartered Accountants working to make partner. Successful client acquisition shows their worth. Bill is more traditional when it comes to his selling. Anne takes a needs-based approach.

When asked by a prospective client, “Why should we select your firm?”, Bill responds with a deep dive on the 40 years the firm has been in business, its A list of clients, and its track record of great work. He is clearly passionate about the firm.

Anne is passionate, too, but takes a different path. She says, “I’m not sure why you would choose us. Let’s talk about what your needs are around accounting services. What pains are you facing with your current provider? What gains are you looking to realize by switching to a new firm? Once we know that, we can see if we are the best choice for you.”

Anne is inviting a dialogue, the focus of which is the client and their needs. What is causing them pain? What gains are they after? Anne knows that if she can’t relieve their pains and deliver the desired gains, the firm’s number of years in business and A list of clients are meaningless factoids.

When asked about the firm’s client management, Bill gets excited. He has many examples of above-and-beyond service that show how the firm shines.

Anne gets excited, too, but she doesn’t want to risk sidetracking the needs conversation with a solution conversation. It’s too early for that.

Again, she defaults to a question. “We have an excellent approach to client management which I would happy to tell you all about. First, though, tell me what you are looking for. What client management approach would meet your needs?”

And so it goes. Bill cares deeply about his clients and sincerely wants to help. Ironically, because he is spending so much time talking about the firm he is not being as helpful as he could.

Anne’s approach is helpful because she focuses first on diagnosing her buyer’s needs. Then and only then does she present her prescription (the firm and all it has to offer). She clearly connects each buyer need to the firm’s capability to meet it. This clarity helps her buyers make the best decision for them.

Needs-based selling says “diagnose needs first, prescribe solutions second.” Traditional selling reverses this. Why is needs-based selling superior? Because prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.

Push Softer

Being a revenue-generating sales machine is tough work. After running in high gear for the first 11 months of the year, why not take the last one and enjoy the ride? I know it is year end, every sale counts, and it’s time to push a little harder, right? In fact, when deadlines loom and it’s down to the wire, the strongest finishers pushsofter.  They push softer by getting more strategic.

In the month of December, many businesses slow considerably. Some even shut down completely. Skeleton staffing is the norm. Take cues from your customers. If you have not booked off yourself, take time to create business development plans for the new year by doing what Mike Desjardins of ViRTUS Inc. calls “Mindstorming.” (To read Mike’s full article on this topic, go to http://mikedesjardins.com/)

Mindstorming is like brain storming with one distinct difference — you do it on your own. Call it reflecting, ruminating, or good, old-fashioned daydreaming. With work-a-day static and interference eliminated, tune into the needs of your existing customers. They represent the biggest revenue opportunity in your portfolio for next year.

Revenue from existing customers is great! It is the easiest to acquire. They know you and love you already. Your contact base is strong there. You are halfway to a close before you even start selling!

Here are a few thoughts to chase towards identifying where that “10% growth from existing customers” your boss wants will come from:

  • Which departments within your customer’s company are you not selling to that you should be? The key here is to think laterally. For instance, if you are selling transportation services, why might you spend time talking to customer service? Faster transit times and better package tracking lead to fewer inbound customer service calls, that’s why. Each of these calls costs money to handle. Customer service cares about your story and may help you secure more business within that account. Plan to call them.
  • What problems does your buyer face that your products or services do not currently resolve, but would with some tweaking? Be innovative. Think out of the box. Then, talk to your engineering department. You just might create a whole new revenue stream in the process.
  • With which senior-level folks within your client’s organization is your current relationship merely arm’s length? Create a plan to cozy up to them. Senior executives exist to create the vision for the company’s improved future. Help make that future a reality by learning their needs and finding ways to contribute.
  • Find out which division of your customer’s company is below their performance plan this year. Noodle through how you can help them turn this around for next year. In business, anything short of achieving the plan is negative, and your contacts will be highly motivated — read “willing to spend money” to rectify the situation.

Make your new business development plans for the coming year when things are quiet in the holiday season. Go ahead, push softer. Happy Holidays!

Selling With One Hand Tied Behind Your Back

The Internet era has revolutionized our communication. It has revolutionized the way many people sell, too, and not for the better. When you sell using email and the like, you are selling with one hand tied behind your back. This is not the position you want to be in for any competitive situation.

The statistics related to communication effectiveness are well known. Ten percent or so of our message is conveyed by the words we use. The remainder is relayed by our tone and body language. Email limits our communication and thus sales effectiveness proportionately.

Email can be a nice solution to large geographic territories, the expectation of instantaneous response, and the navigation of time zones. It can be a handy way to convey data and facts (e.g., “To confirm, we are set to meet next Tuesday morning at nine.”) Beyond that, it has profound limitations, the most dangerous being that it is an unemotional one-way medium.

When an email is sent (e.g., “Attached is our proposal; please let me know what you think”), there is no way to tell how the receiver truly feels about its contents at the moment it is received. This is dangerous because although your customers shop logically, they buy emotionally. Selling by email helps your buyer to shop, but not to buy (your products or services, that is).

When you sell by email you can’t help your buyers in their moments of need. This will result in fewer closes as they go with the company that takes the time to talk to them.

Your job is to make a human connection with buyers and help them navigate the yes/no decision regarding their deal. Selling by email says to the buyer, “You are on your own,” regardless of the actual verbiage contained within the message.

When put in this position, most buyers will commoditize your offering and simply rank it by price and features versus the other “bids.” They may assess the value your offering brings, but they will use their own yardstick, not yours. If they have any misunderstandings, misinformation, or knowledge gaps, those will remain unaddressed.

How your buyer perceives the value of your offering is critical to your success. Price is more elastic when the perception of value is high. Profit is thus similarly affected. Small differences in features (e.g., your model does not come in red) are more easily overlooked by buyers when they are clear on how the value you can bring matches their needs.

Helping a buyer see how your offering will meet their needs and deliver value is an iterative process requiring two-way communication. Sellers who rely on email short circuit this process and lose more deals than they win.

Email is hurting your sales effectiveness if you are…

Emailing out your quotes or proposals: This is a sales killer. Your buyer needs help interpreting your quote. Misinterpretation may make the competition’s quote look much better. Help your buyer choose you by presenting your quote person to person (by phone or face to face).

Responding to buyer objections by email: Even if the buyer communicates an objection by email, phone them back to stop this exchange before it ever gets started. Handling objections requires questions and conversation (“I understand your concerns. Can you tell me what’s behind them?”). Conducted over email, such an exchange will suck the life out of your sale.

Negotiating price over email: If you weren’t commoditized by this point, you surely will be afterward. Pick up the phone or hop in the car for this sensitive conversation.

So, analyze your sales process. Pick the sales junctures at which person-to-person selling is a must and endeavor to make those interactions happen. In so doing you will ensure you can engage in hands-on conversational selling, rather hands-off ‘sales by email’. With both hands freed from behind your back, you will be infinitely more effective.