I wrote Solving Our Customers’ Problems several days ago. My friend Martin Schmalenbach, of Microchip Technology, wrote a long comment about his real world experiences as a customer of sales training and sales enablement solutions. The comment provided such a vivid description of the customer perspective and his reactions to several very different approaches to earning his business.
I asked Martin’s permission to publish his story here:
We’ve just completed another sales boot camp here at Microchip – 64 Field folk from all over the world, here at our corporate HQ for 2 weeks of an experience (rather than training) – and no focus on products and brochures and so on – that comes later.
“We’ve just completed another sales boot camp here at Microchip – 64 Field folk from all over the world, here at our corporate HQ for 2 weeks of an experience (rather than training) – and no focus on products and brochures and so on – that comes later.
“The huge ‘ah-ha!’ that these folk take away is that we are truly focused on helping the customer out with solving problems and/or exploiting opportunities. It’s not enough to paper over your real intentions with nicely crafted pitches and elevator speeches etc if you are fundamentally, in your heart as well as your mind, not utterly focused on helping the client out. When that light bulb switches on, you see a real change in that sales person – gone is the trepidation about having a touch conversation with the client about pricing or the usual thing we get hit for – replaced by a strong desire, almost an impatience, to create those tough conversations with clients because THAT is where the client will get the most learning & insights about their situation and clarity on the path to take going forward – which COULD include staying on the path they are currently on. A successful conversation doesn’t have to always end up with us getting an order in the end, but it DOES have to end up with the client getting some true value from the time they spent in discussion with us.
“I get a LOT of emails from people trying to sell me sales enablement and training. I also get on average 507 emails a week (yes, I actually counted & averaged it!), many from internal colleagues, but many from people trying to tell me stuff. They have a lot of work to do to catch my attention! I’m sure for every sales person out there it is the same challenge.
“I have recently had 3 conversations with sales people from some truly excellent organizations. Two we do business with today, and another we will likely do business with in the next 6-12 months.
“What has really caught my attention is the contrast in approaches. In two cases the sales person has pointed out how other clients have really benefited in hard $ terms from adopting some of what they have to offer. In the third, the sales person there was utterly focused on helping me deal with some immediate challenges, which when addressed, will create a real large scale need for his company’s offering, and which we are already using on a limited but big scale. He wasn’t interested at the time in closing a PO, although the start of the conversation had been as a result of looking to sell us more of what we already had. Every conversation I have with him is time well spent, because it is utterly about helping me & my company get to where we need to go.
“The other 2 sales people have made good cases for why other people buy their offering. The problem is, we’re not ‘other people’. We don’t have quite the same issues and challenges, and we aren’t quite so caring about the metrics they cite. Yes, they are having a conversation with me about adding value to what we do, but their conversation plans are clearly rooted in getting me to award the PO soon, because it will soon be end of month/quarter etc. They are focused on how their offering will help me tackle my challenges. And it will, but I have other challenges to overcome before we can be ready to do anything else, with them or other potential partners. And this is what the 3rd sales person realized, I suspect instinctively. He is ALL about helping us, and me in particular, get to where I need. Now his offering is priced the same as a competitor’s offering, to the penny – not down to me saying ‘meet the price of competitor X’. But with the value he is bringing, and the authenticity behind it, I would pay him 2x!
“It’s only when I saw truly an example of a sales person utterly focused on helping me out rather than a veiled approach to get me to buy so they can make their quarter etc, that I could compare and contrast properly. I think most sales people aren’t aware of this, or don’t buy in to it, and so they are doomed to forever look, sound and be like everybody else out there. And with 507 emails a week I don’t have time to sift through their same-old-same old to see why I should even respond to them, let alone spend 30 minutes talking with them. I wonder if truly the sales person’s biggest problem is his/her own self?!”
Martin provides powerful reinforcement to the ideas that the greatest value we can create is helping our customers solve their problems.
With respect to Martin’s final question, “Is the sales person’s biggest problem his/her own self?” I think it is a combination of the mindset of each sales person and how each individual views their role in helping their customers, as well as the leadership, coaching and direction of sales management. However problem solving focused a sales person might be, if management doesn’t see the value of this approach in building strong relationships and growing business, then even the most customer focused sales person will have to do what their managers expect.
The tone, coaching, training, direction, reinforcement and personal examples set by sales leaders is critical to driving the behaviors of sales people.
Perusing my news feeds this morning, an article entitled, “Should Sales Managers Coach” caught my eye. My knee jerk reaction was , “Duugggh, isn’t the answer obvious?” However, I respect the author and decided to read the article to understand the point of view (or perhaps it was one of the provocative titles to get someone to read).
I reread the article 5 times. I think the author’s conclusion is “Yes, but……”
Upon reflection, I think perhaps the points of view addressed in the article are more indicative of the confusion we have about the sales manager’s job.
Is it a coach/teacher?
Is it a super closer/sales person?
Is it a report generator/task master to keep people focused on the numbers?
You probably can come up with a few more alternatives, and there is probably some truth to each item—but do these really get to the core of “what’s the job of the front line sales manager?”
I’ll take a stab at it.
The job of the front line sales manager is to maximize the performance of each person on the team! (Exclamation point, period, end of sentence, no if, ands, or buts.)
Implicit in this idea is developing the capabilities and capacity of each person on the team, and the organization, to achieve the goals of the organization.
How does the front line sales leader do this?
Well, coaching their people on a day to day basis is the highest leverage use of the manager’s time in helping them perform at the highest levels possible. But the problem is too many managers don’t know it’s part of their job, too many don’t know how to coach, and most think of coaching as something different from the business management aspects of the job. As a result, very little coaching gets done.
And much of what gets done, gets done poorly!
As a consequence, it’s fair to pose the question, “Should Sales Managers Coach?” But the answer to this has to be a resounding, YES!
Outsourcing it, at least for the long term, is wrong. It’s management forsaking a key responsibility. Yes, to help managers develop coaching skills, engaging outside resources to help managers learn how to coach effectively is powerful, but outsourcing as a permanent solution is wrong.
Top executives have to set coaching as a key performance expectation of managers, they must reinforce this by coaching managers who report to them. If they don’t set the example, it simply won’t get done.
There are more aspects to the sales manager’s job. Finding, hiring, onboarding the right talent is critical, managing performance and problem performers, business management, providing tools, systems, processes, training are all critical aspects of the manager’s job. Getting things done for their people, protecting and promoting their people are critical as well.
Making the numbers is critical–but the only way the manager makes the numbers is my making sure each person on the team is performing and hits their goals.
But all of this is in support of the sales manager’s basic job: Maximizing the performance of each person on the team.
About the only thing that isn’t part of the manager’s job is Super Closer/Sales Person. If that’s what a manager wants to do, then the manager should be a sales person. Closing business as effectively and efficiently as possible is the job of a sales person. Providing the sales person the capabilities, tools, etc. is the job of the sales manager.
There is a lot of confusion about sales management, and perhaps that’s a reason the majority of sales people and organizations fail to achieve their goals.
But look at top performing organizations, there is absolute clarity about the job of sales managers.
Afterword: This is a crucial topic. It’s one I wrestle with in great detail in the Sales Manager Survival Guide. The book is being launched through Amazon on May 24. Mike Weinberg, author of Sales Management Simplified, has said this about the book, “This is THE go-to resource for sales managers!”
At its essence, sales is about finding customers who have problems we can solve, helping them understand why they should solve the problem, helping them commit to that change, and helping them solve the problem.
We wrap a lot of stuff about prospecting, qualifying, deal strategies, pipelines, call planning, presenting, proposing, value propositions, objection handling, closing, negotiating around this process. We spend billions training people in those skills. We spend further billions providing tools to help sales people more efficiently execute those things.
But somehow something is missing.
Before I talk about what’s missing, it’s reasonable to challenge me saying, “How do you know something’s missing?”
Basically, a few things point us to the fact that something(s) are missing:
Market data on sales performance. There’s tons of data on sales performance—percent of people making their numbers, percent of companies making their numbers, turnover, declining win rates, lengthening sales cycles, and more. Those numbers indicate we could do better–much better. On the whole, performance is pretty bad.
More market data shows differences between high performers and everyone else. The gap is widening, again, we could do better.
The coup de gras is what customers think of sales. In general, they do everything they can to avoid sales people! Surveys say customers don’t see the value that sales people create, they complain about sales people not understanding customers businesses/challenges, sales people are too focused on selling their products, sales people wasting their time.
Clearly, from a customer experience point of view, something is missing.
A large part of it, I think, goes back to the essence of selling: Helping customers solve problems (or more positively, address opportunities.).
Think about it, how much training in problem solving had you had in the last 2 years? How much in your career? How well can you lead a group to help understand, define, assess, decide, and take action on solving a problem?
What skills do you have in facilitation and collaboration, things critical in group problem solving? What project management skills do you have in helping the customer manage a project focused on solving a problem?
What tools do you have to analyze, measure, understand the impact of problems, to analyze and evaluate alternative courses of action?
There’s a huge gap in the skills and competencies needed to sell–that is help our customers solve problems. No amount of prospecting technique, 15 types of closes, 17 ways of handling objections and other related sales skills training helps us with the core issue of selling.
While those are table stakes, we do have to master those skills. Perhaps it’s time to look at problem solving, facilitation/collaboration, project management, critical thinking as skills we can leverage to help our customers, consequently help us achieve our goals.
Do you want your sales people defining your business strategy? As good as they are, do you really want your brand new SDR’s, or your account managers, or even your very top performers defining your business customer and growth strategy? Do you want your bottom performers doing the same?
I don’t think any top business executive or sales executive wants the sales people to be setting the strategic direction and growth priorities for the organization, yet too often, by lack of attention, poor direction, or simple omission, that’s what happens.
Sales people want to be successful. They are hungry to find a customer willing to buy. They’ll do whatever is necessary to satisfy a customer’s needs and get them to buy.
Absent direction, they may be doing things that don’t fit your business strategies and priorities.
They may chase the wrong customers. They may position your solutions and your company in ways that don’t fit your strategy. They may be presenting your value incorrectly or ineffectively. They will struggle to produce results.
Alternatively, they sell the products they are most comfortable and experienced with. Ignoring other product lines that may be critical to your growth strategy. Similarly, they may focus on the customers and markets where they have had the most success, ignoring new strategic markets critical to your growth.
The results–or lack of results they produce impact your business strategies. That new product line fails, you have to shut down development, write off inventory, lay off everyone associated with the product line. Or that new market fails to materialize, the growth committed to the board and investors isn’t achieved.
The interesting thing is sales people are not doing any of this maliciously. They are doing what they do because they don’t know and aren’t getting the direction they need.
Sales is responsible for executing the company strategy in front of the customers. To do this, they have to understand it. They have to know:
- Who are our ideal customers? This has to be well defined and characterized by industry, market, enterprise type, buyer persona, and other characteristics.
- What problems do they have that we solve better than anyone else?
- How do we want them to perceive our solutions and our company?
- What buying and customer experience do we want to create, how is it differentiated from others?
- What value do we create through the entire life cycle of their buying process and implementation?
- How do we differentiate our offerings from the alternatives, including doing nothing?
- What do we, as an organization, stand for and why is it important to our ideal customers?
Without understanding these critical elements of the company strategy and priorities, sales people have to figure these things out themselves. Not only are they less effective and efficient when they have to do this, it may not be in alignment with what top management thinks the strategies and priorities are.
In addition to making sure they understand these things, they are trained and equipped to be successful, we have to put in place metrics and goals that reinforce the strategies and priorities. For example, great sales performance has to be about selling the entire product line, not just letting sales people make their numbers by selling their favorite products. Or they have to generate revenues in different markets, not just sell the their favorite customers. Or they have to acquire new customers, not just making their numbers by going back to the same customers time and time again.
Let’s look at a simple example of why that’s so important. Imagine you are CEO of a company that has two key product lines. Both are important to your growth and to your future. Let’s imagine your two top sales people sell $5M each, making their numbers. But one has sold that $5M in one product line only. The other had balanced performance, selling both product lines to make $5M.
Which sales person is doing a better job? Hopefully, your answer is the second, because that sales person is executing your company strategy. While the first is making the number, if all your sales people were doing the same thing, one of the product lines would fail and that carefully crafted company strategy fails.
It’s not sales responsibility to develop your company strategy and priorities. But if they aren’t told, trained, coached, reinforced and measured on their execution of the company strategy, they’ll do what they must to achieve their numbers.
It’s not their job, so don’t surrender your strategy to sales!