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Lean-Mean Selling Machines

by David Brock on January 27th, 2010

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been mulling over ideas on Lean Selling—-no not what you think.  Every sales organization I work with is lean—cutbacks have gotten rid of any “fat.”  People are busier than ever, managing larger territories, with ever growing quotas, and fewer support resources. 

I want to focus on lean from different point of view—Lean Selling Processes (yes, it’s tough for me to get off the sales process soapbox).  Many of your customers, in fact your own company, may talk a lot about lean in manufacturing, or other functions in the organization, but I think there is a lot about lean in selling that can help improve win rates, improve sales productivity and dramatically reduce sales cycles. 

I have a very simplistic notion of lean (after all I’m a sales guy, I have to keep it simple).  Much of lean focuses not on how efficiently you are doing the activity or process step itself, but on what happens in between those activities or process steps. 

Think about this from the point of view of a deal that you are working on.  Typically, there are a series of activities and meetings you go through in executing the sales process.  We all go through meetings or calls to qualify the customer, then needs discovery, preparing and presenting our solution, negotiating a close, and getting contracts.  We spend a lot of time focusing on how we improve our effectiveness in executing those meetings or process steps. 

In the typical complex sale, it may take months or even years to execute all those steps and to win — or lose — the deal.  But when you think about it, over those months, you’ve probably only actually spent hours or days working on the deal or with the customer.  There is a tremendous difference between execution time and wall time in any complex sale.  Execution time is the time we actually spend working on the deal, either with the customer or internally.  Wall time is the hours, days, months that pass from when we first started pursuing the deal to completing it. (Better explanation at end of post)

I worry a lot about wall time.  Somehow, I want to compress wall time as much as possible—perhaps getting it very close to execution time.  Why am I so worried about it, deals have a natural cycle, why not just live with it? 

Wall time is bad—for the customer and for our companies.  Long wall times represent tremendous opportunity cost to our customers.  They are buying something to solve a problem or address an opportunity.  The longer it takes to solve the problem or address the opportunity, the more it costs.  In extreme cases, those costs can mean the success or failure of the business.  In others, it means lost value they can bring to their customers, loss of their own competitiveness, and deferred or lost revenue.  It’s important to reduce Buying Cycle Wall Time for our customers.  They need to realize the benefits and value of the solution as quickly as possible. 

Wall time is bad for our sales efforts.  We want to accelerate our wins as much as possible, our managers want us to bring in revenue much faster.  We are always trying to reduce our sales cycle.  Additionally, the longer a deal goes on, the greater our exposure—competitors can strengthen their positions, customers can lose enthusiasm and cancel a project. 

Wall time is about “the spaces in between.”  For the moment, I’ll assume we are executing our sales process as effectively or as efficiently as possible.  Wall time is the time that passes in between those execution steps.  It’s important for us to think about that and how we can reduce that time. 

Right now, I think there are two major reasons for long wall time, at least that we can do something about.  The easiest part is how effectively we are managing our internal processes to move rapidly between execution steps.  How long does it take us to arrange and conduct the demo?  How long does it take for us to get the answers and respond to the customer’s questions?  How long does it take for us to develop, configure, and develop a proposal for the customer?  How long does it take to turn around a contract revision?  

There are lots of things we do internally, getting answers, preparing responses, getting approvals that take wall time.  These are all within the control or our companies and us.  What are we doing to increase our responsiveness, agility, and ability to reduce wall time for our internal work?  If we have channel partners, this is critical, reducing this makes it easier for them to do business with us, makes our solutions easier to sell, increases mindshare, and helps them win. 

Reducing wall time on the customer side is more difficult.  There is a lot that is out of our control.  But there is a lot that we can do to help them decrease wall time.  Many of our customers don’t know how to buy.  Many of our customers don’t know how to organize themselves to make a decision.  They don’t know how to overcome their own internal hurdles to justifying a solution, selling it within their own organizations.  Here is where sales professionals create real value.  We go through this with every deal we do, we have lots of experience in this.  If we leverage this experience and start becoming partners with our customers in facilitating their buying process, we not only differentiate ourselves from the competition, but we decrease their wall time.  They get to realize the benefits of our solution much sooner. 

I spend a lot of time writing about developing and executing highly efficient sales processes.  There is lots of discussion on this.  Somehow, I think we need to spend some time thinking about the spaces in between. 

Lean concepts can help us do this.  I think there is a lot we can learn from lean.  My friend John Cousineau knows much more about this.  He pointed me to this interesting tutorial.  It’s short, simple (after all I understood it).  Look at it and think about your selling process.  Spend some time thinking about the spaces in between, look at wall time an how you can reduce that—getting wall and execution time into closer alignment.


Clarification:  I have gotten questions on what is wall time.  I realize I may have been a little obscure.  Here is some clarification:

  1.  Execution time is that spent on doing activities related to the sales opportunity.  For example meetings with customers.  Over the sales cycle, I will spend an hour here, another hour there, over the entire cycle, maybe a few person-days.
  2. Wall time is elapsed time.  For example, I started this deal on January 1, I close it on March 1, close to 60 days wall time.
  3. My execution time may have been a few person days during those 60 days, leaving 57 days as the “spaces in between.”
    1. In lean term, it is the spaces in between are the process hold times.

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  1. David Locke permalink

    Using minimal marketable functionality, you can deliver the solution in smaller increments. This lets the customer achieve results/value sooner. It reduces the amount of learning the customer has to do before achieving results/value. And, it would reduce the wall time, even if it lengthened the sale of the complete scope of the offer.

    Permission marketing campaigns can move the learning into the pre-install or pre-purchase timeframe.

    • David, thanks for the outstanding comment. You raise a fantastic point, shortening the time to results for the customer creates value all the way around. It also profoundly changes the selling processs, focusing us on collaborative problem solving rather than pitching.

      I always appreciate your comments and provocative Tweets! Thanks for contributing, keep visiting and commenting.

  2. Dave: In Lean Manufacturing, I understand that Toyota found that their greatest productivity gains came not from faster task execution (using robots to assemble doors), but rather in reducing the lag time between process events. In manufacturing, such lag time comes at a cost of idle production capacity.

    In sales, wall time is a bigger drain on productivity than in manufacturing. Long ‘wall time’ in a sales process comes at a cost of additional sales effort (better call Bob given it’s been weeks since we last chatted … don’t want him to think I’ve forgotten about him).

    I’m a huge fan of finding ways to shrink ‘wall time’. I’m an equally big fan of finding ways to reduce the time and effort it takes to help buyers make their buying decisions, regardless of how long they decide to take in reaching their decisions. A combination of the two would be perfect.

    Hope these thoughts add value to your points.

    • Joh, thanks for your comments. They help add some clarification to my clumsy explanation. Appreciate your input and support! Regards, Dave

  3. Dave,

    This is a thought-provoking post. Great comments as well.

    It has motivated me to add a few points:

    First, don’t give up the process soapbox, please. When the pendulum swings the other way–salespeople become ineffective because there is *too* much process–you and I can take a rest. Until then, process, to varying degrees, is what most troubled sales organizations need more of. That’s not opinion. The facts are there for anyone who cares to examine them.

    Regarding wall time… I’m not going to pretend there is a quick fix. One thing that everyone in sales must strongly consider is this: Have they tied the business value of their products and services directly to their customer’s P&L or Balance Sheet? At ESR we’ve seen a renewed sense of urgency to buy within companies (in most sectors) when they realize–and have validated by their own financial people–what the quantified financial impact of what they are considering buying really is.

    The salesperson must: 1) have the facts, ROI models, assumptions, examples, and references at hand; 2) know to whom this business case must be made; 3) get access to those people; 4) be credible so that they are taken seriously; and 4) have sufficient competitive selling skills to prevent their competition from saying they can do precisely the same thing.

    This kind of selling isn’t new and it’s not going to reduce wall time in every situation–maybe not even in most or, for that matter, for many situations. But if it does reduce wall time and increase the likelihood of winning for a deal or two a year, that will amount to a significant return on any investment in time or money.

    • Dave, thanks for visiting and for the comment. First, the process soapbox is one I won’t get off for some time. As you and I have discussed before, too there are too many bad excuses for not having strong processes in place, where process is the cornerstone to effectiveness in managin personal or organizational performance.

      There is no quick fix to wall time. But we should focus on it and how we can reduce it. Your discussion on business value is music to my ears, but of course you aren’t surprised. Business and financial justification is critical, I am shocked by the number of sales people that don’t do this (even though it is a faster path to close). I am even more surprised by the number of sales people (MBA’s included) who really don’t understand how to do this. You can provide better data on this than I, but it seems we invest a lot in training about technique, but invest little in training about business analysis, financial analysis, etc. We need to rebalance priorities.

      To expand on my point on wall time, it seems that we lose an opportunity in looking at effectiveness and productivity. Most of the time we focus on the activities we conduct through the sales process (there’s that term again). But we don’t spend much time on the “spaces in between.” If we spent a little time understanding those and how we can reduce them, productivity, effectiveness, win rates, and value to customer might be improved.

      As usual, you are a generous contributor to my blog. I really appreciate your continued comments and support. Regards, Dave

  4. Killer post!

    I love this: “Wall time is bad—for the customer and for our companies.” I would add a huge exclamation point to that sentence (In fact, I will when I use it and quote you).

    Too often, we in sales are responsible for the space between activities. We make all kinds of excuses for leaving the wall time. We say things like, “They aren’t ready to move to the next step yet,” and “They are going to look at this next quarter.”
    This is simply a failure to advance the sale, and more often than not it is the result of a few factors. The first factor is one of the salesperson not knowing what advance he can reasonably expect to obtain. The second factor the failure to create enough value on the sales call to be able to justify obtaining the advance.

    (I live and die by the idea that you never leave the scene of a sales call without another sales call scheduled. Period.)

    You know where I stand on process. I am agnostic because I see things like “Obtain Commitment Letter” in the middle of the sales process. Who does that create value for? It sure as Hell doesn’t do anything for the prospect.

    Instead, process needs to focus on advances that create value for the client and that, as you correctly point out, help them with the buying process, help them justify the decisions within their own organizations, and decrease their wall time. There are activities that can be used to advance the sale that do all of these things—and they do advance the sale and decrease the wall time considerably because they are as valuable (or more valuable) to the prospect as they are to the sales organization.

    • Anthony, thanks for the great insights. You’ve added some great perspectives. We need sales people to agressively pursue accelerating the sales/buying cycle. You point areas in which great sales people can do this. Thanks for your continued comments and support. Regards, Dave

  5. Brilliant post David!

    I particulary enjoyed the 3rd last paragraph when you talked about reducing the wall time for our prospects. The sad reality is that most sellers don’t recognize that their prospects face internal battles every day and many of them don’t know how to navigate the politics and challenges of moving something from an idea to an actual buying decision. This is especially true in today’s buying climate and smart sellers will learn how to help their customers navigate this tricky path.


    • Kelly, thanks for the great comment. You are absolutely right, too often we’re too busy “selling” to realize the customer has their own organization to navigate. Sales people cancreate a huge amount of value in helping the customers with this.

      Thanks for your continued, spot on, comments.! Regards, Dave

  6. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave an excellent resource to make our companies more effective in lean strategies is the book, Certain to Win by Chet Richards . Richards discusses the philosophy of John Boyd – designer of the Air Force’s F15, F16 and F18 – and the OODA Loop – Observe, Orient, Decide and Act and how it applies to businesses competitive environment. For example, Richards shows how Toyota by increasing its ability design, manufacturer and sell cars faster than American car manufacturers increased market share and profits. Using faster decision cycles, access to better information and decentralizing leadership to the lowest levels of the organization enable organizations to react faster to ever changing markets according the book. Another follower of Boyd’s philosophy is the US Marines in their war fighting doctrine. Who out competes US Marines?

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