You’re about to sell your largest customer on a new consumer product, recently launched. You’ve built a detailed account plan. You know who your competition is. You understand precisely what your customer cares about and who their core shoppers are. You’re crystal clear on their decision-making process. You have access to power. The customer has budget and a burning platform. Your solution fits their needs. This complex sale is in the bag.
All that’s left to do is choreograph the vital assistance you need from the brand manager, customer marketer, category insights analyst, product development expert, broker, and the sales VP. What could possibly go wrong?
You Don’t Know It Yet, But This Deal Is Dead
This has happened to you:
If you’ve ever been an account executive in enterprise software sales, this has either happened to you or to one of your colleagues.
You’re giving the formal sales presentation to the buying committee for an ERP module. Your company is one of the bigger players and, though you’re selling the somewhat immature 2.1 release, you have good reason to believe you’re the favorite.
The solution engineer giving the demo is a youngish member of your team, but he seems to be doing a good job. The buying committee is paying careful attention and the demo has been very interactive – a good sign. The engineer and the highly technical product manager have been ably giving tag team responses to the committee’s questions.
The buying committee is paying careful attention and the demo has been very interactive – a good sign.
The engineer has finished with most of the main product functionality, and it looks like he can wrap up in about 10 minutes, which is great because you want to articulate the strategic value of the module to the business unit owner and outline the estimated cost avoidance of implementing your solution to the CIO, thereby completing your business case.
After that, you’ve got 20 minutes left before the competitor presents; it’s going to be tight. Unfortunately, the CIO had another meeting and didn’t come in until a half-hour past your scheduled start time. But, that happens.
You’ve left yourself 20 minutes to articulate the business case; it’s going to be tight.
You check your watch again and look up in time to see the solution engineer, eager to show off, launch into a detailed demo of the calendaring function.
The calendaring function? What the devil is he doing?
It’s a nice feature, but in the same way that the little zip pockets on the outer sleeves of your ski parka are a nice feature. Cool, sure, but what you care about is whether the thing is going to keep you warm.
Someone asks a question. Maybe it’s the technical support guy trying to stump the engineer. There’s always one of those in the room, but they haven’t exhibited that kind of behavior so far. More questions. This time from the business unit stakeholders. Dear God, they actually think calendaring is something they need to care about.
Enjoying the spotlight, the engineer plows on, enthusiastically explaining why this function is vital.
Going rogue – THE cardinal sin of customer meetings.
You move to put a stop to this, but now the product manager is chiming in and her whole reason for being there is to lend unimpeachable integrity to the solution claims you’re making. You’re going to show her up if you interrupt, negating her value.
On it goes until, with 10 minutes to spare, you gracefully interject to conclude the demo and make your case for strategic and financial value to the top two decision makers.
Except now you’re nearly out of time, so you abbreviate, ending on an obviously weak note. There’s no chance of extending the meeting. All vendor presentations are running on a strict schedule today.
Maybe your opening argument and the strong demo of the main functionality will overcome this error. You cross your fingers and hope, passing your chief competitor in the lobby and resisting the urge to berate the solution engineer before reaching the parking lot.
You know the account executive; you’ve been up against her before. Meticulous and crafty, she’s a seasoned pro.
The sales team from your chief competitor gets set up to begin their presentation. And then, because it’s the last thing he saw in your demo, so it’s fresh in his mind and it seemed very important, the business unit owner asks about calendaring.
You’re about to be out-maneuvered.
“We have very mature and sophisticated calendaring functionality, more so than any of our competitors,” says the account executive, “we have scheduling workflow of course, integration to the executive dashboard and all email systems, with an elegant application interface for super users. We’ll show you.”
This account executive, because she is good, now realizes that the business unit owner seems to care very much about who has the best calendaring – other functionality being roughly equal.
She’s not sure when this gift horse strolled into the room or who was riding it at the time, but she’s certainly not going to open its mouth and look inside.
Instead, she’s going to do all she can to keep calendaring top of mind as an important feature among the other assets of her solution, knowing that her competitors have only basic functionality. Her highly disciplined sales team will follow her lead.
Nothing left to do but explain to your sales VP how you handed your competitor the bullets to shoot you with.
As for you, this deal is dead.
Nothing left to do but explain to your sales VP how you handed your competitor the bullets to shoot you with. You prepare for the unpleasantness that will ensue.
What Went Wrong?
This account executive may very well have executed a flawless sales cycle right up to the point of practicing for the customer meeting
The solution engineer obviously worked from a script, and the AE knows that. So, did they do a dry run together with the extended team present?
Or did the AE tell the engineer which module to demo, where to show up, and then meet him in the customer parking lot 15 minutes before show time?
What about the product manager? Product managers in tech companies, like brand managers in CPG companies, have status within the culture. But that doesn’t mean the account executive should shy away from clearly articulating their role as well as the timing, tone and objectives for the sales meeting, including any actions or topics that could put the deal at risk.
From our point of view, unless the business unit president, company CEO or a board member attends your sales meeting, those rules apply to everyone who walks into the conference room, including your boss.
Clearly articulate roles, timing, tone and objectives for the sales meeting to everyone who will walk into the conference room.
I gave this advice to an account executive I was coaching who explained he couldn’t possibly tell a product development VP what she could or could not say in the sales meeting. He then watched helplessly as she took the bait on a customer setup designed to get costly application customization and price concessions on implementation – requests the account executive had already investigated for feasibility and rightly refused because they would destroy profitability.
Poor Judgement On Timing In The Agenda
The account executive appears to have prepared to leave the main selling points – the strategic and financial value proposition – to the end of the presentation rather than the beginning. He should know better. Customer actions are out of your control and things happen.
Executives arrive late and leave early. Unexpected attendees turn up and dominate the discussion, winding down the clock until you’re left with no time to make an actual sale. The more value you convey up front to mitigate this risk, the better off you are. Demos, after all, serve to underscore your value proposition, not replace it.
Use the 15 or 20 minutes before a meeting’s end to reinforce and summarize your value proposition instead of introducing it for the first time. The key of course gets back to communicating the agenda clearly to the extended sales team, to make sure everyone understands and follows the timing of the agenda.
We Can’t Sell Successfully Alone
The complex enterprise sale is by nature a team sale. At different points during the sales cycle, you’ll rely on various experts from around your company to steward the sale toward a win. In modern selling, you can’t sell by yourself.
The Account Executive As Quarterback
By default then, the account executive must act as the quarterback of the sales effort. The actions of his team members, both in preparation and in front of the customer, are his responsibility. If a mistake is made and the deal is lost, the fault is his alone.
Few sales VPs will sympathize with an account executive who missed his target then laid the blame on his teammates. They are more likely, instead, to show him the door.
The Culture Of A Disciplined Sales Team
In a disciplined sales team, everyone understands his role and executes it as directed by the account executive. These teams come from company cultures that recognize the necessity of this dynamic to winning. They give the account executive the power to draw on the expertise of his colleagues and direct them as needed, making sure he has access to sufficient resources.
Calling A Great Play Vs. Letting The Team Run On Its Own
A good account executive has a sufficiently deep understanding of the solutions he sells. He also works in a highly collaborative manner, valuing the opinion and expertise of his extended team, while clearly communicating his expectations for executing the sales plan and interacting with the customers. That makes for a great play.
A poor account executive may let her extended team show up and do the selling for her, but the reasons can vary widely:
- She has no appetite for the hard work needed to gain an appropriate understanding of the solution she’s selling, and therefore its value to her customer; much easier to make plane reservations and let the experts drive the sale
- She doesn’t view herself as the sole, accountable owner of the sales process with the responsibility for the words and actions of the extended team; her company culture reinforces that view by neglecting to empower her
- She lacks the training and tools to be a good quarterback
We’ll focus on the last bullet for the rest of this discussion.
To control the sales cycle and coordinate all players on the extended team with speed and maximum effectiveness, the account executive must master the fundamentals.
Obviously you’re going to move the team through each phase of a sales cycle in a structured way. The sales cycle itself may be managed using an automation tool like salesforce.com or a proposal management tool like Privia, which is fine.
Regardless of the specific sales cycle you follow or whether you use automation tools, what we’re concerned with here is managing the efficient collaboration of the larger group of individuals, people, required to execute the sale.
Collaboration and social media technologies may make the effort easier, but they don’t replace people management and project management skills. So back to quarterbacking fundamentals.
Quarterbacking fundamentals include preparation, communication, timing, follow up and practice.
The fundamentals are actions and skills that are absolutely necessary for keeping an extended sales team coordinated, moving forward, and doing the quality work that is going to win the deal.
To us, they include preparation, communication, timing, follow up and practice.
A receiver can’t catch the ball if he doesn’t know the exact location on the field where it will be thrown because the quarterback either forgot to tell him which play to run or assumed he already knew.
A receiver can’t catch the ball if he doesn’t know the exact location on the field that the quarterback is going to throw it to.
Just stop and think for a moment how many times you’ve tripped up a sales cycle because you assumed that a member of your extended team knew what to do and when to do it. Would the outcome have been different if you’d given explicit instructions and then followed up to make sure she understood both the required action and the timing?
Let’s take the fundamentals one at a time.
We’re big on preparation. Preparation in account planning, preparation in opportunity scoping, preparation to answer an RFP, meeting preparation, phone call preparation. We like to prepare, and we think it’s the account executive’s responsibility to prepare appropriately to give instructions or educate his extended team on
- The customer
- The objectives for the deal, including what he wants to sell
- His sales strategy
- Any information required by the team to collaborate on solution development
- Customer meeting expectations
- Sales cycle checkpoint expectations
- Expectations for individual team member contributions
You get the idea. The extended team is preparing to work hard to help you win the deal. In a lot of companies, their reward will be minimal while you collect a commission check. You owe it to them to be prepared to use their skills efficiently without wasting their time.
Beyond that, and we state this often, time is the ardent enemy of the sales cycle. Don’t squander it by having to repeat actions over again because you didn’t properly prepare to give them to your team in the first place.
You must clearly communicate direction to your extended team. We often see missteps in sales because the account executive wasn’t detailed or explicit enough in giving direction. Sometimes it’s because she’s so familiar with the intricacies of the deal, she forgets that her team isn’t, and she makes assumptions about what they know, often unconsciously, always with negative effects.
We also see missteps because the account executive needs to give direction to a more senior individual and doesn’t feel comfortable doing so. Political and relationship preservation is a reality, and we respect that. So if you don’t feel you can give instructions to a senior resource, find someone who’s in the position to do it for you.
Timing in a sales cycle is everything. Miss a bid proposal deadline by 10 minutes and risk being excluded from consideration by the customer. Fail to give your extended team adequate time to contribute to the RFP and you’ll get a sloppy proposal.
Consistently rush your customer marketers into developing shopper programs with little advanced notice and see how much cooperation you get in the future. Fail to explain agenda timing in a sales meeting and see who goes off the rails in front of the customer
Whatever else you do, make sure you consider timing on two fronts: adequate preparation time and appropriate agenda timing in front of the customer.
In the context of managing the team sale, follow-up means ensuring all members of your extended sales team are crystal clear on their parts in the preparation of the sales presentation, RFP response, customer meeting, etc
They must know the content they’re responsible for and its due date. Follow up means repeatedly ensuring all team members are on track and on time with their prep work.
We’ve worked with account executives in the past who tossed vague instructions over the wall to a vital extended sales team member, say product marketing, and then expected the perfect result to be tossed back on time without further interaction, presumably through an act of clairvoyance.
This happens usually for one of three reasons.
- The AE feels he’s got more important things to do, and the resource will somehow figure it out
- There is political tension between the AE and the vital resource, either personal or departmental, making the AE reluctant to act because it seems unfair to have to follow up with a resource who’s perceived to be uncooperative in the first place
- The AE is simply being lazy
If this describes you, our only advice is good luck with that. Laziness doesn’t win deals. Ego, politics and the cultures of both your company and your customer are always going to exert force on the sales cycle; you can ignore it or deal with it to get the job done.
And fairness is a quality rarely in abundance in selling.
Ego, politics, and the cultures of both your company and your customer are always going to exert force on the sales cycle.
In terms of customer follow up, after you’ve attended a sales meeting, it goes without saying that any instructions or comments you get from your customer should be shared with your extended sales team to ensure they are kept abreast of customer attitude and interaction – throughout the whole sales cycle.
Practicing for a sales meeting is vital, yet rarely done. Mostly because people are busy and they’re spending those last few hours perfecting their PowerPoint presentations.
It makes little sense to spend all your time building a sales presentation and no time practicing its actual delivery, yet that’s what sellers do – relying on their experience and ability to pivot on their feet.
That’s all well and good if the account executive is as good as he thinks he is, and that’s a big if. But it’s also very likely he’s not going to the customer alone. Several team members are likely to be with him in addition to the customer.
Practicing for a sales meeting with the whole team in attendance is vital, yet rarely done.
It’s critical that the account executive keep control of the sales meeting. If he loses it to the customer or to his boss or to a solution engineer gone off the rails, the consequences can be huge.
Almost certainly, he’s lost his ability to execute his sales strategy. He may not have time to ask for the business or state his business case or explain the weaknesses of a competitor – all of which are critical to winning.
Maneuvering with a customer to keep control of a sales meeting is an art. Ensuring his own team works to help him maintain control of the sales meeting comes down to one thing
only – practice.
Practice can and should include everything from rehearsing the exact choreography of the sales meeting and technology demo to handling anticipated objections and questions from the customer. It must absolutely include a discussion of each person’s role in the meeting, with an emphasis on topics to either highlight or avoid entirely.
How To Inject The Fundamentals Into Your Sales Cycle
The best way to put the fundamentals into practice is to think of them as a running checklist that you continually tick through as the sale progresses. How do you do that? Easy.
Periodically put yourself in the shoes of every member of your extended team and ask yourself these questions:
- Have I done all the preparation necessary to educate her appropriately on the customer and the deal?
- Have I prepared adequately to convey instructions?
- Have I communicated those instructions clearly?
- Have I allowed enough time for her to do the job properly, or am I routinely throwing in requests at the last minute?
- Have I followed up with her to ensure her preparation instructions are clear and she can deliver on time?
- Is she clear on her role and what topics should and should not be discussed in front of the customer.
- Have we practiced executing the sales meeting (including handling objections and questions) as a team in the time allotted on the agenda?
Think of the fundamentals as a running checklist that you continually tick through as the sales cycle progresses.
Now, regardless of how you manage the sales cycle, with an automation tool or some simpler format, you can ensure that your extended sales team is in tight coordination with both you and your strategy.
And Yet Sometimes It’s Groundhog Day
You’re managing your sales cycle using a cloud-based tool and various collaboration technologies. You’re running a continual fundamentals checklist scan to make sure you and the extended sales team are working effectively.
You tend to use the same extended sales team resources over and over again, so things are running smoothly. And then you get a new product to sell, which requires completely different extended team resources. Or you move to another division or another company. Or there’s a layoff and you don’t have access to the same number of resources as before.
In times of organizational stress, the tendency for everyone is to revert back to an undisciplined sales cycle executed by an uncoordinated extended team.
When this happens, the tendency is for everyone to revert to a less disciplined sales cycle with less coordination among extended team members, particularly when the company is experiencing financial pressure or significant organizational change.
If necessary, let the dust settle and then go about educating any new resources on how you manage the team sale and remind existing resources on the expectations you have for them.
Project managing the complex enterprise sale need not be a daunting task. With a structured sales cycle and a continual scan to ensure you are practicing the quarterback fundamentals of a good account executive, self-inflicted sales errors will decrease and your win rate will increase.
For more about team selling, see our Top Performer profile on Amy Manchester at http://symmetricsgroup.com/amy-manchester-best-of-class/ .
Download This Point of View Whitepaper in PDF Form: Symmetrics Group – Go-to-Market Strategy Whitepaper