Abandon your sales process. Really?

In the past several months, I’ve read several blogs and articles that are advising sales leaders to abandon their sales process in favor of adopting their customer’s buying process. In some cases this might be wise advice. But in many, it may result in disaster.

It’s true that the buyer has more control than ever in how they go about purchasing products and services. They also have more information than ever, earlier in their buyer journey. But this does not mean that you should throw caution to the wind and adopt how they want to buy. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. The impact on deal qualification. If you abandon how you sell to the buyer’s process, you will end up chasing a higher percentage of bad deals. What’s a bad deal? One where you will make a poor margin, have a bad solution fit or the buyer may clearly not be someone you want to do business with (poor company fit or high risk concerns). If you abandon your early stage qualification steps, you run the risk of significantly decreasing your level of sales efficiency and increasing your cost of sale. This may be a bad thing to say, but most buyers may not care if this is a good deal for you or not.

  2. The impact on need/solution qualification. Does your prospect really know what is right for them? It’s similar to a patient telling a doctor the cause of their illness and just asking the doctor to blindly do surgery or prescribe medicine – without the doctor doing his/her necessary research and diagnosis. Most buyers want the seller to provide them advisory and consultation along the journey. Nearly every top-producer I have ever had the privilege to work with was a master in consultative selling, needs dialogue and delivery of honest advice no matter if they won or lost the deal.

  3. The impact on your business insights. Insights into the behaviors of your sales people and the key data you need to understand how to help your individual contributors improve. These insights are traditionally bucketed into things like prospecting, needs dialogue, presentation or negotiation skills. Not every sales person is great at each of these. Abandoning in favor of a pure customer process could cause lack of insight into these critical skill sets.

So what is a sales leader to do? The best advice is to align your buyer process with your sales process. This is not a new concept, but one that works really well. Most buyer stages/steps/phases will align with your sales process. What is different are the actions, expectations and goals – and those need to be fully aligned.

Aligning the two processes is not an easy endeavor. It involves a deep understanding of your buyers and the actions and activities that they take when they purchase a solution. It also requires training, coaching and sustainment at the field level. You can’t just send out a single piece of paper to the sales team that shows a buyer process and expect them to understand it or how it relates to their sales process. You will also have to modify your CRM system in order to show the alignment and capture any additional information needed to confirm alignment. Net is that this will affect your people, your process and your technology.

Before considering this journey, engage someone who has done this before (peer, consultant, advisor). Their experience in helping you navigate the project will be immeasurable. Selling is a behavior-based activity, it takes at least two to tango and everyone wants to be the lead. They key is to combine the two processes in a way that both partners are in control and can add value to the overall process. Because we all know that a successful sale is one where both parties are happy with the outcome and the experiences they gained along the way.

Keys To High Sales Process Adoption

So your company is having a hard time getting your sales team to constantly follow a sales process and your CRM data and forecast accuracy is paying the price. I hear that statement several times a week from companies looking to overcome this challenge. There are many reasons for this issue, processes do age, become no longer relevant, are deployed incorrectly or not trained and sustained. If you are experiencing these challenges, here are some keys to creating and sustaining an adoptable sales process.

Key number one – keep it simple. Complexity is the enemy of adoption. The more complex you make it, the fewer the sales people who will follow it. Time is a precious commodity to any sales person. The more steps you make them follow, the more data you make them enter, the more validation hoops you make the jump through - the worse your adoption will be.

Key number two - keep it aligned with the buyer. Each stage in your process should relate directly to something the buyer is doing (not something you are doing internally – like “legal review”). Keeping it aligned to the buyer is the simplest way to ensure that your opportunities are in the right sales stages. Buyer activity is the best validation you can have to the quality and progression of opportunities. By doing this, you can skip a lot of unnecessary stage requirements that burden sales people.

Key number three – focus on four simple components in each stage. These components will ensure that there is consistency across the sales people on the expectations of input and output for each stage.

  • Seller action – what activity is performed and what is the goal of the activity?
  • Buyer action – what is the buyer doing and what is their expectation
  • Opportunity validation – what customer-driven validation tells you that an opportunity has a right to be in the stage and a right to progress to the next stage?
  • KPI – what are the 2-3 data points that you need to measure in order to tell you the health of the stage?

Key number four – track and report sales behavior. I don’t mean spy on the sales people, but watch how they manage their sales process. Are they entering opportunities in the right stages? Are they skipping stages forward or backward? Are they consistently pushing deals? Do they have inaccurate close dates and values? These key behaviors, when reviewed sales person by sales person, will allow you to key in on those sales people who are struggling with your process. This will give you the easy button in knowing who needs more process adoption help.

A sales process is driven by people – buyers and sellers. People are consistently changing. By creating a simple process, with defined components, validated by buyer activity and measured at least monthly, you can keep a pulse on your adoption and the key changes that are happening in your sales operation.

How Not To Be An Accelerator Of Inaccuracy.

I was in a meeting the other day with a potential customer and the decision maker said something to me that really put managing a sales pipeline and forecast accuracy in perspective. An accurate sales pipeline and forecast requires that sales reps are working on the right opportunities, in the right stage of the seller/buyer process, with a customer validated close date and an accurate deal value. It’s what I call the Four Rights to Accurate Sales Forecasting.

The decision maker and the influencers in the room fully understood the four rights, but they commented that getting to the four rights requires some heavy lifting. Together, we netted it out to needing to work on three things – making sure that their sales process is optimized, that their sales reps and managers are following the process and that there is some technology to help bring it all together.

The group immediately started in on talking about technology. The decision maker then said something that really put it into perspective. He said “If we don’t fix our process first and ensure that our people are held accountable to the process, then all we are doing is accelerating the time to inaccuracy by focusing on technology first.”

By gosh, he’s right. The simple thing to do would be to go out and buy a nice shiny BI tool, sales forecasting solution or custom build something in your CRM system. But all that would do is speed up the reporting of inaccuracy. Why? Because if the process is broken and the people are not accountable to the process, you will not have the four rights and your data will be inaccurate.

The moral of the story is to make sure that before you engage in any sales pipeline or forecasting improvement project, work on process and people first and then find the right technology to help you manage and report your business. Don’t be an accelerator of inaccuracy.

The Crawl, Walk, Run Approach To Improving Sales Analytics

Let’s assume for a moment that you are a head of sales or sales operations for your company.  You just spent months researching, buying, configuring and implementing an awesome sales analytics solution.  You have rolled it out to the team and have skilled up everyone on how to use it.  Everyone has dashboards galore and gosh are the dashboards really great looking.  Management is totally pumped that now they will have the insight they need to really make sound business decisions. You expect a big impact on performance in terms of reps closing more deals faster.  You are on your way.

Fast forward now 4-6 months.  Management is getting a bit frustrated.  They have not seen the near-term improvement they expected.  More deals are not closing faster.  In fact, management is asking for even more data to understand why, as the data they have does not seem right.  You have pushed your reps as far as you can in terms of forcing them to use the tools and leverage the analytics, but they too are frustrated.  They don’t have the time to use the fancy tool, look at the good-looking dashboards or even understand what the dashboards are telling them.  They barely have enough time to use their CRM system and the other 15 tools they have been given.

Sound familiar?  It should.  In CSO Insights’ 2015 Sales Performance Optimization Study, CSO states that “this year’s figure reflects the lowest level of CRM adoption in ten years.”  With all of the apps, the data, the fancy dashboards, how can this possibly happen?  If your sales performance data is coming from your CRM and CRM adoption is low, can you really make accurate business decisions from that data?  Simple answer is no.  

Think back 10 years when everyone was touting the three keys to successful sales performance – people, process and technology. Well, in these past few years, the people and the process took a back seat to the technology. Getting an app will fix everything we were told. Well, what about making sure the people have the right skills, they follow a successful process and they have the overall knowledge to do their jobs well?

Selling requires people. In most cases, selling takes at least two people – a buyer and a seller. Every human is unique and can’t be expected to do everything the same, know everything and be predictive. If that was the case, we would all be robots. So here is the ugly truth:

  1. Before you can trust any analytics you have to get your CRM adoption improved. You have to make sure reps are working on the right opportunities, those opportunities are in the right stages, and they have the right deal values and accurate close dates. These are the 4-rights to accurate pipeline and forecast management.
  2. Reps have to follow a process. Sales processes still matter. Just try tossing your process out the window for a few weeks, use nothing and see what happens. There has to be a standard in your company by which analysis and insights can be derived. The process has to take into consideration buyer and seller activities. It has to be flexible enough to change with change. Because change happens fast and frequently.
  3. People have to be accountable. In order to be accountable they need knowledge and the understanding of why they need to do things by standards. They need more knowledge about how to be successful in your company, selling your products and services. Managers have to be held accountable for holding their people accountable for running your business the right way.

Tackling these challenges is totally doable. But everything can’t be solved in one shot. Take a crawl, walk, run approach and focus first on your process and people. Don’t just buy technology and think that all will be right with the world. Technology is part of this solution, but not the first step.

Crawl: Start with understanding your sales and forecast process, how your people use the process, what data needs to be recorded, how your customers purchasing process impacts your sales team and what behaviors will impact the process. Involve your sales people, managers and customers in this step. They have the answers. Listen to them and tweak or re-build your process so that it works for your people and your customers. Integrate the process into your CRM in a very simple way that requires the least amount of data entry possible by the sales rep. Find out the data/insights reps and frontline managers need in order be successful. Build the necessary reports in your CRM system or get the necessary BI tool based on the requirements from your sales team. It’s critical to look at the BI or reporting tool AFTER you have updated your sales and forecast process and know your requirements for reporting.

Walk: Roll the solution you developed in the Crawl stage out to a larger group. Follow the same monitor and tweaking steps you used in Crawl. Train, measure and tweak again. Focus on front-line managers to ensure they hold the line on accountability. The managers are the key to accountability.

Run: Open it up to all groups. Train, measure, tweak and sustain. Again, focus on front-line managers to sustain accountability. Always be measuring and monitoring at each stage in the process and be on the lookout for behaviors that degrade process and data quality. Remember that change happens and happens fast and frequently. It’s a constant battle that requires consistent measurement and management.

Don’t attempt to take any short cuts. Make sure you get help and surround yourself with people who have successfully done this before. They will help you to step over the hidden land mines and help you to keep your project on course. Going it alone without an advisor or consultant will dramatically increase your risk of failure. So remember to crawl, then walk, then run. Something we have all done before.

Don’t be weighed down by an inaccurate sales forecast. There is a better way.

Probability is the measure of the likeliness that an event will occur. It’s very common for sales leaders to use probability to measure the likeliness that revenue will occur. It’s an easy, but highly inaccurate method of reporting a sales forecast.

Here’s why using probability is not the best method for sales forecasting:

  • Selling is binary. It’s a yes or a no. You either win the deal or lose the deal. You don’t win a percentage of a deal. It’s not reality.

  • If your competition has a similar probability on the same deal, then someone is wrong.

  • It assumes all opportunities have the same level of risk in each sales stage.

We all know that as an opportunity progresses through the buyer’s journey, that the likelihood the opportunity will be won does increase. That the inherent risk of an opportunity should be decreasing. If every sales person and deal was exactly the same, these would be correct statements.

It is possible to look at your historical performance and use conversion rates by stage to weight a pipeline or a forecast. This works for the CXO, where they just need a number and are not concerned about what makes up that number. At the frontline, weighting does not work. Managers and reps need to speak in terms of real deals and the risks inherent to those deals. Explaining what makes up 80% of your negotiation stage does little to help sales managers and reps focus on the right deals.

So what’s better than weighting?

Use a forecast methodology based on risk scenarios. Here’s how it works. Once an opportunity moves into a stage in your sales process whereby it should be “forecastable” and has a close date of the particular forecast period, that opportunity goes on a potential forecast list.

The sales rep then assigns a risk scenario to the opportunity. If there is no risk scenario assigned, then the opportunity most likely is not closeable in that forecast period and should be assigned a more accurate close date. Best practice risk scenarios include:

  1. Commit – which includes revenue already won plus deals where the sales rep has secured a verbal.
  2. Likely – Commit scenario total plus opportunities that are closeable in the forecast period, but still require some work and carry an acceptable level of risk. An example would be an opportunity where your solution is in the finals and the decision is due in the forecast period.
  3. Best case – Likely scenario total plus opportunities that will be a stretch to close in the forecast period. A best case opportunity example would be an opportunity that you can pull into the quarter if needed, but it would take some work to get done.

Each scenario is totaled at the rep, manager and CSO levels. The dollars are backed by fact – the actual deals and values. When managers meet with reps to discuss the forecast, they talk about actual opportunities.

If a forecast over-ride is required by a manager, that manager can add or take opportunities out of the forecast. If a manual forecast is required (where a sales manager can add or take away dollars from the forecast that are not opportunity-backed), then the forecast should include a gap or upside calculation when compared to actual opportunities in each scenario that the manager has to explain. Manual forecasts are common for businesses that have run-rate (renewal) revenue where management wants to account for those dollars.

There’s a lot more to just picking scenarios to ensure forecast accuracy. You also have to make sure you that your opportunities are in the right sales stages, have the right value and an accurate close date selected. This is directly related to how your sales team adheres to your sales process and the data entry requirements for your CRM system.

Don’t weigh you sales team down with discounted forecast weights that do not add to their ability to improve forecast accuracy. If you know the numbers mean nothing, so do they. Give them a process and a model that really helps them to give you the accurate insights into your forecast, in the most simple and intuitive manner possible.

The 4 Rights To Accurate Sales Forecasting

Accurate sales forecasting requires technology, process and accountable people.  The technology has to very easy to use.  The process needs to be embedded in the technology.  The people all have to use the technology to ensure they follow the process.  If any one of these pieces is missing, forecast accuracy is greatly diminished.

With regard to technology, they key is to give the sales reps a forecast methodology and a very easy and intuitive screen to create a forecast natively in your CRM system.  Not just report the forecast, but to have an actual worksheet where they can create it and update it.  Sales reps should be able to create a forecast in less than 15 minutes, in real time and roll-up automatically to each management level.  The technology should eliminate your dependence on clunky, time consuming and frustrating spreadsheet roll-up exercises.

With a strong forecasting platform (real-time worksheet/reporting, methodology and trained-up sales reps/managers) in place, you would think you would be good to go and have an accurate forecast.  That assumption would be incorrect.  An accurate forecast also depends on the quality of how your sales pipeline is being managed.   Bad data in your CRM system will only lead to bad forecast accuracy.  The four rights of forecasting are focused on ensuring you have quality pipeline data.

Right #1 Reps need to be working on the right opportunities.

Successful selling involves asking some tough questions early in the engagement and being honest about the answers.  The tough questions should ensure you are selling to your target customer persona.  Does the buyer fit that persona?  Is there sufficient magnitude or urgency in solving the business challenge?  Does the project have sufficient political sponsorship to shepherd it to completion.  If the prospect's intentions do seem credible, is the opportunity right for your company?

Ideally, you should be using a sales methodology that will help you to qualify the bad opportunities out by your proposal stage. Reps who work on unqualified opportunities will typically push those deals along the sales process until it is too late.  Too late to save your company money (cost of sale increases as deals progress) and save  themselves time – which is their most valuable resource.  Unqualified deals that make it to a forecast will destroy your accuracy and consume valuable resources, as they are focused on the wrong potential revenue.

 Right #2 Opportunities need to be in the right stages.

Opportunities that are not in the right stage means your sales rep is either not in sync with your sales process or with your buyer.  To ensure that opportunities are in the  right stage, you have to get back to the basics of following your sales process.  To be effective, a sales process should be based on  the customer's buying process, which is the set of decisions that the customer wants to make, in the order that the customer wants to make them.

Each stage of your sales process should have a customer-validated activity that ensures that the opportunity has a right to be in that stage.  The customer should tell the seller when to move along, not vice versa.   For example, a key validation activity after a needs dialogue would be for the sales rep to send a summary email of the meeting along with next steps and the ask that the buyer respond with approval to take next steps.  If the prospect does not respond, the opportunity does not move to the next stage until the prospect confirms.

When strong customer validation is in place,  opportunities will very seldom be in the wrong stage.  Opportunities in the wrong stage will inflate your forecast, chew up valuable resources and foster “deal pushing” behaviors.

 

Right #3 Opportunities need to have the right value.

Although it can vary by industry, valuing an opportunity is usually practiced more as an art than using principles founded in reality. Many managers actively ignore opportunity value until the deal is actually committed – because they don’t actually believe the   numbers - but in doing so, they allow forecasting and even cash flow problems to grow wings. Also, loose deal valuation leads to loose opportunity management from the very start of the sales process, as evidenced in poor questioning, poor deal strategizing and weak management of stakeholders.

It is wise to have minimum deal values, early in the sales process that are increased over time, versus the more usual practice of reducing the deal value, as the deals get closer to the end of the sales process.  We’ve all experienced the end-of-quarter forecast collapse, as big deals turn into nothing more than small trials of the product or service.

A best practice recommendation is for sales reps to use their historical average deal sizes for the early stage valuation if they have no clue as to the value, but they know the solution they will offer.  This will greatly help to reduce the guessing.  Second, track late stage deal valuation changes to determine discount trending.  Having this knowledge will give you additional insight into how over-inflated  the bottom of your pipeline could be.

Right #4 Opportunities need to have the right close date.

CRMs have turned close dates into a mandatory and potentially meaningless “field”, yet it’s the one of the main metrics that drive a forecast, tells us how optimistic or realistic the rep is, and how well informed they are about the opportunity.  And it’s the metric that tells us the extent to which the rep is tuned into the buyer’s timeline - which in turn, drives the sales forecast.  Managers need to encourage reps to develop two specific  behaviors with regard to close dates:

  1. Raise timeline issues early in sales conversations with buyers.
  2. Stop and think about real consequences of selecting a close date, before committing to it.

World-class sales managers don’t allow close dates to be treated as a guessing game; they make accurate close date recording part of sales performance measurement, correction and recognition.  Here’s a great tip, know the average sales cycle of each   individual rep.   When reps first enter opportunities into your CRM system, they may not have a handle on the close date.  Coach them to use a date in the future that is out at least the same number of days as their average sales cycle.   If you have software that can predict a close date based on the sales reps historical performance, all the better to give them deeper insight into a more accurate timeline.

By helping sales people to focus on the four rights of accurate sales forecasting, you can eliminate most of the manual forecasting efforts, remove your dependence on spreadsheets and give back to your sales team more time that they can spend on closing business.

 

 

 

 

Sales Forecasting With Excel? There is a better way!

According to CSO Insights, 48.6% of companies need to improve sales forecasting and companies that use spreadsheets to forecast only close 46% of their forecasted deals – causing many a CEO and CFO significant frustration. For those CEOs who are in that 46%, they head into board meetings with a coin flip’s chance of hitting the number.

 When forecasts are regularly missed, employees lose confidence, people lose their jobs, investors lose their money, and - ultimately - companies can and do fail. What happens when forecasting is accurate? In a recent Aberdeen study, top-leaders who deploy-insight driven forecasting with a strong process rigor see:

                    · A 12 month improvement in organic revenue by 23%

· Improvement of the sales cycle by 8.3%

· 9.3% increase in number of sales reps making quota

The Excel rollup.

How forecasting is done by most companies, ubiquitous across industries, is that sales reps and managers export pipeline data (dates and dollars) out of their CRM system and create manual Excel spreadsheets. The rest of the process (monthly, quarterly, etc.) happens outside of Salesforce and there is not historical audit trail of the information.  The managers then apply their experience and manipulate the data based on their gut feel or guess at what the numbers are going to be. Even if they hit their forecast, many of the deals that were forecasted may not the deals that were closed.  Most of the time they lose track of the pushes as they move into the next reporting period.  Interesting situation to say the least.

So why are so many organizations’ sales forecasts still so abysmally bad? Technology, process and people.

 The fact is that Salesforce.com (SFDC) was never designed to be a forecasting application. It lacks the fundamentals to drive accurate forecasting. Forecasting is a manual process that is far from error-free. It’s nearly impossible to improve forecasting without analysis and insight into sales behaviors and critical deal management data – something that Salesforce.com was not designed to do.  Sales reps spend twice the amount of time on forecasting than they should. They extract data from SFDC into a spreadsheet. They then modify the spreadsheet and send to their manager. Their manager than modifies that data and combines it into the team data and then submits it to management. Management then changes the data. Sales reps are then expected to manually go back into SFDC and update the information - forcing them to do the work twice. All along the way, human errors are made that corrupt the forecast and make it nearly impossible to explain what and where they went wrong.  Sound Familiar?

There is a better way.

Accurate forecasting is a marathon and not a race.  It’s not something that is achieved by simply plugging in a great software application and then hoping that people use it.  Great forecasting requires rigor – strong process, accountability, coaching and measurement.

So how do you get rigor?  Follow these steps.

Step 1. Install or build a simple forecasting process into your CRM system.  This is not  reporting.  Reporting does not solve forecasting rigor.  This is an actual worksheet where sales reps can add opportunities to a forecast and commit opportunities to specific scenarios.   This is a real-time forecasting platform that automatically rolls up to the most senior level of sales.  The average time it should take a sales rep to develop or update a forecast should be less than 15 minutes.

Step 2.  Train sales people to use the worksheet.  This should literally take 10 minutes.  Part of this training should include accountability.  All forecasting and all reviews are now to happen in the worksheet – right inside of your CRM  system.  There is no excuse for not having an updated forecast.

Step 3.  Train managers on how to use the worksheet for forecast reviews.  A great forecast worksheet should lend itself to “one-click” access to each sales rep’s forecast.  Saving managers countless hours a week begging reps for forecasts and compiling spreadsheets.

Step 4.  Measure everything.  Trending and monitoring forecast accuracy is key to improving performance. Knowing the volume, velocity, win rates, loss rates, opportunity data accuracy (close dates, value, activity, stage) and use this information to trend out into the future is what you need to predict future performance.   

Step 5.  Continually tweak the system using your key performance indicators.  Ensuring that opportunities are in the right stages, with the right close dates, with the right values and the right data that tells you the opportunity risk is what you need to drove accurate forecasts.  To do this, you will have to consistently monitor and coach your reps.  Why?  Because sales rep behaviors change all the time.

Savvy sales executives know that near the end of every sales period, a frenzy of “almost” deals will be advertised as closeable with extra discounting or executive participation. Which opportunities are worth the time? How do you know when to discontinue them or engage them more deeply. The faster managers know which deals to support, the better the chance those deals will get signed. Picture a world where you know you have the right opportunities in the right stages, with the right close dates and the right values. When managers get all of those “rights” right, decisions have already been made. They already know who to engage and who not to. Issue solved. That’s the future of forecasting.

 


 

How to achieve true sales and marketing integration.

Sales and marketing have always had challenges integrating and collaborating cohesively. Although they coexist, many times, they have different perspectives on the customer experience and the management of leads. Sales expert Janice Mars of SalesLatitude and marketing operations specialist Frank Donny of Marseli share their insights on how sales and marketing teams can build better relationships and achieve long-lasting results. Janice and Frank have worked together in the field to solve many of the sales and marketing integration challenges companies face.

Q: Why is there a disconnect between sales and marketing?

Frank: Customer interest starts with marketing, and that’s where many customer relationships start with your company. Marketing investment is the tip of a spear; its objective is to entice interest. There’s a whole process and infrastructure that drives that, up until it’s handed off to the sales team. But the problem is in the hand-off because the two processes act independently rather than working together on development, training and deployment of a seamless demand generation and sales solution.

Janice: I often hear from sales teams that marketing doesn’t understand what they need. Sales is essentially marketing’s customer, so there needs to be a mechanism for understanding what sales wants, which usually is lots of high quality leads.

Q: Where exactly is the sales-marketing relationship breaking down?

Frank: The main break down is in the lack of integration in the flow of leads through the process and marketing truly knowing what is happening to those leads. Marketing might fail to understand what sales needs, and only sees lack of movement with the leads they’ve invested in acquiring. Meanwhile, sales is reactive to marketing and what they deliver. If they deliver something different than what is needed, then they react accordingly and don’t follow up with leads and many times those actions result in failed marketing investments.

Janice: Colder leads take longer to nurture too. If high-end sales reps are more hunters than farmers, then they don’t want to spend all their time doing that level of nurturing. Passing cold leads to sales tends to make them inefficient. The main issue here is the absence of some agreement on what a true lead is. Did marketing qualify the lead? What questions did they ask? If they asked the questions we agreed to, then why am I getting this cold lead? Those are the questions sales asks on a regular basis.

Q: What can companies do to make the sales and marketing relationship work?

Frank: Companies need to understand what a best practice infrastructure looks like. Sure, it’s easy to throw leads over the fence to sales. But marketing may need to hold on to those leads until they are truly ready to interact with a sales rep. Marketing needs to be aligned with sales on different levels. For example, marketing could be compensated according to the percentage of the pipeline or sales generated as a result of their efforts. Communication is another key area for alignment; they need a seat at the sales management table where they have a voice, can hear issues, offer solutions and be more transparent. Many times, marketing is not included and has trouble understanding the needs of sales as a result.

Janice: I totally agree, Frank. Both sales and marketing need to develop a joint process in order to see the entire experience of the buyer as they’re going through the sales cycle, with reporting and key performance indicators to gain visibility into what’s working and what’s not. This way, the process can be managed based on fact rather than opinion, and drive real discussions around performance. Just like buyer-seller customer relationships, sales and marketing should establish active, results-based service level agreements between the two groups. By nature, an SLA would require them to meet regularly to create an open forum for communication and establish a process that works for everyone and gets actual results.

We would love to hear about the challenges you face in integrating sales and marketing, and what you have done to create better alignment between the teams.

Janice Mars, Managing Partner and co-founder of SalesLatitude, is a senior business and sales executive with more 30 years of experience helping companies build successful sales teams. She has parlayed that experience to help her clients to improve their sales processes, accurately forecast revenues, ensure focus on winnable opportunities, and attain consistent results. View my LinkedIn profile | Twitter

Frank Donny is founder and CEO of Marseli, a firm that makes sales and marketing operations faster, smarter, accurate and affordable. Frank’s remarkable 25-year career of driving marketing and sales operations divisions within Fortune 500 and start-up organizations is highlighted by his passion for business development and empowering others to succeed. Frank is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales performance, demand generation, pipeline management and sales and marketing integration.

Improving Opportunity Management: 4 key points you need to stay laser focused on.

by Frank Donny, Chief Evangelist, Marseli and Michael McGowan, CEO, Sales6ix.

The text books set the bar high for sales managers in terms of their role as effective performance agents. However, they usually don’t mention that many, if not most sales leaders, don’t have the time to be effective! Most sales management is done on the run. In fact, it is now recognized that sales managers are most effective when they intervene “in the moment”, at the point when the work is being done, and not afterwards at the month or quarter-end meeting.

So, how does a sales manager become a more effective manager? How does a sales manager become more productive, drive higher performance across the sales team, and not have to take time off to figure out how to do it?

At the heart of the answer, is insight – the performance information a manager works with. Most sales managers interaction with data ranges from a hurried spread sheet overview once a week, to poring over dozens of CRM reports, that don’t really give clear information about performance gaps or pipeline or forecast risks. Yet in 80% of sales organizations, the right data actually exists and is recorded already. So what is that data and how do you get your hands on it?

Put 4 Universal Data Points to Work

There are 4 data points associated with every sales opportunity that are the basis of efficiently diagnosing and developing a plan to improve sales performance.

1. Reps working on the right opportunities (opportunity quality)

2. Opportunities being in the right stage (following the sales/buyer process)

3. Having accurate close dates (deal push reduction)

4. Correct deal valuation (pipeline value accuracy)

What accelerates the value of the data is producing a small set of on-demand analytics and visual reporting right inside of your CRM system that makes it easy for the manager to use the data and spot problem deals before it is too late. It’s then that the data becomes the manager’s effectiveness tool.

Working with the Right Opportunities

One of the biggest killers of sales efficiency is when reps do not properly qualify early stage opportunities. Mostly due to the lack of a tightly defined opportunity persona and requirements, sales teams that do not have a clear definition of what a qualified opportunity is and when it can move from your first stage to your second stage in your process create a higher cost of sale and longer sales cycles.

To get a handle on what is happening in your first two stages (the most critical stages), track stage age, deal flow (your conversion rates) and key activities that are happening in your first two stages. If you have a high conversion rate from stage 1 to stage 2 along with a lower than average stage age and little to no activity being logged, take a deeper look at performance in your next two stages. Be on the lookout for a dip in your conversion rate for your second stage. If this is happening, reps are pushing too many unqualified deals too far into your sales process. Being laser focused on deal qualification early in your sales model will significantly improve your efficiency, time to revenue and allow your reps the much-needed time to focus on deals that really matter.

 Stage of the Selling / Buying Cycle

Sales process stages are now accepted as the norm in many sales organizations. What is also the norm is each sales person defining the stages as they see fit, and ignoring the criteria associated with each stage. The flow of a sales opportunity is not measurable the way one would measure the flow of oil in a pipeline, so we need to describe it using categories or stages. Doing this in a disciplined way leads to enormous gains in sales effectiveness and enable managers to instantly diagnose the health of an opportunity. Managers need to use stages this way:

  • Have fewer rather than more: 5-6 is optimal for a robust sales process.
  • Allow no variation in the labelling or defining of the stages.  Present the stages visually, rather than linearly.
  • Align stages to the age of the opportunity and your buyer process.
  • Replace tactical reactions / conversations with strategic intervention.

The Projected Close Date

CRMs have turned close dates into a mandatory and meaningless “field”, yet it’s the one metric that drives the forecast, tells us how optimistic or realistic the rep is, and how well informed they are about the opportunity. And it’s the metric that tells us the extent to which the rep is tuned into the buyer’s timeline which in turn, drives the sales forecast. Managers need to encourage reps to develop two specific behaviors with regard to close dates:

          1. Raise timeline issues early in sales conversations with buyers.
          2. Stop and think about real consequences of selecting a close date, before committing to it.

World-class sales managers don’t allow close dates to be treated as a guessing game; they make accurate close date recording part of sales performance measurement, correction and recognition. Here’s a great tip, know the average sales cycle of each individual rep. When reps first enter opportunities into your CRM system, they may not have a handle on the close date. Coach them to use a date in the future that is out at least the same number of days as their average sales cycle.

Correct Deal Valuation

Although it can vary by industry, valuing an opportunity is usually practiced more as an art than using principle founded in reality. Many managers actively ignore opportunity value until the deal is actually committed – because they don’t actually believe the numbers - but in doing so, they allow forecasting and even cash flow problems to grow wings. Also, loose deal valuation leads to loose opportunity management from the very start of the sales process, as evidenced in poor questioning, poor deal strategizing and weak management of stakeholders.

It is wise to have minimum deal values, early in the sales process that are increased over time, versus the more usual practice of reducing the deal value, as the deals gets closer to the end of the sales process; we've all experienced the end-of-quarter forecast collapse, as big deals turn into nothing more than small trials of the product or service.

A couple of key analytics can shine a lot of light on how reps are managing deal values, if at all. It’s a metric managers should challenge and educate their sales people how it affects forecasting and deal strategizing.

There are definitely more data points that we could have added to this list. The idea is to keep it simple. Focus on fewer metrics and be laser focused on acting on the insights those metrics uncover. By keying in on these four data points several results will happen. You will improve your coaching. You will improve your efficiency. You will improve your sales rep’s success. So, go ahead and get your hands on your data. Your insights are waiting for you.

About the authors:

Michael McGowan is co-founder and CEO of Sales6ix, an easy and powerful pipeline and forecasting tool for sales teams. He is author of Rules of the Road for the Sales Team: The Manager’s Essential Handbook for Creating the Self-Correcting Team.

Frank Donny is founder and CEO of Marseli, a marketing and sales diagnostic, performance measurement and improvement software and services company. He is a frequent blogger, author and speaker on sales and marketing integration and performance.

Why sales reps don’t use CRM and what you can do about it.

I read an article the other day about why many sales reps do not use CRM systems, which cited the most common reason as the sales process did not match the buyer’s process.  This is a reason, but it’s one of many.  In my own experience helping hundreds of sales operations leaders, the top 5 reasons I find - are:

1.       Limited or no flexibility.  It’s impossible to automate the role of a sales rep.  If it was, robots would be selling.  The act of selling takes two humans – a buyer and a seller.  Every human is different.  They have different ways of doing things.  Different comfort levels and what works for one person may not work for another.  What works for a buyer might not work for the seller.  So, forcing everyone to follow the same exact procedures, actions and in some cases process, without some level of flexibility just does not work.  The best way to address this is to interview your sales team, find the areas that need flexibility and build those into your overall system requirements where it makes sense.  Here’s a good example – sales reps who have more of a hunter skill set than a farmer skill set being forced to do the same activities and follow the same rules of engagement.  They are two separate types of reps and forcing one model on the other will result in failure.

2.       Management.  Two issues here – management behaviors and compliance.  Over-bearing managers will crush your CRM adoption.  Constant backseat deal driving, forced deal commitment or managers stepping in to take over deals will cause sales reps to sandbag deals.  Reps will hide deals and activity by not entering them into your CRM system until they feel it is safe to do so.  The risk here is that if the deal is not in your CRM system, there is no record of it at all.  If that rep leaves your company, so does that deal.  The second issue is compliance.  Sales managers have to all be on the same page and stick to the plan.  If even one team deviates from the plan, the word will get out and anarchy will set in.  A final note here is to also ensure you have the right sales process.  Forcing a sales process on a sales team that just does not work will cause sales reps to develop their own work around to your system.

3.       Poor implementation.  During the rollout, the application was not set up and trained properly.  Poor configuration of the sales process and reports.  Too many fields that need to be populated based on the need for too much data (the right data and not big data).  Redundancy of data entry drives reps nuts. Keep data entry simple.  Over-configuration and over-complex process and procedures.  Nothing kills adoption faster than wasting sales people’s time.    Time is a valuable resource for every rep.  Asking them to do unnecessary administrative work that takes time away from selling will only get you the following statement “What do you want me to be doing, entering data all day long or selling?” Only and I mean only ask the sales reps to enter data that you truly need to run your business.  What you need to ensure is that the right opportunities are in the right stage, with the right close date with the right value.  If you can optimize that, few additional requirements really matter when it comes to managing a pipeline.

4.       Value.  The reps don’t see the payback.  If the system is not helping them close more deals faster, they will find another way to manage their book of business.  Oddly enough, just giving them a CRM system will not give them a payback.  You have to surround the system with additional value-added solutions that save them time.   Don’t guess at what your team needs.  Interview them and find out.  Pick the solutions that they want, not what you want or think they need.   There needs to be a balance between the needs of the organization and the needs of the reps.  You need data to run your company.  You need reps to enter that data.  Your CRM system should be designed to make the required data gathering for those reports to be as easy as possible.  Adding value to the reps ability to manage his or her pipeline is a good way to ensure you get the data.

5.       Lack of incentive.  Be the incentive forced compliance by management (do it or you are fired) or paid (follow the plan and get a salary lift or recognition), something needs to be in place.  I’m not a big fan of the stick method.  No one likes to get threatened.  I am a fan of pay for performance.  The little extra compensation or recognition for a job well done will go a long way to improving adoption.  I have seen companies create an awards program (both monetary and non-monetary) that provide monthly, quarterly and annual recognition.  This is where gamificaton can help.

Notice that I did not put a lot of blame on the sales rep.  Many of you might be thinking that I left “lazy” off of the list.  Most reps are not lazy.  For the most part they want to do the right thing – even those pesky top producers.  So do the right thing and get back to the basics.  Cut out the complexity.  Make it more flexible.  Listen to your reps and put value back into your CRM.  One thing is guaranteed, if your reps don’t see the value, you will not see the adoption and the return on your investment.