• June 1, 2006
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

Selling Is All About the Setup

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We are always looking for ways to tweak the sales process, make it more efficient and ensure that we meet our revenue numbers. It's somewhat surprising, then, that very often we fail. According to Jim Dickie, a columnist for CRM magazine and partner with CSO Insights, in his annual survey of sales professionals only 59.1 percent of sales representatives made their number last year. What's most interesting to me about this number is that it comes to us after CRM, SFA, sales effectiveness, methodologies, coaching, and who knows what else have been developed in our constant effort to sell more. I think in terms of process: What I see suggests that we have polished it so much that the paint is wearing off. If we intend to improve the output of the sales process we might benefit more by improving the inputs rather than the process itself and that, inevitably, means how we market. This idea scares people, because it implies asking a lot of open-ended questions about preferences, attitudes, and needs. Moreover, the results are hard to quantify and it is even harder to calculate an immediate return on the cost and work involved in collecting the information. Nevertheless, studies show that this kind of information is vital to long-term sales success. Perhaps our model of selling as a hierarchical activity like football needs to change. In football you huddle, call a play, and drive down the field against the opposition to a goal. But marketing and selling is much more like basketball, where you play a strategy game even when you don't have the ball. Players run the fast break, set picks, and go up for rebounds without knowing if they will get the ball or get to score. Scoring is relatively easy in basketball--that's why a basket is only worth two points. Basketball and marketing-centric selling are all about the setup--getting the ball, getting to your end of the court, and getting the ball into the hands of an open player who can make a 15 foot or better jump shot. In basketball, the team that plays the best fundamentals provides the best inputs into the scoring process and usually wins. Several books published in the past year or so poke around the idea of working on the inputs to the sales process--the basketball approach to selling, as I think of it. Glen Urban (Don't Just Relate, Advocate) has looked at how companies develop loyalty in existing customers for clues about how well companies do. Fred Reichheld (The Ultimate Question) took it a step farther by developing the idea of the net promoter score (NPS). For Reichheld loyalty is nice, but it's even better if your customers act as an ad hoc marketing department. The NPS is simply the delta between those who love you and those who don't; hopefully it's a positive number. Of course, none of this rises to the level of placing a person on Mars, but it is amazing that we sometimes need someone to point out the obvious to us. Sometimes we get so accustomed to a model of how to look at reality that we fail to see obvious solutions, because they conflict with our models. That's just human nature--if you believe in a flat earth, there are things you will not even consider trying. No matter what we do, not every salesperson will make quota--if each does, we know the goal was too low. But in our never-ending effort to improve, it may be time to think about the paradigm again. Time to ask if the inputs to the sales process--like the way we generate and qualify leads--are the best they can be. Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. He can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com
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