Let me take you way, way back to a time when I was a quota-carrying sales rep. The meeting room was filled with everyone from our sales team.
At the front of the room, next to a pull-down white screen with a projected Powerpoint slide deck – slightly askew so the slide wasn’t totally, evenly on the screen and had an odd triangle of slide just off-screen on the bland beige wall – was our head of sales.
However you are now imagining how the head of sales looked, it's exactly how he looked.
Not to say that ALL heads of sales looked like him; but if you run the demographics, I’d guess it would be a statistically significant percentage of heads of sales who looked like this guy.
You may even be a head of sales reading this right now who looks like this guy did – and that’s cool, I’m not judging – I’m just stating the fact that this guy was like almost every other head of sales I had ever worked with in my 15+ year sales career to date.
He pointed to a menacing chart on the screen.
I don’t know how he managed to make a chart look menacing; but it would not have surprised me if the chart suddenly blurted, “Luke, I am your father”.
He slapped the screen with his hand. “Sales has missed its last three quarterly targets. We will not make our number this year. If we do not make some adjustments quickly, no one is making any commission. And you can forget about President’s Club.”
Wait, what? No Club??
Who doesn’t love a free vacation with their significant other to a somewhat exotic, yet utterly boring, all-inclusive destination where you get to hang out with your coworkers and their significant others to make small-talk around canapés while holding frozen rum beverages in your bathing suit?
It’s a perk to make Club! It’s our right as salespeople!
“Does anyone have any suggestions on how to make our number?”
Clearing of a throat.
“Why don’t we share some ideas on what’s working well for some of us? Maybe ask new customers why they bought from us over our competition, so we can learn from them? So we can find other potential customers that look like the ones who have bought from us?”
It’s possible I sprouted a second head from my shoulder, based on the way the room looked at me.
“Why don’t we go through all our LinkedIn connections and start calling our connections?” offered another sales rep.
The head of sales slapped the desk. “That’s a fantastic idea! We need to do more of this social selling everyone’s talking about. Everyone, get your LinkedIn lists pulled and let’s get cracking!”
“But…” I murmured as my colleagues streamed past me, eager to get back to their desks.
As I stood there with a confused look on my face, the head of sales said, “You got a problem with making calls?”
I like talking on the phone.
I’m one of those old school salespeople who enjoy talking to people, particularly customers. What I don’t enjoy is spraying contacts with a sales pitch in the hopes they might be interested in our software, desperately trying to achieve an entirely unattainable target.
It’s like fishing in a lake using cardboard as bait.
“Nope, I’ll get right on it,” I replied.
And I died a little inside, reflecting the beige walls around me.
When I returned to my desk, I asked my sales colleague who shared a cubicle desk with me a simple question:
“You don’t think talking to our customers is a good idea?”
We, like many software companies at that time, had adopted a fully open-concept office space, which meant multiple people sharing long desks separated by low-walls. Productivity!
He shook his head openly: “Why would I want to talk to our customers? Once the deal is done, it’s Services problem, and I’m onto the next deal. I’ve got a number to hit, and my mortgage isn’t going to pay itself.”
He turned back to his laptop and typed loudly away at his email.
I looked around the area and all the salespeople had their backs turned to each other, facing their laptops. Some were talking into headsets, others clacking away at email like my desk mate. I may as well have been in a coffee shop, minus the smell of freshly brewed espresso and Jewel playing on the speaker system.
Understanding The Problem You Solve
Customers have problems that the product you are selling solves and until a salesperson understands what those problems are, the product can’t be put into context. And as I mentioned in a previous post, context is everything in Sales.
Just because a customer has a problem, does not mean everyone within the customer organization:
- knows they have a problem, or,
- cares they have a problem.
The key is to determine who within the organization will care enough about the problem to fix it with your solution.
By default, sales teams are told to go for the “Decision Maker”: the high-level title within the customer organization who has the budget and/or the authority to make a purchasing decision. The issue with that directive is the “Decision Maker” doesn’t always:
- know they have a problem, or,
- care they have a problem.
This means randomly calling a list of high-level title targets without really understanding if that “Decision Maker” is someone who could potentially know/care about the problem is equivalent to a game of roulette. Statistically, you may get lucky and win but there is no real strategy; it’s a game of chance.
To gain an understanding of who your target buyer is, you need to talk to your current customers to understand not only why they bought from you, but what their day-to-day looks like. Placing yourself in their shoes will help understand their motivations, fears, hopes, and dreams.
Marketers often refer to this as Personas. They’ll create nifty branded one-pagers that introduce you to the persona – “Meet Martha Marketer!” – and describes what Martha cares about, what her day-to-day looks like, and what her concerns are in her role.
They are handy for Marketers, but in reality, when a salesperson is looking for their target buyer, the majority won’t look like “Martha Marketer”.
As a sales or marketing organization, really all you need to know is: Who at a customer cares enough about the problem they have to fix it. Some of those folks might be the “Decision Maker”, some might look like “Martha Marketer”; but ALL of those folks are feeling the pain of the problem and WANT to fix it.
Back in time, we go again… and now I’m in a room full of Productivity! You can tell I am because one entire wall is a whiteboard, and the other walls are glass, so I can use those as whiteboards if I’m being so productive I run out of whiteboard space. And people can see into the room, so they can see how productive I’m being!
I held the blue whiteboard marker in my hand as I looked at the numbers I had scribbled on the whiteboard wall. I circled a number and pointed,
“Even if I sold every product we have to every account I’m responsible for, I still won’t come close to making my quarterly target.”
The head of sales looked at me with a look that’s usually reserved for the most heinous of constipation. He said: “Well have you found the decision-maker in your key accounts? If you can find the decision-maker, they’ll get the budget for you.”
I looked at him, then looked at the whiteboard, then looked back at him: “It wouldn’t matter if I found five decision-makers at each account and they had unlimited budgets – the numbers don’t add up to making my target.”
Behind his eyes, I could see Scrooge McDuck counting gold coins on a table, then taking a swig of brandy, getting disoriented and falling asleep in his uncomfortable wooden chair.
His mouth, however, seemed to have received a jolt of espresso.
He said, “If you follow the sales process, you’ll make your number. Let’s walk through each piece of the process for one of your accounts; first, Metrics: have you shown them the ROI they’ll receive if they buy additional licenses? Next, Economic Buyer: Do you know who controls the budget? Then, Decision Process…”
I interrupted him, which is rude, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for him to go through the remainder of the ridiculous acronym that was our sales process.
Not to say acronyms are ridiculous – they’re remarkably useful, like NATO or PMS – it was this particular acronym that was ridiculous. Customers aren’t going to fall into an acronym or a process and trying to remember the acronym itself was almost as difficult as remembering the meaning of the acronym.
It would have been better if we called the process something easy to remember, like CUDDLES or MONEY; anything couldn’t be as ridiculous as the actual acronym we used.
I took a deep breath and said, “I know the sales process, boss. It’s not the process. It’s the math. Math follows a strict process too, and it’s leading me to the conclusion that no matter what I sell or how much I sell it for, I’m not going to hit my target.”
You know that look someone gets when they really see you for the first time, and what they see is a knife-wielding serial killer? That’s the look that crossed over his face for a moment. Then it cleared and he said, “You just need to buckle down and get it done. Are you calling enough of your contacts within the account? It’s important to not get single-threaded!”
I looked at the whiteboard. One of the numbers was streaked… like the smudge of tears… Wait, did I just hear a sigh?… did I sigh out loud…?
I said, “Yeah boss, that’s a great idea, I’ll get on the phones now.”
You can get on the phones, but when you have nothing to talk about and no chance to hit your number, the conversation gets a bit awkward with a customer. I couldn’t think of any creative ways to sell something I didn’t have to people who weren’t the right buyer, so after making my requisite calls, I occupied my time doing super-productive things like surfing the internet, watching cat videos and playing Solitaire. No one noticed; they were all doing the same thing I was.
Well, maybe not the cat videos.
You Need Buyers Who Want Change
If a sales organization does not understand who the person is within an organization that cares about the problem they have, calling around to C-Level professionals isn’t going to drum up business.
You need to find folks who actually want to make change happen within their organization; people who, regardless of their level within the organization, want to make their company better.
CEB-Gartner refers to these folks as Mobilizers; people who are more interested in the improvement of processes within their company than their own professional advancement.
They may not be the “Decision Maker”, but they are willing to “mobilize” the internal resources to make a unifying decision.
Whether you subscribe to the CEB-Gartner methodology or not is irrelevant; the idea that as a salesperson you need to talk to the person(s) who actually care to make change happen within their organization is absolutely valid.
And you need that person to mobilize internal resources for you, because no one person within an organization makes the purchasing decision.
There isn’t one Decision Maker or Persona anymore; it’s a group of people at varying levels and in various roles that have to do at least a drive-by of what it is you are selling in order for them to greenlight it.
CEB-Gartner research says it’s 5.4 people who are involved in a purchasing decision. And the seller won’t always be given access to that group of people.
So, to whom exactly are you selling?
You will find your answer with your customers. Good marketers already do this to some degree when they create Personas; they model the Persona off a mosaic of current customer profiles.
You really don’t need to create something as formal as a Persona list though; just by talking to your current customers and considering the CEB-Gartner idea of a Mobilizer, you can create a fairly quick template for what an ideal customer profile looks like.
Here’s how to do that:
- Pull a list of your top users, the people at various customers who are using the heck out of your product.
- Pull a list of your highest-paying customers.
- Then see what overlap there is between these two lists.
Pick up the phone and call the people on the overlap list. Ask them:
- How they use the product: what problem does it solve for them and how does it fit into their day-to-day activity?
- What would happen if the product were taken away from them?
- If they were the ones who decided to buy the product, what did they have to do internally to gain consensus into buying it? Who did they need to involve?
- Write all of this down into a document/spreadsheet/presentation, along with the basic information about the companies in the overlap list (size, industry, etc.).
Now you have a rudimentary ideal customer profile to use to train your sales team on who they should target at other companies. It doesn’t need to be complicated, or over-produced; it just needs to be something simple and easy for the sales team to understand and use.
And yes, I said TRAIN your sales team.
It isn’t enough to produce the ideal customer profile, you need to provide the sales team with the knowledge they need to quickly figure out who that profile is within a target organization.
Quick video snippets of those ideal customer profiles are the easiest mechanism; it puts context around what the profile is interested in and it humanizes them so a salesperson knows what they should listen for when talking to other similar customers.
What are your thoughts around personas? Useful? Not? Reach out and share!