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Dos and Don’ts for Effective Sales Training

Even the most interesting and relevant sales training material can fall flat if it’s not delivered well. Here are some dos and don’ts to keep your employees engaged, attentive, and learning:

DO

  • Know what you’re talking about. One of the best ways to prepare is to write a one-page summary, as if you’re writing an advertisement. The one-page limit forces you to prioritize what you’re going to say, be concise, and organize your most important points in a logical order—and envisioning it as an ad discourages you from being boring.
  • Get organized. Lay out your presentation on index cards (real or virtual), then arrange them by priority with the most important information up front.
  • Introduce yourself and briefly describe what you’re going to talk about, and why the audience should care. Always be thinking of your training from the audience’s perspective—what’s in it for them?
  • Start a fire. Get their attention by saying something counterintuitive or unconventional. Here are some examples:
    • “A 1% price increase can equal a 10% increase in net profit. Here’s how.”
    • “Cheap people don’t make good value sellers. Here’s why.”
    • “Professional buyers are amateur actors. Here’s the evidence.”
  • Talk about the most important stuff first. That way, if your presentation is interrupted before you’re finished—or if attention eventually flags, as can happen with even the best presentations—you’ve gotten your key points in.
  • Talk about no more than six subjects every hour. This recommendation is based on new research from the University of Washington. If you’re talking about a product, for example, you could divide the talk into the following six subjects:
    • The reasons why you developed the product
    • The unique advantages the product delivers to customers
    • The customers who are most likely to need the product, and why
    • The price you’re asking and why that price makes sense, relative to the results customers get in return
    • Any problems with the product and why it might not be the best solution for certain customers (see below)
    • Examples of customers who have purchased the product and how well it’s performing for them
  • Talk about fewer, but better, ideas.
  • Talk to the audience, not to the slide.
  • Talk about your flaws and problems openly and honestly. I’ve attended some sales training events where the trainer tries to give the impression that the product is perfect, only to find out later that the product is so flawed that no one buys it. We all know that no product is right for all customers (except perhaps a life preserver on a sinking ship), and salespeople get suspicious when some marketing windbag drones on and on about how perfect a product is. Talk openly about problems, and you’ll build credibility.
  • Break it up. In terms of scheduling, I suggest three to four 90-minute sessions per day with 30-minute breaks in between. The world doesn’t stop for salespeople in training. They need time to do their work and respond to customers, so don’t make your training an 8 AM to 9 PM forced march. If you do, people will tune out (or simply leave).
  • Ask for feedback and answer questions truthfully. Remember—you’re all on the same team, so give people the information they need to do their jobs well.

DON’T

  • Pack slides with dense text. Stick to just one main idea per slide. Dense text practically forces eyes to glaze over and attention to wander.
  • Say “I only have a couple more slides” when your time is up. Plan and practice your presentation to ensure you can complete it easily within the allotted time, with a few minutes left over for questions.
  • Get too technical. Nobody wants to hear you droning on about your new “hex-head screw” or something similar. Focus on big ideas and concepts.
  • Name-drop anecdotal quotes or information. The fact that one customer recently told you that your product was interesting is light years away from having multiple customers actually buying the product at a profitable price.

Sales training is often considered an afterthought, or a “should” to complete before you turn your new salespeople loose. Don’t make this mistake, which is maybe the biggest “don’t” of all. Good training pays for itself many times over in job satisfaction, retention, effectiveness and—let’s not forget—more sales. Put some time and effort into doing it well.

15 Revealing Sales Interview Questions

As hiring managers, we conduct interviews for two basic reasons:

  • To determine if a candidate can deliver the results we need, provide new ideas and better ways of doing things, fit in with our organization’s culture and people, and potentially be promoted in the future.
  • To share information with the candidate that enables the person to make an informed decision about whether or not to join our company, should an offer be extended.

I firmly believe that a lot of employee underperformance and turnover could be prevented by better interviewing. Too often, the wrong people come aboard because the interviewer has both failed to ask the right questions and failed to share relevant information that could discourage candidates from joining the company. Today, we’ll look at the first part of the equation.

Almost every interviewer will ask questions like “Tell me about yourself” and “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” And almost every candidate will have well-rehearsed answers to these questions—which means you’re not gathering any valuable information.

As an interviewer, you need to find out if the person you’re interviewing is really any good, or merely the beneficiary of a strong company, market, or product. You need to know how the candidate thinks, what the candidate does, and the underlying rationale behind his or her actions.

The following questions should help you obtain that information:

  1. How do you sell? Specifically, what do you say and do when customers call you for a quote or proposal, or you target and engage with customers who aren’t familiar with your company or products? Give me some examples.
  2. What is unique about the products and services you’ve marketed and sold? Why do customers buy them? How are they unique relative to what your competitors offer? Is there is a “good enough” product or process already in place for most of your customers? If so, how do you get customers to change and adopt your products?
  3. How do you choose which customers to target and engage with in the first place? What criteria do you use? How would you rank those criteria? Give me some examples of how you’ve done this.
  4. What problems do you have when selling? What stops you from selling more products faster? Rank the problems you have, and explain why you ranked them that way. Give examples and tell me about the results you achieved.
  5. How do you ensure that the revenue you’re responsible for delivering is profitable? How profitable are your customers in terms of gross margin? How do you measure profitability? What other costs do you and your company incur in selling to your customers? Give examples.
  6. Regarding selling, what have you changed your mind about during the last year or so, and why did you change it? What do you feel strongly about and why? What ideas do you have for improving results in your field? Have you implemented any of them, and if so, how did you do it and what were the results?
  7. What do you do on a regular basis to improve your skills and performance? Who and what do you read and listen to?
  8. How do you sell services? Please describe the steps involved. What do you say to prospects to get their attention regarding your services?
  9. What risks do customers perceive in buying your products or from your company? How do you address those risks with them?
  10. What return on investment can a typical customer expect from your products, and how is that ROI better than what your competitors offer?
  11. When and how do you talk about price with customers? How do you defend your prices when customers tell you your prices are too high?
  12. How do you add value to your organization? Relative to what you’re paid, how much money does your employer earn in return and where does that money/return come from?
  13. How do you spend your time in a typical week? How much time do you spend selling and supporting customers vs. internal company activities? How do balance your time between servicing your existing customers and pursuing new ones?
  14. How do you help and support other salespeople in your company? What questions do they come to you with, and how do you answer those questions? Give me an example.
  15. What do you measure your performance relative to? How have you outperformed “the market”? In other words, have you grown your business/territory faster than your industry and competitors have grown? If so, by how much?

Next time, I’ll give you my thoughts on the information you should share with candidates—and how you should share that information.

Building a Successful Sales Team: The Three Sales Roles

Once you’ve decided what you want your sales team to accomplish, the next step is to build your team. In order to do this, you need to determine what sales roles need to be filled to meet your objectives.

To my mind, sales roles fall into one of three general categories: Creating, Building and Maintaining:

Creating is about generating business from scratch and/or capturing business where very little exists. This is the hardest job in sales—it requires the creativity of an artist, the passion of an evangelist, and nerves of steel. It’s even harder when your product is new or unknown to customers. And it’s not for the faint of heart because creators typically function on their own, sometimes with very little assistance from their employers.

Building is about account development—taking an existing but underserved customer and growing that business. This role requires a high degree of sales ability coupled with strong project management skills. As you may have already discovered, these skills don’t often coexist in the same person!

Maintaining is just what it sounds like—keeping existing business and market share. This role is all about sustaining customer satisfaction and playing defense in the sense of fending off challengers.

Confusing or ignoring these roles is a common mistake, as is slotting a strong salesperson into the wrong role. I’ve seen previously successful creators struggle in maintainer roles, for example. And putting an experienced maintainer into a creator role nearly always ends in failure.

Additionally, even if you get the right person in the right role, it’s a common mistake to assume that previous success in sales ensures future success, especially when you introduce changes to products, pricing, or customers.

Success in sales is highly situation-specific. While previous success can certainly be a proxy for future success, careful interviewing is vital to ensure the new fit you’re considering is a good one in all important aspects.

Are you a good interviewer? Stay turned for my next installment, when I’ll explain how to ask the right questions to ensure you get the right people in the right roles.

Keys To Designing an Effective Sales Organization

Before you can recruit your sales team, set their objectives, and manage their performance, you’ve got to design the right sales organization for what you’re trying to accomplish—keeping in mind your products, company, customers, and resources.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the right objectives for us given our current competitors, customers, people, products, and other resources and challenges (such as compensation, training, travel, etc.)?
  • Why are these the right objectives?
  • What objectives could we achieve with additional investments in people, products, and training?
  • How much additional investment would it require, and when, to achieve slightly better objectives? What about much better objectives?
  • What is the ROI on those additional investments, and how and when would that ROI be realized?
  • Going forward, how much of our business will come from current customers/products, and how much will come from new customers/products?
  • Is it reasonable to expect that our current customers will buy more from us? Why? If so, how much? What will we do if they don’t?
  • Are our products and services well-known and accepted (easy to sell), or are we trying to create demand from scratch (harder to sell)?
  • Do our products solve expensive, widely known customer problems (easy to sell), or do they create a “better future” for customers who claim they don’t have any problems to solve (harder to sell)?
  • How well do the customers we’re targeting know our company, products, and capabilities?
  • Who or what is our main competition? Is it an entrenched competitor, or a well-known process that customers are not interested in changing? Either of these situations may be more difficult to overcome than you think.

These questions are not complicated, but many managers never ask them. This is a huge mistake.

Think of your sales process like an Olympic sport such as diving or gymnastics; there is an inherent degree of difficulty to what you’re trying to do with your sales process. More difficult maneuvers can garner you more points—and, ultimately, more glory—but they are more taxing and time-consuming to hire, train and manage for.

Whether you go easy or go hard is up to you, and there are merits to both approaches, but you need to know at the outset which path you’re on so that you can navigate it correctly.

Sales Management: The oft-overlooked game changer

Really great salespeople often get promoted to sales management positions. Unfortunately, there tends to be a big disconnect between the skillsets required to sell effectively and manage effectively.

Many of the sales managers I’ve encountered tend to act more like check-the-box administrators. Their primary contributions seem to be scheduling useless meetings, holding down compensation, and making sure the CRM system is always up to date.

Whether the cause is lack of know-how, the way they’re being managed and trained, or the way their jobs are defined, this is not sales management.

True sales managers—those who know how to hire, train, lead, motivate, retain and improve the performance of salespeople—can make a tremendous difference to a company’s revenue and profitability.

And based on hundreds of conversations I’ve had, salespeople are absolutely desperate for this sort of strong leadership. They want to work for people who can mentor them, who care about their compensation and career development, who are available to discuss better ways of doing things, and who simply “have their back” when things go south.

I’ve been training high-tech equipment salespeople for over 10 years, but until now, I haven’t coached and trained sales managers. That’s about to change.

In the coming months, I plan to provide a wealth of information and resources on the ways effective sales managers can:

  1. Design the right sales organization for your company, products, and current situation
  2. Identify, recruit, and hire salespeople who are best-fits for what you want to accomplish
  3. Train and coach salespeople to not only sell, but sell your products and your prices to your prospects
  4. Set the right objectives and help your people achieve them consistently
  5. Compensate salespeople to ensure they’re satisfied and that your company is getting the results it wants—a real win-win.
  6. Retain high performers
  7. Identify and develop successors for every position in your organization

Sound good?

If you’re a sales executive or sales manager, I’d like you to take a minute to think about whether you’re truly as effective as you could be. If not, what information or training would help you move the needle? I look forward to hearing your ideas.

How Sales Adds Value

In my last blog post, I wrote about how marketing adds value. This week, we’ll discuss how sales adds value—specifically, your salespeople.

As with marketing, the value doesn’t lie in the obvious. Talented salespeople are focused not merely on closing the sale, but on creating—and conveying—a win-win situation for both seller and buyer alike.

Good salespeople: 

  • See themselves as experts, and the companies they represent as valuable business partners for the right customers. They are not mere vendors or suppliers—and they never think of what they are selling as commodities
  • Possess expertise regarding the details of the customer’s business and ways to improve it, as well as the ability to assess what that improvement is worth to the customer
  • See themselves as more than a means to meeting the customer’s wishes and demands. They are able to filter all opportunities through important real-world criteria:
    • Is this business real?
    • Can I win it?
    • Can I win it profitably?
  • Can have an honest conversation with the customer regarding opportunities, budget, and the chances of winning business. By the same token, they are able to correctly read between the lines when the customer’s words don’t accurately reflect what he or she is really thinking
  • Know what good and bad business look like, and stop bad business before it ever gets in the door. (I can’t emphasize strongly enough how much time and money my clients waste trying to win business that’s unwinnable, or winnable only at a loss.)
  • Are able to provide specific, compelling examples of other customers who have benefited, and how they have benefited. This requires the skill of obtaining customer testimonials that the company can use and getting past the typical “we don’t give testimonials” song-and-dance
  • Price customers based on their profitability and potential
  • Can confidently pitch and present to users, purchasing, and senior executives alike
  • Are willing to say, honestly, “we’re not the best option for you” when a customer’s demands are too high, when a budget is too low, or when the fit is simply not a good one. When I’ve used these words, more often than not, the customer’s response has been “ok, what can you do for us?”
  • Talk about money early and often during the sales process so customers don’t arrive at a negotiation and get (or act) surprised by the price—a big waste of everyone’s time and energy.
  • Manage their company’s resources to ensure they are spent on the best, highest-probability, highest-profit opportunities
  • Know the right questions to ask to determine whether the company can solve the customer’s problem, earn or save the customer more money, or provide (in some tangible, valuable way) a better future for the customer
  • Can determine whether an RFQ is a real opportunity, or just an attempt to get a price to use against the preferred provider.

You’ll notice that I didn’t put “ability to close the sale” anywhere in the above list. While that’s obviously important—nothing else matters much without the deal itself—the best salespeople are able to ensure, using the tactics above, that the business is both profitable and feasible.

Too often, salespeople focus on the close to the exclusion of these crucial points—which leads to a lot of time and effort being spent on “opportunities” that drag your business down rather than building it up.

Launching a New Product or Service? Don’t Make This Common (and Costly) Mistake

I’ve seen this time and time again with my clients, regardless of size or industry. Someone has a “hunch” about a new product or service idea, and they rush in with guns blazing. Resources are allocated, lots of time is consumed, and a brand-new product or service is launched.

And then…crickets.

It seems, alas, that nobody is actually interested in purchasing your new product or service (or maybe you get a handful of takers, but far too few to boost your bottom line).

What went wrong? It’s all well and good to get excited about a new way to serve your customers, but it’s important to temper that enthusiasm with some good old-fashioned research.

And by “research” I don’t mean hopping onto Google. You can do that, but actually talking to prospective customers for this new product or service is a far better bet. And not just one or two (you know, the one or two existing customers who sparked this idea in the first place) but a whole bunch of them.

You’ll know you’re on to something if a lot of folks sound just as excited as you are, or maybe even more so. They’ll say things like:

  • “We would pay anything for that.”
  • “When can you have it ready?”
  • “How do we sign up?”

Don’t be fooled by semi-positive responses like these:

  • “Maybe we’ll look into it when it’s up and running.”
  • “I’ll think about it.”
  • “I suppose that might potentially be something we’re interested in.”

The bottom line is that customers (like the rest of us) would like to have all sorts of things – but you only want to spend your time and efforts on things they are actually willing to pay for.

An even better test, which is possible with certain products and services, is to see if people are willing to pay upfront – a deposit, say, or an early-bird price before development is complete. That way, you not only have some indisputable evidence that they are willing to pay for your idea – because they already have – but also some extra cash to help set it in motion.

Are You Proactive About Qualifying Prospects?

Salespeople tend to get excited about leads—but not all leads are created equal.

If your prospective customer is merely a tire-kicker who has no real intention of ever buying your product—or no budget for it—your sales team can spend a great deal of time and effort on a relationship that will contribute zero profit to your business.

Not only is this a huge waste of time and money (which, incidentally, few companies bother to measure, though they should), but it also creates an opportunity cost. Every minute your salespeople spend working on low- or zero-potential business is a minute they are not working on other business with a higher probability of success.

It may not seem like a big deal to provide a quotation, proposal, demo, or project to a potential customer who requests one, but each of these actions represents an investment of time and money—sometimes a substantial investment—and risk because there is no concomitant investment on the customer’s part.

As with any investment, we as sellers need to weigh the risk and potential return BEFORE making the investment.

One former client of mine, a large contract manufacturer, told me his company sometimes spends up to $50,000 to develop a proposal—but only 10% of these proposals are accepted by a particular customer. “Why don’t you have a frank discussion with the customer about your chances of winning before you develop the proposal?” I asked. “The customer won’t tell us and doesn’t care what we spend” was the response.

Maybe the customer doesn’t care what you spend—but you should. It’s up to us as sellers to ask some basic questions, and get some real answers, upfront.

If I were responsible for spending a company’s money on proposals, demos, or engineering projects, I would want answers to the following questions before expending a dime (in time, effort, or materials):

  1. Does the customer have a real need or problem, or are they just fishing for a quotation they can use to leverage the incumbent’s price? Remember: you are under no obligation to provide a price or proposal simply because the customer asks for one.
  2. What exactly is the problem? How does it manifest itself?
  3. When did the customer first notice the problem? What has the customer already done to try and fix it?
  4. What’s driving the need? Why will the customer buy?
  5. Why is the customer coming to us, and why now? What has changed? What does the customer require that our company is best suited to provide? (Again, the customer is asking us to spend time and money to help them, and we deserve to know why.)
  6. What does the problem cost the customer (per day, week, month, year)? How do they know it costs that much, and how do they measure that?
  7. How much money does the customer have budgeted, today, to solve the problem? If they don’t have money, or haven’t thought about it, it’s unlikely that the problem is urgent or serious.
  8. What criteria will the customer use to make the buying decision?
  9. Who will be involved in the buying decision?
  10. Who are we competing against, and why? What do they offer that we don’t?
  11. What are our chances of winning, and why?
  12. What price is the customer willing to pay for the product if the demo or engineering project is successful? (You don’t want to work on a $20,000 solution if the customer is willing to pay only $5,000. Better to know this at the outset.)

Unfortunately, many salespeople are afraid to ask the customer tough questions. But this is business…and salespeople are (or should be) businesspeople first and foremost.

Speak frankly with customers, and you’ll change the nature of your relationship for the better. And if they won’t answer your questions or answer them honestly, you’re probably better off saying “no” to the so-called opportunity and moving on to one that’s more promising.

“How Much?” Think Carefully Before Answering This Question

How much? What’s your price? How much does it cost? What will this cost? What’s the best price you can give me?

We hear these questions from buyers every day.

Rather than tossing out an off-the-cuff answer, it’s important to take a little time to think about it. You want the stated price to be appropriate not only for the quantity ordered, but for the customer and the situation as well.

The first issue to consider is whether the customer is profitable for you to serve. In other words, how much net profit (not gross margin) do you earn per year working with this customer? And how does this profitability level compare with other similar customers?

You have unprofitable customers. I know this because every single business I’ve ever worked with does.

Ideally, every salesperson should know the profitability of his or her key customers – and take that profitability into account when pricing.

The best way to improve your profitability is to stop offering your products and services at prices that are too low. Now, you might be thinking you’ll lose business by raising your prices – and maybe that’s true. But no-profit and low-profit business is precisely the sort of business you want to be losing!

What Sales Really Needs (But Rarely Gets) From Marketing

Contrary to what you might think, your company is not really selling a product or service.

You’re selling a solution to a problem. Something that will make your customers’ lives easier. Something that will make (or save) them money. Something that will slash time, complexity, or hassle.

If you’re in marketing, your most important job—bar none—is to convey this true value to your sales people so they can sell your offerings effectively.

A good value proposition does three things:

  • Explains how your company, product, or service solves customers’ problems or improves their business results.
  • Details the quantified or qualified benefits your customers receive, such as the amount of money they earn or save, or the value of the risk that is reduced by buying your products or services.
  • Provides a compelling response to the question, “Why should I buy from you and not from your competitors? (Note: Anything along the lines of “Because our competitors are stupid/lazy/untrustworthy” is not the sort of answer we’re looking for here!)

While most of us can exhaustively detail our product specifications until the cows come home, product specs are not where the true value lies—even if your product is amazing.

If you need help developing a compelling value proposition, start by thinking about the following questions:

  1. Why do customers buy our products and services?
  2. What unique value do we provide that others don’t?
  3. Which customers want that value? Why do they want it, and how much will they pay for it?
  4. Are our prices set relative to the value customers receive? (e.g., you give me one dollar and I’ll give you three in return over one, two or three years.)
  5. What are the circumstances under which we can provide the most value?
  6. How do we deliver value?
  7. What do we do differently from our competitors?
  8. Is our value sustainable? In other words, can we continue to deliver it? Can our competitors copy it?
  9. How much money do we help customers earn or save, under what circumstances, and over what periods of time? How do we calculate it?
  10. Do we have sales presentations and tools that clearly demonstrate how we help customers earn and save money?
  11. How much risk do we reduce, and how much is that risk reduction worth to a customer?
  12. Why do we lose business? What are the most common reasons? (It’s almost never price, despite what buyers may tell you.) What can we do about those reasons?
  13. What proof do we have that supports the claims we make? Do we have case studies, customer testimonials or references, data, or repeat business we can point to?
  14. Can we demonstrate our unique value to customers before they buy?
  15. Can we guarantee the results we claim to deliver?
  16. What are the biggest risks (both actual and perceived) customers take when they purchase from us?

If you’re not happy with how your salespeople are selling your product or service, give them a rock-solid value proposition to sell instead—because this is truly what your customers are looking (and, in fact, eager) to buy.

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