Category Archives: Sales leadership

When “Lame Excuses” Become Significant Selling Risks

“12 Lame Excuses Salespeople Use and How to Respond”

This headline from a June 30th blog grabbed my attention like a July 4th firecracker. A better title might have been How to Ignore What You Hear. After the banking crisis, the BP oil spill, and the Japan nuclear reactor breakdown, who would be arrogant enough to blow off warnings, and then to further that stupidity by lambasting the messenger?

Had people at Lehman Brothers, BP, Tepco, and Boeing whined louder—and had more managers and government regulators been less dismissive of their whining—CNN.com could dedicate more screen area to stories about the breakup of Jonny Fairplay’s marriage, and the fifth season of Jersey Shore. Sadly, unmanaged risks make headlines all too often. And we’re reminded every time . . .

OK, I agree, you can’t compare sales risks with nuclear meltdowns, but come on! After learning about how otherwise smart people ignored risks that all but smacked them upside the head, are you still going to callously sweep under the rug the warnings your sales force brings to you? “Oh, I’ve heard it all before! Get back on the phone and make your quota!”

These are the “lame excuses” in bold that are described in the blog. Pure whining? Maybe. But I’ve added the risks that lurk behind them:

1. The product sucks. Risk: the product sucks. Ever tried to sell a product that was a flat-out misfit in the intended market? I have. And the only time slamming your head into a brick wall feels good is when you’ve stopped. You should ask what’s missing from the product or service. What’s included that’s not needed? What has to be changed? Maybe nothing can be done short term, but ignorance is never bliss. Why squander the opportunity to learn?

2. The price is too high. Risks: the product is mis-targeted, the messaging doesn’t match how customers think about the business challenge, the price really is too high!

3. No time for prospecting. Risks: sales force churn, missed revenue targets, poor morale, mis-aligned commission and incentive programs. Some companies saddle the sales force with customer support, CRM administration, and other tasks that reduce direct selling time. If you consistently hear this issue, the challenge might require changes in workflow, outsourcing lead generation, a redistribution of job responsibilities, and more.

4. Goals are too high. Risks: sales force churn, poor morale, mis-aligned incentive plans, the business plan is not grounded in the reality. One thing I’ve learned, goals are more SWAG than science.

5. Our competitors are better. Risks: wrong target market, mis-aligned product development investment, missed revenue targets, attrition of talented sales staff to competitors. Decompose the challenge: In which ways do competitors have a superior offering? How tangible are competitor benefits in the prospect’s mind? Which capabilities can be nullified or surpassed? Is it smarter not to take on certain competitors head-to-head? Do prospects perceive your product as “me too”?

6. We do not get enough support. Risks: sales force and customer churn, missed revenue targets, extended sales cycles, high sales expenses relative to revenue. Spend a day with your sales reps—whether top producer, middle-of-the-bell-curve, or underperformer. Are they chasing down answers to routine questions and checking ship status because no other resources are available, or because you haven’t provided better tools to get the information?

7. No one is buying now. Risks: long sales cycles, orders lost to competition, mis-aligned messaging, channel conflict. Sometimes, delays in buying decisions are a leading indicator of larger economic problems, and adjustments in financing, pricing or product may be needed.

8. My product is a commodity. Risk: your product is a commodity. It happens. One company I worked with in the bar coding industry failed to accept that reality, and managers insisted on pricing scanners at over $1,000 when customers could readily buy them for less than $500. With that delta, that’s not a pricing problem, that’s a strategy problem. A once-premium product became a throw away, and customers weren’t stupid to the economics.

9. Can’t get an appointment. Risks: confusing and un-motivating messages, mismanagement of social media and other communications channels, poor sales training, lack of understanding of customer need, misaligned value proposition.

10. Can’t get them to return my calls. Risks: overly dependent on phone for communications, not competent in other communications and social media technologies, misaligned communications, prospects don’t understand the “value proposition,” the company, and its brand.

11. Not enough people know about our products/run more ads. Risks: continued wasted marketing spend, opportunities lost to competition. Possibly another way to say “the right people don’t know about our solution . . .” Dig into the problem, but don’t avoid giving credence to it.

12. All I need is more leads. Risks: ineffective marketing execution, wasted marketing spend, poor workflow between marketing and sales.

Hubris kills a company’s business strategy as surely as voracious competitors. “Lame excuses” might not actually be lame. Few things bring more risk to a selling organization than a manager’s bring-me-sales-not-excuses mindset.

Oil derrick and nuclear plant workers are as prone to whining as salespeople, but the risks they reveal should never be ignored.

Four Things Every Executive Must Know about Sales Execution

“Thirty minutes or it’s free!” The Dominos Pizza slogan won notoriety for the conflict it created for its drivers: Get the order to the customer in thirty minutes or less, but don’t kill anyone on the way.

Sensing a growing legal risk, Dominos retreated to a satisfaction guarantee that didn’t involve crumpled metal and upended pedestrians. Fulfill the customer’s need! Fast food or food, fast! Dominos might still offer guaranteed 30-minute delivery were it not for the liability of their delivery cars careening through crowded cities and neighborhoods.

Salespeople endure their own management-inflicted dissonance. Even though their behaviors are not likely as dangerous as running a stop sign, the outcomes pose strategic problems of similar proportion:

“Be a Trusted Advisor to your clients. Here’s your sales quota.” Why do sales executives insist on holding salespeople accountable to this double standard? For most salespeople, the consequences of failure to achieve quota are printed on a pink piece of paper. So, how can they be expected to swear unswerving allegiance (you did say Trusted Advisor, right?) to customer need with the sword of Damocles suspended overhead?

Be honest. Be worthy of trust. Have personal integrity. All are good habits. But when there’s a monetary incentive associated with a purchase, as there is for most commission-driven salespeople, “Trusted Advisor” is a mirage. And most customers simply aren’t that gullible anyway.

“Listening skills are your key to success. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.” Put another way, “Do as I say, and not as I do!” There was more than a little irony in the title for a recent blog, “12 Lame Excuses Salespeople Make and How to Respond.” A more fitting title would have been How to Ignore What You Hear. After that bit of nurturing, how might a salesperson might present himself in a client meeting? Beyond the opening pleasantry, “how are you?” you’ll see a lot of “show,” but little else. No surprise, given the sales culture. Sales managers shouldn’t expect good listening skills when they waste opportunities to practice them.

“There are risks throughout our sales process. If you fail, you can count on a kick in the rear.” Sure, applaud winning, but champion innovation and intelligent risk taking, even when they fail. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” OK, the accolades might taper after the fifth attempt, but failure serves as a competitive advantage when salespeople can be candid about what didn’t succeed, and by sharing the knowledge within the company.

“Sell to the CXO! You’ll get the skills when we have training in the budget.” Too many organizations talk about playing in the CXO’s sandbox, but their salespeople are rarely invited because they think about the challenge tactically. Forget about how to get past gate keepers. Forget about trigger events. CXO’s are moved by achieving strategic goals, which are shaped by forces and trends. Those discussions require business, financial, and strategic knowledge.

How do you prevent confusion over sales execution?

1. Lead by example. The behaviors you exhibit will be part of your salesperson’s next customer meeting. Make sure those behaviors lead to the results you want.

2. Look for strategic anomalies, and squash them when they’re found. If your salespeople are accountable for customer satisfaction, but they’re compensated for new business, they will be stretched more ways than silly putty. Align compensation with what brings value to your company, and if that’s more than just revenue, make sure there’s harmony.

3. Back edicts with investment. If you want a sales force comfortable in the executive suite, be prepared to develop the needed skills.

4. Never stop testing ethical choices. Your sales goals have a direct connection to the ethical decisions your salespeople must make every day. Know what they are, and be prepared to discuss the outcomes of those decisions. More than one company has learned the hard way that even benign sales goals can spiral out of control.

What Do Tech Buyers Really Think of Salespeople? Three CIO’s Tell All!

Several years ago I phoned a colleague about a customer’s technical problem, and asked her to transfer me to Tom in Hardware Support. “Sure. Hold on,” she said. Then, assuming her preamble was private, she said, “Tom, I have Andy Rudin on the line—that short whiner.”

As a VoIP-enabled voyeur, learning what others really think was enlightening. Still, the male ego is a delicate thing. I revealed my presence by saying, “Mary, I am not short.”

Last week, I had a similar opportunity for insight when I attended a panel discussion at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Virginia, What Technology Buyers Really Want from Marketers. The session was full of candor, so I wasn’t disappointed. First, the bad news: as sales professionals, our reputation is checkered, to say the least. You already knew that. Now, the good news: technology buyers need salespeople. But what you might not know how is how buyers perceive our interactions with them.

The Tower Club reeks of consumption. Suits and ties. No unshaven faces or flip-flops, even for twenty-something technology entrepreneurs. The club is located on the 17th floor of an office tower which the locals call The Shopping Bag Building, owing to its conspicuous pinnacle that resembles two shopping bag handles. The imagery is not accidental. The building casts its huge shadow on the country’s seventh-largest shopping mall, Tysons Corner, and it’s a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Capital One. I’ve heard that paper money flitters through its ductwork.

A fitting venue for the three CIO panelists—David Roth of The Carlyle Group, Bruce Mancinelli of Inc.spire, and Vijay Samalam of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—whose cumulative career IT purchases approach $1 billion. Divide that number by 1,000, and you know the total number of PowerPoint slides they’ve endured through countless sales presentations. A battle-hardened group.

Here are the highlights:

Question: What advice would you give someone who’s new to tech buying about working with technology vendors? David Roth responded, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much more cynical: don’t trust what they tell you.” He described his struggles to keep his team focused on required outcomes when they meet with vendors. When he hears business IT users say “I didn’t like that sales rep,” or “I really like the team that presented,” he encourages them not to allow those biases to permeate their evaluations, adding, “Demos screw up the buying process. Don’t see them until you understand your business requirements.”

Question: Outside of your organization, what are the top sources of influence in your buying decisions? The panelists agreed that peers hold the greatest sway. David Roth shared that “CIO’s of private equity firms get together every three to four months, and just to talk about what we’re doing . . . it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror.”

Question: What do you consider the biggest recent changes in the buying process? There were several insights:

• The acquisition of technology no longer requires investing in capital assets, such as hardware (I recommend reading this twice while inhaling deeply and slowly. If there is any development more significant for IT vendors, I don’t know what it is.)

• Business users are more involved in IT buying than they were in the past. A challenge for IT executives is how to include them in the procurement process, and how to achieve balance between business unit needs and IT requirements.

• The traditional developer concept, “build it and they’ll come” is no longer true. Today’s technology buyer sees ease of operations, maintainability, and user support as offering greater value than “jazz factors” of technology.

• Technology buyers are no longer perfunctory when discovering the experiences other companies have had with a vendor’s technology. Today, such discovery is done early and often in the buying process–not just after the purchase decision has been made. Bruce Mancinelli shared that such rigor helps buyers “pick up patterns of good, bad, and concerning.”

• Demands for shorter time-to-value are driving unprecedented requirements for simplicity, ease-of-use, and customer support. This development creates faster buying cycles, a counterpoint to what many say are lengthening sales cycles.

• Having a path for IT evolution is a major buying consideration.

Do these developments mean you should siphon funding from marketing communications into customer support? No, but they do mean that your sales training program, product leadership and nifty website won’t get you very far sales-wise if your customers don’t have anything good to say about you or your company.

They mean that sales people who are stuck in demo-mode, with little tactical training outside promoting feature/capability/benefit, won’t make quota, no matter how hard they’re flogged. They mean that your company’s ability to make its revenue plan now depends as much on the selling skills of your customers as it does on those of your sales force. A year ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking of that idea as a tad facetious. Not anymore.

Do these CIO’s foresee the end of the road for salespeople, as others contend? I didn’t hear it. IT buyers need salespeople. They need them to walk their company’s walk and talk their company’s talk. In other words, they want salespeople with backbones, but packaged in a less product-centric, more strategic wrapper. David Roth told of one sales representative who repeatedly said, “Oh, we can change that . . .” when he talked about his company’s offerings. He contrasted that approach with a more resolute salesperson who said, “. . . we heard you, but here’s what we think . . .” It was obvious which salesperson won his respect. Steve Jobs said, “. . . a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Agility is great, until it gets in everyone’s way.

Even with gobs of information available through Internet and social media channels, IT buyers still value salespeople who can educate them. Not by reciting product specs laden with bits, bytes, feeds, speeds, features, and functions, but about tacit stuff that’s harder to uncover online: relationships. Each panelist shared how IT decision makers are focused on the expectation of trusted, long-term relationships. It’s hard to assure that vendor-client collaborations will go well by showing a PowerPoint slide, or by saying it on an “About Us” website page. So salespeople will have to dust off touchier-feelier relationship skills that were less in demand when cold technical product knowledge coupled with “show ‘em the sizzle and the steak” could truly rock a group of techie buyers in a sales call.

But education can go wrong, as Vijay Samalam shared. “Howard Hughes Medical Institute conducts pure research. Some cold calls I receive are about clinical trials or drug trials. I tell the salespeople we’re not involved in that.” Are these errant sales conversations educating prospects? Yes, but not in a good way, because these vendors are teaching prospects to devalue their efforts. Selling is complicated, but this part isn’t rocket science. A little pre-call homework goes a long way.

My mind goes back to David Roth’s succinct summation, “don’t trust what they tell you.” Like “short, little whiner,” it’s a wee bit harsh, but hearing it offers the listener the opportunity to know what to change.

Overhaul the Sales Profession and Fix the Economy: An Open Letter to President Obama

It would never work, but it’s fun to think about . . .

Dear President Obama:

Buyers and sellers are not getting along, at great cost to our economy. Our selling model is broken, and the sales profession cannot sustain itself. We’ve tried everything we can to fix the problems, but nothing has worked. We need government intervention, and we need it now. We’re not asking for a bailout—just an overhaul.

The unbending truth that nothing happens until someone sells something underpins our great financial system. Yet, trillions of dollars are wasted annually on ineffective sales strategies and processes. Day in, and day out, buyers and salespeople across the US fail to achieve the right outcomes. Buyers are miserably disappointed. Many salespeople don’t make quota. Companies fail to achieve their revenue objectives. Our GDP declines, and opportunities to build lasting wealth are lost—a vicious, seemingly unstoppable chain reaction.

Symptoms of this crisis pervade our daily conversations. Pejorative sales stereotypes infect social media and popular discourse, and they ripple into other areas of commerce. The Occupy Wall Street movement was but one artifact of consumer disdain for how our economic system and its institutions operate. Worlds collide: Bernie Sanders is gaining traction as a 2016 presidential candidate, as is Donald Trump.

In the past, the Federal government has stepped in to stem the rancor. We have the Do Not Call Registry, and the Federal Communications Commission approved spending $4.5 billion per year for the Universal Service Fund so that people living in rural areas can have more information power with which to make purchases.

It’s not enough. The problems in our economy are caused by systemic frictions between buyers and sellers. Leaving it to the “free market” to lessen the discord hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t in the future. If anything, we need more government, not less.

I have a solution that will improve the economy and create jobs: make every American salesperson a Federal Department of Commerce employee, and give them the title Federal Trusted Advisor. Make them all GS-9, Step One at an annual salary of $42,399. That’s almost $1,000 above the current median sales compensation of $41,468. The extra income can be taxed to pay down our national debt.

Overnight, two million Federal jobs will be created, offsetting the two million that will be eliminated in the private sector. Fear not, because an additional 500,000 new senior Federal managers will be needed to staff the agency, creating a net job gain, ensuring Federal Trusted Advisors a secure retirement, and injecting a new stream of disposable income into our economy.

A nationwide force of Federal Trusted Advisors will correct everything that plagues buyer-seller interactions by:

1. mandating Trusted Advisor Process Step #1 as DEFINE THE BUSINESS PROBLEM. Under today’s selling model, vendors first bring solutions to customers, then ask what the problem is—if they ask at all. In the absence of government control over buyer-seller collaborations, sellers always have an agenda. This broken model creates the winner’s curse, and endless buyer complaints.

2. creating strong governance. Today, sales professionals do not have to conform to universal ethical standards. Rather, it’s left up to each company to establish guidelines—or not. There’s a wide strike zone between right and wrong, and government control would make it a requirement for every Federal Trusted Advisor to sing from the same ethical hymnal. As you know, without sales ethics, trust cannot flourish. And without trust, no economy on this planet will work.

3. standardizing professional credentialing and staff development. Today, there are no standards of competency for sales professionals. All Federal Trusted Advisors will be required to meet the same standards for business knowledge, social skills, and problem-solving capabilities. We should implement this by hiring all private-sector professional sales trainers to work as government employees within the Department of Education. Making it the responsibility of the Department of Education to train 2 million Federal Trusted Advisors and their managers would thwart any attempt to eliminate the department.

4. implementing a single salary model, and eliminating variable compensation. All Federal Trusted Advisors will receive the same salary, without regard to what customers purchase. Federal Trusted Advisors would not be trusted if they had a vested interest in “closing the deal,” or “upselling,” as they do with the current model. And no customer would feel pressured or shunned because their planned purchase wasn’t sufficiently large, or was outside of a specific timeframe.

5. providing customers warmth, empathy, and understanding. Let’s face it: a root cause of buyer-seller friction today isn’t that products fail, or that they’re “oversold,”—it’s that buyers feel unloved. By institutionalizing love, we can eliminate passionless terms like Customer Relationship Management, and buyer loyalty programs, that aren’t serving customers in ways that are valuable to them.

I couldn’t propose adding 2.5 million new Federal workers without acknowledging the counterpoint arguments:

1. “It’s Big Government.” True, but like the GM and banking bailouts, there’s no time like the right time.

2. “We can’t afford it.” Understood. But the department will be self-funding because every customer will pay a 9% flat fee to the US Government on every purchase.

How much value would this initiative bring to US taxpayers? Before you answer, consider this: by outsourcing all sales and business development to the Federal government, the private sector could reallocate billions of dollars to fund R&D for product innovation. The positive impact on America’s global competitiveness cannot be overstated.

There are no simple answers and no silver-bullet solutions for securing America’s position as the world’s leading economy. But we must begin by overhauling the sales profession, and by establishing—and enforcing—harmony between buyers and sellers. I urge you to enact this initiative right away.

Respectfully,

Andrew Rudin
August 26, 2015

Sgt. Dakota Meyer Is Right: Some Sales are Wrong

“We are taking the best gear, the best technology on the market to date and giving it to guys known to stab us in the back . . . These are the same people killing our guys.”

A Marine Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. Dakota Meyer, wrote that in an email quoted in The Wall Street Journal (Decorated Marine Sues Contractor, November 29, 2011).

If you’re following this story, you already know that Sgt. Meyer is suing his former employer, BAE Systems, alleging that they “retaliated against him after he raised objections about BAE’s alleged decision to sell high-tech sniper scopes to the Pakistani military. He says his supervisor at BAE effectively blocked his hiring by another defense contractor by making the claims about drinking and his mental condition.” If you want to contact BAE’s Investor Relations about investing, you might wait until their damage-control staff has handled the last seething caller.

But put aside Sgt. Meyer’s legal case for a moment, and recognize that he won his Medal of Honor for “braving enemy fire as he tried to save the lives of fellow Marines who had been trapped in a Taliban ambush.” And what’s the relationship between the Pakistani military and the Taliban?

No matter how sure the answers might be from BAE or the US State Department, they’re not sure enough. So Sgt. Meyer’s objection to BAE’s pursuit of this sale makes poignant sense. Sgt. Meyer found a point when revenue becomes filthy, and he spoke up. We need more people like him.

The pending BAE rifle scope sale isn’t the first in which revenue pursuit has collided with public policy issues, or with moral and ethical beliefs. Ambivalence over a prospect customer’s business mission, products, and services occurs more often than people might expect. Here are some examples from my selling past:

1. Cigarette manufacturing

Cigarette manufacturing is huge part of Virginia’s economy. The Philip Morris Richmond Manufacturing Center alone is located on 200 acres, with six connected buildings that cover 43 acres, totaling 1.6 million square feet. An outsider cannot appreciate the size of the industry until he or she drives on I-95 through Richmond and experiences the smell of ambient tobacco leaf in the air. Then you know. The huge network of providers—from production machinery to carton printers to filter manufacturers to warehousing—have the same logistics challenges that all manufacturers face.

For years, the technology I sold to companies in the tobacco value chain helped them manufacture and distribute a legal-lethal product better, faster, and cheaper. Not exactly a conversation starter at parties I attended with members from my masters swim team, or with my relatives in the health care profession. You see where I’m going with this. I overcame my dissonance because I rationalized that cigarette smoking is voluntary—as long as I suspended the nicotine-as-addictive-drug idea.

Had I stood on principal and refused to help these producers, my competitors would have gladly filled the void. Just as important, could I subtract tobacco-related revenue from my account portfolio and still make quota? Answer: no. But what happens when you can? (see #2)

2. Firearm manufacturing

One of my prospects was a large handgun manufacturer. While some might find my choice heretic, I decided not to call on the company because I didn’t need the revenue to make quota. Unlike cigarettes, theirs was a “stand-alone” plant, without an ecosystem of suppliers in my sales territory.

OK. Before we get into a heated philosophical debate over the intended meaning of the second amendment to the US Constitution, let’s agree that it’s perfectly legal to manufacture and distribute firearms in the US. No controversy. Done.

So what was my objection? Once again, it’s the lethal thing. For me, it would have been indescribably strange to walk the production floor, looking at bins of forged parts and watching Quality Control test bays, knowing the likely use of the finished product. I imagined speaking with the same clinically-detached operational terms used for the production of automotive seats and headlamps, but unable to escape knowing the ultimate purpose of the precision and quality was to deliver bullets better. Just writing about it still makes me a touch queasy. Call me a wimp. I can handle it.

As in life, nothing in sales ethics comes easily. Was my idealism fair to my employer? Was it fair to my resellers? Probably not. I referred the gun manufacturer to a VAR who was not conflicted. And I still made commission on the sales—a twist to the story that I’ll save for another day.

3. Meat production.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years. OK, I’m not really a vegetarian, because I eat fish. And I only mentioned that because it’s an important fact for wrapping this up with a not-so-neat ethical bow at the end, which I promise to do in just a moment. That said, it doesn’t bother me when other people eat meat, just that I don’t.

Yet, I don’t sell to meat processors for the same reasons I don’t sell to tobacco processors: for me, it doesn’t feel good. Yes, I did write about a big sale I made to a meat plant following an e-coli outbreak. Yes, I got a great shot of adrenaline, and yes, there was a nice commission for my sale. But—and I’m not trying to win converts to veganism here—there are times in sales when you have TMI (Too Much Information). Vegetarian or not, if you’re selling to the meatpacking industry, you should have the appetite for it (pun intended).

My friends say, “Andy, you won’t eat meat, but you’ll eat fish. You won’t sell technology to a handgun manufacturer, but you will sell systems to automate navy supply warehouses—what’s the difference?” Great question, worth a conversation over a beer, at least. As author David Quammen wrote, “not every crisp line represents a triumph of ethical clarity.”

Back to Sgt. Meyer, BAE, and gun sight technology for the Pakistani military. Few will argue that a core idea for sales success is belief in your product or service. But belief in the value of your customer’s mission and purpose is just as critical—maybe even more. Sgt. Meyer’s story is important, because in tough economic times, being moral about how you produce revenue is difficult enough. Having the courage to be vocal when something seems amiss is truly remarkable.

Penn State Board of Trustees, are you listening?

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