The Decline and Fall of Marketing

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By Chris Bondy, Wayne Peterson, and Dr. Joe Webb

Marketing is getting pushed out of the boardroom and strategies built around customers are going with it.  It’s a self-inflicted banishment, and marketers – including many CMO’s – are worried about it. For Graphic Communication firms, this presents a two-fold challenge and opportunity, which we’ll describe in a moment.

How did this self-imposed exile happen? Gradually and through the creation of marketing automation.  Marketing Automation is a useful and effective tool, but only when embedded into a strategic process.  It is no panacea, and cannot substitute for a strategic process.  It can respond to specific impulses / signals, but that again means it needs strategic thinking to drive it. When the CMO is pushed from the boardroom and out of all things strategic, the enterprises become self-centered, inwardly-focused on meeting current demand for today’s products.  Unwittingly they make themselves more vulnerable to future competitive activity.

Marketing began as the creation of channels to reach a market (hence the word “marketing”).  It developed into the business function responsible for understanding consumer or customer needs and wants and finding ways to satisfy them. Today, the tracking capabilities of online digital media have given rise to quantitative analytics. This leads to the idea that marketing can be like any other process: it can be modeled or simulated using formulas and decision trees. That is, if you can identify certain patterns of trackable actions, you can intercept a prospective consumer or customer in a way that will increase the likelihood of a sale, and you can probably automate it.

The bottom line of this new (and erroneous) understanding:  marketing is not a process of nebulous sociology and psychology.  Instead, it is sequential actions that can be measured and quantified. Getting people into the “sales funnel” and tracking how they act makes them self-selecting. The “suspects” qualify themselves, rather than marketers and sales managers evaluating and selecting them. This means marketing becomes a tactical function not a guiding strategy. Tactics are predictable and repeatable processes.  For those who support the sales funnel the best case would be that marketing is a process that’s run by a black box in a room without lights.

This thinking is the inevitable result of bolting marketing automation onto an obsolete marketing funnel, running big data through it, and hoping for the best.  Here’s what it looks like:

  • Clicks are attracted using almost any means necessary.
  • Raw leads appear on the radar, nearly always online.
  • Leads go into the grinder of “qualification” powered only by their own activity.
  • Marketing automation measures and tracks their virtual progress.
  • “Unqualified” (insufficiently interested or motivated) leads drop out.
  • Sales are produced at the other end automatically, with minimal human interaction, just like a manufacturing process.

These are all the activities or stages of the traditional AIDA marketing process: gain the customer’s Attention, generate Interest, spark Desire, and call for Action.

  It was a very short step to take those stages and describe them as a funnel into which unqualified prospects and suspects fall, and out of which customers emerge.  That funnel model triggered the easy creation of a gulf between marketing and selling:  marketing assumed responsibility for the first two steps (getting attention and generating interest) and then handed the last two steps to sales (creating desire and inspiring action.) 

We’re seeing two consistent patterns, and in both B2C and B2B.  First, we’re repeatedly seeing and hearing marketing folk defend this process.  That’s because they can defend it with metrics for the first time.  “I did my job.  I got the eyeballs.  Our page views and “likes” are off the charts. Clearly those are interested and ‘warm’ prospects.”  This is like the old manufacturing process of concentrating on your task, and handing off your output to the next station with no interest or knowledge about what’s next. They used to call it “throwing it over the wall.” Unfortunately, the conclusion that “eyeballs and likes” become qualified leads doesn’t flow from the premise.  In the absence of evident need and intent (and, some would argue, budget) getting attention and interest doesn’t add up to creation of a “warm lead.”

In many B2B industries, 80% of your prospect companies can be known with great certainty. A simple example is if you sell to automakers. You know who they are. It’s a matter of finding the right people. And with the right detective work, they can be found. Any unknown prospects can be identified through research of some kind, and the rest can be found with feet on the street, whether the customer’s feet, a dealer’s feet, or your very own. In that case, you could know 100% of the prospect companies.

Other B2B products can be purchased “off the shelf.” It is those situations where automation can be used with great effectiveness. Companies like Amazon and Staples have shown that. Is there a sales funnel for these companies? Not really. Their sales funnels skip the creation of attention, interest, and desire. Transactions and revenue are primarily the result of having products in stock at the right price and in the right place for customers who have already made a decision to buy, and who are finishing the selection process from among multiple options and offers before completing the transaction.

Activity-based (rather than results-based or outcomes-based) metrics enable marketing staff to fold their arms and claim a win, whether new customers and new revenue are being created or not. That misses the point completely.  Marketing strategy isn’t about activity.  It’s about where you’re winning, where you’re losing, and where you have an opportunity to compete more effectively.  Those criteria inform where to invest limited resources (time, talent, budget) and where to stop investing them.  That’s the beginning of every effective marketing strategy.

Second, we’re seeing the gulf between marketing and selling grow wider as salespeople see and hear the claims of marketing folk, and rightly judge them as irrelevant.  The evidence is the growing frequency with which we’re hearing that the biggest problem is meeting the need for viable prospects. Uh oh.  At the leadership level, executives have begun to view marketing as a machine: feed it big data, and then let the software manage it and figure it out.  The challenge is that it appears to work, until it doesn’t.

The newly defendable position of B2B marketing (“We’ve got the metrics to prove it!”) tends to focus the attention and the blame for insufficient revenue growth on the sales function or organization.  But the defense isn’t really working well.  And the climbing turnover rate among Chief Marketing Officers is the evidence.  Spencer Stuart, the executive search firm, publishes an annual study of CMO’s.  In their most recent report, median tenure for CMO’s dropped to 26.5 months, from 35.5 months when measured a year earlier.  A full third of the CMO’s surveyed were new in their roles, the highest Spencer Stuart has seen since they started tracking in 2004.  And that’s happening simultaneously with the widespread implementation of big data, marketing automation, and content marketing / native advertising.  Oops.

What does the change of a CMO mean to a company? They stop implementing their marketing strategy, they take time to think about and settle on a new one, and then implement it. Typically, this takes 18 months. In those 18 months, the marketplace changes and many competitors keep acting in their own interests. Mechanistic approaches to marketing are based on rules. Is the CMO’s job to change the settings in the machine, or is the job to change the guiding principles that direct the company’s presence in the marketplace?  Many CMO’s are now uncertain which is their primary task.  And in the face of uncertainty and criticism, it’s easy to default to the mechanical, measurable, and explainable.

As the gulf between marketing and sales widens, so does the gulf between the boardroom and sales. If marketing is mechanistic, so are the activities of B2B sales drones who must present information to prospects and clients in the exact way specified. The benefit of a personal sales force is adapting the information flow to the unique characteristics of customers and prospects. Most customers are alike in many ways, but the differences in applications, structure, and target markets need the detection and insight of a human sales force. The personal sales force is the original customer-facing strategy.

Personal selling deals with qualitative issues, subtle and obvious, rational and irrational, and deciphered motives for purchase. The funnel implies predictable and repeatable patterns of activity. Unfortunately markets and customers are rarely either.

Marketing is ceding its primary role in the creation of a customer-facing strategy in order to answer a decades-old criticism about results that have been tough to measure.  And that criticism isn’t a new thing.  John Wanamaker, the department store founder who died in 1922 made the still-repeated statement: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”  The siren song of “measurable results” coupled with the availability of Big Data and Marketing Automation has seduced marketers to take their eyes off the strategic.  And the attendant consequences are huge.  At the executive level, one of those is the loss of credibility when marketing is viewed as a mechanized and lights-out process.

Marketing looks linear on the outside but is dynamic and often random on the inside. Not all transactions for information can be known or detected. Not all engagements have the same value. Not all customers and targets have the same knowledge and business impulses. Marketing may have a general direction and objective, but prospect engagement has fits and starts, interruptions, retrenchments and leaps forward, changes in contexts and timelines, fickle values and preferences, rational and irrational twists and turns, and many other aspects that can be known separately but are hard to understand holistically.

The mechanistic approach can get stuck in “dynamic inertia.” That’s when an enterprise is in a state of constant activity, but going nowhere. Here’s what that looks like: the sales per share of the S&P 500 is still less than it was after the start of the recession in December 2007. That is, after years of advances in digital media and communications, the rise of the Internet and social media as essential marketing battlegrounds, and the emphasis on analytics and marketing automation, sales are down. We have more information about B2C consumers and B2B customers and prospects than ever. We see them when they’re sleeping, and we know when they’re awake, but we’re selling them less than we did before.

So, what’s the Alternative to the Obsolete Funnel?

The alternative is a lifecycle marketing process.  And this presents two opportunities for graphic communications firms.  First, graphic communications firms can offer the resources, process, and discipline as a service.  Chris Bondy described that in detail in UnSquaring the Wheel: Comprehensive and Scalable Transformation, which we published last fall.  In part, he wrote:

“By introducing strategic planning and marketing strategy into the graphic communications service offering, firms are able to start upstream and engage with customers well in advance of the project inception.  In fact, the graphic communications first that are involved in strategic planning and marketing strategy are usually involved in the definition of the program in a manner that will insure the plan is realistic and profitable.

Developing a strategic planning service, which includes a customer lifecycle roadmap, is an excellent way to engage marketers and publishers.  Developing a lifecycle roadmap is a non-confrontational and proactive approach that will turn the conversation in the direction of designing effective programs versus a cost-per-print discussion.”

The second opportunity is for the graphic communications firm to practice what we’re encouraging you to preach: engage in lifecycle marketing yourselves.  And there are at least three elements in lifecycle marketing that are typically missing from the conventional marketing v. selling model.

1. A Bridge to Somewhere

The core responsibilities of marketing are brand building, attraction, and engagement with current and prospective customers.  The core responsibilities of selling are creation, development, and retention of customer relationships.  So the two overlap, and that’s often confusing.  The confusion is used to justify and explain the chasm between marketing and selling, even when two separate departments don’t exist to battle with each other.  And that’s our first example of an element of lifecycle marketing in B2B working much better.

Lifecycle B2B marketing doesn’t view marketing and selling as separate, and doesn’t waste time trying to define an artificial dividing line between them.  Instead, it bridges the gap between marketing and selling.  That bridge typically includes several touches specific to the prospect timed just prior to first contact by a salesperson (either an inside or outside salesperson.)  In essence, those contacts plow the road in front of direct selling effort by providing information that’s meaningful and relevant to that individual, and letting them know they will be contacted by a live salesperson within a specific window of time.

When that bridge is built between marketing activity and selling activity, the likelihood increases substantially that selling activity will be effective.  The contact from the salesperson isn’t unexpected.  And the connection between the seller’s services and the potential customer’s circumstances and potential needs is starting to become clear.  This improves substantially the likelihood that the first contact will be received positively.

The bridge takes what are often separate marketing and selling processes, and connects them into a single, seamless business development process.  And that’s a process focused on outcomes: the work of creating new customers and then keeping them.

2. Welcoming Aboard

Lifecycle marketing doesn’t end with the first commitment on the part of the new customer.  Far too often, we see a minimal handoff between the salesperson who created the new relationship and the CSR or other individual who is going to deliver service to that new customer.  In many cases, the CSR doesn’t have access to the enabling agreement that defines the relationship, access to the history telling how the customer relationship was created, or even access to a recap of what the customer has been promised and told to expect.  In contrast, lifecycle marketing takes the onboarding of a new customer seriously and builds an onboarding process to insure that it is done consistently, effectively, and quickly.

When a well-designed onboarding process is built onto a strong business development process (the single process that includes marketing and selling), service delivery begins effectively.  And since the highest risk event for most graphic communications companies is a first project for a brand new customer, this dodges most of the risk inherent in that first event.

3. Renewing

The renewal of a customer relationship often takes the form of a formal contract extension or an informal reaffirmation of the intent to continue the business relationship.  Lifecycle marketing sees this as just as important as the creation of the new relationship.

Graphic communications companies have long understood that the value of a customer relationship increases over time.  Margins tend to improve as your understanding of the customer grows.  Volume tends to increase as the customer trusts the company with more work and more important work. 

A renewal process that’s been intentionally designed and built into a lifecycle marketing process is very likely to deliver longer and healthier customer relationships.  It’s also likely to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or a change in customer direction that goes unnoticed while everyone assumes everything is fine.

Content Marketing and Its Discontents

Much of marketing at present is bound up in sponsorships, native advertising, and content marketing. Lifecycle B2B marketing can be built effectively around content marketing, but it requires content marketing done very, very well.

In a recent study conduced by the CMO Council, only 15% of marketers ranked their content marketing efforts as “very effective” or “highly effective.”  We think that self-evaluation is likely spot on. And very few graphic communications firms are practicing content marketing especially well.   

There is a powerful temptation to publish whatever it takes to get a prospect’s attention: press releases, vapid inspirational memes, kitten memes, epic fail videos, recipes, life hacks, or meaningless listicles.  The objective is simply to trigger and then track any identifiable traffic.  But even if the content is modestly relevant and appropriate, there’s a problem: Once a customer starts gathering information they leave a virtual trail – digital breadcrumbs that your competitors can follow in order to target those same people with offers based on their digital behavior. 

Your awareness trigger could be bread on the water for the benefit of your competitor, whether a direct competitor or competing media.  And non-print / digital media providers are certainly smart enough to track interest in print media in order to offer and promote “better” alternatives.  By the way, this is one of the unsung strengths of print marketing, particularly direct mail marketing: it leave no such digital breadcrumbs for competitors to follow and highjack.

Content marketing done effectively requires strategic thinking that won’t be found in the funnel model even if big data and marketing automation are bolted onto it.  Content marketing done well speaks in a meaningful way to prospective customers, and provides value in the form of actionable information.  The acid test for good content marketing is: Is this useful for the recipient and sustainable for the marketer?  The onus is on the content publisher to be engaging, not on the customer to engage.  And far too many content marketers have that exactly backward, wanting to put the onus on the customer to engage and act. Their objective is the shortest possible path to a sales lead, no matter how cold, rather than engagement with a contact that may turn into a potential customer.

The brilliance of lifecycle marketing that includes well-executed content marketing is that it puts and keeps its eye on the real prize: significant engagement with the customer throughout the lifecycle of that customer.  And at the strategic level, that engagement can be measured and monetized, something that non-strategic marketing cannot successfully deliver no matter how big the data, how elegant the marketing automation, nor how steep and narrow the funnel.

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The authors are the founding principals of UnSquaring the Wheel Corporation, an educational non-profit, and the authors of UnSquaring the Wheel: Comprehensive and Scalable Transformation, which was published in September 2015 and distributed by RIT Press.

Chris Bondy is the Gannett Distinguished Professor in the School of Media Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology.  He also serves as Vice President of Technology and Integration for Cause + Effect Strategy and Marketing.  Chris has over 30 years’ experience in printing and direct marketing leading operations and research and development. He is industry consultant, trainer/speaker with expertise in workflow, strategy and technology.

Wayne Peterson is the Principal of the Black Canyon Consulting Group Inc.  Wayne’s 30-year career in Graphic Communications has included C-level assignments four times, and leadership roles in marketing and business development.  He founded the Black Canyon Consulting Group in 2008, and he serves as a fractional executive for most of his clients.  Wayne currently serves at EVP / COO for The Lane Press in Burlington Vermont.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry’s best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators, and director of WhatTheyThink’s Economics and Research Center.. He is a 35+ year veteran of the graphic arts industries. He is also the co-author with Richard Romano of several books, including Renewing the Printing Industry, Disrupting the Future, Getting Business, and This Point Forward.

Personal Brand v. Personal Character – 7th & Last Rule of Social Selling

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Be noisy and hip! Build a personal brand! Salespeople are being urged to do this at all costs. Much of the advice being offered about personal brands is about visibility and style. You’ve read and heard a good deal of it, I’m sure. If you distill the advice down, “be noisy and hip” is what you get. And seeing it described that way probably answers why much of what you’ve heard about personal branding left you uneasy.

“It’s as powerful as Frodo’s ring.” That’s what you’re hearing about personal branding. And social media is always promoted as the primary means to that end. Highly visible B2B salespeople are sometimes accused of unrestrained egotism. A few deserve the label, I’ll admit. And the mad pursuit of personal branding is bringing out the worst in some of them. But top-flight salespeople are rarely vain little egotists engaged in relentless self-promotion. They are much deeper and much more substantial.

My problem with many of the self-declared experts in personal branding is two-fold: First, they seem to know little about real branding. Second, they seem to know even less about character. And for highly successful salespeople, the two are always in alignment.

What’s a Brand Anyway?

It is possible to create and maintain a “personal brand” if we first understand what a brand actually is. A brand, any brand, is not what it says about itself. It is what others believe about it. That means that brands belong to the people to whom the brand is important. Which makes personal brands (as well as B2B brands) tough to observe. It’s the classic iceberg scenario: what you can observe is a tiny fraction of what exists. Let me illustrate with an example.

When I look at companies that are my clients, the hardest things I need to uncover and understand are their brands. That’s tough because my clients are small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) and their business models are all B2B. So intense listening is required, and I need to listen to their active customers and potential customers in order to understand what their brands mean and stand for in the minds of their customers. Their brands are nearly invisible to casual observation because those brands exist in the minds of those inside their spheres of influence: their customers, former customers, potential customers, friends, and competitors.

It’s impossible to understand brands (personal, B2B, or consumer) simply by observing their outbound messaging, their identity package, and their product and service design. Sorry, but that’s true. But the fact that we can observe so little of brands doesn’t make them any less powerful or any less real.

Try this for a working definition of brand: “A brand is what others know to be true and valuable about you.” That’s true of B2B brands. That definition applies to personal brands too. A brand answers three questions directly: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? I’ve quoted Greg Galle, co-founder of Future Partners before, and those questions are his. And they are the key questions that need to be asked of all efforts at personal branding in the same way that they are asked of B2B and consumer brands. So let’s do that.

Substance and Style

The first and second are easy to answer. You can quickly tell anyone who you are and what you do. At minimum you can give them your name, company affiliation, and the products and services you represent. But it gets tough personally when you try to describe why it matters.

For top-flight B2B salespeople, a personal brand is powerful when it’s welded to personal character. And we need a useful definition of personal character to understand what should drive any effort at personal branding.

I’d propose that personal character has three elements: your own values, your own strengths, and your own purpose. If you can describe what’s important to you, what you bring to the party, and what you intend to accomplish, then you can easily answer the third of Galle’s questions: Why does it matter. And you can also start to determine what kind of personal branding effort is going to reflect those traits honestly and accurately.

“There is a big difference between reputation and personal brands. Reputation is built upon past experiences — good or bad, a real track record. Personal branding is often an ego-based image based on communications. A personal brand can demonstrate a person is there, but it’s often shallow and can be contrived. It’s just like a sport stripe on a car, nice but no engine, no guts, no substance.”

— Jeff Livingston

Now, if your personal character traits include dishonesty, apathy, ignorance, selfishness and / or laziness, don’t bother reading farther. In fact, the only action you should be taking is getting out of B2B sales because you’re a sea anchor, and a miserable reflection on the highly professional and highly ethical B2B salespeople with whom I have the privilege of working.

By the way, I’ve never subscribed to the belief that under-performing salespeople lack sufficient motivation, or that the motivation can be applied externally (by me or anyone else). Motivation is entirely intrinsic for the best B2B salespeople, and it is rooted in their characters. In fact, for most of them, the primary drive is to be of service to others.

If your company calls on you to compromise your character by being less than forthright with customers, manipulating them consistently, or ignoring the customer’s interest in favor of their own, you’ve a different decision to make. Given the unmet demand for top-flight salespeople, there’s no reason for you to sit tight when a company’s customer experience is a consistent fist to your gut.

Hype-free Personal Branding

If your efforts so far to create a personal brand have the flavor of Mad Men, there’s a reason. It’s likely because you started with packaging rather than with the product. A strong personal brand isn’t about egotism. It is about vulnerability and openness. It’s about standing for something that will resonate with others, particularly with your customers. So as you begin thinking about how you want to represent yourself, there are four of questions I find useful to ask:

1.  Is your brand in concert with your character? In other words, is everything about how you present or represent yourself about more than merely your personality and appearance? Does your character come through? It should. Let me give you three examples to illustrate what I mean. A personal brand for Mother Theresa would clearly signal compassion and self-sacrifice. A personal brand for Abraham Lincoln would signal strength and resolve. A personal brand for Warren Buffet would signal both integrity and humility. Your own should signal the core elements of your character: your core values, your significant strengths, and your personal purpose.

2.  Does your personal brand reflect the real you? If you’re the jeans and tee shirt type, then branding featuring you in Seville Row suits isn’t going to ring true. If you’re the geeky type, then featuring you on a motorcycle with a swimsuit model riding behind you isn’t going to ring true. Style needs to be subordinate to substance. Which means you start with substance and figure out the style that echoes it clearly and honestly. Again, your personal brand needs to reflect the elements of your unique character.

3.  Does your personal brand tell your own story? This has nothing whatever to do with being “multi-faceted” which is the code word for creating multiple personas aimed at different audiences. That advice to create multiple personas is incredibly misguided and downright dangerous for B2B salespeople. It undermines your integrity.

“Integrity” and “integrated” come from the same root word in Latin: integritatem. It means whole, undivided, intact, uncorrupted. My favorite working definition of integrity is “consistently making and keeping commitments.” And a person of integrity is the same person wherever we meet her. There’s no mask. That doesn’t mean that she’s making inappropriate disclosures of herself (insufficient boundaries). But it does mean that she’s the same person from the veneer all the way down to her core. Therefore, everything about your personal brand should tell your story. And it should make sense to your spouse, children, colleagues, and customers.

4.  Is your personal brand “fully human?” Can people easily relate? If your photos have been retouched to perfection, you may be missing the point. If your career path hints that you’ve never made a misstep, never joined the wrong company, and never stubbed your toe in some fashion, that’s probably not going to serve you well. If you present yourself as fully human, you’re on the way to being appreciated as approachable and winsome. That will enable people to make an emotional connection to you, and that’s vital.

Any effort you make to build a visible, personal brand needs to start with the substance of who you are, with the core of your character. So resist the temptation to focus first on the packaging and appearance. Make the main thing the main thing. When the live human fits perfectly with the expectation created by your brand, you’ve gotten your personal brand in alignment with your character. And that’s a powerful thing.

Answer Galle’s third question: “Why does it matter?” But make it personal: “Why do you matter?” Another way to ask it is my favorite: “What difference do you make?” Your personal brand should have a specific and a tangible answer to that incredibly pertinent question. What’s yours?

“Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.”

– David Ogilvy

What do you think?

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Part of my practice is training and direct coaching of sales managers and individual salespeople. Another part of it is building intentional and strong brands. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Find Big Challenges – The Sixth Rule of Social Selling

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Your role is to enable your customers to meet their needs, grasp their opportunities, and defend against their threats. Whether you like it or not (and I happen to like it a lot) that’s how your customers see your role. If you’re not doing one of those three things, you’re a distracting and useless waste of time. Period.

Got your attention yet? Good. The salespeople who are using social selling (resources and methods) most effectively are making one of those three things happen for each customer. They are working to understand exactly how the customer sees their own needs, opportunities, and threats and then to do something about them.

Can you help your customer solve large-scale problems? Let me ask the question another way. When you weld the value you, the salesperson, can create yourself (personally and directly) onto the value that can be created by the products and service you sell, can you slay a dragon-sized problem? I suspect the answer is yes.

In the earlier posts in this series, I’ve made the case for developing substantial and influential relationships using all of social selling. But to deserve and keep those relationships long-term you need to go somewhere with them. You need to deliver value that your customer contacts see as significant. Three things are required if you’re going after dragon-sized issues with your customers.

1.  Find and Agree on the Dragons This seems obvious. In practice, it isn’t. Regardless of the sales model on which your company’s sales process is built (SPIN, Challenger, ROI, SNAP, Consultative / Solution, High Trust, or Agile) the initial foundation remains consistent through them all: You and the customer must understand and agree on circumstances that are worth changing.

Whether you lead the customer to that shared understanding or whether they lead you to it is immaterial. Yes, there are methodologies like SPIN Selling that work exceptionally well to create that shared understanding. Yes, much of the time you’ll need to reframe the circumstances so that the customer sees the situation as you do. But the point is getting there, and getting to a “there” that’s big and gnarly enough to be worth battling.

What would a decision-maker, particularly an executive high up in one of your customer companies, agree is a dragon-sized issue? Most often, it is dragon-sized if it affects the organization in one of two ways.

Survival / Cash Flow These are issues that threaten the very existence of the organization, at least in its present form. Companies can grow themselves out of business if they run out of cash to sustain them through that growth. So cash flow is genuinely a survival issue for every ranking executive, not merely the green-eye-shaded Chicken Little’s in accounting. It matters.

There are other Extinction-Level threats you’ll uncover in a customer organization. And they will certainly be labeled “dragon-sized.” Those can include competitive threats, major changes in the behavior of your customer’s customers, the price or availability of raw materials, regulation, supply chain disruptions, channel and distribution disruptions, and a host of others. That’s why it is vitally important that you understand and track your customer’s performance and circumstances. That’s how you’ll stay alert for survival-threatening issues.

Profit / Growth The other large category of issues that will earn that dragon-sized label are those that have a material effect on profits and growth. And that applies even to organizations that are nominally classified as “not for profit.” (Talk to any association executive and have her tell you how important the association’s “net income” is at the end of the year when they net expenses against income.) This category is where you will find most of your opportunities to have a dragon-sized impact.

There’s an accounting concept that’s very useful to top-flight salespeople: Is it “material?” I won’t wade into the nonsense that has swirled around the term “material effect” for more than ten years following Sarbanes Oxley.   Instead, I’ll use the very useful rule-of-thumb that accountants and auditors have used for decades by asking this question: Will solving the problem (or meeting the need, or grasping the opportunity) make at least a 5% difference to the customer’s bottom line for the year? Note, I didn’t say five percentage points. I asked whether you could make a five percent improvement on their results by slaying that particular dragon successfully. If so, your solution will have a “material effect” on their results. There is no executive who can afford to ignore it when someone presents them with an opportunity to “make a positive material impact” on their results.

Here’s how to do the math, and it’s easy. Let’s say that your customer has $100 million in revenue for the year. At a ten-percent profit margin, they are netting $10 million each year (exceptionally high, but easy math). Anything that would swing that up or down by $50,000 or more (a five-percent change) is big enough to be labeled “material.” That means if you can make a $50,000 positive impact on a $100 million enterprise, or a $25,000 impact on a $50 million enterprise, you can make an impact that even the CEO cannot legitimately ignore. And that scale of impact is well within the reach of most B2B salespeople.

If you want a customer executive to give serious consideration to any overture or proposal you’ll make at any point in your sales process, the best way to guarantee their rapt attention is to demonstrate the potential to have a material impact on their enterprise. And it is that material impact test that tells you whether you’re making an enterprise level sale or not.

An “enterprise” opportunity is mistakenly associated with Fortune 1000 companies. And that’s misleading. An enterprise opportunity, deal, or relationship is one that the customer sees as very important or vital to the health and success of their enterprise. That means you can create enterprise-level (vitally important) impact for organizations of all sizes.

2.  Focus on Customer Outcomes Again, this seems obvious. But too often it is simply overlooked by salespeople who are mid-range performers, and even those who are working to use social selling resources and methods. A focus on customer outcomes is the only thing that will get you (and keep you) taken seriously by a C-level (or near C-level) customer executive.

I’ve long been a fan of the “So What?” test. I apply it everywhere. It certainly applies to branding, all marketing messages, and even to the design of a remarkable and memorable customer experience. But it especially applies to salespeople who want to earn, develop, and retain long-term relationships with executive-level decision-makers. It needs to be a constant script running in your head as you prepare for any conversation or communication. If the customer can ask “So What?” of your message, and not come up with a compelling answer, you may as well have skipped communicating completely.

Here’s another way to look at it: Greg Galle, co-founder of Future Partners, gets the credit for demanding that his clients formulate straight answers to three simple questions: Who are you?  What do you do?  Why does it matter?

To Galle’s three questions, which he asks of brands and marketing, I’d add a fourth specifically for salespeople: Does it matter enough?

The last two questions are direct enough to be harsh. But if you cannot deliver a clear, cogent, and direct answer to either of those, then you’ll fall off the radar of an executive-level decision-maker and fast.

3.  Make Audacious Commitments This one stretches salespeople and their companies consistently. That’s because it runs directly contrary to the old and hairy axiom, “Under promise and over-deliver.” The axiom is bunk. If you under-promise to me, I’ll yawn and turn my attention elsewhere. In that I’m typical.

You don’t win and hold attention without wowing. Unless and until the commitment that you and your company are prepared to make reaches a “wow” you’re unlikely to leverage your hard-won relationship effectively for the benefit of your customer, yourself, and your company. So what makes a commitment a wow? Wow commitments are tangible, memorable, and genuinely superior.

Tangible. You need to promise a measurable outcome. And an intermediate or activity-based measure doesn’t cut it. Too much of sales / marketing automation focuses on activities and intermediate metrics. Your customer executives aren’t interested in activity, they are interested in measurable, financial results. The bottom line really is the bottom line. So “clicks” and “views” are not nearly as compelling as a commitment for a percentage or dollar gain in revenue, in net income, or in expense reduction.

Don’t miss the opportunity to calculate and document that measurable outcome. At the very least, be specific about the minimum ROI the customer can count on from your offer. If that ROI is material to the performance of her firm, you’re on your way.

Memorable Frame your commitment in clear language that’s direct and powerful. It should look something like this: “You will be able to (outcome) by (measurement / dollars) because we will (action). This requires your commitment of (resources) which will be returned by (date).” This is powerful because it cuts through the hedging and dumps all of the qualifiers that your customers are accustomed to seeing from others.

Genuinely Superior Nearly everyone reading this has competitors. For most of you, those are direct competitors. For some, your competitors are substitutionary rather than offers of direct replacements for your products and services. To make a dragon-slaying offer to a C-level decision-maker, your need to propose value that she sees as genuinely superior to what she would expect from others. If your proposal offers results that are material to her enterprise, you’re likely there already. Because you’re framing your results as I’ve described, those results should be seen as superior when compared with offers focused on prices, features, and benefits.

The top-flight salespeople I know maintain relationships by solving big, important, expensive and painful challenges for their customers. They enable their customers to take advantage of dragon-scale opportunities. So tell me, are you reaching for dragon-sized challenges as your customers would define them? Or are you chinning yourself on the curb?

What do you think?

__________

Part of my practice is training and direct coaching of sales managers and individual salespeople. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Earn Your Access – The Fifth Rule of Social Selling

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Direct, early access to the real decision-maker – not someone whose power is limited to saying “no,” but the person who has the authority to say the final “Yes” – It’s the Holy Grail for professional B2B salespeople. And it has gotten harder and harder to gain. You’ve seen the statistics already. The buying process is often 50% to 75% complete before a company that’s planning a purchase reaches for a supplier or a salesperson. And the era of the salesperson as technical expert or as animated brochure is well behind us. This has companies looking at their B2B sales organizations and questioning the expense. Few have figured out a clear alternative, but the intensity with which they are looking is high.

And yet, I have the privilege of coaching B2B salespeople who grow their books of business year-over-year, and who typically sell over $1 million in new business each year even though their individual transactions (invoices) rarely exceed five figures, and their annual contracts (for those who sell them) rarely exceed the low-six figure range. For small and medium-sized companies, that’s excellent performance. So what gives? Aren’t these salespeople faced with the same challenges that you or your salespeople face? What are they doing differently to reach and engage real decision-makers? At least the following three things:

1.  Play the Long Game The first thing they are doing is playing the long game. Yes, they track and report their near-term deals as their companies expect. But none of these top performers believe that simply working the basic system and developing deals is nearly enough. They do that, but they don’t stop there. These salespeople will track purchasing cycles, contract renewal dates, product lifecycles, customer performance, customer initiatives, and other customer timelines as much as three years in advance. For the salesperson who is a midrange performer, that’s inconceivable. And yet the top-performer’s thinking and tracking aligns perfectly with the planning cycle for their own companies and for their customers. Here’s how: (Fair warning, there’s a very short lesson in corporate finance and corporate culture involved. But it will be valuable, so indulge me for a couple of paragraphs.)

Except for startups that take virtual products and services to market, there’s a maximum sustainable growth rate most companies include in their planning. (Startups face sustainable growth limits too, but their models work differently. Development speed is often their constraint.) For most, the sustainable growth rate tends to hover around 25% per year. That may not seem sexy until you do the math. That means that the company can grow to 3X its original size in five years, and 9X in ten years. For most small and medium-sized businesses, that’s great performance. It’s especially remarkable if it is doable debt-free. Those, by the way, are the sorts of businesses Warren Buffett finds compelling.

Debt-financing to fund and fuel growth is expensive and restrictive. While interest rates are low at present, the covenants lenders require companies to honor are incredibly restrictive. Venture capital is more expensive and nearly as restrictive. Therefore, the wisest way to fund growth is to do it from retained earnings – from profits that are held inside the company rather than distributed to owners or shareholders in some fashion. It’s not sexy, but it is wise, and companies that do it tend to have strong balance sheets. So that’s one reason that the sustainable growth rate hovers around 25% per year – you can only accumulate retained earnings so fast.

There’s another reason, and it is cultural. Few companies that deliver tangible (rather than virtual) products and services can scale faster than that. There’s a long list of companies that serve as case examples (or cautionary tales) who radically exceeded that rate. A great case study is the defunct airline, People’s Express. People’s Express imploded because it grew so rapidly it couldn’t onboard enough new staff without diluting the culture that enabled its early growth. When it failed, the “old timers” were people who had been part of the company for more than 12 months. There was no institutional memory. And as the culture got diluted the company failed to deliver the customer experience the brand had promised and previously delivered. Customers who had been raving fans defected, and the rest is history.

Since their customers and prospective customers tend to work on the same sorts of cycles, top-flight salespeople work to engage customers about their long-term initiatives and development plans. They want to know what’s going to happen, not just what’s already happening. That’s the only remaining method to insure that you’re already in the conversation when the customer begins to recognize an approaching need. But you cannot do this effectively unless you’ve invested the time and attention to understand the customer’s business (current performance, challenges, threats, objectives, initiatives, priorities), as well as the effort to develop relationships long before you begin to propose anything. You play the long game to earn your way into those relationships.

2.  Network Up The second thing that top-flight salespeople consistently do is set the bar for network connections and developing relationships higher and higher. When I help salespeople analyze, map, and understand their networks, the salespeople who fail to reach higher often surprise me. Salespeople tend to reach a comfort zone dealing with people at a given level in their customer and prospect companies. And I often hear them express fear of “going over the heads” of their primary contacts both in their current customers and in their prospective customers. It’s terribly short-sighted.

A few months ago I had a memorable conversation with an excellent salesperson who was terrified at the prospect of trying to create a C-level relationship. In private he shared that he had no idea what he would talk about in a conversation with someone at that level. I asked him to describe in detail what he knew about one of his largest customers where he felt vulnerable to a new competitor. The depth of what he understood about the customer’s business was startling. While his relationships were all at the middle-management level and below, his understanding of how the customer did business and where the company struggled was very deep. I asked permission to pull the CEO of the salesperson’s own company into our conversation to listen. I then asked the salesperson to repeat the overview. He talked for fifteen minutes with a lot of energy about the customer company. I then turned to his CEO and asked him for a piece of unfiltered feedback. I asked the CEO to tell the salesperson whether that understanding would be valuable and welcome if he had been the top executive of the customer organization. Without a minute’s hesitation, the CEO looked at his salesperson and said this: “You’d be priceless. You have the kind of deep understanding that a CEO fights to get, and from which he or she is usually insulated. Once I knew that you had this kind of insight, I’d keep you in easy reach. And I’d reach for you.” The salesperson was amazed.

Those relationships take some courage to create, and they must be earned. But earning them becomes possible if you’ve invested the effort to sharpen yourself, and the effort to understand the customer’s situation in depth.

SPIN Selling has been called the best sales book ever written to date, and it may well be. But what’s too often missed about Rackham’s brilliant model is digging deep enough into the customer’s situation at the beginning. Salespeople exposed to SPIN Selling get enamored with the “I” (Implicate) and then begin from an understanding that’s too shallow. Unless and until you understand the customer’s circumstances (their situation – the “S” in SPIN Selling) well enough to understand what will drive their decision process, you could implicate a need that’s too small to motivate action. The need may be real, and the solution may be a great fit. But if there are larger drivers afoot, your whole effort could get shelved as simply not important enough. That’s a wretched place to be.

3.  Get Visible Many salespeople have described a fear of being highly visible inside their customer’s and prospective customer’s organizations. That one baffles me. Yes, I’ve listened carefully. Yes, I’ve heard them worry that if they were too visible they would become targets for unfavorable attention of some kind. But, honestly, I just don’t get it. Here’s why:

One of my LinkedIn endorsements is from a friend long-retired whose company was a client of mine very early in my sales career. I did millions of dollars of business with his firm, with an average invoice of only about $10,000. And I was the only seller that cultivated a relationship with the firm’s principals, him included. I worked very hard not only to understand his business model and industry segment, but his business specifically. And that understanding enabled me to offer a perspective he couldn’t easily get elsewhere. It was my earliest experience of learning to “speak truth to power / authority.” But it paid off handsomely for him, for me, for his firm, and for the company I represented. I was as thoroughly insulated from competing sellers as I could have dreamed. And I earned that relationship every day by making myself visible, listening constantly and carefully, and thinking hard about my client’s business.

Being visible means being known as a valuable resource by more than the direct users of your product or service. And that means being known well beyond those who manage the buying process (whether “purchasing,” “procurement,” “strategic sourcing,” or “supply chain management.”) Those who are affected by your products and services need to know you too, and that certainly included executives. They need to understand that you’re there to create value in advance of and in excess of the value you expect to receive in return. And they need to know that you’ll welcome it if and when they reach for you. They cannot reach for you if they cannot see you.

Top-flight B2B salespeople are involved far earlier in decision processes than the marketing automation folk tend to see. When they have relationships that are deep, high, and in advance of an approaching need, they are able to help frame the discussion of the approaching need, and even the framework within which a solution will be applied. And it is social networks and social selling resources that enable salespeople to identify, understand, approach, and engage real decision-makers long before a buying process begins.

So the question is: what do your relationships look like with your customers and prospective customers? Are you playing the long game? Are you networking up? And are you getting more and more visible? If not, why not?

What do you think?

__________

Part of my practice is training and direct coaching of sales managers and individual salespeople. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Enrich Your Network! – Fourth Rule of Social Selling

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One common trait is shared by all of the highest-performing salespeople I know. Each one works steadily and intentionally to increase his or her Sphere of Influence. It is a process so ingrained it has become habit. They do it so naturally and so consistently that it draws very little attention. And each one’s individual sphere tends to be large.

That’s worth a momentary detour. The size of a salespersons LinkedIn network is now being used as a rough gauge, both of her level of professional engagement, and of her effective sphere of influence. I made an informal tally of about fifty salespeople whose current productivity I know firsthand. The size of their networks matched the bell curve of productivity perfectly. Like it or not, it’s easy to vet that statement. Ask any recruiter off-the-record. I did.  Or do it yourself. In my informal and small sampling, the highest performing salespeople inevitably have networks exceeding LinkedIn’s 500+ milestone. Mid-range performers showed up in the 250 – 350 range. And the “retreads” I described in an earlier post were uniformly below 250. Where are you?

But I want to describe something much larger than merely making as many LinkedIn connections as you can by becoming a LION (LinkedIn Open Networker — not a good thing) or piling up followers on Twitter. So I’m not talking about merely growing your network, even though that’s important. I am talking about making a significant investment of yourself into the people within your network.

Unfortunately, this is something too often missed by the majority of salespeople who live somewhere in the middle of the sales performance bell curve. The good news is that this is a learned behavior, a method of working. And that puts it within the reach of any B2B salesperson who chooses to learn and apply it.

When I coach sales managers and their salespeople, I always begin at the same place: learning to master and use all the tools in their company’s sales process. Your company does have a sales process, right? If so, why swim against the current? If the company has invested in a sales process and the tools and resources to help make the sales organization effective at each stage and step, why not leverage them to the max?

Developing and applying the skills to leverage a sales process can easily move a new salesperson to “journeyman” status. That’s important, especially for new salespeople who are working to reach that all-important first performance rung within their own companies: becoming a “keeper.” But that’s a miserable place to take a victory lap. So what’s the real, long-term objective that’s worth pursuing? That’s easy. It’s becoming a trusted advisor.

Maister, Green and Galford wrote a book I recommend highly — The Trusted Advisor. It wasn’t written for salespeople. It was written for consultants, CPA’s, attorneys, and others in professional service firms who are working to get their expertise appreciated, used, and paid for. But the authors have done an excellent job describing the process of building both the breadth of expertise and depth of trust to earn the standing of a trusted advisor. I use this when coaching salespeople who are working to build social selling skills. And we work through it chapter-by-chapter. It helps them understand just how far they can build their own credibility and influence. By the way, I also recommend The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, co-written by one of the original authors, Green. If you want practical “how to” resources, it will provide them.

When perceived authority (which is much more than merely applied subject matter expertise) is paired with earned trust, the influence is substantial. So how do you earn that standing? I’ll offer you two specific places to start:

1.  Offer Value First Stephen Covey wrote and spoke at length about making deposits into what he called “emotional bank accounts.” And I’m intentionally stretching that metaphor when I recommend that you find ways to make consistent deposits into relational bank accounts, and do it proactively. For as long as I can remember, others have suggested that salespeople ingratiate themselves with potential clients by offering small-scale bits of value – pieces of information, links to articles, and the like. The stated goal is staying “top of mind.” That’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m encouraging you not to limit it to potential customers, and I’m suggesting that you not limit it to bits of random flotsam and jetsam. The last things that most of your potential customers need are notes (virtual or physical) recommending random reading. Unless it is current, pertinent, and actionable, don’t bother. No one needs a link to another clever but useless listicle. Instead, enable the people in your network to make new and valuable connections.

I am always on the alert for opportunities to introduce someone I know to someone else I know. I work to make those introductions happen, and then step back out of the middle once the introduction is made and an initial conversation has happened. It’s work. It takes time. It requires coordinating the schedules of two other people. But few things are more valuable than connecting two people who can serve as resources for each other. When I have a client facing a problem outside my capabilities, my first response is to make an introduction and then step back. When I make those introductions, I have no financial interest in what happens afterward, and that’s on purpose. It keeps my hands clean, and let’s me tell my client that my only gain is the satisfaction of connecting two people who can create value together. I’ll admit that the behavior is sometimes puzzling to one or both parties. And I have clients who will ask me whether there’s something going on behind the scenes. I can truthfully answer: “No.”

I’m encouraging you to do this for everyone inside your sphere of influence, whether or not the individual is or could ever be a client. Make the investment in making the connection. It’s a practical and professional way to “pay it forward” and to be the prime mover at the same time. The effect is usually profound.

This helps earn you a reputation as trustworthy and as a value-creator whether you benefit immediately or not. It also helps position you as a “first resource.” First resources are those people we reach for because we know they will welcome the opportunity to help, and we know they deliver honest value when they can. The wonderful byproduct for a salesperson is that you’ll find yourself introduced, welcomed, connected, and endorsed as trustworthy and valuable.

If you approach this expecting a “quid pro quo” dynamic, you’re going to be disappointed. You’ll always be offering more value than you receive in return. There are a lot of reasons why. Some people will never have the opportunity to reciprocate because their circumstances will prevent it. Some will find your actions memorable but unusual enough to make them uncomfortable reciprocating. Some simply won’t have the same sort of “invest first” mindset. That last reason is disappointingly common. But this is worth the effort nonetheless.

2.  Leverage Your Understanding If you’re sharpening yourself as I described in my prior post in this series, then you’re going to have even more value to offer beyond that of making connections. Others would dispute this sequence, but I believe that knowledge builds and becomes more powerful in a patterned way. We start with data, which is slugs or pieces out of any real context. When we can understand the relationships between different bits of data and organize them in some fashion, we can begin to call it information. When we take that information, internalize it, and retain it, it becomes knowledge. When we comprehend and synthesize that information into what we already know, we reach understanding. Finally, when we are able to leverage that understanding and make it actively effective, I think that qualifies as wisdom. Whether you care for my particular sequence or not, there’s a sequence at work nonetheless. You have the ability to develop understanding and even wisdom that will be very valuable to others. As you do so, offer it.

I’ve watched too many people, especially contemporaries of mine, trying to hoard their understanding in hopes of gaining security or power or something. Purported “subject matter experts” are often the worst offenders. Usually the effort is in vain. Obsolescence overtakes them while they are carefully hoarding. So offer the understanding you’re gaining.

The offer is best made personally, and in a context that makes sense. It’s not pushy in the least. For example, I’ll often tell frustrated sales managers that I understand, and would be happy to listen and offer help with no meter running. I listen with a view toward offering a connection, resource, or information source that they might find helpful and useful. If the conversation leads toward me being of more direct help that’s fine, but that’s not what I expect or attempt to make happen. I do the same with salespeople who are struggling with a large opportunity and having a tough time. Often that help is entirely extraneous to a current engagement with the salesperson’s company. But it lets me continue to earn and deserve the relationships by investing in them when I can.

Your objective is to create a gravity that pulls others toward you, and keeps them willingly engaged within your sphere of influence. You can’t do it by ingratiating yourself in some shallow fashion. And you can’t do it by focusing solely on those people with whom you want to do business. The necessary investment is deeper and more substantial. And the range of your deposits into the relationship accounts of others needs to stretch much more widely.

Salespeople tend to be distracted by “tricks, tips, and secrets.” What I just described runs directly contrary to that sort of shallow manipulation. There is magic in this, and it is powerful. But it is built in relationships with individuals and with time. The magic is that it grows more and more powerful with time and ongoing effort. It is a self-sustaining and virtuous cycle.

Where do you begin? Well, I find this question very useful for myself: “Whose life did I make measurably better today because he or she had contact with me?” When you can name a name at the end of each day, you’re on the way.

What do you think?

__________

Part of my practice is training and direct coaching of sales managers and individual salespeople. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment or hit the ‘like’ button. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Sharpen Yourself! – The Third Rule of Social Selling

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Some B2B salespeople I encounter baffle me. My work brings dozens of them across my path each year. There’s a significant segment who claim to desire and expect productive careers but who show almost no sign of investing in themselves. I don’t get it.

Some behave as though they have all the essential knowledge and every essential skill that they will need for the rest of their careers. It’s done. They are done. So let’s slap two coats of quick-drying cement over it, eleven coats of marine varnish, and call it “good.” And I’m not talking exclusively about salespeople late in their careers who are trying to run out the clock while relying on an established book of “annuity accounts” to support them. “Annuity account.” There’s another term I really dislike. Do you want to be someone’s “annuity account?” Neither do I. But I digress.

There’s another subgroup that seems to expect their respective companies to deliver all the new capabilities and new knowledge they will need, prepackaged, if not predigested. These salespeople look to their companies expecting education comprehensive enough to insure that he or she will remain highly effective, at the top of his or her game in perpetuity.

There’s a third subgroup that suffers from a particularly sad form of what I call “Four-Walls Myopia” – the belief that everything meaningful happens inside the four walls of their own companies. These are the folk who dive into every new technology and every new capability that their company brings to market with single-minded devotion, with real zeal. They understand the capabilities, constraints, capacities, and technical applications of all their products and services in-depth. No need for sales engineering or other technical help for this salesperson, thank you. This one already knows the specifications for the fastest Henway in the industry, and that a virtual Snavitz Integrator is completely incompatible with a hybrid-cloud-enabled Reltnick.

The common denominator among all of them is that they ignore, or actively resist, the bigger investment necessary to sharpen themselves. That’s tragic because every top-tier salesperson I’ve encountered is a life-long learner. More than that, they are nearly all autodidacts – people capable of planning and managing their own continuous learning. The good news is that being a self-managed and life-long learner isn’t innate, it is learned. Everyone reading this is fully capable of managing her own learning.

The life-long learning vital to highly successful careers in B2B sales typically has three aspects or elements. Each one has a launching point. And each one builds into something self-sustaining. This does become a virtuous cycle once it takes hold, and that’s the incredible good news. Here are the elements:

Process into System At the outset, continuous and self-directed learning requires creating at least a simple process. What sources of learning, of new information and insight, are important? How are you going to gain access to them? How much access do you need, and for how long? How are you going to actually embed the information and insight into your thinking? That last question is key. Far too often I cross paths with salespeople who are exposed to great information and great insight, and who have no process for building it into their individual knowledge bases.

The current models of adult learning describe four to nine different preferred styles of adult learning. I won’t take the time to detail the different theories, handicap them, or name a favorite. But there is universal agreement that there are multiple preferred learning styles for adults. Therefore, you need to understand yours and adapt your own process to them.

You’re likely to find that you best learn different kinds of information and insight differently. Examples will help make that clear. Let me use myself for two of them. I’ve been a woodworker / furniture maker since I was in my early 20’s. I’m now in my 50’s. So that’s three decades of learning. What works best for me there is seeing a skill, process, or procedure demonstrated and then practicing it. While reading is a favorite way for me to learn other things, I don’t learn woodworking best through reading. But I can learn quickly by being shown, and that doesn’t always mean live. I began woodturning about three years ago, and the most valuable learning resource for me has been video. So my learning styles for woodworking balance both visual and kinesthetic.

For professional learning, it is a different story. The best ways for me to take in information are through text and graphics, and by listening. Those two methods are pretty much in balance in my case. So visual and auditory learning methods work well for me when the information and insight are conceptual rather than practical. One of the adult learning models describes me balanced between theorist and pragmatist styles. And that seems to fit.

In practice, that means that I read and listen fully engaged, and prepared to argue with what I read. One of the benefits of my particular undergraduate program was learning to synthesize multiple information sources into a cohesive understanding. Another benefit was learning to actively question and argue with what I read. That led to my particular method for reading. I read with a mechanical pencil and a highlighter in hand. (Yes, that means no one is going to want my personal library.) I make marginal notes, but I keep a Moleskin notebook at hand too. And I highlight not just for emphasis, but to connect related ideas and information.

Mine is certainly not the only or even the best method. But it is the best for me. And it is a process that’s been refined repeatedly to the point that it is now a system. It’s my system. Catch that? I experimented with processes until I created a system. It works for me. It enables me to interact with the information and insight in a way that embeds it into my thinking and memory, and integrates it into what I know already. It’s active and purposeful. And it does take effort.

If you intend to become an effective autodidact, a self-directed and life-long learner, you’re going to need your own system. You’ll get there by starting with a simple process and experimenting. Trust your gut. See what you’re able to recall, and keep those tools and methods that help you do that.

Discipline into Habit At the outset, this is going to require some self-discipline, even if the subject matter is fascinating to you. That means that you’re going to build this into your weekly schedule. Every single week. Habits are built through applied discipline. It’s been repeatedly said that applying the self-discipline to do something every day for 30 days will create a sustainable habit. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. But what I can tell you is that if you do something every week for a year, and in the same pattern, it will certainly become a habit. And that’s why self-discipline is essential.

My schedule doesn’t allow me to slate time for developmental learning every day. So I build it into each week instead, and don’t beat myself up for not making that investment daily. It’s my system anyway. But this did take time and effort to build into a habit.

Early on, one of my two primary sources was print. So I created the habit of taking important reading with me to lunch three times a week. And it turned out that sitting in a restaurant with my reading, mechanical pencil and highlighter worked really well for me. And what a range of luncheon companions I enjoyed. Peter Drucker and Theodore Levitt were early ones. So was Regis McKenna. To that I added a couple of hours two evenings a week. The payoff was considerable. For years, I’ve read between 30 and 50 books a year, in addition to the other print sources (periodicals, mostly).

That discipline enabled me to apply my preferred learning styles to the content and media that works well for me. Now, understand that I’m not a Luddite. I do considerable reading on my iPad now. So I’m not endorsing either a print-focus or print-primacy if that’s not what works for you, or if the information and insight you want to gain comes from non-print sources. The point is this: A system married to a habit is incredibly powerful if you tailor it for yourself.

Focus into Expertise The objective is to take the content on which you focus and to turn it into practical expertise that you can apply. In most cases, you’re going to apply that expertise by creating unique value for your customers or clients. And that ties the effort directly back to a substantial career payoff for you as you capture a portion of the value you’re creating for others, for those who are doing business with you.

One of my early areas of focus was building an understanding of how color works. I wanted to understand color theory and color reproduction better than anyone. It led me to dive into the science of light and the biology of vision. It held the promise of benefit to my customers, of course. But I found that learning color theory and reproduction paid off in several completely unexpected ways.

A few years later, I found myself teaching color theory and color reproduction to budding art directors and designers. Initially, my sole motivation was to give back by sharing something I found endlessly fascinating. But I also found myself introduced to potential clients well outside my original sphere of influence. And guess who arranged the introductions: former students who were now junior art directors trying to help their agencies and design firms solve knotty color reproduction problems.

So what’s worth sharpening yourself enough to master? I’ll give you a handful of places to start:

  • Financial Literacy Few B2B salespeople can make heads or tails of the financial condition of current and potential customers even when the information is readily available. And being able to understand basic financial statements for yourself can give you fast clues about what’s going on and what’s important inside an organization. I’m not talking about financial accounting, I’m talking about management accounting.
  • Business Models Do you know how your customers actually make money? Do you understand how they create enough value to thrive? Understanding business models, and being able to recognize different business models in use, can also help you understand what’s going on inside a customer’s business, and what’s likely to be important to them.
  • Brands A brand can represent from 20% to 50% of the value of a company. The roles that brands play has changed substantially, and they’ve become much more important in the B2B space. An understanding of how brands are created and developed can give you a great lens through which to understand how a company creates value.
  • Marketing I’ve said before that the war between marketing and sales is over: everyone lost. B2B business development is a single, continuous process that includes both marketing and sales. So make the effort to learn marketing. That’s essential if your customers are marketers, and if your products and services support their marketing. You need to be able to walk the talk.
  • M&A Acquisitions are always being made. I’ve never seen a “merger” because someone is always acquiring someone else. It’s likely you or one of your customers has been part of one in the last three years. Understanding why they happen and how they happen can equip you to anticipate things that your customers may not.

Information is expanding rapidly enough that what you know now will be obsolete within five years. If you’re counting on what you know now to fuel your career, and to enable you to earn and deserve relationships through social selling, you’re delusional. You’ll earn those relationships when you, personally, have something to bring to the table – when you can create value for your clients directly. If you fail to invest in sharpening yourself, I have no idea where that value will come from. Do you?

What do you think?

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Part of my practice is direct coaching of Sales Managers and individual Salespeople. If you or your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment or hit the ‘like’ button. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Don’t be a Funnelist! – The Second Rule of Social Selling

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I have a confession to make. I’m not a Funnelist. I don’t worship at the altar of Funnelism. Never have. It’s deadly. Ben Chestnut (founder of MailChimp) was right when he compared the “marketing funnel” to a meat grinder. The funnel theory goes something like this:

  • Believe that a sales or marketing funnel exists, and that it accurately describes how customer relationships are created.
  • Focus only on those things that are immediately measurable.
  • See everything in linear terms for simplicity. (Customers falling mindlessly and helplessly from the top to the bottom.)
  • Load the funnel constantly because so few “leads” will make it all the way through and be deemed “qualified” and “warm.”

It leads to a process, beloved of Funnelists and those who offer marketing automation as a panacea. It is beloved because every step of this rude and rudimentary process is measurable (soundtrack: angelic voices singing). It has six simple steps:

1 – Trigger traffic and measure It Drive digital and measurable traffic at all costs, even if you resort to cat memes, epic fail videos, recipes, life hacks, Paris Hilton, or meaningless listicles. Don’t worry about promises of valuable content that you never deliver. Do it even if you cannot create enough great content. Keeping promises doesn’t matter. Implying tempting promises, inferring value to trigger traffic is all that matters. Click-baiting is fair game. Just trigger and capture identifiable traffic.

2 – Carpet-bomb them with relentless messaging. Marketing automation is really good at this when ill-used. At the first hint of permission (the slightest casual interest) wage the most relentless campaign since the London Blitz. This is the digital equivalent of a legacy salesperson doing the old “show up and throw up.” Tell them anything and everything because you don’t know what might trigger a response. This isn’t a drip campaign. It’s 40 days and 40 nights of deluge.

3 – Suck them in with an unsustainable “loss leader.” Get them to engage in even the smallest transaction so that you can claim them as a “customer.” (Can you say “free business cards?”) In some cases, this is the “Freemium” strategy pushed over the line to the “Barely Monetized” hopper. Measure the number of new customers captured. But don’t bother tracking the revenue. Even if the revenue is measureable it will never become profitable, much less material. Ever.

4 – Socialize them everywhere possible. Publicize their likes or signups or purchases relentlessly to everyone with whom they are connected, every group in which they participate. If you are clever enough, leverage terms-of-use to use their miniscule patronage both to justify implied endorsements and to contact everyone with whom they appear to be connected. Turn them into involuntary spokespeople for your product or service by republishing their comments, reviews, and likes as endorsements. And, of course, track, measure, and report on all those claimed endorsements.

5 – Pull in their friends and colleagues. The only time this is legitimate is if you offer real value. Dropbox does this by rewarding subscribers with more free storage space for each new subscriber who joins to get to something the first subscriber wants to share. But there are darker, uglier versions of this too. Some of them are nearly as vile as chain letters. Create a penalty for failing to provide the next round of victims whose names will enable you to start the cycle over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

6 – Assign them to a salesperson as qualified and warm leads. Shelly Levene said it best in Glengarry Glen Ross: “The leads are weak.” In his case, he was right. In too many cases, the “leads” yielded when marketing automation is bolted onto B2B business development are weak rather than qualified or warm. The problem is the inability to get any sense of either need or intent to purchase.

Please forgive the hyperbole, but this is important. The motive justifying that sort of near-insanity is that everything simply must be measurable. Unfortunately, Funnelism tends to be unsustainable, short-term, and transaction driven. That’s because, let’s face it, transactions are measurable whether they be financial, information or communication transactions. You can track and report them, whether they are meaningful or not. So the focus locks onto transaction measurement at the exclusion of everything else.

It’s unfortunate that the Funnelists have largely co-opted marketing automation as their exclusive domain. Marketing automation platforms offer the promise of measurable results for marketing expense. But it’s unusual when those promised results are financial returns. Implementing marketing automation well (whether Eloqua’s, Hubspot’s, Marketo’s, or anyone else’s) demands much more than merely good technology. It also demands clear objectives and tons of great content. Most importantly, it needs to be embedded seamlessly into a business development process. Otherwise it’s an expensive and time-consuming dead-end.

There is no irresistible power that will force customers mindlessly down through a funnel if you’re marketing B2B products and services that require a skillful salesperson. None. Curiosity or intrigue won’t. An elaborate snipe hunt is easy for most business people to sense and avoid. If the product or service is complex enough or high-value enough, if the customer’s circumstances and needs must be understood and a customization is vital, then there simply is no funnel because there’s no force that can pull or push the prospective customer through it.

A much better metaphor: Effective social selling shakes its head at Funnelism and turns its attention to the meaningful and powerful rather than merely the easily measurable. The objective is authentic and appropriate customer relationships that can last and grow. So we need a better metaphor. Some have suggested turning the funnel upside down. That’s fine, but a little clumsy. I’ll suggest an alternative: sphere of influence.

Picture it as a molecule or a solar system with the salesperson or her company at the center. Smart companies will position themselves here. Those less smart will leave this to their salespeople. In either case there’s a force at work and it is attraction. Call it magnetism if you’d like. But picture the salesperson or her company at the center and offering enough value to earn influence. We’re talking about being valuable enough to be winsome, and valuable to more than simply your current, active customers.

Two concentric spheres surround that salesperson. The inner one includes those who have been drawn in far enough to become active customers. The outer sphere is those friends, colleagues, and potential customers who are paying attention and being influenced by that company or salesperson. And they are interacting with each other, not just with the salesperson or her company. That’s why social selling is so incredibly powerful. It happily recognizes that customers, potential customers, colleagues, and friends are all interacting, and they are all influencing each other. So the central work of social selling becomes the creation of that magnetic alignment, that powerful and valuable energy that prompts all those people to willingly and happily engage.

Processes and Metrics But all of this does not mean that effective social selling resists good metrics or strong processes. Quite the contrary. Social selling requires both a platform and the discipline to use it constantly and effectively. And those constant actions are, in fact, measurable. What social selling does resist is the belief that some sort of automated marketing funnel can deliver a steady flow of warm and qualified leads to the salesperson which require minimal cultivation before “conversion”, the Funnelist’s ultimate, measurable goal. In consumer and online retail marketing where no salesperson is necessary or appropriate, that’s might be possible, but I don’t claim consumer marketing expertise and cannot say.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Perhaps it is the selling process that needs the much better metrics. Marketing activity is easy to measure. Trigger points are easy to identify and track. But measuring a business development process is much more demanding.

Measuring business development progress means tracking the milestones being passed as a customer relationship develops. And what companies screw up most often is choosing what to measure. News Flash: measuring the activity of salespeople won’t yield the best set of tracking metrics. Measuring customer actions is much more valuable. What tangible action has the customer taken? What has the customer agreed to do in concert with the salesperson? Are there mutual and reciprocal actions being taken?

When designing a business development process, the trigger points must be specific actions taken by the customer, including agreements for next steps. So in addition to starting with the consideration and decision process you see in use most often, a business development process must also identify those observable actions taken by the customer that signal they are moving from stage to stage, step to step. And those you can track and measure. In fact a whole host of different measurements are possible once you begin to watch for those customer actions.

Meanwhile, effective B2B salespeople have long built networks around themselves. Social selling simply admits that no alternative is effective any longer. It then leverages the technology, networks and media that weren’t available until the last decade. It’s too bad that legacy models like the funnel didn’t disappear at the same time. For high-value B2B business relationships, the funnel should have vanished with “the world is flat.” Unfortunately there are still some who see things through the worldview of Glengarry Glen Ross:

Williamson: The leads are coming!
Shelley Levene: Get ’em to me!

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P.S. I publish twice a week, on Monday and Thursday. I wrote this post last week, preparing to publish it today. Yesterday morning (Sunday), over coffee, Greg Satell’s post The Big Marketing Shift hit my radar. With B2C / consumer marketing in view, Greg speaks to the bankrupt funnel model. You need to read it. He nails it.

What do you think?

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Part of my practice is building strong B2B business development processes — marketing through selling to the customer experience. If your company might benefit, let’s talk. If this article was valuable or useful, please comment or hit the ‘like’ button. That tells me to keep at it. And please share the article through your own social media platforms. Start or join a conversation. Ask questions. Comment. Make a snide remark. I appreciate them all.

Don’t Be Creepy! – The First Rule of Social Selling

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The horror in his face made me laugh out loud. I was in a videoconference coaching session with a VP, Sales & Marketing. I was coaching some of his salespeople and to track with them, he was doing with me what they were doing. He and I had designed a new business development process from the ground up, and were vetting each stage and step. We were deep into the process, and focused on how to gain access to a decision-maker.

He had chosen an important prospective customer as a prototype, and we’d identified the key players and decision-makers. We were researching those individuals, and I was showing him what it was possible to learn about an individual businessperson using LinkedIn, Google’s advanced search, Twitter, Facebook, Data.com and a handful of other resources. We weren’t using any of LinkedIn’s cool new features for salespeople. And we weren’t using a powerful data aggregator likeInsideView. But what we’d found was amazing and shocking.

He pushed back. “Wayne, this is too much. There are things here I’m not sure weshould know. There are things I’m seeing that we cannot ever use!” He was right, and that’s my point. The first rule of social selling must be “Don’t Be Creepy.” For salespeople it’s equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Violating this can easily lose you the opportunity to develop the customer. It can torpedo a career just as quickly.

Social selling is incredibly powerful, but I still find myself convincing company owners, sales managers and salespeople that the only alternative to it is extinction. Using the methods that worked 20 years ago is a path to the tar pits. Its track record of gaining access to decision-makers is unmatched. Several studies have demonstrated that social selling will enable a salesperson to gain access to a decision-maker 60% to 80% of the time. That’s 5X to 8X the performance of conventional, legacy methods.

Fortunately, when a company sees the metrics and documented results of social selling, they are usually ready to take the plunge as fast as possible. Therein hide a number of risks or submerged rocks. And unintentional creepiness is one of the biggest. In social selling it is far too easy to step across the line between personal and professional. And you can step across it too early and too far.

Social selling, of course, is much more than merely using technology tools (data sources and networks). It’s the process of carefully building authentic and appropriate relationships with potential customers. Catch the adverbs and adjectives in that last sentence. Each is important: carefully, authentic, and appropriate. Doing this well requires very good judgment, patience, and some emotional maturity too.

So, when does social selling become creepy? Let me give you three examples:

1. Social selling becomes creepy when it becomes too personal too fast. If you’ve done business with a customer for five years, you may know each other’s spouses or significant others. You may know the names of each other’s children. You may have intentionally and comfortably shared social activities. In your environment and organizational culture, that may be appropriate and not risk any raised eyebrows. But you need to exercise great caution to avoid the temptation to get too personal way too soon.

The shocked sales manager I described above was reacting to information that he knew his salespeople could misuse, and would misuse if not guided and coached. We had discovered the following: the buyer’s spouse’s name, children’s names and schools, children’s sports teams, charitable causes the buyer supported, favorite sports, favorite foods, places traveled to on the buyer’s last three vacations, professional associations, religious affiliation, and the fact that the buyer was currently engaged in a job search. We’d found that in less than an hour, and without ever leaving our respective desks.

Many of those pieces of information would tempt an inexperienced or immature salesperson to make a reference much too soon in a developing relationship. I’ve seen one memorable instance where a salesperson that should have known better made a reference to personal information about the buyer at first contact, literally while introducing herself. That one led to a call from the buyer’s boss to the salesperson’s company president. Not good. Needless to say, that didn’t work out well for the salesperson or her company.

2. Social selling becomes creepy when you cannot keep business the focus.Most salespeople have been exposed to old, bad sales training that encouraged them to look around the customer’s office and ask personal questions. Creepy social selling is even worse. Because you can learn so much about a prospective customer, the temptation is great to let the focus slip from business to something (anything) else. You’re making contact in order to do business. Finding coincidental commonalities with the customer can be a positive, but you need to keep the main thing the main thing. In some fashion, you’re approaching the buyer because you believe you can improve her business results in some way. That needs to be the central focus from the very beginning.

Researching both the organization and the individuals is vital now. But the information you should consider actionable is business information. If you learn that the buyer has recently completed a challenging professional certification, that’s an appropriate piece of business intelligence to capture and use. If you learn that the buyer has recently completed successful treatment for cancer, that’s not an appropriate piece of intelligence to use. Period. And yet I’ve seen that misstep made.

3. Social selling becomes creepy when you cross the line into brown nosing.I’ve been on the receiving end of that myself. I’ve had salespeople research me (I’m an easy target) and discover where I’ve made a recent presentation or keynote speech, what I’ve published recently, or where I’ve been quoted. I’ve heard adjectives like “amazing,” “excellent,” and “outstanding” applied to presentations I’ve made when the salesperson wasn’t in the same state, much less in the same room when I delivered said presentation (and when it wasn’t recorded or transcribed.) It’s silly and smarmy.

The message it sends is distasteful in the extreme. It says: “I’m going to ingratiate myself to you with false praise, pandering to your ego, so you’ll be unable to resist my pitch when I propose doing business together.” My reaction is typical: I don’t want a handshake, I want a shower.

Remember my definition of social selling? I said: Social selling is the process of carefully building authentic and appropriate relationships with potential customers. I’m encouraging you to exercise wisdom and care to build relationships that have a fighting chance of lasting because they are both authentic and appropriate. Brown nosing isn’t authentic in the least. Excessively personal overtures aren’t appropriate early in the process.

So, what guidelines are appropriate to observe when you’re gathering information and deciding what you can use appropriately and authentically? Let me divide it into three headings: Never, Always, Maybe.

Never: Information you discover about an individual’s religious preference, sexual preference, political affiliation, family, and personal causes. Those are off limits even if you actually share an affiliation or preference with the buyer. Period. Treat the customer as a professional who likely knows how to keep her personal life personal, and her professional life professional. Information about a buyer’s health falls in the same category, as does information about spouses, children, parents and extended family. Trust me, “junior” doesn’t want to know that you’re in awe of “senior” when that parent’s shadow is what junior is fighting to get out of. I don’t want to hear you tell me that you know my wife is passionate about architectural stained glass or about knitting in my first contact with you, even though she is. Trust me, I’ll never answer your email and never return your call.

Always: Information you discover that is professionally pertinent is important. That’s especially true when you discover it in the context of the buyer’s organization. If the organization is celebrating an accomplishment or honoring the buyer in some fashion, and you have an authentic shared interest or experience, that’s great. But be careful of the temptation to brown nose.

Information you find about the organization that references the role of the individual in the organization is golden. So look for information about an individual that has a professional or an organizational context. Ask yourself: “Is this material to how this person does his job, makes his contribution, enables his organization to thrive?”

Industry organizations and associations to which the buyer belongs can be very appropriate points of connection, especially if you discover that the individual is very actively involved. These can be organizations focused on developing the entire industry, a specific professional expertise, setting standards, or developing individuals. When you can legitimately connect your approach with what the individual is doing to “give back” to his or her industry or profession, those overtures can be powerful and welcomed by the buyer.

Common professional interests are also incredibly valuable. For example, if you see that someone has read, liked, commented about, reviewed, or shared a recent article, business book, presentation or Slideshare, that’s a great point of connection if you have genuine interest in the subject. Those can signal parallel interests and parallel values if you’re authentic. If you’ve never read a business book, don’t bother. One of the worst misfires I’ve seen by someone trying to make this kind of connection artificially was the salesperson who was asked what most resonated with him from a book he hadn’t read.

Maybe: Here’s a good example of a “maybe.” If you learn that the individual has changed roles, even if it is an apparent promotion, be wary. Title inflation is rampant in organizations now, especially in lieu of real responsibility or higher compensation. Japanese industry uses the term “window seat” for someone given a “face saving” promotion in order to get him or her out of a position of authority. As baby boomers age and delay retirement, you may encounter one who cannot be separated from the company without risk of an age discrimination suit. Some are being “promoted” into window seats instead. For many, change isn’t a good thing. So notices of changes in role, changes in organization, changes in locations may not be good things in the eyes of the buyer. Be wise and wary. Err on the side of being too careful.

What you don’t know can’t help you. That’s why social selling trumps conventional and legacy sales methods every time it is used well. But remember that you’re using information to earn connections, to gain access, and to engage a decision-maker. You’re not looking for a drinking buddy, a travel companion, a golf buddy, or anything similar. So use what you learn wisely, carefully and well to create new relationships that are both appropriate and authentic.

What do you think?

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Part of my practice is coaching salespeople and sales managers, and building strong sales processes. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.

Recruiting Salespeople: Stop Hiring Retreads

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Yes, I’m talking to you. You knew exactly what I meant when you saw the headline: itinerant salespeople who move from company to company on about a two-year cycle. Of course they hope that this time will be different, that this gig will last. The problem is they are going to sell as they have before while hoping for a different outcome. The companies that hire them reinforce that false hope, and set them up for one more spin through the failure cycle. It’s ugly. And it’s expensive.

B2B business development has changed almost completely over the past ten years. Using legacy methods to sell to B2B customers now is fruitless and frustrating. The actual work of effective selling has changed substantially. One aspect of the change, and a good example – social selling.

It’s not news that product and service information is searchable and readily available to customers long before a salesperson makes contact. That means the old model of salesperson = animated brochure is useless. The disappearance of traditional “buyers” for all except commodities created a demand for real business literacy. That’s because an understanding of the customer’s organization is essential to connect with and relate to actual decision-makers, often at higher levels. That interaction also requires interpersonal communication skills that are deeper and more nuanced than what legacy salespeople have needed to demonstrate.

The major tools for social selling have been available for nearly ten years. I started training and coaching salespeople in social selling in 2007. LinkedIn already had 20 million members at that point. [Few people realize that LinkedIn is now nearly a dozen years old.] Data.com (formerly jigsaw.com) was acquired by Salesforce five years ago, and in 2007 jigsaw.com was already a very useful, crowd-sharing contact source for salespeople. Using the advanced search tools within Google made background research and actionable information easy to find on a desktop.

Social selling requires different methods and different skills. And that’s the problem with retreads. Too many are still hoping that legacy methods and formerly effective skills will work if they can only apply them with the right company and in the right customer pool. It is as effective as whistling past the graveyard. Many are afraid to ask for help, for training, for coaching, or for continuing education for fear it will make them less attractive as candidates. Tragically, companies are enabling both the behavior and the false hope. Here’s how:

Companies that don’t understand how significantly business-to-business selling has changed over the last decade, or who deny that anything is different, tend to recruit and select salespeople much as they always have. In far too many cases, industry selling experience trumps everything else as a selection criterion. And that perpetuates the ugly and expensive cycle.

Stop Blaming the Recruiters! I pity the poor recruiters. Almost never is a recruiter provided with a performance or outcome based position description from which to begin a search. The conventional job descriptions they receive are heavy on experience, lighter on education, and typically have nothing to say about applied skills and specific outcomes. Then recruiters get blamed when a new sales hire fails. They get blamed even though the search and position descriptions demanded that they present candidates with a high likelihood of failure — retreads. Is it any wonder that recruiters want to be paid in full well before you can determine whether the new hire will succeed and become productive?

Demanding “industry experience” signals an unwillingness to invest time, effort, or money to onboard a new salesperson well and manage, coach, and train them to be effective. It also signals a belief that “he did it before, he can do it again.” Demanding a “track record” signals that your product and service offering is so generic that the new salesperson can sell it because it is exactly like what she has sold before. Demanding a “book of business” or “a following” is a pipe dream. High performers don’t move unless their company is closing. And most of the really high performers saw it coming and moved well in advance. When owners and CEO’s talk about wanting to hire a top performer with a book of business I ask for an example (just one) where that happened. I’m still waiting for the example.

Bad Hires are Expensive. Consider the costs of a bad hiring decision:

  • The recruiter’s fee for the bad hire.
  • The recruiter’s fee for a replacement.
  • Two years of salary and benefits for the bad hire.
  • The net profit of lost opportunities.
  • Wasted sales management time.
  • Wasted administrative and executive time.
  • Wasted sales support (estimating, pricing, proposal development) time.
  • Wasted time of other salespeople who are distracted by the bad hire.
  • Alienated prospects and customers.
  • Lost referrals.
  • Erosion of brand equity due to the ineffectiveness of the bad hire.
  • Travel, entertainment, office and other expenses for the bad hire.
  • Time spent talking, worrying, or hand-wringing about the bad hire.
  • Time invested in a misguided turnaround or “rescue attempt” for the bad hire.
  • Potential legal expenses to terminate the bad hire.

That’s why I hear owners and CEO’s telling me that their bad sales hires are hurting them and badly. A single bad hire can exceed $250,000 in direct expenses. Add in the indirect costs, and the total expense goes much higher. So what can you do differently? What should you be looking for in a new salesperson in the current environment, and how?

Reframe the Position: An effective process begins with framing the position with the results you expect and the timeframe within which you expect them. Those results need to be expressed in tangible, measurable terms. For example, one objective could be: “billings at an annualized pace of $500,000, to between four and six new customers, in (target business market), by close of the tenth full month following your hire date.” That’s impossible to debate or dispute. And it will separate the “wheat from the chaff” instantly. No retread who has been through previous failure cycles will sign up for that kind of measurable result. But without that kind of specificity, what you’re telling the new hire is “We’re paying you to do the best you can.” It should take no more than half a dozen specific statements like that example to build a position description that’s clear and powerful.

Test and Vet: An effective process includes several steps to vet a candidate before any sort of interview. I’m a strong believer in testing candidates and in more than one way. I especially like using a Harrison Assessment to gauge both eligibility and suitability. We’ve gone way beyond the days when a personality assessment was the best we could get. We can now use data analytics to assess work preferences, attitudes and motivation, work values, task preferences, and interests. That lets us predict both fit and performance.

I also use a writing test to see if candidates can write a cogent and effective business communication (letter, email). We’re seeing college graduates appear as candidates who cannot write effectively. That’s tragic but true. So a college degree is no longer a useful confirmation that good, basic communication skills have been developed. And boilerplate cover letters aren’t trustworthy writing samples either. If a candidate cannot write effectively, the candidate should be screened out of the pipeline early.

Rethink Your Interviews: An effective process includes a planned and structured interview that’s focused on results and outcomes. Backward looking “what have you done” questions are much less useful than forward looking “what would you do” or “how would you handle” questions. And the interview should always be done by groups of two or three people at a time with a candidate. An “interview” with a candidate conducted by a manager who may have looked at the candidate’s resume once, and only ten minutes before the meeting is worse than useless. Those “interviews” are actively misleading because they support decisions like this one: “Who knows? I don’t. Let’s take a shot and see how she does.”

Demonstrate Capabilities: An effective process recognizes that selling has changed utterly. Therefore, a candidate who cannot demonstrate how he uses research and social selling methods gets screened out early. One of the best screening methods is to task candidates to research your company, your executives, your services and your customers. Then have them present a profile of your own company as if you were the target customer. Newsflash: for the candidate, you are. Recruiting is very much a courtship process, the candidate should be actively courting you while you are courting them. What better way to confirm that the candidate can both learn about and understand a business organization than by having them tell you about yours? Then have him describe exactly how he would turn that understanding into an opportunity to do business with you.

On-board Effectively: An effective hiring process includes an on-boarding plan. When I reported to work on Day One of my first sales job, I was shown to my new desk and phone. I was given a key to get in and out (in the expectation I’d be working all kinds of hours). I was given a box of business cards. And I was told by my new boss: “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” Literally. That was it. I fell flat on my face.

An on-boarding process is intended to immerse the new salesperson into your particular enterprise and to make invaluable connections. Understanding your processes and your systems is the easiest part. The much harder part for a new salesperson is knowing where to go and who to approach in order to get something done. An on-boarding process that completely immerses the new salesperson into your company is vital if they are going to create the relationships inside that will enable them to be effective outside. And your people need to feel a vested interest in the success of the new hire.

Develop: Your written development plan for the new salesperson should be on the table at least by the time you conduct the first face-to-face interview. The reactions of candidates to your development plan will be very telling. If you’re sitting across the table from a retread who has no desire to adapt, to learn, or to change then your development plan should bring that reluctance to the surface quickly. Too many conversations with potential salespeople focus almost entirely on what we sell. We don’t tend to talk much about how we sell. But since how you sell your products and services affects your brand, that’s an important conversation. A salesperson can strengthen your brand if her methods and behaviors align with it. A salesperson can undermine your brand if his methods and behaviors contradict or are in conflict with it. So the “how” is as important as the “what.”

The first year development plan is the roadmap. It identifies the destination, but it also identifies the route and specific milestones along the way. Including that development plan in any interview conversation insures that your objectives are understood, and the methods and resources you expect to see in use are also understood. If you don’t know or can’t describe what works, and therefore what an effective salesperson for your company will be doing and how, you’re not ready to start recruiting.

Sidestep the retreads: Embedding a multi-step, carefully crafted process for recruiting, on-boarding, and developing a new salesperson takes some real thought and investment. But the payback is usually 10X if it keeps you from hiring even one more retread who fails.

What do you think?

__________

Part of my practice is building processes for recruiting, on-boarding, and developing salespeople — processes that really work. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.

Crashing at the Finish: The Last, Winning Step Too Many Salespeople Skip

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She was so close. She had worked to develop the opportunity for two years. She had created a couple of key relationships, and developed them very well. She had a good understanding of the customer’s circumstances and special needs. With help, she created a strong proposal and delivered it to her primary contact. Her primary contact recommended that her proposal be chosen. So she rightly believed she was in the lead. And then she lost it. Why? She didn’t ask for the opportunity to make a presentation before the final decision was made. She thought her excellent proposal was enough.

You really cannot expect the proposal itself to finish the sales process. This is frustrating for salespeople to hear when so much effort is required to build a strong comprehensive proposal. But it is a true statement. There is no good substitute for a presentation to the work group that is going to make the final buying decision.

A “Post Proposal Presentation” meeting (a P3) is something I coach salespeople to request for any high-value opportunity or relationship they are pursuing. Lots of salespeople prefer to avoid them. I hear a variety of excuses offered as explanations:

“I don’t know what to say.” This is a pretty strong signal that the salesperson has not figured out the customer’s motivation and their selection criteria. That’s a topic for another time. But it could signal that the salesperson is taking specifications both at face value and as definitive. Only rarely will a set of specifications or published buying criteria tell even most of the story about how the decision will be made and the winner chosen.

There is a pattern or a sequence of buying decisions that I still see play out consistently. In a B2B buying decision that’s significant for the buying organization, there’s an initial screening. Then three decisions are made from among those contenders remaining: First, the decision to “buy” the salesperson as “this is someone with whom we could comfortably and effectively do business.” Then, the decision to “buy” the company as in “This is a company with whom we can confidently do business.” Finally, there is the decision that the product or service being offered is the “best fit” with the specific needs of the body organization. Only in that last decision are specifications especially important.

“I’m not good in front of groups. And I hate public speaking.” This signals a great development opportunity. Presentation and speaking skills are now non-optional for successful salespeople. Period. Excellent communication skills and real poise in front of people are incredibly powerful. And I’m far from the only one to recognize it.

In a commencement address at Columbia Business School Warren Buffett described taking a Dale Carnegie course in Public Speaking early in his career. The billionaire went on to say it was one of the best business investments he’d ever made. Putting his money where his mouth was, Buffett offered $100,000 in seed money to any of the graduates in return for 10% of future earnings. For those willing to demonstrate public speaking skills or to invest in public speaking training, he upped the offer to $150,000. Nothing is more powerful for a salesperson than the ability to connect effectively with an individual, small group, or a larger audience. Nothing. For salespeople, communication is the killer app.

“It’s all in the proposal.” This signals the belief that the proposal itself can actually sell. Three things are wrong with that assumption. First, if it were true there would be no real role for a professional salesperson. Second, nearly all purchasing decisions are made emotionally, and within seconds or minutes. I have yet to see a written proposal that could engage me emotionally that fast. Third, it signals a misunderstanding of the role of strong proposal.

“I have already said it all to all of them.” This tells me the salesperson is suffering from deal fatigue. That happens when a salesperson has poured herself into a particular opportunity for months or years, and cannot bring fresh eyes to the deal. When a salesperson reaches that point it is incredibly difficult for her to hold onto perspective. Admitting to herself that she’s just plain tired of working on this opportunity is difficult. So expect to hear it expressed in other ways.

Over the past 10 years, important buying decisions have moved up inside most organizations. The research and the vetting of potential suppliers and potential choices often get delegated to a technical buyer. Sometimes that technical buyer is the primary end-user, or the person who will have the most consistent interaction with the supplier. As the research and the vetting process go on, the technical buyer is often providing written, summary updates to everyone who will be involved in the buying decision. I have seen lots of instances where everyone involved in that decision met to discuss and consider it only once, and only after the proposals were in hand.

When asked, anyone within a buying workgroup will describe himself or herself as a decision-maker. In some cases, that is true because everyone in the group may have the power to say no. However, only one person usually has the power to say the final yes. And that person, the one who could make the final commitment, may be withholding judgment and deferring a serious review of the potential options until she walks into that meeting. I have seen that behavior and that pattern play out repeatedly.

Failing to ask for the opportunity to make a final presentation is equivalent to running a marathon with no intention to put on a final sprint at the finish.

Expecting the proposal itself to finish the process is really the same thing as delegating the completion of the sales process to the technical buyer, expecting him to sell you, your company, and your offer to the decision-maker in your absence. When I describe it that way it should begin to look silly to you. Even if the technical buyer is sold and believes that you, your company, and your proposal are the best, there’s no reason to believe that technical buyer will be especially effective convincing and gaining agreement from the rest of the workgroup and from the final decision-maker. As a salesperson, that’s your job not his. Recognize the need to ask for an opportunity to make a final presentation after the proposal has been delivered. It cannot be seen as optional. Getting over the reluctance to prepare and deliver a P3 is an essential first step. But doing anything can sometimes be worse than doing nothing. So step two is learning to build and deliver a great pitch.

Great final presentations have three things in common:

First, talk about the customer, and not about you. This seems painfully obvious, and I don’t intend to insult your intelligence. But in my work with sales organizations I am surprised by the frequency with which a final presentation focuses on the seller and not on the customer. If you get nothing else right about building strong final presentations, please get this right.

One of the most powerful ways to ensure that you talk about the customer is to tell a story. Nancy Duarte has described how to use the Hero’s Journey when building any compelling presentation. It is especially powerful in this context. Newsflash: you are not the hero. The story you’re going to tell is the journey of the customer. You are going to begin with their current challenge, describe what they are now experiencing, place yourself in a supporting role as a mentor and guide, describe how they will overcome the challenge and seize the reward, and finish by describing their better life at the end of the journey. If you’ve done your homework well, this simple structure is both easy to use and very powerful.

Second, focus on outcomes, not processes. Yours may be the most elegant and most exciting new technology, new process, or new service to appear in a generation. For you, that’s fabulous. Don’t be surprised if it’s a yawn for the customer. Hammering home tangible and measurable results that your customer can expect and will pass the “So What?” test is what’s important. This is especially important if this is your first opportunity to be in the same room with the ultimate decision-maker, the one with the power to give you the final yes. She is more likely to care about the destination than about the route to get there.

This doesn’t contradict, by the way, what I just said about storytelling. Because stories are so compelling, the decision-maker will happily listen. What she won’t listen to is a description of the nuts and bolts of your particular process, product, or service. She doesn’t care about the how. But she does care about the what.

Third, make an emotional connection. Buying decisions, including B2B buying decisions, are made emotionally. Emotionally is how we choose. We then marshal facts to justify the emotional decision we’ve already made. Therefore, it’s vital to demonstrate emotion (“This will be so cool for your firm!”) and also to legitimize positive emotion on the part of the customer (“I hope you’re going to feel relief and confidence almost as soon as we start.”) The range of emotion you’re trying to trigger isn’t complex, and Plutchik modeled it clearly. You’re aiming for trust, joy, and anticipation.

Strong presentations include emotion among the rewards for answering a call to action. Yes, it does need to be done with a light hand. I’m not suggesting high drama or a dive into the maudlin. But to communicate that the customer is entitled to feel some measure of trust, joy, and anticipation as a direct reward for the decision is appropriate and powerful. Consciously including references to the emotional and psychological rewards will help you make a stronger connection to the customers around the table than focusing on facts, data, comparisons and other rational factors alone.

“Pitches” and “deals” get unfairly connected with unsavory aspects of amoral sales behavior. That’s unfortunate, because both terms are useful shorthand terms. A great pitch meeting (a post-proposal presentation) can be a wonderful thing both for the well-equipped salesperson and for the customer. Salespeople who skip or shy away from them (for any reason) give up a powerful opportunity to forge a strong relationship, and to distinguish themselves from their competitors who may do little more than show up and say: “You’ve got our proposal. Any questions?”

What do you think?

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Part of my practice is coaching salespeople and sales managers, and building strong sales processes. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.