By Phil Gripton, Partner, Waypoint Partners
John McMahon, Cedric Pech, Jeremy Duggan. Familiar? Probably not. But they are the rock stars of selling in fast-paced software unicorns; businesses such as BladeLogic, BMC, Ariba, Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), MongoDB, BMC and Sprinklr. There’s a lot they can teach our industry about how to do sales better.
Stop being ashamed of selling
Software businesses are sales-led cultures; they unashamedly celebrate the achievements of the salesperson. They think of the function as a profession. It’s number one in the pecking order, ahead of marketing, HR and others. Our industry struggles to call sales by its proper name. We suffer from an embarrassment around the ‘S’ word, a hangover from a 1980s image of shiny suits and white socks. We think of sales as dirty, so we disguise it by calling it marketing or business development. But it’s time to move on; we all need to sell and to sell more.
Agencies need to up their sales games
In many independent agencies, and even some of the networks, new business isn’t working. How often do you hear the exec team moan about great new biz people being so hard to find, or not performing to expectations once they’re in situ?
For agencies looking to scale, this is a thorny issue and there’s a lot resting on getting sales right. They will have reached the £2-3M turnover mark, recognize that they’ve exhausted their little black book and need to focus on outbound activity. Similarly, many larger agencies know their sales machine is not performing and understand it’s time for a reboot. What can the software industry’s approach to selling teach them?
Getting the right structure in place
Hiring a great salesperson is just one part of the solution; sales legends such as John McMahon create an entire sales engine and environment that supports success. They have built a proven methodology, product/service mix and value proposition to work to, supported by tools, training, boot camps and incentives. Every new salesperson undergoes the same induction – there’s no such thing as going off and doing your own thing. Targets are clearly mapped out and success is actively measured and celebrated.
Even agencies with a high growth culture can have a blind spot when it comes to building a process and structure around sales. Their approach can be haphazard and piecemeal. Taking a lead from software firms and treating sales as a discipline in its own right is a vital step. It needs to be nourished and given oxygen, to have an accepted MO just like the planning, creative and account management functions. Without this, even the most talented salesperson is likely to fail, just as the most brilliant surgeon will underperform without the right equipment.
Get the right people in situ and keeping them there
In technology sales, the job description follows the sales process. It covers the skills, knowledge and characteristics required, not just overall, but at the key stages of the sales process. Does yours? If a candidate lacks a certain skill or specific knowledge, do you have a training program or senior person to train them? Have you worked out how many skill or knowledge gaps are too many? Do you start with reasons not to hire rather than the other way round, as sales-led organizations do?
Retention can be an issue in any industry or role. The best sales leaders know that an ambitious salesperson is unlikely to walk away as long as they recognize they’re growing their skillset and are being coached, developed and challenged. That leader will be taking them to capability heights they may not have realized they were capable of achieving.
Identifying your clients’ pain
Most agencies talk about solving clients’ business problems and in many cases, their output does just that. Yet the way they are selling might not reflect that. In software sales, the most successful practitioners identify the business issues that cause the client the most pain and build around that.
They know that if they fall into the trap of talking features and benefits, (or in our world, capabilities and competencies) they’re out of the game, at least with the C-Suite.
A good sales process identifies the 3 WHYs and prompts the client to articulate them:
- Why the client has to buy
- Why they have to buy from you and not the competition
- Why they need to buy from you now and not in a year.
What are the negative implications of not buying now? Who suffers and what suffers? It might be to do with revenue or profitability, risk, reputation, or regulation. In some cases, the client might not know the extent of their pain and a great salesperson will help quantify it using the 3 WHYs playbook. We’re talking about a value-based sale based on a deep understanding of the client’s business objectives, and helping to deliver on those objectives.
Tracking the sales process
The software industry is serious about tracking and strategizing the deal process, using qualification approaches such as Meddic. John McMahon thinks of it as a satnav for sales, helping plan the best possible route to landing a deal. With the right questions asked it can show where the sales process currently stands.
It can identify particular stages where salespeople trip up time and again and therefore point to training needs. It has a timeframe built-in, informed by the approval process within each client business, and so helps with forecasting and aligning resources once contracts are signed. This is important because when the process is haphazard and business arrives unannounced, third-party contractor and freelancer costs can cause a write-off.
Change is hard
None of this is rocket science, so why don’t all agencies take this stuff on board? The industry relies too heavily on marketing activity that drives inbound leads and briefs or on third-party aggregators lining up beauty parades.
The challenge is that it takes a brave agency leader to buck the trend and to change their processes. It’s also hard to make these changes or even know where to start without experience of doing it. But there are people out there who can help and as the economy opens up again now is a really good time to try out a new approach.