I have been working with Sales teams for nearly three decades. I’ve seen how high-performance salespeople operate and the habits that hold people back. Being a sales producer for more than half this time, I know what salespeople do and don’t want from sales management. As a sales manager, I’ve won big but also made some mistakes I’d prefer not to repeat!
It is clear today that the biggest challenge facing sales management is sales conversion and inactivity in the pipeline. I have used all the popular CRMs and seen the latest sales methodologies come and go.
Despite all the hype and investment, sales conversion rates and pipeline momentum remain the #1 issue for the vast majority of sales managers, and it’s getting worse.
Sure, we’d all like to fill the funnel up with more opportunities – but it’s conversion rates that are the real worry. Indeed, if we could somehow move half our prospects out of that dormant “no decision yet” zone, we’d need a lot less BDR activity at the top of the funnel!
Introducing Agile Sales - the new way of selling in the digital economy
Let’s start first with some timeless principles about selling.
The fundamental skills and behaviors required to succeed in sales have not changed in the 100+ years since B2B selling emerged as a serious profession in North America. So, I’ll save you some time here.
TO SUMMARISE WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE IT IN SALES
- A set of behaviors and habits that develop “sales discipline” (e.g., persistence, grit, the desire to engage with customers as a priority, continuous learning, and improvement).
- The skill to actively listen to customers and be able to STFU
- The skill to uncover their rational and emotional needs
- The skill to develop the relevant product and industry knowledge that can connect with those needs.
- The skill to effectively communicate with customers in a way that is both personal and professional.
- The skill to organize and manage a sales pipeline (and by doing so, harness all the above skills and behaviors in a process that achieves your sales goals and your customer’s business goals).
In reality, sales have only changed around the edges for almost all these behaviors and skills. Sure, B2B selling has become more complex with more stakeholders, procurement teams, RFPs, layered approval processes, and more. We now use video conferencing and screen-sharing tools in our customer meetings. However, the fundamental skills and behaviors remain.
The only skill that has really changed and become a lot more sophisticated with time and technology is organizing and managing a sales pipeline.
A multi-billion dollar sales CRM industry now exists to help sales and marketing organizations fill the sales funnel and sell more effectively. As a result of the considerable investment made by sales organizations, sales pipelines might be fatter with all our fancy sales funnel management programs, SEO, SEM, etc. But conversion rates aren’t improving. They are likely getting worse.
Suppose you don’t believe in abundance. If you think sales in your industry is a zero-sum game, then you might think there can only be winners and losers.
But even if your industry really is a zero-sum game, there still has to be a winner(s).
If most of your competitors’ sales teams are using Salesforce, why do results vary so much?
Firstly, I’ll make the obvious point that sales management software is absolutely useless if those fundamental skills and behaviors aren’t on display.
WATERFALL V AGILE
However, there’s another dirty secret that the sales CRM vendors don’t know or won’t share. And that is that sales management is still mainly built on waterfall principles:
- A quota is set for the year and broken down into quarters.
- Pipelines are managed towards a yearend goal with a quarterly spike.
- Contact databases and account lists are built up.
- Activity plans are set against contacts.
It’s all related, but there’s no coherent and transparent link to your sales process. Despite the quarterly spikes in activity – it’s a long meandering year.
Weekly meetings typically repeat over the same sales pipeline reviews with no real urgency to achieve short-term results that will drive the long-term goal.
Despite big talk about ‘maintaining activity levels,’ call cycles, and weekly meeting targets, most sales management discussions dumb down to the most urgent priorities.
For example, “where are those forecast opportunities at?” You know, the ones we promised last month that should have been converted by now?
The waterfall approach provides a hard annual target with nothing tangible or practical to focus on in the now.
WHAT IS AGILE?
Agile is based on the lean product development movement that arose in the early part of this century when key players in the software development industry acknowledged that the waterfall approach wasn’t working anymore. Large projects over long periods were going over budget and producing inferior products for customers.
Lean management principles are packaged as an “Agile development” process that can be applied to any project management discipline – and Sales Management is ultimately a project management role, with the project being the annual team quota.
AGILE IS BASED ON THESE KEY LEAN MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLES
- Productivity is improved when work is scheduled over a short time frame: i.e., a “Sprint,” which usually is 7 or 14 days in duration.
- Time is fixed; the scope is variable.
- Customer partnerships are based more on relationships and less so on contracts.
- Performance is measured each Sprint, and there is a debrief at the end of each Sprint.
- Work is allocated amongst team members in each Sprint.
Engineering teams and people that join them don’t appear to have a lot in common with salespeople.
But Lean principles are being applied in many areas across businesses, and Sales is emerging as the next function to enjoy the benefits of Agile. How?
This Guide will lay out a plan for you, the Seven Sales Management Habits that will help you master the Agile Sales World.
Habit #1 Map a detailed and agreed sales process with your sales team
OK. So there’s nothing new about the sales process. We know how important it is, and we also know it has limitations.
Salespeople are not robots! But to be sure, a good sales process provides a roadmap that the salesperson references to guide the buyer toward a yes.
It’s a roadmap. A guide. Not a traffic cop.
A good sales process will help your team perform at a higher level and maximize their pipeline conversion rates.
A sound sales process is a mirror of the customer’s preferred buying process.
But here’s the problem:
Very few managers get the sales process right because they drift into one of two camps:
THE SIMPLISTIC SALES PROCESS CAMP
For example, the sales process is defined in terms of leads that convert through five or six stages: Qualification, Needs Analysis, Demonstration, Proposal, Negotiation & Close.
You will (you should) have a Kanban board that displays where all your team’s opportunities sit in each of these stages with key information such as opportunity value, owner, and probability of close.
TWO SIGNIFICANT PROBLEMS WITH THIS APPROACH NEGATIVELY IMPACT YOUR CONVERSION RATES:
There’s no clear understanding of how to categorize opportunities.
There are only disparate assumptions that cause a multitude of sins of omission and measurement, not the least of which is the phenomenon of sales forecasts ALWAYS being too high and/or delivered late.
There’s no depth to each stage.
Yet, many “steps” need to be taken to complete a “stage” in a typical B2B sales process.
For example, the Needs Analysis stage might require steps such as: “company and competitor research”; “best practices for scheduling the meeting”; “Run Scoping meet,”; “Circulate needs analysis report post-meeting.”
THE DETAILED METHODOLOGY CAMP
In my experience, most sales managers will default to the simplistic process.
But, for a while, they might have a go at using established sales methodologies from Miller Heimann, Spin Selling, or they’ll embrace the Challenger Sale and so on.
To be sure, these methodologies are excellent resources and should be compulsory learning and insight for any sales manager.
But salespeople generally don’t respond to highly prescriptive sales methodology. The best ones will select and imbibe the best bits that resonate with their intrinsic sales philosophy.
But salespeople (especially the millennial salesperson) are naturally resistant to top-down, prescriptive orders on how and when to sell.
Furthermore, there’s just too much detail. A “blue sheet” is a brilliant-looking tool. But who is going to document and delve into all that specific detail on every deal?
Salespeople are “corner-cutting,” “path of least resistance” beasts. You need to provide a roadmap that shows them tactical choices and best practice prompters. But you can’t enforce compliance with a process.
You need a three-dimensional sales process that very simply and clearly articulates
- The Stages (usually 5-7 stages)
- The Steps (usually 4-9 steps)
- The best “content” to be used for each Step
“Content” prescribes best practices, templates, or tools for how to execute the Step.
For example, “Run Scoping Meet” will contain an email, a scoping form, and perhaps some tips for running a scoping meeting best.
Note that the steps in each stage are not necessarily sequential or prescriptive. Nor is the content ‘mandatory.’
The process provides the salesperson with a roadmap and the sales manager with a framework for discussing sales opportunities and tactics.
For example, the “Proposal Stage” might specify an ‘information security review’ as one of five steps to be completed, and normally, the customer will drive this as part of their buying process.
If the customer doesn’t drive this step – it’s up to the salesperson to determine how they want to proceed. The box doesn’t have to be ticked to get a sale, but it needs to be considered – this is the sort of value add discussion to be had in a sales meeting (stand-up meet – refer Habit #3).
Habit #2 Measure conversion rates and other mission-critical sales metrics on a weekly basis
If you have a well-defined process as described above, it’s now apparent that you have a sound platform for measuring sales performance.
Some key metrics (in addition to ‘sales closed’ of course) include:
- Total opportunity value per stage
- Conversion rates per each stage
- % of steps completed per stage
Again, the crucial point is that if you strongly develop Habit #1, your sales process provides a sound basis for measuring conversion rates because everyone is on the same page, with definitions and qualification of opportunities.
Agile selling also introduces lean principles to how you set goals for the sales team. Agile sales teams set annual targets and quotas as usual.
However, the Agile sales manager also sets regular sales sprints designed to achieve short-term goals that align with quarterly and annual sales goals.
A Sprint usually runs for a two-week period.
This means that you set six sprints per quarter. And you can naturally break down sales targets into smaller chunks.
More importantly, you can define key activity goals for each Sprint.
For example, define the total number of stages converted and steps completed per salesperson in a two-week Sprint. Rather than setting KPIs such as meetings held or phone calls made – the activity goals are tied specifically to progression through the sales process.
Habit #3 Sales Managers need to create engaging sales meetings
Most sales meetings I have sat in (and, to be honest, that I used to run) are boring, repetitive,e and ineffective.
A key problem facing sales managers is the “spinning wheel.” Spinning wheels are salespeople who go over the same opportunities at every weekly meeting, the same updates, customers still “doing red lines” on the contract, or some other holding pattern.
Too much meeting time is sucked up pondering why last month’s hot opportunity is not so hot right now – instead of spending time discussing the next steps or activities that will move the sales team towards its sales goals.
The go-to tool for Agile sales managers is the activity kanban board. The Kanban board clearly shows all activities in the current Sprint that are “To Be Done,” “Doing,” or “Done.”
This ridiculously simple visual aid is brilliant at cutting through sales team “BS.” It drives transparent discussions about the three things you need to know about and where your salespeople are actually up to in the current Sprint:
- What they have actually done
- What they are currently doing
- What activities are still to do (or those important activities being put off)
The second high leverage tip here is to amplify sales teams’ focus by tying all activities to steps in the sales process.
After all, if an activity can’t be easily assigned to a Step in the agreed sales process – why would a salesperson allocate time to it?
SALES MEETING CADENCE
Agile sales methodology recognizes that the old ways aren’t working anymore. The weekly sales meetings lack urgency but are conversely too frequent for meaningful milestone reporting.
Recommended meeting cadences for the Agile sales manager are as follows:
1) THE DAILY SALES STAND UP
This is a 15-minute meeting where everyone is viewing the Sprint Kanban board. Each team member confirms the steps they completed yesterday (move to “Done”), calls out the Steps to be worked on today (“Doing”), and calls out any Steps that are stuck in “doing” from yesterday.
This is an opportunity for the team to contribute any ideas or suggestions for how to progress the Step with the relevant customer opportunity. Note that at this meeting, you do NOT review the opportunity Kanban board.
2) BI-WEEKLY SPRINT MEETING RETROSPECTIVE
This meeting is held every 2nd week on the last day of the 14 day Sprint. The agenda is twofold: firstly, to review performance in the last Sprint in terms of Steps completed and conversion rates and sales to target.
The team discusses blockers and learnings which might help with performance in the next Sprint. Secondly, the meeting focuses on a review of the Opportunity Kanban board, and then goals are set for the upcoming Sprint.
3) SALES PROCESS DEVELOPMENT AND SKILLS TRAINING
Run an extension of your daily stand-up as the opportunity for continuing education and development on the sales process.
So often, about half of a sales team will consist of rookies (in their first year) – the opportunity to build fluency in the sales process and to develop skills should not be missed.
Habit #4 Develop a sales team that is better than the sum of your individual sales producers
Anyone who has worked in sales for most of their career will have noticed the rising emphasis on collaboration in the sales process.
Again, there’s nothing radically new here.
B2B sales success has rarely been contingent only on the performance of the “heroic individual sales producer.”
But there are clear trends towards team-based selling across the B2B sales landscape. The increased complexity and range of products and services means that most sales producers rely on a product specialist or ‘sales engineer’ to assist at various stages in the sales process.
Furthermore, the nature of work in the digital economy is becoming more collaborative. Salespeople are being recruited from a millennial talent pool that expects work to be run on collaborative principles.
The Agile sales manager needs to be able to manage and leverage resources across the team to the greatest effect to achieve the team sales goal – as opposed to managing the SUM of individual performances to achieve a team goal – there is a big difference.
You also need to subject your sales process to continuous improvement – especially in the area of content development – your best sales producers will develop their own tools and twists on existing tools to maximize their effectiveness.
You need to promote an environment where salespeople are encouraged to share their ideas and best tips.
The sprint retrospective is a great forum for this sharing, as well as the stand-up extension I talk about in #3.
Habit #5 Recruit and train new salespeople fast and effectively
In today’s fast-paced world, blah, blah, you know how it goes. B2B Salespeople usually spend at least 4-6 weeks learning the basics before they make contact with customers, and then it’s a solid 6-12 months before salespeople are expected to fully ramp up to 100% producer levels.
Naturally, the faster you can get new salespeople to 100%, the better your sales team’s performance is going to be.
But the emphasis must first be on getting the salesperson to the required level of effectiveness. Sales conversion rates suffer in a big way when sales rookies are released prematurely into the marketplace to run their own opportunities. Have you been here before?
The rookie makes a promising start, is enthusiastic, and is a fast learner – so you unleash them without ticking all the boxes – then 3 months later, you notice sales aren’t closing when they should.
You need to develop a checklist for new starters that records their competency levels.
Most importantly, a measurement of their buy into the sales process and their fluency in the sales process. This is critical if you are to maintain the integrity of your process and the performance metrics.
Habit #6 Develop the necessary sales muscle memory within the team
Coaching. Field trips. It’s all good stuff. But you need to be purposeful about why you do this.
Your goal is to develop the skills of all members of the sales team to execute the sales process. Skills development can occur in one on one coaching situations, but it can also be developed in daily sales stand-up meetings or at the bi-weekly Sprint review meeting.
You should plan every sales meeting or coaching session with an eye on the Sales Playbook. Learn how you can develop an Agile Sales Playbook here.
For example, what Step in the process should we be focusing on today? You might run a session with your sales team or with an individual producer on
- Handling objections
- Getting clarity on the Ideal Customer Profile
- Running an effective product demo
- Or any other step in any stage in the playbook.
Habit #7 Make your marketing manager proud
High-quality communication and presentation is a hygiene factor in 2021 – it’s a ticket of entry. Awful sales communication is bad for your brand, and it will lock you out of a lot of deal cycles.
You can’t afford to have cavalier salespeople sending crappy sales decks over email or adding in their own poorly worded, poorly formatted content into proposal templates.
Enhance your company brand through consistent, quality sales communication at all steps in the sales process.
This is where a well-designed playbook effectively provides a two-dimensional means of classifying all content created by sales and marketing.
SalesGRID provides a knowledge management tool purpose-built for Sales and Marketing managers who want to ensure the sales force is “ON BRAND” with all customer communications.
Ultimately, your sales team is the front-line weapon for your company’s brand.
In summary, the seven habits are.
- Know your sales process and make sure your team really gets it.
- Measure performance metrics aligned with this process.
- Develop the core skills needed to execute the process.
- Run sales meetings tied steps in the process.
- Develop a real sales team.
- Onboard your new recruits effectively into this team.
- Unleash the sales team as a company brand.
As per the intro – most skills and behaviors are timeless. The software can assist, but ultimately it’s up to the sales producer.
As a manager, the software can assist with how you manage your team to agile principles. Putting the sales process upfront.
All the best for implementing Agile sales methodology in your business.
You can set up your own SalesGRID trial account today at SalesGRID.us
The SalesGRID team.