The Key To Accurate Forecasting Is Process Alignment

Many in sales do an excellent job [not] of educating their customers about how to secure the lowest price and maximum commercial concessions. They do this by offering special pricing with hollow threats of taking the discount away after the end of month or end of quarter has ticked-over. This behavior simply trains prospects to take suppliers to the wire to extract concessions every time a major deal is on the table.

It is usually unproductive and damaging to seek to unnaturally force the pace of business. Never assume that price or other incentives will change the customer’s timing. Failure to fully understand the buying organization’s processes automatically introduces serious risk and makes it almost impossible to forecast accurately. Instead, sell on value and understand the customer’s timing and process for selection, negotiation, and procurement. Align with the customer rather than pressure them.

Are you actually aligned to your customer’s timing, decision drivers and processes for selection and procurement? The best approach is to understand the date that they need a solution implemented and then validate their commitment by asking what happens if the date slips or status quo prevails. Once you are certain the client is committed to a date for realizing benefits, identify everything that needs to occur to achieve the implementation deadline. Working backwards from this date, go through the list and create a time-line with critical dates for all milestones and identify the interdependencies. Now you have a realistic date for when a purchase order needs to be issued or contract executed. Align to this timeframe rather than your own end of month, quarter or financial year.

Work with your customer to understand and manage the risks, including whether they need to submit a business case or work through a convoluted process for approval and funding. They may need to adhere to an onerous procurement process. There may be critical reviews with steering committees, and there may be approvals required from senior management or at board level. There may also be tension with other projects or initiatives. When full understanding of all these things has been achieved, in partnership with your customer, then you are able to work with them to keep everything on track and adjust your strategy and forecast date accordingly.

Every business decision has a natural pace at which the selection and buying process needs to be fulfilled. Wise sales people ensure they have full understanding before forecasting when business will close. This means there are rarely surprises, just points of risk that can be managed with the customer. They avoid pressuring the buyer or creating unnecessary tension. Instead they build a close plan but call it a Project Alignment Plan with the customer. Consider these questions when thinking about the customer’s process:

  • What happens if they do nothing and defer the decision?

  • Is there a compelling event or a very strong driver for buying?

  • Are there external events that may impact the decision or timing?

  • What are all the points of risk in securing a positive decision?

  • What is the timeframe for delivery of outcomes with milestones?

  • Concerning the selection criteria and weighting of various factors:

    • Which features and functionality matters most to the buyer?

    • What are the technical issues that need to be considered?

    • Where do they perceive the risks in the project or initiative?

    • How important is brand and size in considering risk?

    • How important is experience and industry specialization?

    • How is commercial & product risk assessed and weighted?

    • What role will demonstrations and references play?

  • What is the required Return on Investment or payback period?

  • Are they more focused on price or value?

  • What are the preferences of the influencers and decision makers?

  • What is their approval process and who must sign-off?

  • Who can say ‘no’? Who has to say ‘yes’? Who has power of veto?

  • What is the process for handling negotiations?

  • If a contract is required, whose paper and can it be reviewed early?

  • How is a purchase order generated or contract signed once the decision is made?

If you valued this article, please hit the ‘like' and ‘share’ buttons below. This article was originally published in LinkedIn here where you can comment. Also follow the award winning LinkedIn blog here or visit Tony’s leadership blog at his keynote speaker website:

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Quest for The Holy Grail of Sales Enablement

There I was, standing in a large corner office on the 42nd floor of a city high-rise waiting for my weekly Monday morning ‘proctology examination’… euphemistically described by the CEO as the forecast review. I had all my CRM reports, key opportunity summaries and various notes ready to discuss any number of issues within the sales organization. I was ready but as I looked out the window at the city below I reflected on what my flying instructor taught me concerning the word confidence: “The feeling you have just before you understand the situation.”

I was Sales Director for a public corporation and the CEO was typical of others in his role – frustrated with his ‘black box’ sales division. In his opinion, no-one really knew how it worked but he poured huge sums of money into the sales machine only to have it deliver unpredictable results. Forecast dates were a crap-shoot with large deals often slipping. By contrast, the finance department ran with predictability and so did support, service, marketing and operations. Manufacturing could deliver predictably even with the complex inter-dependencies of the supply chain – but why was this not the case with many sales operations?

We sold high-end complex software solutions to large enterprise and government markets. Long sales cycles, marginal business cases built on compliance and productivity, many stakeholders to cover and in a market sector that was rapidly commoditizing. It was in this environment that he hired me to 'sort out the sales operation' with the right strategies focused on differentiated value while driving disciplined execution. He imparted great wisdom in our first meeting: “Instead of employing sales magicians, build a great machine – good execution is usually the best strategy.” He was right.

This situation was very real and in my 30 years of selling and leading sales teams, and then companies, I’ve come to understand what it takes to be successful in complex business-to-business (B2B) selling. Even though professional selling is evolving faster than ever before, there are universal and timeless truths that can guide us through turbulent and changing times.

Buyers today are better equipped than ever to drive suppliers toward commoditization. Information is no longer power – it’s freely available. Insight is the new currency of differentiation and sellers need to elevate their conversations and their level of business acumen and professionalism. Instead of being clichés, 'strategy' and 'value' need to become the obsessive focus of the sales and marketing teams, recognizing that relationships alone are no longer enough.

The cost of making the sale is rising, margins are shrinking, and value is being defined differently. The era of the ‘professional visitor’ is passing and more than one-third of B2B field sales people won’t have jobs five years from now… relationship sales people need to evolve or they will become extinct. Relationships PLUS insight, value and partnership are what's needed today in complex enterprise selling.

In 1955 the average lifespan of Fortune 500 corporations was 80 years, nearly 60 years later the average life is just 18 years! Professor Richard Foster from Yale University estimates that by 2020 more than three-quarters of the S&P 500 will be companies that we haven’t heard of yet.

The barrier to entry for new competitors has never been lower; and the process of switching suppliers for customers has never been easier. What’s the secret to prosperity in rapidly changing markets and a globally competitive economy? It’s the same as it always been – innovation and great customer service combined with flawless execution of well-conceived strategy, driven by leaders with good values.

Most businesses do a good job in segmenting their markets, customers and products but what is often missed is the insidious impact of commoditization. Every product or service becomes a commodity over time as features that once differentiated drift back to parity as competitors catch up. According to Corporate Executive Board research, 86% of the time that sellers pitch their ‘compelling value,’ buyers perceive it as neither unique or compelling but merely features also offered by other suppliers. Every business needs to look at itself from the outside – how do customers really view us comparatively? If you sell a commodity, then face the awful truth rather than cling to expensive sales models where customers are unwilling to pay for the low value and high costs associated with a field sales force.

Sales people need to fund themselves from the value they create rather than from the margins that the product or service delivers. There is no such thing as a high margin commodity and the value they offer must stem from insight and wisdom rather than mere information and service. The first law of selling is that people buy from those they like and trust. They then seek best value and lowest risk. The key for every seller is to understand that‘value’ and ‘risk’ are all defined by the customer. In selling, we are delegated down to people we sound like and this means that salespeople need to learn the language of leadership if they want to engage at senior levels. They need to be equipped to discuss the business case, delivering outcomes and managing risk.

If a product or service is a commodity then the sales model should be engineered accordingly; make it easy for the customer to obtain information, become convinced and then transact in a way that’s easiest for them including web, phone or channels. For products and services that actually are high value solutions then force the field sales team toward value through insight. Support them in developing domain expertise, genuine insights and business acumen to enable them to operate at a higher level. Product marketing needs to focus on differentiating what is being sold; and sales people need to differentiate by how they sell.

With all this in mind, what are the critical elements of sales enablement? How do you create a framework for effective sales execution? There are three essential ingredients plus the catalyst of sales management leadership. The three ingredients are sales methodology, sales process and technology platform.

Few people can articulate the difference between methodologies and process yet these elements are distinctly different in complex B2B selling.

Methodology is the framework for formulating strategy and tactics to win; it’s also how you create your competitive deal strategy, identify risks, cover the political power base within the relationship map, and identify the best way to create compelling value for the buyer. But which methodology should you use? There are a number of well-proven methodologies including TAS, Miller Heiman, RSVPselling, and others. Success with methodology does not depend on which one you select but simply on how well you use it for opportunity coaching with the team.

Process is how you build a sales funnel and execute the sale; it’s how you qualify opportunities and progress through the deal stages with discovery, proposal, demonstration, closing, contracting, on-boarding and then doing win/loss reviews and case studies. Process steps need to be supported by the right tools such as a call planner, qualification tool, discovery questionnaire, proposal templates, win/loss review forms, and territory and account plan templates.

Platform is the technology you use to enable and automate your sales methodology and sales process. It is where you have a single source of truth about customers and opportunities. It must also be your coaching platform where there is transparency concerning pipeline depth and opportunity quality. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software is the ideal platform but CRM needs to be a strategy, not just a technology and reporting tool. To be implemented successfully, it must go beyond the mere functions of accounts, opportunities, pipeline and forecasting; it must instead enable the mapping of relationships and force discipline in deal stage progression with qualification scoring and action tracking. It must also include close plans with customer validation of critical dates. Finally, CRM needs to incorporate tight integration with both marketing, social (such as LinkedIn) and after sales support to provide a single view of the entire customer lifecycle from targeting, marketing, lead nurturing and selling through to account management, support, service, satisfaction and upselling.

This approach uses CRM to place customers at the heart of everything you do and provides the platform for being truly customer-centric. It also delivers transparency with deal quality and revenue predictability. It’s where sales people manage their opportunities and the tool that sales managers use to coach their people. This approach is designed to serve the sales people in improving their efficiency and effectiveness. Because it provides them with value and enables their manager to coach for improved win rates, they actually populate the systems with accurate and useful information.

When CRM is implemented with customers and sales people as the priority, and when it’s the platform for deal coaching and the enabler for sales process; then system success is assured. The synergistic outcome for management is accurate reporting and revenue predictability. The corollary of this is that CRM failurecomes from implementing it as a reporting tool with poor alignment to sales methodology and sales processes. Many CRM implementation fail and it has nothing to do with the technology provider; here are the critical success factors for successful CRM:

  • Obsessively focus on the system serving sales and customer support staff
  • Integrate with social platforms such as LinkedIn and InsideView (for easy sales research and insight into Trigger Events)
  • Integrate with marketing for lead nurturing (to build sales pipeline)
  • Create a single view of customers and prospects (to be informed)
  • Embed methodology and process coaching (qualify, call plan, close plan, etc.)
  • Simplify reports and KPIs which can actually be managed (activities)
  • Support customer lifecycle post sale (cases, complaints, renewals, etc.)

With accurate data in a CRM the next issue to decide is what metrics provide meaningful reporting. A common mistake made by management at all levels is to seek to manage by results. Jason Jordan writes insightfully on this topic in his book, Cracking The Sales Management Code, highlighting that only 17% of the 300+ possible sales metrics measured are actually manageable. As an example,you cannot manage revenue, but you can manage the activities that create it. Rather than command sales people to bring in more revenue, they need to be guided in which activities are most likely to create the type of revenue you are seeking. Managing activities is the key to delivering the right results and this leads us to the catalyst that brings methodology, process and platform technology together for successful sales enablement – the sales manager.

Sales management is without doubt the most important link in the revenue chain for any organization. The right sales manager creates emotional commitment and belief within their team, they coach and mentor for sales success, they develop the right strategies to focus effort where the team can competitively win and they drive the right conversations with the right roles within the right targeted prospects. They also create organizational alignment with upstream marketing and downstream delivery, support and service to build a business with quality customers.

Sales management leadership is the catalyst that brings it all together: people, process and technology within the right strategy and a culture of excellence in execution. The type of person capable of delivering all this is an engineer rather than a warrior, they have empathy yet hold people to account. But the best sales manager in the world cannot be successful if their boss has them endlessly in internal meetings and reporting up. The sales manager needs to be a coach rather than an administrator. She needs to spend more time in the field than in the office, and more time strategizing and reviewing opportunities with sales people than managing reports. A great coach does not jump in and take over, nor do they do the sales person’s job for them. They don’t feel the need to rescue people and instead understand that people are best motivated by reasons they themselves discover. They focus on planning and debriefing to create constant improvement.

Here are the seven sins of sales management to be avoided:
1. Hiring or retaining the wrong people
2. Managing by results rather than activities
3. Failing to utilize the right methodology and driving sales process
4. CRM implemented as a reporting tool to manage up
5. Lack of strategy and a disconnect from marketing
6. Allowing field sales people to transact commodities rather than sell value
7. Failing to invest the majority of their time in the field with their sales team, coaching and mentoring

The Holy Grail of sales enablement is the seamless integration of the right methodology, efficient sales process, all enabled by Social Selling 3.0 and CRM technology used to coach sales people by an effective sales leader focused on strategy, execution and building a positive team culture.

The very best sales operations bring people, process and technology together to be obsessively customer-centric. The truth about CRM is that you cannot be efficient or customer-centric without one, yet implementing CRM is one of the most difficult projects an organization can undertake.

Choose the right partner, appoint the right leader internally, and consider the whole picture – technology is the easy stuff! CRM is a business application rather than IT infrastructure and therefore needs to be owned and controlled by the sales leadership in partnership with marketing and customer service to support the entire customer life-cycle and drive all aspects of the sales machine.

If you valued this article, please hit the ‘like' and ‘share’ buttons below. This article was originally published in LinkedIn here where you can comment. Also follow the award winning LinkedIn blog here or visit Tony’s leadership blog at his keynote speaker website:

Main Image Photo by Flickr: CucombreLibre

Sales Forecasting To Within 1% Amidst Massive Complexity

This is not a theory... it just happened in one of the biggest and most complex companies on the planet... and the forecasting process has gone from a week to seconds.

During my corporate career, and more recently through my consulting clients, I've been on the inside of the sales automation and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) industry. CRM has always promised game-changing levels of efficiency and effectiveness yet so many companies who buy it just implement expensive contact databases and manage-up pipeline reporting tools.

Recently I've been engaged by Salesforce to speak at their upcoming World Tour Conference (topic: The rise of the silent sales floor is killing business) and also provide coaching with their sales teams. The experience has opened my eyes. It's rare to see a technology company drink their own campaign; usually it's a case of 'the builder's house never being finished'. But what I've seen with salesforce and some of their customers is breath-taking.

Nearly two decades of evolution has now been infused with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to transform CRM as we know it. We have reached the tipping point where sales and marketing convergence is being powered by mature salesbots and Salesforce's Einstein is leading the way. Watch this one minute video...

A salesbot doing sales management and deal coaching... wow! But what if Einstein could also manage the single biggest problem in any sales operation... the forecast? I'm under NDA so I cannot reveal the name of the large enterprise who just piloted Einstein for forecasting but I can reveal the astonishing result. A quarterly global forecast was run with traditional means (CRM reports and data sucked into Excel, then massaged by layers of management and pushed up the line from dozens of countries to the senior executive to provide regional forecasts with 'commit' and 'best case'. Then a global number was rolled-up to the senior executive and board.

But in parallel, Einstein ran a forecast algorithm based upon myriad of factors that show probability of close based upon predictive scores assessing key win factors including whether key information has been obtained, if the right people have been covered, whether the amount of time in a particular deal stage has increased slippage risk, if frequency of deal updates is on track, whether number of calls made and received along with emails sent and received shows proof of active engagement, etc. All of this matters because the level of timely buyer/seller interaction absolutely determines the probability of winning a deal and the likelihood of closing on time. Michael Bonner calls this auto-generated score in his own salesforce add-on, Pipeline Manager,"proof of life."

Unlike a human sales manager, Einstein does not have 'happy ears', hope or fear. Nor does it seek to 'manage-up' ... it just tells you the truth and does not care what you think

So.. what was the result of man versus machine, of CRM extracts into Excel and layers of managers who massage and hedge versus the forecasting salesbot? Note that there were dozens of countries, thousands of sales people and massively complex products and services.

Humans +/- 20% (took a week and the data supporting the numbers was out of date when the report was tabled)
Einstein AI +/- 1% (took seconds, real-time)

Accurate data is the foundation on which accurate forecasting depends. Traditional approaches where people are 'held to account' for their number and told they will live or die based on their commit, drives either prayerful hope at one extreme and sand-bagging at the other. Having your feet in a freezer and your head in the oven does not mean that, on average, you'll be at the right temperature.

So often the business case for buying CRM is to improve forecast accuracy but the underlying data usually remains untrustworthy unless CRM actually enables sales process. If you want accurate forecasting it starts with CRM being an indispensable part of every salesperson's day. It must be where they receive their leads, how they make their calls, where they send their email from, where they create quotes and obtain approvals, etc.

CRM success is completely dependent on the leadership's commitment to transforming the way the business markets and sells, enables the sales process, and becomes the engine for delivering brilliant seller and customer 'sales experience'.

Successful sales transformation is available for those willing to invest and lead from the front with executive commitment to a customer-centric culture. The best focus on an integrated suite to manage the entire customer lifecycle with cloud platforms for marketing, lead nurturing, sales process automation, community portals and service/support for ticketing, complaints, etc.

CRM has come a long way since the days of silo databases and clunky interfaces on a PC. Game changing improvements have been achieved with workflow for process automation, integration to price books, configuration and quoting tools, content marketing with web-to-lead processes, lead nurturing programs, tailored dashboards and reports, forecasting and integrated qualification and opportunity management methodologies, close planners, organizational charts that also map the decision power-base. Add to this; quote-to-cash, customer lifecycle management with marketing, sales, service and support all being integrated. More recently, integration to social listening and pipeline creation platforms such as LinkedIn, along with widgets to sales productivity tools such as Lusha... you get my point.

Any corporate sales team that is not fully embracing sales and marketing automation is in the process of failing by design. AI is taking sales to a whole new level

In my opinion, Salesforce is its own best reference customer. They run and incredible sales and marketing machine, and they blend technology and the phone along with inside sales and the field very effectively. Leads are followed-up professionally and in a timely manner (I receive calls from their reps the same day I download any of the reports or white papers on their website), metrics are captured and managed, leads are nurtured intelligently with seamless marketing/sales team collaboration, and they provide free high-value content in the form of web collateral and high-quality events.

If you valued this article, please hit the ‘like' and ‘share’ buttons below. This article was originally published in LinkedIn here where you can comment. Also follow the award winning LinkedIn blog here or visit Tony’s leadership blog at his keynote speaker website:

Main Image: Google: Salesforce - World Tour Paris