Sales Execution: Cooking with Saban Consistency

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How’d the year finish?

For sellers in the Enterprise space, too often this is a high drama question that can’t be answered until it’s all over (including the shouting). Did you get the big deal(s) at the bell or not? Lumpy and last-minute are not the way we prefer our results, but that seems to be the standard in Enterprise sales. This issue is at the heart of some of the most difficult executive conversations.

When we treat sales as if we are ordering up a nice meal, we set ourselves up for this drama. We think, order politely at a place with good reviews and you should get a good meal. You’ve eaten at places like this before, you spent good money, the reviews and feedback are solid… but you never really know until you’ve eaten. Expectations are high and the results don’t always match. A great deal of time and money is wasted chasing bad meals. Who can you hold accountable? The restaurant, sure. But that doesn’t change the result. What have we learned for next time? Not much, other than try your luck somewhere else.

If, on the other hand, we make the meal ourselves, we have much better control over the results. More importantly, if we screw it up, there’s learning and a quick recovery. When we learn to cook, we eat well – and for far less cost – all the time. So, how?

Our default is to hyper-focus on the big sales result and pay too little attention to consistency of sales process. We step in at the late stages, when most of the critical work has (or should) already be done. This management behavior, which we might call “management by forecast”, is a common – and serious – mistake. If your sales leaders are constantly demanding more quantity of opportunity (bigger pipeline, more leads) while conversion rates remain low, this may be the issue.

Part of the issue is a confusion over the use of the term “process”.

Quick story that reminded me of this problem recently. I was talking with an over-confident Enterprise sales leader who was preaching his wisdom on sales process. He worked himself into a lather and leaned in to deliver his magic solution like a thunderbolt: “MEDDIC”

Oh boy.

If you aren’t familiar with MEDDIC, you can find all you would ever want to know with a simple search. To learn it is a much different exercise, to use it properly is again something else. It’s been around for about 25 years and traces back to tremendous success created by the sales team at PTC. In short, it’s an acronym for the key elements of a good sale. It is often (mis)used as a qualification checklist by sales managers. I am not disparaging MEDDIC. It has a place as a reference for less-seasoned sellers. Too many, including my cocksure counterpart, use it like a crutch in an effort to over-simplify Enterprise sales.

Turns out, someone who probably did understand MEDDIC had sold him a big, fat consulting engagement, which was going to revolutionize the business…

In the Enterprise world, we love acronyms. That’s true as much or more in sales as anywhere else, where we are so intent on accelerating that even our processes get stripped down (See also: BANT, NEAT, SPIN, …). All these acronym’d processes are trying to express the core principles of value-driven sales methodology, most of which are timeless. The problem is you end up with sales managers who just plow through the checklist – with convenient acronyms and buzzwords – on the forecast call. There’s very little growth in that and sellers quickly learn how to spew the buzzwords back at managers (anything to get off this mindless call). The answers are all great until the moment of truth when – surprise! – there is no deal. Bad meal.

For college football fans the better example is the leadership style of Nick Saban, perennial champion/contender in one of the most fiercely contested leagues in the business of sports. Saban, head football coach at the University of Alabama, learned a valuable lesson while he was coaching at Michigan State University. In 1998, the unranked MSU Spartans were heading to Columbus to face the #1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Few gave the Spartans any chance to win on the road.

Of course, they did win and Saban was vaulted to national attention. Now he’s achieved legendary status.

He often recounts the story of preparation for that game. “Everyone was always so focused on the outcome; winning or losing was everything. That game was the first time” Saban said “that we focused on the process rather than the outcome.”

This is now the mantra of one of the most successful franchises ever built. (If you think college football isn’t a good parallel for big business, you need to take a closer look at the numbers.) Every day, his staff coaches to improve technique. Daily, weekly success is measured primarily by the player’s ability to execute the right technique. Games are reviewed at an individual player level. Wins may come under heavy criticism by Saban and his staff if technique is poor. Losses, though very rare in his case, may still be full of praise for proper technique. When technique is consistently good, good results follow consistently. That attitude and mindset is the culture of excellence and it is extremely successful.(Update: Nick Saban just won his record sixth national championship!)

So it is with Enterprise sales. Constant focus on technique and execution of all steps of the sales cycle takes a great deal of effort. To understand technique and help improve it are among the enterprise sales leader’s most important skills. Not doing but coaching the team to do it right. It also builds trust and understanding among the team, rather than tension and “CYA” behavior so prevalent in aggressive sales cultures. The reward is consistency at a high level. This has to be a management priority for organization seeking strong, predictable results. No checklist will short-cut this process.

You want to eat well consistently? Don’t order the meal and hope for the best. You can’t buy consistency. Work with your team from the time they are choosing the ingredients, through their preparation, plating and presentation. They are the cooks but you can instruct and occasionally step in as needed. You will probably find that some are better at specific techniques than others. They can guide each other or you can segment. Both are powerful. The team-building is priceless. Ultimately, this is the foundation of a strong sales culture.

Checklists are for critics. Get in the kitchen and feel the heat with your team.

Sales Execution: Acceleration Through Communication

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People disguise their ignorance with an over-abundance of words, usually meaningless ones. The trick is not getting lost in all those words. Here are some thoughts on how to find your way and train others to do the same.

Communication is the lifeblood of business. If you can’t communicate effectively you’re severely disadvantaged. The poor communicator is useless in many, probably most, of the meaningful roles of this era. For example…

  • How do you identify a need without the ability to understand what the market is telling you?
  • How do you rally support for a vision if you can’t articulate it to others?
  • Why does an employee give her best if you haven’t understood what motivates her?
  • Why would a customer work with you if you haven’t explained how the offering can uniquely help them?

Despite the amazing variety of communication tools, professional communication is generally poor. As our availability and volume – meaning both loud and infinite quantity – of communications has grown. Our ability to deliver and comprehend meaningful messages has deteriorated.

Good communication is brief and precise. Poor communication is vague and verbose. Want to improve communication? Here are two tips to help you become an active listener, the starting point of communication:

1)   In conversation, verbalize a summary of key points and gain agreement on it.

2)   Always question the use of jargon and buzzwords, literally.

The summary is a critical part of all live, verbal communication. Very often, people don’t know what they want to say until the words start tumbling out of their mouths. The result is usually a flood of words in which the whole room drowns. Sometimes it means they haven’t thought through their own understanding of the subject. The summary forces them to sharpen their thoughts. More often, it is an indication that the speaker doesn’t know what they are talking about. You’ll know for sure when they are unable to summarize and begin a whole new river of words. At this point, your counterpart is gasping for air. Some reach for help, others get frustrated and submerge.

For sellers – that is, anyone trying to gain agreement on any idea, product, service, etc. – the summary moment is a chance to make the meeting valuable. This is the reason you came/called. It’s not necessarily the final “yes”. It’s a milestone of progression. “Yes, we agree the definition of the problem.” Or “Yes, a solution just described would be high value.” Or “Yes, that’s a plan to go from here to where we want to be.” etc.

If you get to agreement on a summary you have built a consensus. It’s joint progress with your counterpart, whether positive or negative. Remember, truly “bad” meetings are those where nothing changes. Even if your agreement is “no sale”, at least you understand where you are and can move on to a better opportunity. The seller that stays in limbo is the biggest loser. They’re wasting everyone’s time. Ironically, weak sellers like to summarize these no-progress interactions: “Good meeting! We had a long conversation…” More on that later.

Best practice: Always and quickly follow a verbally-agreed summary with a written restatement to anchor it.

This is just a written capture of what was agreed in the meeting. People forget what they said very quickly. The note is a longer-term record for the participants. This accelerates deals. You don’t have to go back and rebuild forgotten progress when you meet again.

If you struggle to come to an agreed summary, either positive or negative, an opening is created. You’ve prompted for a summary, then offered your own version of summary and still can’t come to a common understanding. One of you is confused. Hopefully, it’s your counterpart! (Remember, understanding a negative situation is different than not understanding the situation. Understanding is the foundation for progress either way.) The phrase “I don’t know” is like a dog whistle for an alert seller. Great sellers recognize and seize this moment to educate their customer and shape their vision. When you get to a shared vision with your customer, shaped by you, success typically follows.

The ability to leverage this moment is a complex, highly valuable skill in sellers. Sometimes a counterpart will acknowledge their need for guidance, though not explicitly. Nevertheless, they are open to being guided. Other times, they may get frustrated at what they perceive as your lack of understanding. If you know what you’re talking about, you can stand tall and turn this into a positive. If not, you’ve got a problem. Preparation and experience are critical. That is a separate article. For now, recognize the need and technique for getting to an agreed summary.

Use internal meetings to coach your team on the value of precise, brief communications. My favorite opportunity is the sales forecast call. Classic sellers fall in love with words. Some guys think they can ride out the worst forecast with an overwhelming wave of positive-sounding words. “Really great meeting. Guy loves me. We had a great lunch and I invited him to the event and now we’re buddies and…” Stop. Maybe we can hear more about the Adventures of You at the reward trip (though not likely). A good manager knows better. She knows that she’ll be delivering a version of this forecast herself soon. Execs don’t have time for the fluff. No one should.

In report-out meetings like forecast, have your team start with a summary. Make it clear what you need to hear and the vocabulary you want them to use. (Establishing vocabulary is an important topic for another time.) Drive meeting preparation as a priority, including internal meetings. It’s a format you need to establish and enforce. Take the spin out. Sellers are great story-tellers and that’s a valuable skill. Forecast isn’t story time. If the summary doesn’t have all the info you need, you can ask questions. For internal meetings, “I don’t know” is more painful. It’s your business to know. So make it your plan to go find out and include that in your summary. If you’ve set expectations on the contents of a forecast summary and the seller still can’t summarize, there’s clearly a problem. A seller who can’t communicate is in trouble and needs your help urgently.

If they don’t know what they’re talking about how will you, at the next level? Good execs have highly sensitive BS-detectors. Develop your own.

Speaking of bullshit, let’s talk about buzzwords!

Words have literal meanings. Unfortunately, in this era, even “literal” is a word that gets widely abused. (“I literally can’t live without wifi.” Unless your pacemaker needs a signal to operate, you can literally live without wifi.) So, we are often stuck with implied meanings. But there is no clarity in implied meanings. As quickly as buzzwords appear, they evolve to mean different things to different people in different contexts. Poor communicators use that imprecision to cover their lack of understanding. Literally.

Buzzwords enter the language as a shorthand to refer to broader themes. They are, by design, vague. They have no place in useful communication, which is why they are so prevalent in social media and trade show presentations. Even the term “buzzword” has disguised itself in other words: “Jargon” for business and “hashtag” for, well, everything.

Be an active listener. When you hear a word that is used outside its strict definition, stop and ask what the speaker means specifically.

“It’s great, Mr. Account Exec, that you are selling ‘business value’ for this opportunity, just like our literature says. Now, please clarify what specific value this customer will derive from our solution.”

“Thanks for letting us know that you want an ‘AI-driven Customer Journey’, Ms. Prospect. Here are some specific examples of what I would consider useful AI and successful Customer Journey solutions. Does that jive with your definition or do you have other examples?”

Buzzwords and jargon, like long monologues, are fertile ground for ambiguity and confusion. When you spot them, recognize that the deal has become S-L-O-W, both intellectually and pace. Slow is a deal- and year-killer. When you hear ambiguity, stop and rout it out of the dialog. Define terms specifically for this scenario. The more detail the better. That’s where the real learning occurs. Sound uncomfortable? Good. Lots of people will simply assume (or pretend) they can communicate in gibberish rather than interrupt. You can differentiate yourself with clarity, which ends up as expertise. Pity the fool that keeps playing buzzword bingo for work.

Finally, a bonus communication red flag for you: Grammar. Yes, grammar. There are a couple of simple grammar rules for useful business communication that you can train yourself and others to use.

First, the more adjectives the more likely it’s BS. Be wary. Anyone telling you it was a “very super awesome amazing <anything>” is obviously over-selling it and probably concealing the fact that they don’t have much detail. Ask the questions to get underneath the fluff. If this person is on your team, you need to tell them that they lose credibility with hyperbole. One adjective at the most, preferably no use of “very” (truly, seriously, really, …). If it’s special, say why. Preferably with numbers to back it up. Let the listener add the adjectives in their mind. It’s far more impactful.

Second, pronouns and labels are vague, proper nouns are precise. “The guy in charge of their HR DT project says he’s gonna make a decision soon. We look good.” May get a newbie excited but doesn’t say enough. “Eleanor Johnson, VP of HR, told us in our Tuesday meeting she has committed to the CEO, Meg Chen, that the Digitally Enabled Employee project will be delivered by end of 3Q. Eleanor says she needs to begin implementation in March and contract with vendor in February. She says we are one of three finalists, along with SaaS Co and Big Co.” Yes, there are more words in the second version. They deliver detail where the first version is vague.

Nouns that need to be capitalized. Good. If sellers don’t know the proper noun behind the pronouns and titles they are using, they aren’t close enough to the deal. They’re probably getting their info far from the decision makers. There may not a be a deal at all. Make sure your sellers know you will be asking for names and dates and they should, too (that’s right, you’re taking names and kicking… well). The steps to discover this level of detail seem simple but they are strong proving grounds.

We’ve looked at some basics of communication, one of the keys to accelerating quality business. Great sellers know how to communicate because it makes them consistently successful. And no, that is not the same as BS. What are your communication tips? Got any good buzzy business / BS stories? I’d love to hear ‘em.