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.