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Sales Coach

April 11, 2012



Beyond the economic temblor, the printing industry is reeling from a series of aftershocks in the wake of shifting communi­cation habits and technologies. More of the same is unlikely to work. Less of the same (a smaller version of the same, after head counts are reduced and other expenses cut) can erode owner’s equity just as surely if more slowly. Trying to manage through these changes while behaving as though nothing below the surface is moving and changing is the most risky response an organization can now make. Whole categories of customers and whole end-user industries are in upheaval.

Consider magazine publishers. Advertising spending has declined steeply, as the subscription model is severely weakened, and as paper, postage and distribution costs continue to climb. It is an 8.0 temblor on the Richter scale.

Businesses that exist to serve and support magazine publishers will not survive simply by shrinking. If many printed magazines aren’t economi­cally viable any longer, and if digital magazines continue failing to deliver on the promise and hype surround­ing them, then a simple downsizing to support a smaller marketplace of magazine publishers isn’t likely to work. If no new media model has yet emerged and a free content model isn’t economically viable, the fallout of the current economic morass may radically reshape the entire magazine publishing industry.

Similarly, the instability we’re now seeing will cause some organizations to vanish completely. For some, that fate will result from confusing the conventional with the conservative. They will fail to exploit the tectonic shift and to prosper while others are hunkering down and trying to hold on. Those market conditions and circumstances that have yielded opportunities to create a durable competitive advantage prior to the tectonic shift may now change so completely that no such opportunity remains. At the same time, entirely new opportunities to create durable competitive advantages are emerging and gaining strength.


For salespeople, the selling task is neither more nor less difficult than it was 36 months ago. But it is more confusing. There’s more smoke in the air and fewer clear landmarks by which to navigate. The selling cycle is lengthening, discretion­ary budgets are down and higher-level decision makers are now more involved than they were before the economic meltdown.

That does not translate exclu­sively into bad news. In fact, there’s a substantial opportunity lurking in changed buying processes and buyer behavior. The involvement of higher- level decision makers creates a con­siderable opportunity for salespeople skilled in consultative and enterprise sales. Where procurement folk may have preferred to stay with comfort­able and familiar products, services and relationships, those preferences may not transfer to the higher-level decision makers now actively involved in nearly every purchasing decision of size. Opportunity now exists to create relationships at higher levels, to face less bureaucracy and even to reach faster decisions.

The significant new opportunity hiding in the morass and distrac­tion of the current economy is the opportunity to reach for bigger deals, higher-value deals, enterprise deals. It is reaching for the kind of deals that only a higher-level decision maker will understand and appreciate-the kind of deals that creates enterprise-level value and significant relation­ships between two organizations.

Leveraging that set of opportuni­ties isn’t going to happen if you’re a salesperson focused on transaction selling, touting features and benefits, and behaving like an animated bro­chure. Consultative and enterprise selling skills will make the difference here, rather than an increased level of activity or pre-existing relationships.

In fact, increasing your activity and visibility may be an active irritant to the higher-level decision makers to whom you’re now being directed. If you step up your contact frequency without adding real value by helping your customer create revenue, cut revenue loss or save money, you’re likely to be seen as a distraction and irritant. And trying to leverage pre-existing relationships may be entirely ineffective as folk with whom you created those rela­tionships lose the decision-making authority they once had.


Several temptations need to be avoided and several opportunities leveraged if the sales force is going to steadily improve results despite the economic conditions.

Don’t terrorize the troops. Your sales organization didn’t create the situation. I’m amazed at the speed with which a sales organization gets blamed for any downturn in top-line revenue.

Assess the real capabilities of your sales organization and ask the hard questions. If they have been animat­ed brochures until now, endlessly reciting features and benefits in a transaction sales model, they may not be capable of either consultative or enterprise selling. If that’s the case, you have a capability constraint not an activity constraint, and applying pressure to step up activity won’t improve the results at all.

Resist the temptation to sell rather than lead. It is likely that you were promoted the first time because you were the highest performer. And the temptation is severe to reach for that skill set, to throw yourself into the battle, to try and make a direct and personal difference. If doing so means that investment in manag­ing and leading the salespeople will shrink, you’re just adding yourself to the fray rather than multiplying yourself.

Balance efficiency and effective­ness. Among the worst and most frequent responses to a slow econ­omy and declining revenue is the top-down direction to kick up sales efficiency. This is often manifested in misguided demands to increase the number of prospects, the number of estimate requests, the frequency of sales meetings and the like. Don’t lose sight of the essential balance between efficiency and effectiveness.

Mere activity won’t guarantee that results will improve. Research has proven otherwise. Several differ­ent analyses of sales organizations have conclusively demonstrated that there is no correlation between activity and outcome. Top perform­ers and bottom performers tend to make about the same number of calls, pursue about the same number of opportunities and manage about the same number of customers. So, while the top performers have to make the calls and pursue the opportunities, there’s nothing sup­porting the “received wisdom” that more calls translate into more sales. Something else is at work, and that’s the difference between the effective­ness of top performers and the effec­tiveness of average or below average performers.

Resisting the temptation to simply “do more” requires a clear view of the unintended consequences of most well-intentioned and misguid­ed initiatives launched to kick up the level of selling activity. Most initia­tives intended to raise selling activity create more reporting requirements, activity solely for activity’s sake and more distraction (when not talking to customers, your salespeople are likely talking to each other about the misguided initiative) while reduc­ing the real selling that’s going on. It becomes a classic “fix that fails.”

Recognize that your role requires you to translate company strategy into selling tactics that your salespeople can understand and use. Working as an effective conduit for street intelligence from your sales force and for strategy from executive leadership becomes even more criti­cal during this tectonic shift. Well-known landmarks on the map are moving or vanishing while new and unexpected features are appearing in the landscape overnight. Listen to your salespeople very actively for early warning of significant change.

Recognize the importance of networking by your salespeople, and actively encourage it. So­cial networking tools are just now intersecting with mobile technology, and likely to quickly kick us into the early phases of Web 3.0. Soon, a mobile device won’t merely be the “first screen,” it will be the “primary screen” Consultative and enterprise selling, when they are effectively employed, will quickly grab those new resources and leverage them.

Be aware that the new customer may not look like the old customer. That means you need to question all of the received wisdom that leads
you to target who you’re targeting. It also means that now, more than ever, you need to understand your customer’s customers. For example, a customer whose customer base is baby boomers may suddenly be much less reliable and desirable.

Beware the siren song of the conventional. It is tempting to consider the conventional to be conservative and prudent. But no one has ever downsized to a sustain­able competitive advantage. Simply being a “leaner” version of what your organization was before may do nothing more than prolong the pain. A tight, intense focus on your sources clearly, then that competitive advantage cannot be leveraged effectively.

Beware of mimicking the conventional responses of others, including your competitors. Mimicry is merely pooling the ignorance of the crowd. And following a herd instinct (“It must be less risky because everyone is doing it”) will often lead to ineffective actions. It takes courage to move against conventional wisdom because fear is triggered by moving against the herd.

Don’t cut on autopilot: “A 10 percent reduction in head count across all departments.” Rather, begin by identifying those you must keep rather than those you can afford to lose. Where possible, raise pay for the keepers, affirming with action the claims you’ve made about their importance. You have competitors who are looking for targets of opportunity among your key staff.

If your competitors are radically reducing their business development activity and therefore their visibility, consider a more nuanced response. Letting your brand development and business development vanish signals the market that you’re struggling. That is counterproductive because it raises the customer’s perception of the risk of doing business with you while making the work of the sales force more difficult. Instead, focus on building your brand in your primary customer segments. Communicate that you understand the threats and opportunities they are experiencing and that you can help in tangible and meaningful ways. Few messages are more powerful than: “We understand.”

Share of customer is especially critical now. Customer retention isn’t a great metric (current volume vs. prior volume) when the tectonic plates are shifting. Customer retention is a backward-looking metric that won’t let you anticipate sudden and unexpected changes. If you have a strong competitor who is working to win a significant customer or share of a customer from you, you may not know it until it is a fait accompli. Talking regularly, as the primary executive, to your major customers about their current situations, current initiatives, and your share of their current business will help you anticipate what is coming.

Even if the overall economy contracts again, not all of your customer segments are likely to do the same. Even where they are contracting, increasing your share of a contracting market requires that you aggressively market and sell into those spaces rather than hunkering down and trying to lose less than others. During the downturn of 2002–2003, I led a sales and marketing organization whose results ran directly counter to those of all of its major competitors. While our competitors reported double digit revenue declines for two successive years, we saw significant net revenue growth for those two years even while we were replacing volume lost due to customer failure and shrinkage. We did it by being a much more effective competitor.

Look to leverage the current disruption for large gains and big wins. Your sales organization should know that big wins are part of what you’ll actively seek. A tectonic shift disrupts even long-standing relationships. An opportunity exists when there is value that can be identified and reached for by higher-level customer decision makers than were formerly involved in purchasing decisions.

Avoid the seduction of a focus on pricing and “feet on the street.” These tend to go hand-in-hand with losing sight of sales force effectiveness because efficiency is so much easier to measure. Trying to drive up volume by grabbing the pricing lever, and by a fast and unfocused hiring effort are rarely effective because they are not strategic, and not aligned with your durable competitive advantage. And we’ve seen recent and tragic evidence of the futility of those tactics.

If you’re not going to survive, don’t prolong the pain needlessly. But if you are going to survive, consider buying your competitor while he’s a bargain. During this window when multiples have dropped and nearly nothing is being paid for goodwill, few times could be better for an acquisition if it will strengthen your durable competitive advantage. But that’s the key question: Will it improve your durable competitive advantage? Will it enable you to create a more compelling value proposition than what you can without it? Strategic due diligence is required to determine whether the apparent potential—however attractive—is realistic.

Whether a salesperson, a sales manager, or an owner/president, you’re faced with a disruption unlike what you’ve seen before. It may signal opportunity unlike what you’ve seen before. Those firms that emerge strong from periods of tectonic shift (whether within a specific industry or the economy as a whole) are often not those that went into it strong. If you’re able to react effectively as what was solid becomes fluid, you can emerge thriving rather than merely surviving.

Wayne Peterson is the principal of the Black Canyon Consulting Group (blackcanyon.com). He has served as president of three successful and fast-growing companies, and in sales and marketing leadership roles with two others.

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