Ask any entrepreneur, and most “intrarpreneurs” working for companies as well, what their biggest challenge is, and they will say something that resembles “sales." When it comes to identifying and landing new customers, or even holding onto important existing customers, there is often consternation and frustration abound.
That led me to speak with Tim Sanders, former Yahoo! chief solutions officer and New York Times bestselling author who explains a seven-step “dealstorming” process that has helped drive sales results for companies as diverse as CareerBuilder, Regus and Condé Nast in his new book of the same name, Dealstorming.
Q: Why is the sales process such a challenge for businesses?
Sanders: I think too many sales leaders think that managing “the funnel” is a sufficient sales process -- especially if they focus on hiring or poaching top producers with discipline. But, the problem with activity management is that it’s not a process, it’s a numbers game. It assumes a near infinite number of prospects in a predictable buying mode. But the reality is that we sell in an ever niche-oriented world against more competition than ever due to cloud and web services.
When faced with implementing a true sales process, there will be resistance from the old guard who are “doing just fine with their own approach." And usually, it takes a forward-thinking sales leader and a crisis to flip the switch and turn on a real sales process based on the buyer’s journey and market realities.
Q: What are the particular challenges that entrepreneurs and organizations who sell business-to-business (B2B) face?
Sanders: Over the last 20 years, the number of decision makers and influencers involved in a typical B2B sale has increased dramatically. Today, there are between five and six people you need to convince -- and they all have different departmental needs. On top of that, they conduct their own online research prior to meeting with any sales reps, and much of it isn’t accurate. Finally, the nature of what we sell these days is getting more technically complex, which makes the buyer’s decisions harder. After all, we don’t sell products: We sell change! And when it comes to selling change, it’s getting complicated.
As result of these compound complications, B2B sales teams need to become more innovative about how they go to market, penetrate accounts and present their value propositions. Otherwise, they end up with too many deals stuck in their pipeline.
Q: In your book, you compare B2B selling with playing a video game. Why is that, and how does knowing that impact how you sell?
Sanders: Today’s sale follows a similar path as a video game. When I started out selling radio ads in the '70s, my game played like Pong. You improved your hand-eye coordination and mastered it eventually. But since then, the selling journey has gone multi-player high tech and hardcore. You battle through multiple levels, running the gauntlet. One sales leader at a software giant told me that "signing an enterprise license deal these days is as hard as getting to the top level of Halo.”
This is important to understand, because it means that our job is to level up methodically and not seek the big idea or magic pitch to win the game. We must be mindful of our limited lives / credits and aware of the tools and collaborators we can leverage to make progress. Today’s sales challenge is truly a multi-player game.
Q: What is “dealstorming,” and how does that process work?
Sanders: Dealstorming combines the creative energy of brainstorming with the linear process of deal-making. When you are stuck in a sales challenge, you create a dealstorm by assembling a team of collaborators who have a stake in the outcome or expertise about the problem. Usually, the account executives lead the dealstorm, which consists of a series of meetings, where the team locates the root cause of the challenge and then sets the next best play.
The process starts with the account executive and his or her manager qualifying the dealstorm, based on the fiscal or strategic opportunity. Then, the team is recruited and prepared with a comprehensive deal brief that will onboard them into sales world. After each meeting, the game is all about execution, analysis and reporting back to the group. In my experience, the process leads to a big win or an account saved almost three out of four times!
Q: You say that diversity is critical to the selling process. Why is that, and how can small teams that may not have diversity at hand handle that?
Sanders: Computer science guru Alan Kay once said: Perspective is worth 50 IQ points. When we are trying to solve a deal challenge from a pure sales perspective, we lack the ability to see the problem from a unique angle that can lead to a creative breakthrough. When you involve people from marketing, operations or service, you multiply the chances that someone will make suggestion or notice a pattern that leads to a breakthrough. Research says that companies that collaborate across departments to solve big deal challenges sell 20 percent more than their rivals.
For smaller businesses, you can increase dealstorm diversity by recruiting what I call “deal mentors” from your circle of contacts. They have some experience dealing with your problem, this prospect or your industry. You can find them on LinkedIn, and it’s easy to onboard them -- even though they don’t work for you. You can also increase your team-width by bringing in a prospect or customer champion who may not be the decision-maker but can bring a unique way of thinking to your team.
Q: What’s the most difficult sales challenge that you have helped an organization overcome, and what can others learn from that?
Sanders: I helped a defense contractor land a multi-million dollar IT services deal with a privately owned company, which would help them pivot from business-to-government to business-to-business in a big way. They had deep experience in cyber-security as you can imagine, but they faced over a dozen sales challenges from the first contract to the signed contract.
Surprisingly, the best ideas came from the edges of the company. A finance analyst noticed two data intersections that led to a novel combination of their core services and how value would be reported. An engineer came up with a mash-up metaphor (we are like Metro meets ADT) that got them over the hump towards the end of the process when they had to convince remote influencers they’d never get face time with. It proved out the old saying that “team work makes the dream work."
Q: If you could leave entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs with one piece of advice regarding selling more effectively, what would that be?
Sanders: When you get stuck in a sales situation, don’t go down alone. No one gets credit for failing on his or her own. Ask yourself, “Who has a stake in this, or who knows something about this challenge?” Remember that when the going gets tough, the ambitious get innovative. And based on my research, sales genius is a team sport.