Startups who sell to large enterprises often find “selling” a challenge.
I recently observed a classic example.
A startup went from near failure to solid turnaround in less than 12 months by identifying and addressing five key sales issues. This new startup – led by Susan, a very impressive young entrepreneur – had introduced a new energy product to market. The product had the capability of disrupting a number of industries. And yet, despite the compelling product, they were struggling to make sales. Why?
Susan and her team had outstanding design and product development skills. However only one of the team members had any B2B sales experience. They had closed a number of small opportunities. However they needed to win some large orders to gain market share and credibility. Unfortunately they had recently submitted eight significant proposals including three large tender responses with no decisions in their favour.
It was devastating. Susan and her team had been convinced that their product should sell more easily. It was groundbreaking technology. They had thought that if they got in front of the right decision-makers in their target customers and show off their product – and what it could do – they would generate orders.
They had done one thing well. A good marketing organisation had helped them write three Unique Selling Propositions targeting potential clients in three industries. And they went knocking on doors with these.
And it seemed to work. By leveraging the networks of their chairman and investors they had got in front of key people in a number of organisations. They conducted many demonstrations of their product – feature, function, benefit! They were asked to submit proposals or tender responses. But then the opportunities seemed to stall or they got a simple ‘no thanks’.
Pretty soon they found their pipeline of opportunities had dried up and they had to start finding prospects all over again
Susan’s investors needed to understand why they were not closing these opportunities. They arranged to have it investigated. As a result 5 key needs were identified and changes were implemented accordingly.
The Five Sales Challenges
I am sharing these five sales issues – and what was done to address them – because I expect some of these might apply to other startups struggling to sell B2B.
1. The need for a sales process
Susan’s team had not thought of ‘Sales’ as a discipline like Financial Management, Marketing and manufacturing. In each of those disciplines they had implemented strict processes and methodologies – but not for Sales.
They had no way of assessing where they were in a sales opportunity and how effectively it was progressing. As a result they were pouring resources into high risk opportunities or ones which were not likely to progress for months or years.
They were performing sales activities in the wrong sequence. They had regularly demonstrated and proposed their product before they understood the customer’s business drivers and timelines. They had regularly wasted time selling to individuals who had no power to make a decision.
As a result they had missed the mark or invested selling resources into organisations that were not ready to buy. In the meantime opportunities that may have had a better chance of progressing had being starved of resources.
With help from a specialist they defined a six stage sales process that made sense for their type of sale. They also adopted methodologies to be applied during the process. These helped them systemise activities like:
- How to get better insight into individual prospective customers,
- How to more effectively engage with the correct people
- How to assess opportunities in order to decide in which ones they should invest their meagre resources.
- How to create a strategy for winning a competitive opportunity
The most significant lesson Susan learnt was to be selective – qualify hard – don’t waste time on opportunities that were unlikely to be winnable or were not ready.
2. The need to sell customer outcomes – not the product
Many startups think it’s all about promoting their ground-breaking product – but it seldom is?
Customers invest in outcomes not products. In most of Susan’s sales opportunities the customers were excited about the product but could not visualise the value for their business – or the risks were unjustifiably high. In their mind it didn’t warrant upsetting the status quo.
Susan and her team had not done enough customer specific research. They had not understood the customer’s unique business drivers. They had not discovered the specific value – that a change they could drive to the customer’s business – would produce.
Susan’s team implemented a ‘discovery’ step early in their sales process. This ensured they fully understood the customer needs, challenges and opportunities. And they learnt to religiously complete this step before they discussed, proposed or demonstrated their product. They realigned their selling focus on customer outcomes – the customer specific value proposition.
As a result the dialog made a lot more sense to the customer – they were able to fully comprehend the value to their business.
Susan’s team were also able to extend this philosophy into their ‘social selling’ activities. They engaged earlier and more effectively with the customer by dialoging and sharing content based on outcomes and not product. They avoided promoting product or company via social media and forums and just delivered ideas and insight that was of value to their target customers. Their brand credibility grew considerably and customer engagement became easier.
3. The need for a sales system
No customer data management system had been adopted. Information about prospective customers was captured piecemeal in emails and spreadsheets or was maintained in the heads of the team. Collaboration across the team, relative to an opportunity, was haphazard at best. Tasks were falling through the cracks. A lack of process also meant that dialog across the team was not productive. There was no common sales language or understanding of the status of an opportunity.
It was decided that a simple cloud based CRM should be adopted – one that focussed on assisting the team to sell more effectively and efficiently. The new sales process was incorporated into this CRM system. As opportunities were qualified and moved from one stage to the next this was reflected in the system. Everybody could see the status and what was to be done next. All customer information was available to all.
They also implemented a simple collaboration system – integrated with the CRM system – which helped the team work together more effectively and innovatively on sales opportunities.
4. The need to systematise sales management
The only sales management system they had previously implemented was a rudimentary forecasting system. And because of the lack of a sales process and qualification methods the forecast was dreadfully inaccurate. Also their financial system tracked revenue but not sales so they had no way to easily forecast revenue (or cash) from existing orders – let alone forecasted orders.
Informal sales reviews were being conducted weekly – at a team meeting. The purpose was to try to understand the sum of all the opportunities they were working on and where the roadblocks and the priorities were. Because their was no sales process or formal sales database this became very tactical in nature.
There was also no way to plan and allocate selling resources, Because these resources were utilised across both development and implementation – as in most startups – resources were being pulled from pillar to post – often with no notice. The person with the loudest voice tended to get the resources whatever the priority.
Susan implemented some simple sales management principles.
The sales pipeline would be reviewed by the team on a weekly basis. Opportunities would be prioritised based on the stage they were at, and on what was needed to progress them. Roadblocks were assessed and workarounds implemented where it made sense. Most of the information required to support this meeting, was now available via the new CRM system. The number of opportunities being worked on at one time was deliberately limited – even if it meant withdrawing from some. This focussed the resources and increased the win chance.
5. The Need to improve Sales Skills
It had become very evident that the team did not have enough sales and sales management skills to sell and manage effectively – even after implementing the previous 4 changes.
Susan and her charman decided to implement a development program for their key people. They also decided to add to their sales capability by employing an experienced salesperson and moved the current resource to develop channels..
Susan was concerned that a one off sales training program would not be the solution. She recognised that most of what would be learnt at a workshop would be forgotten when they got back to work.
In conjunction with an adviser, Susan implemented a six month change program. The team was trained and then coached through regular reinforcement sessions. What they needed to learn would need to become habitual.
The development program was built around the new sales process they had adopted. Particular emphasis was put on the customer approach, the discovery, developing a customer value proposition, demonstrating value, authenticating their claims and negotiating. All this was about selling customer value – not selling the product features
This program is still being rolled out however the returns are already evident. The team are working on less deals and winning a higher percentage. Their resources are less stretched and better planned.
There have been significant changes in customer facing behaviour resulting in much more effective customer engagement by focussing on their business outcomes.
Susan also employed a coach to assist her in her sales management activities. This included setting up sales measurement systems, incentive programs, lost sale analysis, opportunity strategy development, progress reviews and salesperson recruitment.
Susan is delighted with the impact of the changes:
“Just by implementing a sales process – and focussing first on discovering the customer needs, challenges and opportunities – we quickly became laser focussed on how to achieve customer outcomes versus selling product. We are teaming better and applying resources more productively. We are much more strategic in our pursuits.
“This has resulted in closing one very large deal that had previously stalled. We are also now positioned well to win 4 others very soon – 3 of whom previously said no.
“I am much more confident in our future than I was 12 months ago”.
The issues Susan faced may be different to the ones you are facing. But the process she went through to identify them and then address them may well be of value to you.
I hope this gives you some food for thought – and impetus for action!
Please share your experiences below or contact John Smibert