I recently recorded a wide-ranging conversation about the art, science and engineering of sales management with Michael Webb of Sales Performance Consultants Inc.
Michael was one of the first people to make the case for applying a data-driven, continuous performance improvement approach to sales and marketing, and is the author of the Shinto Prize winning “Sales Process Excellence”.
We covered a number of topics in our podcast, including the difference between flexible sales frameworks and rigid sales processes, why buyers are going non-linear on us, why the act of planning is more important than the plan itself, why most “value added” sales strategies are nothing of the sort, and why most sales people are entirely justified in hating the CRM systems they are forced to use…
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
Michael Webb: This is Michael Webb, and this is the Sales Process Excellence Podcast. Some people focus on data and applying statistics to solve business problems. Other people focus on reaching senior level decision makers and making the best value propositions.
Here we bring both together to create wealth for everyone. I’m really excited today to introduce you to my guest, Bob Apollo of Inflexion Point. Bob, welcome here.
Bob: Very pleased to be here, thanks.
Michael Webb: So for those in the audience who might not be familiar with you, could you give us a couple of minutes of your background, where you came from, and what you’re doing now, and why?
Bob: I started my career at Hewlett Packard in the days when it was an exemplary company. Since then and without really planning it, my subsequent career has involved joining a succession of relatively younger companies in relatively less well-developed markets and helping them to navigate that all-important scale-up phase.
By the end of this phase of my career, I had been through at least three IPOs and a similar number of acquisitions, and I decided it was time to get off the corporate hamster wheel. That was the point at which I launched my consultancy, Inflexion Point.
Michael Webb: So that is a big career transition for lots of people who do it. I did the same one, and I’ve talked to a lot of executives who wanted to make that or are considering making that transition to going independent and hanging out your own shingle.
I know I’ve found it as a challenge. It was more challenging than I thought it would be. A lot of the executives that I’ve talked to have also found that. It’s a hamster wheel, but it’s another kind of a hamster wheel. What’re your observations about transitioning from working in a corporation to be an independent consultant?
Bob: It isn’t anything like as easy or as straight forward as I think some people might assume or hope, looking from the outside in. I also think you learn certain things about yourself that you weren’t perhaps aware when you were working in a corporate environment.
I initially transitioned in a progressive way through a number of interim management roles. That allowed me then to progressively evolve into what is now a pure consulting and sales effectiveness business. I pivoted through the interim management stage with organisations that I had known in corporate life.
So I think you have to manage the transition. And candidly sometimes you just need to get lucky.
Michael Webb: Yes, and sometimes you just need to work really hard.
Bob: Well, that goes without saying.
Michael Webb: So what is it that these corporations were missing that led you to want to launch a business to supply it?
Bob: It’s probably just worth reflecting briefly on what I’d characterise as my ideal client. They tend to be business to business focused. They are often involved in complex sales, and in innovative markets where it’s either a discretionary or strategic purchase. And they have left the startup phase but are not yet behaving like a corporate.
Those characteristics often mean that their sales successes have often been based more on heroics and on the individual efforts of the founders than on a scalable structure. They inevitably hit a wall where the scalability isn’t quite what they hoped and expected it to be.
There is often a big gap between the lowest and highest performing salespeople. There’s often an inconsistency or an unpredictability about revenue deliverability. There’s often a lack of revenue confidence.
Of course, that isn’t the sort of conversation that CEOs enjoy having with their board, or with their investors. So it’s a moment when they realise that even if they have done well thus far, they need to apply a different mindset in order to take their company up to the next level of revenue performance.
Michael Webb: What is that mindset that … how do they experience it? What are they shifting from and to? How do they characterise that mindset that they need?
Bob: They have usually been selling in a heroic fashion to early adopters. I was tremendously influenced in my early corporate career by the thinking of Geoffrey Moore in his “Crossing the Chasm” and the idea that different sales approaches are needed to approach and successfully deal with the different sorts of buyers that characterise the largest potential markets.
Michael Webb: So I talked with another business owner also to be in the United Kingdom. He was saying that he was a distribution firm. He would have some of his salespeople … excuse me, let me back up a second. He’s not a … he sells through distribution and he has salespeople who handle some of those channels.
Some of the sales people in some of the distributors and some of his own people who handle the distributors would somehow figure out how to sell the more strategic, more high value, complex sale types of items.
But then life would happen, and that person would need to leave the company and move on to something else in their career. They would be faced with, “Okay, now how do we replace that business?” That sounds like a different problem though. That company was wondering how do we design a process? And how do we make it so it’s repeatable so that we can bring somebody in to sell this high-value stuff?
What you’re saying … they wanted to keep it in the company where you’re saying that it was already in the company, but they don’t exactly know how to do it.
Bob: Well, there’s often wide variation in performance. There’s very often a lack of institutional learning within the organisation. And when it comes to assessing patterns of success and failure, it’s often difficult to make that assessment when you’re right up close to it.
One of the great benefits of engaging somebody like me with both an outside perspective and the experience of similar organisations that have gone on a similar journey is that you can more easily recognise those patterns. You can extract layers of undocumented institutional experience. And you can turn that analysis into something that creates the foundations of scalability and the ability to induct new people and quickly and effectively turn them into successful salespeople.
Michael Webb: Is part of that … is the part that makes salespeople successful, is that strictly between the salespeople’s ears, or is there something, like you said a moment ago, this institutional learning. Is there something inherent in the business itself that enables salespeople to be successful?
Bob: I think if you only think of it as attempting to improve individual skills, you’re missing tremendous driver of performance. By the way, if you end up hiring and running a bunch of lone wolf salespeople, soon or later you will suffer from it. Because they’re very often in it for their own interests, rather than seeing themselves as part of a collective.
Companies can either create an environment where collective group learning happens and where everybody benefits from each other’s experience, or they can create the sort of adversarial environment where it is every salesperson out for themselves. I know which of the two structures are more likely to drive future success. And I think you can see it in the marketplace as well.
Michael Webb: So how would you see it in the marketplace?
Bob: Well I hope that they are a dying breed, but we can all think of vendor organisations that are characterised by extremely aggressive self-centred selling tactics. They can be very clever about how they attempt to lock their customers in, but customers start to lose patience with them and sooner or later it creates resentment.
Michael Webb: Okay. So the old fashioned salesperson who just … he’s not operating as part of the team, he is one who’s responsible for everything and-
Bob: I don’t want to characterise this as old versus new. But I do think that this sort of archetypal traditional view of the highly driven salesperson is being replaced by a more thoughtful model. And it is proving to be much more effective.
Michael Webb: I had a client tell me one time, also complex sales environment. This was capital equipment. Half a million dollar, million-dollar pieces of equipment. A lot of them were … the complexity of the configurations with such that there was engineering involved. To set up the quotations and things. And set up the deals.
It would take six months or a year to manufacture it and ship it. He said an interesting thing. He said, “You know with our sales team, it’s kind of hard to tell when somebody’s doing a good job. Have you seen that sort of thing before?
Bob: I think it depends on what you’re looking for. Because I think if you’re properly characterizing your sales process … and by the way, I’m not a huge fan of using the word process partly because of its connotations with a manufacturing approach. Which I think doesn’t completely reflect the complexities of nonlinear complex sales.
But I do think you need to identify leading indicators, and I believe you can see predictors of future success in that. Certainly, I’ve worked with clients where they can form a judgment about who is likely to be successful, when they’re likely to be successful, and so on.
Michael Webb: It’s an important point you said, two pieces there that I’d like to dissect if we could. One of them was the comment about processes not applying so much in sales, which we’ll come back to. But the one most recent one about … you can make judgements about which salespeople would be successful and perhaps with deals, would be most likely to close.
So that’s precisely the kind of thing that’s difficult to know if you’re not measuring things in a process sort of a fashion, isn’t it?
Bob: Again, there are aspects of this where the conventional definition of process fits very well. I think the reason I made the observation is because I think there’s a growing recognition that the customer’s decision journey isn’t actually linear. That’s the most important thing from my perspective. It’s the customer’s journey that matters and not the sales activities.
It isn’t linear, despite the protestations to the contrary. It moves forwards and backwards, as new priorities and new stakeholders come into play. Gartner characterised it very well earlier this year. It’s not so much a linear series of extremely well-defined steps, which rarely get reversed – it’s more like a spaghetti bowl.
That’s my observation on the over-rigid application of the conventional definition of process. I am a great believer in process, I have been since HP. I think one of HP’s great under-recognised strengths in those days when the debate about selling was “is it in an art or a science?” was that they saw a role for an engineering mindset as well. HP recognised selling to be a triumvirate of art, science, and engineering. The three could be combined and blended in a way that was likely to drive much better outcomes.
Michael Webb: So what’s your conventional definition of process?
Bob: A series of well-defined steps, which can be measured, and which lead to some predictable outcomes. That’s off the top of my head. I’m sure that’s not a very good textbook definition. But that’s my working definition.
Michael Webb: And so what’s the problem with that? I like that definition, very simple. What’s the problem with that definition in a sales environment?
Bob: In fact, I was participating in another discussion earlier today about this. The problem arises if it is translated into a belief that adopting a single traditional sales methodology will automatically drive success.
I think the reason for this is even in fairly well-defined markets there’s a very wide variation in buying behaviour and buying dynamics. It’s extremely important therefore that salespeople behave in a situational way.
Successful sales people apply different methodologies or approaches to match different customer situations. They might intelligently adopt different approaches based on their diagnosis of the situation they’re facing.
I don’t want to get into an overly semantic discussion about it, because I think the concept of process is incredibly powerful. But I’ve tended to prefer to think in terms of flexible frameworks rather than prescriptive processes. So maybe that is just a semantic distinction.
Michael Webb: Well, this is a great point in the discussion because I would differ with you about it. I think what you’re coming to is something that I’ve come to also from a different angle. It is that in the sales profession in B2B, their conception of process is this sort of rigid procedure that must be followed. I remember many many years ago, I was a business forms salesman and a sales manager. And they gave us this rigid script we had to memorise to make these big presentations to our customers, and all the salespeople just resisted it. Man, if your boss was there, you had to follow it exactly the way that they told you to do it, and this is what is immortalised in concrete computer code.
It’s like pouring concrete you can’t change it once it’s in the software of your CRM system, and there’s this sort of rigid approach that the salesperson must take, but that ignores the changing environment around the salesperson. I mean, for example, more and more people today are searching on the internet for information, and avoiding talking to B2B salespeople-
Bob: Well they are partly avoiding talking to salespeople because many of them have developed a well-deserved reputation for what I’d characterise as boorish behaviour. They seem to be only concerned about telling the customer about their company, their product and their so-called solutions – and not investing anything like enough time on truly understanding the customer’s situation or environment.
What they could be doing is sharing their experience, helping the customer to understand their environment maybe better than they themselves can, and drawing their attention to unrecognised opportunities or unrecognised needs or implications. Things that many customers – with their inevitable internal focus – could not easily recognise for themselves.
I would run a mile from doing business with a client who was of the mindset that what they needed to do to improve sales performance was to have better scripts. I think it’s an absolute nonsense in any complex environment.
Michael Webb: I would totally agree, and I would extend that into in a lot of cases, unfortunately, the way that they are using software to offer “sales enablement” where the salesperson is expected to follow this little script at this little branch, or step of the process, or that one at that little branch.
Because it sort of presumes that the overmeister who designed this system really knows what’s going on in all these potential variations.
Bob: Who’s actually talking to the customer? Who’s actually in the best position to make a judgment? It’s not some sales process architect sitting remotely. So my definition of a process, and that’s why I think in terms of a flexible framework rather than a rigid process, is to equip the salesperson with options. Options that enable them to diagnose and react accordingly to what they have assessed about the customer’s situation.
And you can’t predefine that route from the start. The great military commanders have all concluded that the plan is nothing, but planning is everything. The Prussian general Van Moltke said, “No plan of action survives first contact with the enemy.” Well, I think it’s equally true that in today’s world no rigid process survives first contact with the customer. You’ve got to be adaptable, empathetic, flexible. You’ve got to be curious.
Those aren’t the qualities that many people would have associated with the archetypal salesperson of a generation ago. But the customers demand more now. Their expectations are higher. They’ve been burnt too often by inwardly focused salespeople.
Michael Webb: So the framework that you’re describing, this sort of traditional, and I agree, incorrect view of what a process is, is missing a key factor from what a process really is.
The purpose of the process is to create value. Either for the customer, ultimately has to be for the customer, or for the people inside the company, for the salesperson. That’s the North Star by which the salesperson … if he’s going to react to the facts on the ground, or she’s going to react to the facts on the ground in any given situation, they have to be able to identify the customer’s context and their own company’s context.
This is why sales is a more, it’s a complex kind of a task, and you need to put very skilled and knowledgeable people in those roles. Especially where the role of the salesperson is very prominent in the customer’s impressions-
Bob: Yeah, I would also say also that it depends on whether the customer is in familiar or unfamiliar territory. If they are buying something they’ve bought repeatedly before, they’ve probably mastered the art of buying it. If this is the first time that they’ve tried to buy this particular category of thing, they may be completely unfamiliar with or unaware of many important considerations.
Sales organisations often use the word “value” in a very casual way. When I was at HP I observed a bunch of competitors who were all trying to talk about added value. But what they were really doing was promoting extra unwanted features to the customer in order to justify a higher price, despite the fact that the customer didn’t need or want that extra functionality and would have been much happier with a simpler and cheaper option.
I prefer to think about creating value. We can establish an approximate archetype of how we create value for this or that type of business, or role, or problem. But at the end of the day, the specific value has to be somewhat unique to the organisation, or the customer, or the stakeholder you’re selling to.
I think there’s a real and necessary skill in salespeople who have this ability to genuinely create value. Not by spouting a generic universal value proposition, but by having value creating conversations and seeing those conversations reflected in the proposal they subsequently make to the customer, which is then inevitably much better tuned to that particular customer’s environment.
It will probably have certain similarities with the proposal they might make to the next customer, but the executive summary needs to be genuinely unique. One of the things that maddens me is people thinking that in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of proposals, you need to have a whole range of cookie-cutter components. At a supporting level, at an appendix level, I think that’s obviously useful.
But if you try and take a cookie-cutter and inevitably vendor-centric approach to the executive summary the impact is profoundly less powerful than if the executive summary reads as if it has been based on a deep understanding of what’s uniquely valuable to the specific customer.
And that’s not just about why they should buy from you. The executive summary must also include they rationale for why the customer needs to change. Not only why they should buy your product, but why their status quo is uncomfortable and unsafe.
I don’t see enough of that sort of contrast in the average proposal. Good proposals contrast the negative value of staying as they are with the positive value of change. And they create incremental value from the vendor’s unique understanding of the customer’s circumstances.
Michael Webb: So let me see if you share this observation. I have seen a lot of senior executives who are very very interested in what our short term sales forecast looks like, and how much money the sales team is bringing into our company.
Then they have very little interest or even recognition. Don’t even pay any attention to how much value, or profit we are adding to customers today. Because of our offers and our interactions with them. Nobody really studies the value that customers get from our products and services.
Have you seen that?
Bob: I think historically that has been a problem and I know the software business better than any other, and in the old days when you were selling large license fees up front, there was relative indifference to whether or not the system actually delivered value to the customer. I do think the transition to Software as a Service has changed that. Because your ability to renew the relationship with the customer is critically dependent on the customer’s perception in their initial experience of you and whether your solution has genuinely created value for them.
In retrospect, I think there was obviously a structural problem with classic large upfront software purchases. I believe the move to repeatable and renewable revenue has forced a change in mindset, and not before time.
Michael Webb: Although it seems counterintuitive to me if you have to put a lot of money up front to buy software like you used to. That they didn’t care so much about the return on investment. I guess they were just hanging on faith or-
Bob: No, I think the customers did. I think they created financial justifications whether or not that financial justification was achieved in practice was another matter. But I think the mood was that unless you wanted to write up a case study up you probably didn’t care too much about the actual value you created.
The role of customer success has become increasingly recognised as a key component in repeatable revenue businesses – whether it’s software or other offerings. But I’ve observed an interesting variation in the role of customer success.
At one end they’re typically seen as being primarily reactive. If the customer’s got an issue, we’ll deal with it and try to keep them happy. But best-in-class companies who are implementing customer success teams are also chartering those people with making visible the value that’s been created. Because they started to recognise that if they don’t do that, questions may be asked at renewal time about do we really need this stuff?
The latter approach is in the minority, but it’s growing. Customer success isn’t just about satisfying the customer’s operational requirements, or support needs. It’s about helping the customer to recognise the value that’s being created and making it tangible.
Michael Webb: So I’ve recommended to people, and I put it in my book that the senior executives of the company, if they want to make a change in this part of their business, make it easier for customers to buy, then they need to elevate the customer’s financial performance. Customers benefit, and what the customer gets out of their products and services. Need to elevate that to the same level as they elevate their own financial performance.
If senior executives are looking for, has this customer benefited? How much has this customer benefited? In what ways has this customer benefited? It provides the air cover for the employees to spend time looking for that information and constructing ways to get it so that it can be understood.
Michael Webb: So that’s something that I guess easy to say, not so easy to do. So let’s transition. When you’re working with clients, what’s the model of what you do? Do you primarily sort of a sales training kind of a model? Or what sort of interactions do you have with your customers and clients?
Bob: If a potential client thinks all they need is generic sales training, I’m inclined to point them in the direction of the hundreds of perfectly competent sales training companies. I’m primarily focused on broadly based sales effectiveness programmes that include clear targets, frameworks and systems which can then be reinforced by training.
Any training needs to be delivered with the benefit of clarity about which opportunities they should be pursuing in the first place, and what approach they should be using for diagnosing and discovering and making informed situational selling judgments.
It’s vital that the CRM system actually helps and guides the salespeople, rather than being seen as an administrative burden that frankly they’d prefer to avoid at all costs.
We talked about data earlier on in our conversation. I think one of the tremendous developments that has happened in the past few years is the introduction of sales-specific analytics frameworks for assessing sales performance in an informed way.
These analytics applications not only allow a more rational assessment as to which opportunities are likely close and when, and with what level of confidence, but also allow us to look at and compare long-term patterns of performance and behaviour between salespeople.
We can now far better understand – for example – what is it that makes certain people good at the top of the funnel, and struggle at the bottom, and so on. I see a growing appreciation amongst enlightened sales organisations of the power of intelligent analytics.
Michael Webb: What do you mean intelligent analytics? So can you concretise that for me?
Bob: Let me start by observing that the path that is least likely to be effective involves taking any one of the many general-purpose business intelligence platforms that are probably deployed elsewhere in your organisation, and spending years trying to customise it to your company’s sales environment.
In contrast, what the specialist sales analytics tools are doing is to create communities to support likeminded sales leaders. This allows you not only learn from what works, and what doesn’t work in similar environments, but also allows you to establish benchmarks between your operation and other similar organisations and look for where you might be over or underperforming.
Intelligent analytics is about presenting information in a way that is inherently actionable and allows you to understand the context, illuminate patterns of performance and allow you to benchmark against best practice.
And that’s a very different approach to analytics from the usual “let IT implement it”. The modern wave of analytics is being bought, implemented, and run by data-driven, insight driven sales leaders rather than traditional being an IT function.
Michael Webb: Interesting. So we’ve opened up. I want to ask you questions in two different areas, but we’ve been on the phone here for a long time. Maybe we should save it for a follow-up, if that works for you.
One of them is this whole issue of sales methodologies. There are a half of dozen well-known methodologies out there, and being in this profession, I’m sure you have opinions and observations about it.
But then there’s also the issue of a CRM, and data, and using it to help make sales easier, and help make salespeople sell. There’s a whole constellation of issues around that. It sounds like when you’re working with an ideal client, you’re operating in both of those spheres with the client, helping them set up a system for managing sales.
Bob: Yeah. As a first observation, I think any sales company that’s developed a methodology, published books and created generic training courses has a vested interest in promoting their methodology as being the one to use.
But none of them are complete. In fact, each of them has virtues, or many of them have virtues. So what intelligent salespeople and intelligent sales organisations do is to use a blend of methodologies.
They will use a variety of questioning techniques. They will use a variety of approaches to how to constructively provoke the customer, relationship building, and so on. There is no single best way, there is no universally best sales methodology. If you slavishly follow one methodology you run the risk of being blindsided to some of their inevitable weaknesses.
Now the CRM question is a really interesting one, because regrettably I think the history of CRM really has its roots in more of a sales administration system for managers than a sales enablement system for the sales people themselves.
Some of the larger CRMs have made honourable but often ineffective attempts to become more of a fully-fledged sales effectiveness platform. But now a new wave of CRMs is emerging that provide flexible frameworks that guide the salespeople in making intelligent choices.
That’s a pretty dramatic architectural change. Traditional CRM are designed as repositories for data. The new wave of CRMs – like Membrain – are designed to support and drive effective behaviours.
By the way, I think it’s entirely possible to do both. But it’s way easier to start with a behavioural mindset and then look at the data you need in order to drive behaviour, rather than the other way around.
Michael Webb: Very interesting. Well, let’s make that the topic of our next discussion. I think it would be a topic that a lot of people would be interested in your perspective on, and in your practical experience on. Would that be alright?
Bob: Sure, happy to…
Michael Webb: Super. Well Bob, thank you very much. You have a wonderful perspective based on a lot of years of experience in a number of different industries so that you can see the challenges, not just to B2B salespeople, but of their organisations. So I really look forward to our next conversation.
Bob: Well, thank you, Michael. Equally, I very much appreciated and enjoyed the conversation, and I’d like to wish you, and everybody’s who’s listening, good selling.