Learning [Fast + Continuously] Improves B2B Sales Productivity

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co-written with John Holland, co-Founder, CustomerCentric Selling

Some reflections on lessons we’ve been learning from our buyer-guided approach to business development.

First, most folks doing business development aren’t having nearly the success day-to-day that they think they’re having. Buyers are more inclined to be encouraging to a salesperson than honest. When viewed through the verifiable lens of what buyers *do* as an outcome of conversations, sellers aren’t creating as much value as they think they are. The intonations in buyers’ voices can be misleading. There’s work to be done in honing business development practices that elicit measurable, positive, buyer reactions.

Second, when armed with a ‘happy face’ view of their own productivity, sellers may inadvertently sabotage their odds of success. Oliver Berkemen notes in a recent article in The Guardian, “positive fantasies about the future” diminish the odds of positive outcomes. “[S]pending time and energy focusing on how well things could go … reduces most peoples’ motivation to achieve them. Experimental subjects who were encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly high-achieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less.” If it’s all feeling really good, don’t be surprised if quarter-end it doesn’t look good.

Third, small failures in business development practices that can quickly be identified are invaluable when sellers are of a mind to learn from their mistakes. The odds of this improve when failures occur experimentally, in ways that are instructive and recoverable. One example of this that we’ve seen work: calling into titles where access to a conversation is fairly easy and the costs of failure are relatively contained [with failure, the seller loses the chance at a small deal and, in doing so, doesn’t compromise their chances of a larger enterprise deal]. When the cost of a mistake can be tiny, the fear of failing abates.

Fourth, comfort is the enemy of trying new things. See point one.

By contrast, our most successful clients tend to be the ones always trying new Business Development tactics. They’re uncomfortable being comfortable with their successes. Their testing is endless and most often done in fast, small, batches. They’re learning. Fast. Continously. It shows.

Fifth, sellers are human. When they fail, they’re inclined to deny their mistakes, cause more damage as they try to erase them, or convince themselves that their mistake doesn’t matter. As Tim Harford notes in Adapt, “our capacity to reinterpret our past as brilliant is a very deep one”. Denial occurs because it’s hard to separate our error from our sense of self-worth. Self-destructive behaviors occur because we compound our losses by trying to compensate for them. We see our failures through rose colored glasses by remembering past mistakes as though they were triumphs, thereby confusing failures with successes.

Sixth, we all need a critic – someone who can get us to see: I am not a failure, but I have made a mistake. Such critics don’t just arrive with metrics; they bring sobering, well intentioned, helpful, perspectives. They’re like what Tim Harford describes as “a ‘validation squad’ who will back you but also tell it like it is. People with good judgment in other parts of their lives who care about you and will give you their honest opinion with no strings attached.” While it’s early to say with certainty, we are seeing sellers that are responsive to reality checks and coaching from outside their organization. One of the keys is gathering indisputable buyer-generated data on results. Without such data, sellers will spend many cycles refusing to acknowledge any deficiency in their efforts.

Seventh, sellers are more inclined to get outside their comfort zone and try new things when the environment they’re working in fosters experimentation and encourages successes that start with failure. The beauty in this, as Harford notes: “the process of correcting mistakes [becomes] more liberating than the mistakes themselves are crushing.” One example: at the start of this past quarter, one of our clients identified a title that, in their view, they should never call on. From fast successes earned from early experiments, that same title is now the focus of their latest bus dev efforts.

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Minutes after this was posted, Bruce Waltuck posted his latest thoughts on Adaptive Organizations [Towards Mastery in the Moment of Now]. If what we’ve noted, here, seems too abstract [or negative], I’d encourage you to consider Bruce’s musings.

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