Salespeople! Do You Think . . . or Do You Know?


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“Do you think . . . or do you know?”

Gulp! What sales person or sales manager hasn’t faced that question? Or others, such as “What outcomes do our customers require?” “What will it take to close the deal?” “What do we have to do to get the prospect to the next step?” and “Will we make our quarterly goal?”

Do you think . . . or do you know? Wrong answers can and will be used against you. OK, maybe that’s harsh, but can we agree that wrong answers don’t help?

Yet, if we remove all conjecture, assumption, and plain, old-fashioned optimism from selling, I’m not sure what would be left. Vending machines, maybe. One thing is clear: uncertainty is the enemy of successful sales outcomes, and we acknowledge that fact when we discuss sales funnels, send a forecast to the CFO, or adjust a target sales pipeline value. Every sales day, unexpected stuff happens, and we consume lots of mental energy wondering whether that stuff will hit the revenue fan.

That’s energy wasted. Why? Because many executives don’t confront uncertainty. They know it’s there. They accept it. But they don’t manage it. As one senior manager, Jason, famously told me, “Andy, when a VP of Sales doesn’t make his number, we fire him!” How unfortunate. A tactic that only a Theory-X manager would love–just don’t call it knowledge transfer.

If Jason has a management book in the works, it will probably be a very quick read. But he could manage his revenue problems better by thinking about risk. If Jason asked “What drives opportunities off the rails?” he would find two key risks that demand his attention because they have high impact on sales: fog and friction. Managing them is harder than simply saying “you’re fired!”, but far less gut wrenching.

What are Fog and Friction, anyhow?

Fog is poor information, and friction is what happens when things don’t go according to plan. If you drove to work this morning, you’re already an expert. You experienced fog and friction when someone unexpectedly swerved into your lane as you were looking elsewhere–perhaps at your mobile device. These risks are painfully common in business, and they are the skull and crossbones of Successful Sales Outcomes.

Here are the components of information fog:

Visibility: the key facts and data aren’t present because they’re inaccessible, undiscovered, or are of unknown importance. “No one on the buying committee will share how they will evaluate our proposal.”

Granularity: the information lacks necessary detail. “Our Average Prospect wants a solution that’s easy to install and easy to use.”

Timeliness: facts and information aren’t available when they’re needed. “We typically get detailed customer preference information in a post-sale review, but we could sure use it during the buying process.”

Accuracy: the information isn’t accurate, and therefore can’t be trusted. “Our marketing databases are never synchronized with the latest sales information.”

Cut fog, cut risk. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal (What Makes a Company Good at IT? April 25th, 2011) “companies that had the data they needed and used it to make decisions (instead of relying more on intuition and expertise) had the highest productivity and profitability. Specifically, the most data-driven companies had 4% higher productivity and 6% higher profits than the average. . .”


“No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy,” said Helmuth von Moltke, a 19th century officer in the Prussian army. Substitute customer for enemy and the saying rings just as true for sales. (Keeping the word battle seems equally appropriate for either warfare or sales, but if you’re a stickler for semantics, change it to account.)

What do we do when account plans are overcome by events? How do we respond when unanticipated situations occur? Not by acquiescence, saying “the customer has all the power, anyway.” The sales equivalent of saying “I agree that smoking is unhealthy. Now pass me the ashtray.” Even if the all-powerful buyer archetype is true, you won’t keep the CFO happy, because you have simply accepted your risk—not managed it.

How can you manage friction? Start by seeing the world through your prospect’s eyes. According to Tony Zambito, an expert on buying personas, “a company’s engagement strategy should be built on three solid foundations:

Having an outside-in perspective on engagement with buyers. Adopting a view that buyers today choose the types and levels of (engagement) that are available to them.

Attaining the requisite qualitative buyer insight into not only the avenues of engagements that social buyer personas prefer, but also how and why they wish to engage with their preferred choices.

Willingness to place more autonomy in the hands of buyers today. This statement is the one that seems to cause the biggest hurdle to creating an engagement strategy that is outside-in. ” The notion that as salespeople we can “get the prospect to (fill in the blank)” creates significant friction.

If you’re unclear about which outcomes your customers value, if you aren’t sure how they buy, and if you’re confused about which resources and activities contribute to successful buying and selling results, you’re past knee-deep in risk, right out of the gate! Ask yourself, “Do you think . . . or do you know?” Getting the answer will cut uncertainty, lower risk, and improve your financial results.

Additional resources:

To download the free e-book that describes the connection between selling risk and productivity, Improving Sales Productivity, please click here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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