Winning enterprise software sales deals is not an individual activity but a team pursuit.
The fact is that at this point in the history of the commercial application software industry most competing products do what they’re intended to do. Few products fail to perform; few perform markedly better than the rest. And because so many products and services compete for a limited number of buyers, suppliers advertise that they can do everything their competitors can do, only faster, cheaper, more effectively. They’re all singing that song from Annie Get Your Gun: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”
How do software companies differentiate themselves from all the others? Let me count the ways. By building in more and more functional capabilities; by backing what they’re selling with top-notch customer service; by hosting them on the hottest technology platforms; by making their products and related services more comprehensive to handle more complex customer issues; by insisting that the total cost of ownership is less; by proving that the time to value is quicker; by giving their products a broader footprint to meet larger lists of customer requirements.
The bigger and more complex our applications become, the less of it even the most articulate, intelligent salesperson can communicate. Explaining and managing that level of information and complexity to the different constituencies within the prospect’s organization requires the assistance of application specialists, business consultants, product marketers, corporate executives, developers and other experts. And that demands taking a team approach to selling. If your team sells by the seat of your pants, you aren’t driving a sales campaign—you’re driving bumper cars.
Team selling isn’t new. Its growth has been spurred not only by the proliferation and complexity of goods and services but by many other trends over the years: multiple and diverse buying influences, user empowerment in organizations, globalization, commoditization, economic uncertainty, and companies springing up and crashing down almost randomly. It all adds up to a hard reality: we can’t do all the selling alone.
The Company Team
The team we’re going to talk about is not just the people who work directly for or with you. It’s much broader than that. In effect, your sales team includes people inside and outside your organization, business partners, consultants, people in other organizations, even people in other industries. As a sales professional charged with harnessing the skills and energy of this diverse crew of workers — some of whom aren’t even aware they’re on your team — you are, in effect, the CEO of an outfit we’ll call “Virtual Sales Team Inc.” And VST’s mission is to deliver to your real company the revenue it needs to achieve its business plan.
Who’s on your virtual sales team? The roster can include (inside your real company) the CEO and other executives, customer support reps, on-site service personnel, engineers, user interface designers, developers, domain experts, cost accountants, marketing personnel, consultants, suppliers with complimentary products, other sales reps within your own company, attorneys, one or more current customers, and even sales consultants who can give you insight into how to win the business.
But Virtual Sales Team Inc. encompasses much more than just your inside team. There is competitive advantage in cultivating relationships and gaining knowledge inside the company you’re selling to. Think of your virtual corporation as including the prospect’s team — the evaluation committee, decision makers, steering committees, executives, users, middle management, technical approvers, purchasing and human resources personnel, finance and legal people, external consultants, administrative assistants, and of course, IT. Yes, that’s right, they’re on the other side of the bargaining table — but with knowledge, insight, organization and political skills, you can enlist them in support of your cause—you can even get them to sell for you.
The Making of a Winning Team
As CEO of Virtual Sales Team Inc., you’ve got an awesome challenge ahead of you. First of all, most of your team members are not under your direct authority or supervision. You have to understand the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors of all the sales resources available to you, no matter what it says on their business card. You’ll need well-honed relationship-building skills to get these team members lined up behind you and focused on your common purpose. If, for example, you need an expert to tell your prospect how your company provides tech support to its customers, but the person available for that task gets defensive and rude when questioned, you have some work to do. You’ll need to coach that person before the meeting, or if that fails, bring in someone else. Don’t leave it up to chance.
Like any good manager, you must learn to depend on other people to achieve your goals. With this challenge in mind, how can you better manage your virtual sales team? According to my friend, sales expert Steve Waterhouse, team selling will succeed if the following components are part of your sales process:
- Effective communication. Make sure everybody is in on the plan—early. You can’t imagine how often this doesn’t happen. (Heading out the door on Friday afternoon, the sales rep says to an application consultant, “By the way, we’ve got a presentation in Duluth Monday morning. Have a nice weekend.” What’s his problem? Is he grossly incompetent, operating without a plan, or is he simply a poor communicator?)
- Team understanding of the mission. Every member of the virtual sales team must be aware of exactly what your sales objective is: what you are committing to sell, when you are going to sell it, and for how much. Each team member should also understand that every tactic has an objective of its own and where and what they are contributing to the total plan.
- A clear understanding of each member’s role. The only thing more embarrassing than asking the prospect the same question twice because Smith didn’t check with Jones, is a prospect asking two people in your company the same question and getting two different answers.
- Planning. Selling enterprise software is a complex mission. You need to be recording your tactical plan somewhere—hopefully in a CRM application—so that it can be shared by your team. You might also find project management software useful if you’re working a complex deal with a lot of resources, tasks, and critical deadlines. Whatever planning tools you use, be sure to keep your team members well informed.
- Smart use of your team members’ knowledge and skills. Know what all team members are capable of, and use these assets at appropriate times. Need to get one of your prospect’s decision makers on your side? Bring in your company’s cost accountant to help her with financial justification. Or perhaps a strategically timed phone call from your well-known, world-class customer would get the attention of one of your prospect’s key executives.
- Good leadership. When you earn the prospect’s confidence by establishing your competence and credibility, you’re well on your way to making the sale. In the same way, when you earn your team’s trust with strong, fair leadership, they will buy into your plan and follow your vision to sales success.
- Focus. If plan your sales campaigns and communicate the plan to all team members, focus will not become an issue. Your sales team will commit to a coordinated effort that makes winning the deal an achievable goal.
- Support and motivation of team members. This one takes work, empathy, and an understanding of how your company’s departments function. Except for your sales support staff, most of your team members have other responsibilities, of which helping to win sales is not high priority. In fact, some of the people who may be essential to your success may be reluctant to help you because they believe it will increase their risk or their workload.
- Rewarding those who assist the selling effort. Some companies give sales award trips and other recognition to non-sales staff that have helped win business. My hat goes off to these firms. This is a great motivator, as well as a chance for engineering, delivery, finance, and other personnel to see where revenues that pay for their work come from. At presidents’ clubs presentations, again and again I’ve seen sales professionals lavish more attention on those who helped them win than on other sales reps. That’s smart selling.
- Active participation and collaboration. Even though the responsibility for winning or losing the sale falls on you, all team members need to feel they are part of a continuing collaboration. Invite and encourage their participation in brainstorming sessions, information gathering, and meeting prospects’ requirements. Actively solicit their opinions and guidance.
- Integrity. Showing leadership, vision, and guts will gain you the trust and support of others. Make promises you can’t keep or lie to your team or your prospect, and you’ll go it alone.
- Conflict resolution. Yes, you’re the owner of that sales campaign, but this doesn’t mean you can dictate. Be ready for the conflicts that are sure to arise with members of your team. How will you deal with them? One way to keep conflicts from derailing a sales campaign is to recruit an executive as a sponsor early in the game — one whose trust you will win with your leadership skills and competence, and who will back you in the end.Conflicts between team members will arise from time to time. Personal and professional differences make them inevitable — differences in job descriptions, business knowledge, experience, incentive plans, geographic locations, schedules, personalities, outside commitments, and communications style, to name but a few.
The most common conflict is perhaps between those who sell and those who have to implement. I’ve seen this happen again and again. Sales complains that service managers are stalling, refusing to sign off on a deal that would put them over quota. Managers responsible for implementing the product complain that sales overpromises, leaving them to face angry customers. The lack of trust can bleed over into customer meetings and presentations, giving prospects the impression that the company can’t get its act together and perhaps can’t be relied on to meet its commitments.
What can you do about it? Building trust and support will take time, but it can be done. The best solution is to review and apply Waterhouse’s critical components — the items you just read. And the best place to start applying them is in team meetings, where planning and communication take a front seat.
Early in the campaign, the important thing is to get all your team members on the same page, share available knowledge, and plan ways to gather other required information. The first few meetings should be formal, with a printed agenda, including clear goals and time constraints (showing respect for team members’ time). Their objective is to determine the prospect’s requirements, based on research, preliminary conversations, and even RFPs, and what the best way is to find out what the prospect isn’t telling you, or perhaps doesn’t know, about his company’s business needs. This process, of course, is called “discovery.”
It’s useful during discovery to categorize by type the information you need to collect. But it’s also helpful to think in terms of which team member is in the best position to get it; people who don’t have “sales” on their business card are often the most effective intelligence operatives.
Know what your customer is buying before you begin selling.
When you’re meeting with the prospect early in the discovery phase of your campaign, it’s better to ask questions than to present. Try to bring along a business, domain, or product expert. Agree ahead of time what areas of questioning you and your support resources will pursue and, if you can, prepare some crucial questions. The best pre-sales consultants and support people I know have made questioning a fine art. They impress the prospect just by asking questions — insightful, probing, open-ended questions based on their knowledge of the industry, the prospect, and the prospect’s competition. What a great way to differentiate your team and build credibility with the prospect.
Meetings and Presentations
Every meeting or presentation with a prospect warrants a plan, even if it’s only five sentences long. It’s really your sales plan in microcosm: (1) situation assessment, (2) objectives (yours and theirs), (3) strategy, and (4) tactics. You and your team members must understand all four components.
What are your roles during a meeting or presentation? That depends on you, your team, the audience, what your objectives are, where you are in your selling cycle, and the venue. The first thing you must do is prepare, prepare, prepare. Here are some pointers:
- Before the meeting, contact the prospect to come up with a mutually acceptable agenda and objectives.
- For any presentation or demonstration, rehearse. Check your PC, screen-saver timeout, batteries or power cord, and room lights. Make sure you’ve got the right version of the presentation. In case your PC crashes, have hard copies of your slides. In fact, plan for a rehearsal the afternoon before the presentation. At least a week in advance, give each team member a packet containing the sales plan and a checklist of things that could go wrong. By showing your concern with the details, you will motivate them not only to attend rehearsal but to be prepared for anything.
- Discuss with your team what objections might be raised and who will handle them. Do circumstances suggest they should be handled during the presentation? Or can you still be credible if you respond to the issues immediately after the presentation or even days later?Here are some points above and beyond what most reps do at a meeting:
- Execute the usual introductory steps with a new level of precision. The tone of the meeting gets set during the first few minutes. Your prospect is buying technology. Sloppy technology doesn’t work. Sloppy meetings leave a bad impression.
- Address specific points that are crucial to the prospect’s business. Be brief, but not generic; you can’t differentiate yourself by being generic. If one of your team members has tested the points in advance with someone who will be attending the meeting, you increase the likelihood of a successful meeting.
- If your team members are strong enough, let them facilitate part of the meeting or presentation. Remember, though, you own that sales opportunity — not your team or your manager or your CEO. Your team’s actions should communicate this to the prospect.
- Even if one person takes notes on a flip chart, have all your team members take notes during the event. Questions, concerns, ideas, action items, and especially audience comments should be captured for your debriefing immediately after the event.Tier-Level Selling
Sometimes the seller’s or buyer’s company will require contacts to be made within a single level — your boss to your contact’s boss, VP to VP, and so forth. Adhering to this type of policy requires tier-level selling. It’s common in parts of Europe and Asia, where calling on your peer’s boss is considered inappropriate. For big ticket sales in the United States, the same holds true; the prospect’s CEO or CFO will usually want to establish a relationship with his counterpart in your company. This should not be something to avoid, but there are pitfalls you need to be aware of when executive management gets directly involved in your deal.
You need to communicate to the exec — as diplomatically as possible — that he is working for you on the sales opportunity, not the reverse. The best way to do this is to present a complete, well-thought-out strategic sales plan that specifies when, where, and how the exec will be involved. When you’ve demonstrated that you’ve accurately assessed the sales opportunity and designed appropriate objectives, strategy, and tactics, the upper-level manager is more likely to follow your lead.
Tier-level selling should be strategic and proactive, not the result of a lack of planning or effective teamwork.
Too few sales teams bother with this important step. It’s usually, “Whew, that’s over. Let’s get to the airport and see if we can catch an early flight.” Here is where your leadership is crucial. You need to let your team know in advance that there will be a debriefing, and you need to manage the session for best results. It’s really not that difficult to answer several crucial questions (and take one further action):
1. Did we achieve our objectives, and the prospect’s, for the meeting?
2. If not, where did we fall short, and why? What do we need to do about it? Is damage control required? Who will follow up? When, how, and with whom?
3. If we did achieve the objectives, what could we have done better?
4. What new issues were raised? What do we need to do about them? Who will follow up? When, how, and with whom?
5. Review and validate the next step(s) in the sales plan.
As an individual sales rep, your skills and knowledge can bring you your share of business. But if you can organize and manage an effective virtual sales team to execute a team-oriented sales plan, keeping your eye on all the variables discussed here, you’ll have gained a key component of sustainable competitive advantage.
Remember, a critical component of successful enterprise software selling is doing an effective job as CEO of your virtual sales team.
Specializing in large, enterprise sales opportunities, Dave is much in demand as a speaker, consultant, coach, and trainer. He has worked with companies small and large, from $5 million in sales to the Fortune 500, including IBM, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Invensys plc, NEC, AMS, ALLTEL, Pitney Bowes, Siemens, McGraw Hill, Standard & Poor’s and Bayer.