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A Skeptical Look At The Dogma of Sales Effectiveness

After walking the hallways of business for over 25+years what is it that strikes me?  Nonsense. Specifically, I am struck by how much of what is accepted as the standard way to think about and do things, in business, strikes me as nonsense. It occurs to me, that some of the ‘best’ nonsense is labelled ‘best practice’.

The Nonsense of the Sales Pipeline and Sales Forecasting

There is a particularly delightful piece of nonsense, ‘best practice’, in the area of the sales pipeline and in particular sales forecasting.  Let’s start with disclosing what the ‘best practice’ is. From what I have seen it occurs to me that the ‘best practice’ is:

  • to break the sales pipeline process (some call it opportunity management) into stages and to associate a specific probability of success to each stage;
  • each opportunity, at whatever stage of the opportunity management process, has a revenue figure , an expected close date, and an associated probability attached to it;
  • the sales forecast (of how much revenue the sales force will close) is calculated from these opportunities – the revenue, the probability of successfully closing that opportunity, and the expected close date; and
  • each sales person is held to account for delivering the expected sales forecast figure from his pipeline.

This all sounds sensible if looked at on its own divorced from the real world. What shows up when you expose this ‘best practice’ to the real world? Let’s imagine that five vendors are pursuing the same sales opportunity ($1m) with MegaCorp and they are all using the same six stages to track and forecast this sales opportunity within their organisations.

  • Initial Contact – 0% (probability of successfully winning this opportunity)
  • Qualification – 20%
  • Proposal Submission – 50%
  • Presentation to Decision Maker – 80%
  • Contract Negotiation – 90%
  • Close – 100%

Now let’s assume that three of the five vendors have made the final cut and thus been invited to make a presentation to the decision maker.  What will show up in their sales forecasts?  Each of the vendors will be forecasting revenue of $800k.  And given that the probability is at 80% (so high) the unfortunate sales reps responsible for these opportunities are likely to find themselves committed (by the rules of their organisations ‘best practice’) to delivering this revenue.

Now let’s look at the situation. $1m is on the table. Three organisations are in the running for this prize. Each has an equal chance – 33.33% probability and so each should only be forecasting to win $333k.  Yet, each is forecasting $0.8m and collectively they are forecasting to win 3 x $0.8m = $2.4m.

Let’s assume, that two of the three vendors are invited to submit a contract for negotiation. What will be contained in the sales forecasts?  Each vendor will forecast $1m x 90% = $0.9m and collectively they will forecast $1.8m in revenues. What is the money on the table? It still remains at $1m.

It occurs to me that in the absence of having fixed the game in advance, the probability attached to an opportunity, at whatever stage, is (or should be) works out as follows (if one stays firmly in touch with the real world):

  • Probability of winning sales opportunity <= Deal size / No of vendors still in the running

It also occurs to me that if this way of accounting for opportunities was embraced then more sales people would record and track their opportunities rather than waiting to win/lose the opportunity and then going back and filling in the requite fields in the CRM system or Excel spreadsheet.

The Nonsense of Process

If there is a God in the world of business then it occurs to me that it is ‘Process’.  The taken for granted assumption is that there has to be a process for every piece of work that has to be done in an organisation. Why this insistence on process?  It occurs to me that folks in business have collapsed effectiveness/performance (generating the desired outcomes) with process (doing work through a prescribed set of steps and methods):

  • following process = generating the desired outcomes.

This is clearly not the case. And I say, it is especially not the case when it comes to effectiveness in the domain of sales and selling.  Yes, it is quite likely that training a green / novice / incompetent sales rep in process will result in an increase in his sales performance: he will close more deals.  No, it does not follow that process turns an average sales rep into a great one.  It is quite possible, even likely, the need to follow prescribed process creates unnecessary work, and gets in the way, of good sales people working sales opportunities and closing them.

Let me put it differently, if success in sales is so highly dependent on following a prescribed sales process then we should be able to take people who are great at following process and turning them into able sales folks.  Which folks in business are treating at following process?  How about the folks in Customer Services, or Field Services, or Finance, or Logistics, or Operations, or IT?  Having second thoughts?

It occurs to me that success in sales requires a certain way of being-in-the world. In part this way of being in the world involves how one relates to and is involved with people and the challenges/risks/anxiety involved in the world of selling.  If this is not your way of being-in-the-world then it is highly unlikely that you will excel at selling no matter how versed you are in the process or how skilled you are in the tools of selling.

Above and beyond this familiarity with people and ease with the anxiety of selling is attunement. What attunement? An attunement to the situation – the context – at hand: the economic environment, the company you are selling to, the people you are dealing with in chasing opportunities, the product/s you are selling, the organisation you work for, the competitors etc…

No amount of process, method, templates and tools can generate this attunement in and of themselves.  This attunement has to be earned through lived success and lived failure, through learning by doing.  This kind of attunement arrives only after one is scarred through real world experience on the ‘battlefield of life’.  Still wondering what I am talking about?  I invite you to read the following passage:

I think it was in Argentina that I turned professional. I had been on the road for a year; I had been very high and very low, and everywhere in between. The world no longer threatened me as it had; I felt I had the measure of it. 

…. Riding the bike was as natural as sitting on a chair. It scarcely tired me at all. I could pack and unpack the bike with the automatic familiarity of shaving, and I did not allow the prospect of it to annoy me.  The same was true for minor maintenance problems: a puncture, cleaning a chain, aligning the wheels, whatever it was. I did it without giving a thought to the inconvenience. The things were facts of life. I slept on the ground more often, and my bones began to arrange themselves accordingly…

I felt very much tried and seasoned, and no longer expected to make silly mistakes or confront unexpected hazards. I had also developed a battery of useful instincts. I knew when there were thieves around, when the bike had to be protected and when it was safe ….. I knew when to expect trouble from strangers, and how to defuse it. I knew what drivers of cars and lorries were going to do before they knew it themselves. At times I think I could even read the minds of stray dogs, though it was a rarity to see one on the highway that was not already a pulped carcass at the roadside

- Ted Simon, Jupiter’s Travels

And Finally

I leave you with my assertion: a lot of that which is sacred in business is nonsense. What it takes to see this nonsense is to empty oneself of the theory, of ‘best practice’, of the taken for granted way of thinking about and doing things, and to look at the situation with fresh eyes:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” 

- Marcel Proust

The Dark Side of Using NPS as a Performance Management Tool

Let’s leave aside the theoretical aspects and arguments related to the suitability of using NPS. Instead, let’s consider the implications of using NPS as a performance management tool rather than simply as an indicator which tells us who well we are doing, as an organisation, in building meaningful relationships with customers.

Every human activity produces both things that we want – “goods” – and things we don’t want – “bads”.

- Garrett Hardin, Filters Against Folly

It occurs to me that when we use NPS as a performance management tool we act on the people in the organisation, we act on customers, we alter the balance of power between the multiple parties. And we inject high does of fear and greed into the rich tapestry of human interactions.  

This is how we end up generating the “bads” – the dark side of using NPS as a performance management tool.  Let’s get specify and look at the dark side. What shows up?

  1. Customer facing employees (sales, service) and their managers game the system to generate high NPS scores;

  2. Some customers are either ‘bribed’ and-or ‘pressured’ to give high scores;

  3. Some customers, especially the more powerful ones in B2B, exercise their new-found power to extract concessions – free ‘products’, more discounts, credits, special treatment – from the sales reps and account managers; and

  4. Some sales reps and account managers ‘give away’ more than they need to’ in order to play safe and assure high NPS scores.  This ‘giving away’ tends to be in the region of services which do not directly impact on the revenue figures and commission cheque of the sale rep.

I leave you to decide whether the “goods” generated by using NPS as a performance management tool outweigh the “bads” that I have shared with you.  I do assure you that points 3 and 4 above are not just theoretical – this behaviour is occurring.

Next time you are planning an intervention in the rich web of human relationships get together a diverse group of people, including those who are likely to be impacted, and explore this question: what is likely to happen – today and over the course of time – after we make this intervention?

Are Your Sure You See The World Through Your Customer’s Eyes?

From CRM to CEM: is it as easy as it sounds?

With CRM’ organisations took an’ inside-out’ approach to doing business with customers, though I doubt they knew that is what they were doing when they were doing it.  When this didn’t work out as planned, some shifted to advocating  an ‘outside-in’ approach and called it Customer Experience Management.  I get that when it comes to writing or talking it is easy to shift from ‘inside-out’ to ‘outside-in’.  What is it like in practice?  What does it take to truly see the world through the eyes of our customers?

My experience is that really takes something to see the world through the eyes of another.  My experience is that it is a huge ask to experience the world as another experiences it.  My experience is that it is all to easy to be persuade oneself that one has shifted from an ‘inside-out’ view to an ‘outside-in’ view and yet be firmly stuck in an ‘inside-out’ view.

Aravind Eye Hospital: where ‘free’ costs 100 rupees!

What does it really take to see the world through the eyes of our customers?  Allow me to share this example which I came across in a wonderful book, which I throughly recommend reading, called Infinite Vision:

While giving away free services might appear to be easy, Aravind’s experience proved to the contrary. “In the early days, we didn’t know better,”……”We would go to the villages, screen patients, and tell those who needed surgery to come to the hospital for free treatment. Some showed up, but a lot of them did not. It was really puzzling to us. Why would someone turn down the chance to see again?” Fear, superstition, and cultural indifference can all be very real barriers to accessing medical care, but Aravind’s leaders were convinced that there was more to it than that. After a few more years and several ineffective pilots of door-to-door counseling, they arrived at the crux of the issue. “Enlightenment came when we talked to a blind beggar,”….. When pressed on why he had not shown up to have his sight restored, the man replied, “You told me to come to the hospital. To do that, I would have to pay bus fare then find money for food and medicines. Your ‘free’ surgery costs me 100 rupees.”

…….. The research found that transport and sustenance costs, along with lost wages for oneself and accompanying family member, were daunting consideration for the rural patient. Aravind learned a valuable lesson: just because people need something you are offering for free, it does not mean they will take you up on it.  You have to make it viable for them to access your service in the context of their realities.

Aravind Eye Hospital: it is not enough to see the world through customer eyes, you have to be moved to act

So that is the first step, genuinely seeing the world through the context of the lives of your customers.  And it is makes no difference at all unless your organisations acts on what it has learnt.  What did the folks at Aravind do?  Let’s  read some more from the book:

So Aravind retrofitted its outreach services to address the chief barriers. In addition to the free screening at the eye camps, patients were given a free ride to one of its base hospitals, where they received surgery, accommodation, food, postoperative medication, return transport, and a follow up visit in their village, all free of charge……

What difference did this make?  Once more from the book:

“Once we did that, of course, our expenses went up,”…… “But more importantly, our acceptance rate for surgery went up from roughly 5 percent to about 80 percent.” For an organisation aspiring to rid the world of needless blindness, this was tremendously significant….

Aravind: two things are critical

What do the folks at Aravind say about this experience of theirs? Let’s listen and learn:

“In hindsight, we found two things are critical,”…..”You have to focus on the nonuser, and you have to passionately own the problem. You can address the barriers only when you own, not shift, the problems.” Paradoxically, that mindset led to what is perhaps the most collaborative outreach system the world of eye care has ever seen.

And finally

How does your organisation measure up?  Do you really get how your organisation, your offer, shows up for your prospects?  Do you really get how your customers experience your organisation across the customer journey?  Is your leadership committed to doing what it takes to make it easy for prospects to buy from you? And for customers to keep doing business with you?  Is your organisation up for passionately owning the problem or is it designed to hide and/or shift the problems on to customers and others?

 

How does digital impact strategy, marketing, and the customer experience?

I say digital fundamentally disrupts everything: value propositions, communications, the customer experience

“What do you think of digital?” That was the question that the interviewer at the Technology for Marketing & Advertising conference asked me. The bulk of my customer experience work for the last two years has centred on/around digital. So here is the answer I gave:

Digital is disruptive. It disrupts the value proposition, communications with and between customers, the customer experience, and the business model  I say every business has to get to grips with digital and the transformation it engenders in these four areas. Failing to do so is a one way ride to oblivion especially for retail businesses.

I went on to say:

The days of putting a warehouse with a glass front and minimum wage employees, who are generally clueless, on a high street, are fast running out.  Why?  Because if it can be bought digitally then it will be bought digitally. You cannot beat digital for research, for price comparisons, for ease, for convenience and even for instant access to the product/service – for some categories of goods and services. And if you get your logistics right then many customers can wait a day or two to get what they ordered online.

Which means that If your value proposition and the associated customer experience is not good enough to charge an entrance fee then you should close up shop. Why? Because you will simply end up being a showroom for a digital master like Amazon.

Michael Schrage says “Invest in your customers more than you brand”

It isn’t often that I come across a piece that speaks to me the way that Michael Schrage’s piece speaks to me.  I say that if you are in the game of business, the game of customer-centricity, or the game of customer experience then read and memorise that which he says.  For my part, I want to pull out his wisdom as it relates to the impact of digital on business strategy, marketing, sales, service and the customer experience.

Digital technologies push firms to recognize, rethink and reorganise how they should make their customers smarter and more confident…How are you using digital media to help your best customers and prospects to better educate themselves?  How are you making them smarter and more capable? Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, IKEA and IBM have answers to that question. What’s yours?

The distinctions that make a difference will be value-added aducation and advice.  After decades of complaints about the poor quality of its instructions and documentation, for example, Ikea set up a YouTube channel…showing people how to easily put together its most complex furniture.

The advice/aducation marketing challenge comes from redefining advertising as an investment that makes your customers more valuable to you, not just an investment that makes your brand more valuable to your customers…

The digital and digitizing future belongs to the best aducators and advisors who make clients, customers, prospects measurably smarter and authentically more confident.  That a challenge a David Ogilvy, Jay Chiat and Rosser Reeves would appreciate.

Credibility comes from commitment to facilitate decision, not calculate persuasion. “We [Amazon] make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.”

Bezos’ bet is that relevant recommendations and reviews – good advice – are better brand investments than digital sales pitchesClose the deal by being openly helpful and helpfully open, not by “selling better.” Amazon transformed customer behaviours and expectations by consistently favouring innovative “advice” over sales-oriented “advertising” and promotion.

Sales don’t drive the UX; they’re it’s happy byproducts. That digital design sensibility has yet to seep into marketing’s mainstream…..

And finally

If you are busy firmly planted in the call-centre working on improving the ‘customer experience’ then I say get that you are at best improving customer service. Not the customer experience. You are mired in operations and as such you may just be missing out on the bigger picture – the opportunity and the challenge.

If like me, you are fundamentally a strategist and you passion lies in value propositions and customer experience innovation,  I say get passionate about digital. Learn digital. Use digital. Why?  Because digital enables transformations in the value proposition, communications with and between customers, the customer experience, and the business model.

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