Context Matters

My Blackberry Is Not Working!” is one of the most brilliant sketches, especially when it comes to context. Imagine a fruit and vegetable shop. A customer comes in the shop, starts complaining that his BlackBerry wouldn’t work. Then, he puts a piece of fruit on the table. …
You get the picture. In this case it’s fun–but not a successful sale. Being out of context can be even worse: Imagine you are driving at 140 mph on a pretty wet highway at night. That’s driving out of context with a high risk of crashing due to aquaplaning.

“We don’t sell out of context.” I hear you. … But wait a minute. Let’s see why context in sales matters more than ever and where the challenges are.

Our research says that 89 percent of top-performing sales organizations clearly understand their customers’ issues before they propose a solution to solve their problems. Doing so requires a deep understanding of the customer’s specific context, because customers don’t buy products or services. They buy the value they get from a provider’s capabilities to fix a problem, to accomplish their goals, or to avoid potential problems.

This is why customer context matters in every single interaction. This is why the customer context along the customer journey has to be a major design point regarding selling methodology, sales enablement and execution.

Nevertheless, many customers still complain that sales professionals are very knowledgeable about their own products and company, but not sufficiently knowledgeable about the specific customer’s industry and specific role and challenges, or how to approach the customer.

There seems to be a gap. A variety of challenges must be considered:

  • A generic foundation of customer context can be prepared by sales enablement or marketing in various forms and shapes, ideally in content modules that are easy to customize. This covers all information describing the conditions of a certain market/industry, typical roles and personas you have to deal with, their typical business challenges and patterns, and how to approach them.
  • The situational customer context, which makes the real difference, requires salespeople. It requires that they know where to find the context data and–even more important–how to adopt the generic findings effectively to the specific selling situation. This is why providing content on context is not enough. As long as people don’t know how to use it effectively, it doesn’t create any value.
  • Frontline sales managers have to coach their team members the right way. This is a very powerful key to increasing sales productivity that is often overlooked. As context is changing along the customer journey, it’s important that coaching on specific opportunities is always focused on understanding the changing context picture in order to completely understand the implications and to take the right actions.

Context is the opposite of working with assumptions. Context is the opposite of guessing. Context is about getting precise and specific. Understanding and applying customer context is a prerequisite to providing valuable perspectives to your customers in order to win their business.

This post was written for TopSalesWorld, Feb Magazine, and published @ MillerHeiman Blog

Women in Sales – Strong Relationships, Value Creation and Collaboration

Women in Sales Awards, November 5th, judging day in London! Throwing light on successful women in sales, who are still a rare species, especially in the technology industry, is a very worthwhile initiative and deserves our support, if we are really serious with gender collaboration and role models. That’s why I agreed immediately, when Afi Ofori, Zars Media’s agile managing director asked me earlier this year to act as a judge for the first WIS Awards. Women from all over Europe were nominated by their companies in different categories and industries, more on that here. All about the judges, click here.

So far, I didn’t write specifically about women in sales. I was always more focused on the question “What are A-Players doing differently and what can we learn from them to improve entire teams?”

Nevertheless, I’m more than aware of the differences between women and men at the work place and the challenges of successful gender collaboration in general. Over many years in different industries, building several teams in different consulting, sales and sales enablement roles, I could always prove in facts and figures, how quickly performance and outcomes increased in mixed teams.

What were my expectations regarding top women in sales, their specific success factors, based on my own sales perspective and my sales enablement perspective? What would they do differently, and what would be the same compared to top sales men? The key words in my mind were: Attunement, empathy, meaning, collaboration and relationship building.

Let’s see what I learned. Overall, in many industries, and in different sales roles, these main success factors were always the same:

  • Value creation first, early along the customer’s journey:
    Not a single sales women said, that she would sell a product. All these top sales women were focused on how to solve customer problems and how to help them to master their business challenges. One account executive in the technology sales category said “I almost never talk about the technology we provide. I use my relationships to get a deep understanding of their underlying business problems. For me, the only way to create specific value for them. And that’s why they see me as a partner, not as a supplier.” Many of these top women were focused on finding a specific area, where they could create unique value for their customers, just based on their intuition. What we always find with A Players: They do the right things, but it’s really hard for them, what they did exactly and how. Ask Michael Schumacher, why he was such a brilliant Formula 1 pilot. He will always have a hard time to explain his genius.
  • Collaboration – internally and externally:
    In all my interviews, collaboration was a key success factor. First, collaboration internally across the value chain, especially with sales operations, service management, product management and delivery. “I know there are process gates where I have to handover to other teams. I do this, but I also make sure, that I never delegate my customer’s outcome, because I own it.” On collaboration across the customer’s network, all these top sales women, like any A-Player, enjoyed to increase and to develop their customer network, especially toward the lines of business, simply to create more value. “Because I need so many stakeholders to help them to make a decision, I collaborate with them across different functions to create context and to create consensus.”
  • Strong relationships – leading the customer network:
    Even if there are voices out there who want to tell us, that relationships are no longer that relevant, all these top sales women – and they all had brilliant quota overachievements year by year – built their success on strong relationships, value-based relationships. There was not a single woman who denied the relevance of strong relationships for their sales success. All these top sales women created and maintained deep, strategic relationships focused on long-term value creation and based on providing new perspectives and context in an increasingly complex buying environment, where buyers are not always better informed, but often still confused, but on a higher level. “The value, I actually create for my customers is to provide context and perspective across the customer’s network”, and “I crack new accounts the same way, I build my relationship network across different functions and hierarchies”. Mentoring was an additional, very interesting aspect. “I really enjoy to be a mentor within my customer networks. This is how I help them to develop a shared vision of success”.
    That’s female leadership. Excellent.

To sum up a great initiative, which will end December 3 with a fantastic dinner at The Savoy, London, to honor the winners in each category, what else needs to be mentioned?

First, attitude is the foundation of success, not only in sales. All these women proved full commitment, a very strong focus to overachieve their goals regularly, they gave their best in each situation and all the time, and all of them were always fully responsible for their successes and their failures. Nobody ever blamed the economy, the weather, the politics, the customers, the CRM, the sales process, their managers or whatsoever. All found their own way to give their very best and to win on a given Formula 1 course – and they proved that they are absolutely brilliant “sales pilots”.

Second, I was really surprised how humble all these women were, when it came to the question “Why should I win this award?” It was a very female approach to answer: always the team was named first, just as they hadn’t done anything…
Sheryl Sandberg talked about this interesting phenomena. Ladies, just imagine an man’s answer… Your outstanding performance can just be stated as it is: Brilliant. Period.

I’m looking forward to the future of women in sales in general and awards like this one. It would be great to see an award for women and for men and both on a global level.
One can dream. And I’d feel much honored to be a judge again…


Why GoToCustomer Means Simplicity

GoToCustomer – let’s discuss, how this approach can lead to simplicity!

GoToCustomer is first and foremost a consequent way of thinking and designing your sales system with the customers at the core.

The customers are your central design point. Thinking this way, thinking GoToCustomer, is the most important prerequisite, before you even start to design any kind of framework, processes or enablement services.

A GoToCustomer framework is your foundation, especially in a complex sales environment. The customer’s journey is your design point for all enablement and coaching services. All seller/buyer related interactions are mapped to the customer’s journey with clear milestones. All internal decisions, every sales organizations has to make (e.g. opportunity assessments, resource allocation, delivery checks etc.) are also mapped to the customer’s journey – not the other way around.

It sounds simple. And in fact, it is. But to get there is hard work. It requires consequent, thoughtful execution and change management.

Executing a GoToCustomer strategy based on such a framework can become a challenging endeavor, depending on your organization’s culture.

“We need specific content for specific sales roles”, “content for trainings is completely different”. “I have to create this content, it’s on my check list” and the list goes on and on. I cannot remember how often I got those requests, from many different groups. They have all one element in common: They refer to internal design points, such as sales roles, check lists and products. They don’t refer to the customer. For me, it seems to be an “inside-out muscle memory”.

You can start to work immediately on those requests, which will put you in a reactive enablement role, reinforcing the current state, but not really executing your strategy. The second way is more challenging, but it will lead you toward your goal: executing your GoToCustomer strategy. Discuss these requests with the relevant stakeholders in your organization and develop a deep understanding on the underlying, real problems. Change people’s perspective in these conversations from inside-out to outside-in: What’s the sales outcome, people want to achieve, at which stage of the customer’s journey with which set of stakeholders?

Over time, you will develop a structured questionnaire how to deal with those requests, and how to inspire people to change their perspective to outside-in. Additionally you will identify the root causes of these requests: Maybe, the sales roles are not properly mapped to the customer’s journey. Maybe, you have marketing teams that have to follow a “one size fits all” checklist. Maybe, the trainings and content teams don’t work closely enough together, to be able to adjust their efforts to the customer’s journey, etc.

The bottom line is: People have functional missions. You need their functional expertise – but during execution, not for the design.

  • The design perspective has to be the same for all teams: The customer’s journey.
  • The execution perspective is based on the design perspective
  • GoToCustomer drives efficiency and effectiveness at the same time: You will get rid of unnecessary enablement services and sales people will be more focused on the services that really matter, to make them successful at the customer.

GoToCustomer means simplicity.
Achieving simplicity is hard, but at the end, it’s beautiful.

This post was published initially in a column version @ TopSalesWorld,
October Magazine.

GoToCustomer – Key To Success For Cross-Functional Collaboration – Part 1: Sales & Marketing

This post was published @ The Sales Thought Leaders Blog, Oct 3.
It’s part 1 of a series – how a GoToCustomer approach makes you more effective, when it comes to cross-functional collaboration and alignment.

The essence of a GoToCustomer approach is a consequent way of thinking and designing your sales system in a customer-centric way. GoToCustomer means that your sales system begins with the customers at the core. The customers are your central design point.

Thinking this way, thinking GoToCustomer, is the most important prerequisite, before you even start to design any kind of framework, processes or enablement services.

Maybe, you can imagine that I’m probably not the biggest fan of the various sales and marketing alignment discussions. Right. I’m not. And here is why:

I’m not questioning the need to solve challenges between sales and marketing. Not at all. But I’m questioning the way how these challenges are phrased and discussed – very often based on internal issues, not on customer issues. I have learned, that we can be a lot more effective by changing our perspective, by changing the way to think about these sales & marketing challenges in a GoToCustomer way.

What happens in so many alignment discussions and projects? People, having their functional perspective in mind, try to agree on common goals, the discussions are based on internal design points, internal functions, focused around the interface between these two functions. The alignment discussions are e.g. on lead definitions, lead qualification, measurement of conversion rates, revenue contribution, prequalified leads, marketing nurtured leads, accepted leads by sales and all these kind of terms. Look at the language we are using and the still common definitions called “marketing lead” or “sales lead” and of course – who owns which one?

Let’s step back for a moment and let’s think about the underlying issue, the context of this problem. Obviously, those discussions are focused on internal issues, the customer and the customer’s journey aren’t really the core of many of those discussions.

Here is what I experienced: Three things have to be adjusted to achieve a break-through:

  • One design point – the customer:
    Make pretty clear that the GoToCustomer framework and especially the customer’s journey are the design point – not your internal functions. All issues that need to be solved have to be mapped backwards from the customer’s journey. Very quickly, you will discover redundancies and unnecessary, complicated processes on the one hand and true value creating activities on the other hand.
  • One understanding – we are all “customer-facing” functions:
    It means “we are all in sales now”, as Dan Pink said. “Ownership” discussions come to an end. Nobody “owns” a lead or a “customer”. People with different roles have different responsibilities along the customer’s journey in the first place (don’t think of it as a task within a function). But all together own the customer’s outcome and the related sales outcome. Because we are all in sales now!
  • One goal – customer value:
    Make pretty clear what the goal is – it’s not order entry, revenue, or pipeline build. These are related sales objectives. The overall business objective – why you exist as an organization – is to create a customer, to create value for your customers. Period. Customer value is the prerequisite for a buyer to buy. Customer value is the prerequisite for everything you can measure afterwards, such as order entry, revenue and profit. The goal is not to define activities between two internal functions – these are derived activities that have to be adjusted. But not the other way around. It cannot be said often enough. It makes such a huge difference.
  • Last but not least – think outside-in:
    Coach your team to think outside-in. Every argument, every issue that needs to be discussed – let people map it to the customer’s journey.

It’s a lot of effort in the beginning to change the way how sales and marketing alignment issues are discussed. But it’s worth the effort – you will get so much redundancy out of the system and so much more customer-centricity and added value into your sales system.

GoToCustomer isn’t only about sales and marketing, GoToCustomer permeates the entire organization, other relevant functions are e.g. finance and hr. The marketing connection is critical because of its proximity and connection to customers – that’s why we discussed this one first.

GoToCustomer is a winning approach, to get there is hard work. It’s a change management journey.

GoToCustomer – the customers at the core of your sales system – is pure simplicity.
It’s beauty.

Next time, we will discuss how a GoToCustomer approach can help to achieve a better alignment and a more effective collaboration between sales and finance.