Salespeople: Let’s Get Reactive

It’s the beginning of the year, time for sales kickoff meetings and presidents’ clubs at some location within 10 degrees of the equator. These signal events will reward those diligent and fortunate enough to have made or exceeded quota while focusing the attention of everyone on this year’s mission. Typically that includes higher quotas and some new faces determined to ramp up before their draw runs out.

Things have changed somewhat in the last decades, but the focus of most sales organizations is still on acquiring enough leads to fill the funnels to fuel their sales processes. Marketing departments and software vendors have done a great job of improving marketing so that they deliver better quality leads to sales teams than ever. Not long ago marketing programs consisted of gathering little more than basic contact information and coordinating trade show appearances. But today’s marketing effort is all about drip campaigns, analytics and social outreach, which accounts for most of the improvement in lead quality.

I am not sure sales has changed as much as marketing, though, and maybe it’s time for a shift. Selling is still largely a game of numbers, of following a process and shots on goal. The sales process has a lot in common with baking a cake, though the real baking process often has more predictable results.

Plenty of Data, Not Enough Information

No matter how much technology salespeople adopt, it seems there is always too much work to do, too many meetings, too many balls to keep in the air. The journey through a typical quarter starts out with a big pipeline that winnows down to a select group to close at the end.

Very often, the decision whether to forecast a deal or not is based on gut instinct — how long the sales process has been going on, and even the need to beef up the numbers. It would be better if sales could, like marketing before it, apply specific technologies to improve the processes most important to the mission. Today we have an assortment of SFA reports, spreadsheets and even some BI tools to provide insight into the sales process, but the results are uneven.

One of the main issues with these solutions is that they are data-centric. They focus on the mountain of data generated by the sales process, but they are nonetheless short on information. How does that happen?

We tend to act like data and information are the same things but they are very different. Data is fact, but information is a conclusion drawn from data. A customer is in stage two of a five-step sales process — that’s data. But information is knowing that a typical customer who makes a purchase stays in stage two for one week AND that this particular customer has been in stage two for twice that time.

Having sales information requires capturing more data than a typical CRM/SFA/contact management system typically captures. Think about it — when the customer moved from stage one to stage two, the rep probably just updated a field in a database, erasing what was there before. That makes it hard to do any kind of comparison either between the customer and the vendor’s experience or even within the sales process. For salespeople stuck in a data-centric paradigm, every day is Groundhog Day.

Current Tools Fall Short

We’re always erasing data in our sales systems, whether it’s quantity, close date, price, or who’s in charge. Most of the time there’s one field per item and no way to capture change over the history of a deal. That’s important, because without history we don’t really know how or if the deal is progressing, only the status as defined by the current data, and that makes sales forecasting and pipeline management very imprecise.

You might say that historic data is what notes are for, and every SFA system in the world has a place to enter notes. But notes are not machine-readable. It is no simple task to cull through the notes of every deal to find the nuggets. Imagine you are a sales rep working 50 deals. Do you know the status of each deal all the time? What about your manager, who has many other reps like you to look after? How does the manager keep up on all this? There is no way the manager can, and that’s why, as the quarter rolls along, the number of deals to really pay attention to dwindles.

But imagine you have something more than spreadsheets or simple reports. Imagine you have a real forecasting system that captures historic data and uses analytics to deliver information about all the deals in the pipeline. Imagine further that because you have this system that you don’t need to remember all the details, because the system will remind you of the differences. If you do this, you change your process from one that is essentially reactive to one that is proactive. You do for sales what has already been done for marketing.

Modern technology has enabled marketing to be more reactive — after all, a drip campaign is predicated on responding to a customer’s action. But marketing was once (and still has aspects of being) much more proactive. The shift to more reactivity has enabled marketing to focus on deals where there is real interest.

Likewise, sales has always been proactive — we make cold calls, get customers to agree to meetings and hope to qualify along the way. But if sales could learn to be just a bit more reactive, by better understanding customer signals that are reflected in changes within the pipeline and forecast, we might get better results.

There is a great irony here — marketing and sales become more reactive and results improve. It’s another way of saying we need to listen better by capturing all of the information given off in a sales process.

Finally, this sort of approach will enable the productivity increase that you want for sales. It might even eliminate or at least reduce the need to add headcount every time you want to increase revenue.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and website. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at [email protected].

1 Comment

  • Dennis: your points are both timely + thoughtful. I think we may, unknowingly to each other, be singing in the same church choir.

    Our research confirms your point key point: when sales is equipped to be more reactive to buyer actions within the pipeline, results improve. Intriguingly, some of these improvements come from initially discovering that sales efforts aren’t provoking nearly as much buyer interest as the ‘happy ears’ of salespeople have otherwise suggested.

    Trust this adds some value. – John

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