A sales opportunity for the ages

Cyclicality makes for many opportunities, many have made millions studying cycles, taking deliberate action to capitalize on turning points, be they peaks and troughs, or the birth of a new way of doing entirely new things.

Canadians who were owners of Blackberry’s till the iPhone came along, and “phone” is just a moniker for a pocket computer that also makes and takes calls. Not at all the way we did things 15 years ago. Each of these cycles individually offers many possibilities to become the next Blockbuster or Netflix, or many other B2B examples. But today we are, as we are now, at the cusp of a number of cycles converging, a “Perfect Storm” scenario that will have a transformative impact on how we sell and generate revenue. An opportunity to grab your board and ride the wave or be crushed by the same wave.

What follows is not an exhaustive list of a number of events that will, and others that may present themselves, which will test how people sell. Just think back to 2008, as everything was grinding to a halt, salespeople were stuck in unfamiliar territory, clinging to old ideas, ridiculing new ways, remember the initial reaction to The Challenger Sale, go back to what people were saying then, not their hype now (I love the internet, nothing goes away). It took sales a long time to recover, I had a front-row seat to the drama, but other than a fresh coat of paint and some new titles, little changed, and soon things were back to a familiar reality.

One way to look at it, is before Lehman Brothers if you asked a VP of Sales how he/she would address a revenue challenge, they would want to throw a body at the problem; today, they want to throw an app at the problem. They still haven’t addressed the problem, they are still throwing – just something new. Feels good, feels right, really fashionable. That was one economic cycle, a historical one no doubt, but not unpredictable.

The economy

As teased above, I think we are on the verge of many cycles converging that will reward the willing and flush out the also-rans. Let’s start with the above example, the economy. By every measure, we are in the most extended bull market in history, and the current expansion is asking for a breather. I am not a fortune teller, nor do I have to be to believe that we will experience some pullback in the next 18 months or so, even the R word. Add to that the realities unfolding to the south of us, it is not foolish to begin to think about switching modes.

The booming x’s

Contrary to popular myth, those who did best during and after the Great Recession, were those same sellers who were consistently achieving or exceeding quota. Based on the groups I am training, there are less and less of us, we reflect the population. Many of the managers I work with are great people, enthusiastic, and have learned to throw apps and bodies with the best of them. But they have not lived through a down cycle when doors are shuttered and getting in is a whole new ball game. Bob who would always take your call has ‘ghosted’ you. Selling, and more so, leading a sales team through that winter is an experience-based skill that many of today’s managers have had the chance to learn. The current flock and methods of selling have not been stress tested at all. If we examine the new “Disintermediated Sales Approach” used by most SaaS companies, mostly because it came from the mothership SaaS machine, while slick, has not yielded great results based on available public stats, certainly no better than in the days of Smith Barney. While revenues could, in fact, be greater, productivity on an individual rep level is different, especially when measured in practical ways such as conversion and closed MRR (not looking at retention here). Apps are making the hamsters lazy; it takes more hamsters to run the wheel. Coming out of the Great Recession, the pundits and sages were predicting our tribe would be reduced by more than half. An article on Selling Power asked “How Many Salespeople Will Be Left by 2020?“, now a dead link, gee, I wonder why. (I love the internet, you can try and pretend you didn’t say that).

It seems the tribe can’t reproduce fast enough. Every sales and even marketing related LinkedIn profile starts with “I’m hiring.” It seems people are getting good at throwing money at the problem. I saw one Sales Development Rep (SDR) with eight months experience, jump to the same role, different title, a 35% increase in base, base! Oh, new title, Supervisor, he’s going to groom others. To do what, jump ship?

Not taking away anything from any individual organization or seller, but how will this cohort whether one cyclical storm? What if two hit at once. If the tribal knowledge has moved on, what will help us weather the storm? To be clear, I am focusing on this not because there is no hope, we’re not doomed. But now is the time to deal with this. Yes, we all know we have to get ahead of it, not when it hits… and it will.

New expectations

As we continue to move into the GIG and Service Economy, salespeople will only have two levers to pull on, both require a change in the relationship they have with their own company if they are going to improve relations with their clients measurably. In the Service Economy sellers will have to focus on outcomes and experience, and I mean customer outcomes and experience. As the product disappears, reps have to sell the experience to buyers, both direct and economic beneficiaries. SaaS reps should be doing it now, but the volume is there. When the wack a mole days pass, it will be too late to transition to being a subject matter expert whose customers rely on because of the experience they perceive, and the outcomes you help them achieve. Product specs and pain points will be secondary to what you did for them in their market, how they measure it, and how they feel about it.

Many of your buyers are already experiencing this digital experience in their consumer life, as well as in their B2B interactions with other outward facing groups, customer service/experience as one. But is your sales organization digital inwardly, in their view of their customers, the customer’s market challenges/opportunities; are your reps aware of how they can help your customers give their customers a better outcome and experience using your service?

I could argue that there are a number of other real headwinds facing us in the next 18 – 24 months, these were but a couple. As sales leaders we are indeed at the most inviting times possible. Turbulence is coming, probably a storm, you have an opportunity many will not have, to truly transform your selling, top down, bottom up, but you need to act now, not when everyone is hip. The best buying is done when the market is down, the best time to introduce change is when you can afford to make mistakes, not when you are paralyzed by fear and zero budget.

Tibor Shanto works with leading B2B companies including Bell Mobility, Imperial Oil, and Pitney Bowes, helping them improve their sales execution and results. Called a brilliant sales tactician, Tibor works with clients to translate sales strategy to reality. Find out more by visiting www.TiborShanto.com.

Three steps to take now to maximize Q2 and the rest of the year


Not to elevate the importance of one quarter over another in gaining success over the course the fiscal year, but given the role of momentum in B2B sales, there are reasons sales managers need to emphasize Q1, and how you approach the rest of the year based on your Q1 results. As Skip Miller said in his book “ProActive Sales Management”:

“If you, as a sales manager, do not know if you are going to make the year after the first quarter, the battle is over. Now you better be lucky.”

Given the hint of spring in the air, clocks turned forward, and the numbers for Q1 are trickling in, it is time to take inventory and adjust your plans for delivering your quota for the year.

The role of the sales manager has changed as much as any element of sales, especially advances in tech, automation, and skills training. Some managers have been reduced to minding systems as much as they are expected to LEAD their teams to success. As with everything, there are pros and cons, and one of the big advantages is the amount of actionable data the tools above make available to sales organizations and reps. The greater visibility into each sale, the pipeline, and activity allows managers to get ahead of trends sooner, and make the adjustments needed coming out of Q1, and drive results throughout the year.

While no template fits across all B2B organizations, here are three things managers can help their reps implement heading into Q2. I’ve spoken to managers, reps, and senior leaders, and here are a few that get broad support.

The balance I was going for is how to implement best and take full advantage of the tools and techniques available today, but not at the cost of abandoning proven fundamentals. While markets and many elements of selling have changed, the fundamentals of good selling have not. As one VP with a proven record of delivering, put it: “The process of good selling is no different today than it was six months or 10 years ago. On the other hand, the issues that will surface today will be quite different.”

What was surprising in speaking to some sales veterans, was their tendency to lean “market changes” as their reason for struggling to exceed quota. Surprising because change is what salespeople live on; without change, there is no opportunity. Even if you are the incumbent, your customer needs to see you as evolving and changing in in line with their objectives. Failing to do that, and relying on “relationship”, sells books but does not deliver ongoing revenue.

Not surprising, top of the list for most, and a positive for fundamentals was the recognition that being “proactive” is key, the challenge for some was auctioning the concept. With that in mind, let’s take a look at specific things you can do to crush the rest of the year and future quotas. In no particular order, here three areas of focus shared with and by the sales professionals I spoke to have worked with.

1. Activity Management – The never-ending need to manage more activity. One can’t blame reps for being confused, they are told that technology is being added to help them spend more time selling, but their experience is entirely different. As has been documented, adding technology does not have the returns expected if implemented in wrong way. With the additional steps, and controls, the activity has shifted from just doing things, to activity required to capture that activity. In some instances, technology has a measurable and ongoing negative impact results.

The opportunity for sales organizations is to look at the data and decide which applications do measurably help the volume and quality of activity, that maximize time and revenue. Examine if their process is supporting current conditions, and see how technology helps drive the process, not just replace one activity for another. The forgotten step by many is to plan beyond the change, how will they deploy regained time and resources. Without that in place, reps will be left on their own to use freed resources as they like, rather than in a planned way to improve sales activities and results.

2. Level of Engagement – The concept applies equally to your existing client base, prospect base and lead funnel. “Assume Nothing” was how one respondent put it, talk to your customers, talk to your prospect and communicate with your leads. As things change so do priorities and expectation, and by extension opportunities. A disinterested party today, can be your best prospect a week later due to changing realities; nut the opposite is also true, a big client can be a former client overnight if your engagement is not as strong as you believe.

This where proactive needs to be elevated, to be prescriptive. One of the victims of “relationship” is sellers willingness to lead the decision process, something every Subject Matter Expert is paid to do. You understand the market better than most, any individual prospect will know more about their company than you, but concerning market overall, you have seen and experienced more than most, share it with conviction. Prospects want, and need help, and are willing to follow if they know their interests are at the centre of things, they are open to different ideas, and if they get the same old from you, don’t be surprised by the results.

You have seen what works elsewhere, the steps they took, considerations that went into decisions, and most importantly, you know what hasn’t worked. Share, and recommend, left to their think, the Status Quo, where they are now will prevail, no sale.

3. Client First – Again, tried and true, but with the reality of quotas, and other pressures on sales organizations, easy to lose sight of. This goes to engagement as presented above, as well, most sellers focus on their natural buyers, IT people for tech reps, finance folks for financial sellers, etc. But the ultimate client is the company, changes made in one area of a company, impact workflows of other departments or divisions. More than ever, you need to expand your expertise status to a broad range of people within customer organizations. Everyone talks about “Org Chart”, few work them.

The reason you want to bring more the “usual suspects” into a purchase decision, is not just to better understand how your offering will impact them. You will usually discover an equal amount of support from unexpected parts of the company; or at times, some potential unknown opposition. By expanding beyond the obvious, you will discover more reasons for them to buy from you, rather than the folks “they always dealt with.” The very same people they gave your order to.

When you align the three factors above, you can create an action plan that leads to results, not just activity for the sake of activity. Most agreed that engagement is more crucial than ever, but they were struggling to achieve that while still offering something different than the pack. The three things above are a start, and by getting them in order, you will set yourself or team up for future changes and future success. It is about helping your buyers make a decision, (one favourable to you we hope). There are those who believe that you need to have a relationship before any of the above can happen. But real relationships take a long time to establish, longer than a given quarter or commercial quota, and even then, the only certainty is a relationship, not revenue. Whereas I can engage and share the benefit of my expertise to get a buyer to act, long before ‘We’re buds”.

Sorry, there was no magic dust, but if you are willing to plan for and commit to improving your sales, these are three solid starting steps. One last suggestion, you don’t need to change everything overnight. Step back and see which of the three will be the most natural step to introduce given your team and sales culture. Implement that, measure, adjust, and celebrate your success no matter how small, then build on!

Tibor Shanto works with leading B2B companies including Bell Mobility, Imperial Oil, Pitney Bowes, and others, helping them improve their sales execution and results. Called a brilliant sales tactician, Tibor works with clients to translate sales strategy to reality. Tibor develops sales people who understand that success in sales is about execution – everything else is just talk!

Sales Expert Tibor Shanto on The Shift from Sales to Revenue

A key opportunity and challenge for companies today is streamlining and fine tuning their revenue generation operations. While on a broad basis it could be argued that this involves everyone in the company, most focus on two key groups or functions, sales and marketing.

Traditionally when revenue improvement initiatives were introduced, each group went about delivering in their own way, with little discussion or regard for the other. While they may have been present at the same initial strategy meetings, the rest was done within their own silo, with little or no consideration or input from the other. In some companies, the only purpose one grouped served for the other, was as a scapegoat for failure.

Over the years there has been talk of, and some steps taken several to aligning and bring the two organizations together, but few companies achieved much traction. Often the catalyst was less will, than other drivers, both internal and external, forcing the two to work together. Sales and marketing failed to realize that many of these unsuccessful efforts were a direct extension of market and customer expectations.

Some did break down barriers between the two groups, but it most quickly went back to their assigned lanes. Marketing, looked after branding, lead generation, more recently “content”. Sales, filling their pipeline, often with leads they generated, instead of those generated by marketing; then moving those opportunities through the cycle to close. Marketing rarely if ever actively participating beyond the point where the “Marketing Qualified Lead” was handed off to sales.

It is not surprising that the most successful companies are those that are responsive to the market and their clients, and focus on innovating and getting ahead of customer expectations, and winning new customers by delivering an experience that exceeds customers’ demands and expectations. Something difficult to achieve when two key groups who should have a singular focus and purpose, are marching at different paces, and not always in the same direction.

Alignment Is No Longer Enough

Talk of aligning sales and marketing is interesting, but no longer enough. Sort of like saying that Blackberry is a smartphone, when everyone expectations are guided by iPhone or a Note. Smart companies are past alignment, and have moved to eliminating two groups in favour of one organization, Revenue. Within the revenue team, there still specific functions that reflect things traditionally associated with sales or marketing, but they are all on the same team, same responsibility and accountability, namely revenue.

There is more to this than assigning someone at the top with the title of Chief Revenue Officer, while allowing for business to go on as usual. Revenue teams need to have the same accountability and be responsible for revenue success and growth.

Shared Accountability

A good start is incentive, it has always been strange that these groups are often rewarded in different ways, for different outcomes, which at times are not aligned. For example, marketing may get measured and rewarded on the number (and at times even the quality) of leads generated. Yet in practice, only a small percent of these leads are ever worked by sales, many put it at single digits. Both arms duplicating efforts, expenses, and squandered resources and time. While there are a range of reason for sales not wanting to depend on marketing for leads, the reality is that it is less likely to happen if both were tied to the same outcomes.

The above is a symptom of a widely held, yet erroneous view, that marketing is responsible for one part of the buyer journey, once buyers reach a specific point in the journey, they are punted over to sales. Unlike football, the best results are achieved when everyone brings their expertise to bear throughout the buyer journey.

Sales needs to realize that they can do a much better, and I would add, easier job of helping the buyer to make the right decision if they worked with marketing to ensure that buyers are receiving the right insight at each stage, from pre-lead to close, and, beyond. Sales also has to understand that they don’t need to carry out the “latter” part of the journey alone, that marketing can seed their path, making it easier for buyers to move towards close.

This requires clear and ongoing communication between sales and marketing throughout the ‘client life cycle’. While some may not like the analogy, but one needs to think of it as Marketing providing air cover for the ground troops, Sales. To be clear, we are not hunting prospects, we are hunting revenue, and that is serious business. There needs to be clear lines of communication, sales need to feedback to marketing what is happening on the ground, and why. Marketing in turn needs to provide sales and the buyer with insights that facilitate the buyer’s understanding. This feedback loop allows sales to have input not just in what they need to win current deals, but have a direct influence on the type of leads marketing should be targeted to achieve collective revenue goals.

A key opportunity for marketing is to provide insights to both buyers, and their own sales people. Insights that go beyond curation of content, and generic information, to elements that spur interaction and reliance on the salesperson subject matter expertise; expertise that itself is supported by marketing.

At one company I worked with, we involved marketing in deal post mortems. These are easy for sales to conduct when they win the deal, but not so when they lose one. The knee jerk response from buyers who choose another vendor, is to point to price and features, after all, the buyer has transitioned from decision to implementation. Yet, when marketing approaches these same buyers, with a well-crafted set of question that are aimed at understanding the outcome rather than relitigating the sale. The insights gained help both sales in terms of specific steps they can take in the next similar sale. Helps marketing fine tune their messaging throughout the sale, and right down to leads targeted, and new upsell/cross sell opportunities. In other words, a singular revenue process, versus the typical asynchronous approach most take.

It is not just about getting along, and all about integrating and working as one revenue generating unit.

About Tibor Shanto

Tibor works with leading B2B companies including Bell Mobility, Imperial Oil, Pitney Bowes, and others, helping them improve their sales execution and results. Called a brilliant sales tactician, Tibor works with clients to translate sales strategy to reality. Tibor develops sales people who understand that success in sales is about Execution – Everything Else Is Just Talk!