November 09, 2018
Turning Around Struggling B2B Sales Programs
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We all know the old Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times". For my work with struggling B2B sales programs, I and my clients often feel that this curse applies to us. For me, this is because such work requires the careful choreography of cold analysis from my hard skills, and the interpersonal effectiveness from my soft skills. My soft skills are required because the reality is that vendors who want change (using their "head"), feel anxiety from that change (caused by their "gut"). This anxiety is natural, and comes from concerns they have over: i. how my analysis will make them look to senior management or their board; and ii. how will they be able to implement my different sales and marketing program. My success as a "change agent" has, in large part, come from making sure that I: i. try not to make anyone look bad to senior management or the board; and ii. design easy-to-implement programs.
My clients' sales and marketing managers don't want my help - I'm brought in by C-level executives, not by the people running the underperforming sales and marketing efforts. I tell these executives that I can guarantee that if they ask for the sales and marketing managers' "permission", they will turn my help down. I then provide some thoughts on what to tell the sales and marketing managers so that they feel they will benefit from me, not be hurt by me. But the fact is that until I meet with these managers, to explain how I can help them, and then obtain their insight, most of these managers will be anxious that I was hired. But the cold hard fact is that the very success, or survival, of the company is so vital that these managers will need to put up with some temporary anxiety.
Small problems, small changes - large problems, big changes - This statement makes sense when one thinks about it. Of course, it rarely is a, "may you live in interesting times" scenario (for my clients, or me) for small changes for small problems. And with the big changes for big problems, the trick I've learned is to make it feel as much like small changes as possible, and changes that many of the salespeople had a hand in creating. Since it isn't about me, I don't need to show off, with talk about all the work I did, and how all-encompassing are the changes.
Start with your value statement behind the sales and marketing program - I use a simple question to start the process behind a compelling value statement for B2B sales, "how do you help your clients become more successful?" This is because B2B sales is not about the vendor's product or service, it is about the first B helping the second B be more successful. For example, with my work for companies selling to financial advisors, advisors don't wake up in the morning thinking, "I really want to know about a new product/service today". Instead, what advisors want today is i. more clients; ii. wealthier clients; and iii. more time for a personal life. Any vendor that can help these advisors first - even if with some simple ideas or tools - will be allowed into the advisors' offices (which is 90% of B2B sales).
Create the strategies and tactics, based on the value statement and philosophy we develop - The value statement and philosophy usually are the most difficult part of the program change to make. It is here that I usually hear from salespeople and sales management that they don't believe the new approach will work as well as I portray it to work. I increase their confidence level in our new program - I say "our" because of their involvement - by showing: i. the past success from this approach; and ii. how easy it will be for them to execute this program (remember the anxiety points I covered earlier).
Sometimes there is the added problem of structural and/or organizational issues - Sometimes I need to rely heavily on my interpersonal skills with the C-level executives because there also are structural and/or organizational issues behind their struggling B2B sales programs. An example of a structural issue is the compensation structure for the salespeople. An example of an organizational issue could be how those salespeople are managed, or not managed.
Sometimes vendors need to, "stop and sharpen their ax" - Many B2B vendors feel that a new approach to their sales efforts will cost too much, and hurt their current sales for too long. But, as someone once told me, "sometimes you need to stop chopping to sharpen your ax". A dull ax blade (ineffective sales effort) will require extra effort to cut the tree down (make the sale) and expose the person chopping (the vendor) to increased injuries (damage to the vendor's brand). The right new deliverables and implementation training
It's a process, not a machine - The new B2B sales programs that I implement are phased in - a process - which is one of the reasons they don't cost too much or take up too much time. This approach is opposed to the one where everything needs to be fully in place and operating on day one, with no changes over the year, and beyond - why I use the term, "machine" for this other, more expensive, approach.
Turning around struggling B2B sales programs starts with a simple conversation - I've had major sales turnarounds start with a simple 5-15-minute initial conversation. No prep work, just a talk about what works, the challenges, and where the vendor wants to be, in terms of sales, and presence in their B2B community.
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