Planning and processes seem anathema to the startup ethos, which is all about failing fast, massive iteration, fast pivots and a good helping of luck. So many things are up in the air that most planning seems irrelevant as soon as the ink dries on the whiteboard. The name of the game is speed, and it’s all about quickly identifying opportunities.
But this could be a huge mistake when you are dealing in B2B sales. In this case, a lack of planning can lead to sales efforts that can acutely damage your startup. And it is not simply the loss of potential revenue that is harmful to your business. It is also the reputational risk incurred from poor execution, the time and cost expended on a losing effort and the negative impact this all has on team morale. Plus, investors will expect you to forecast your business accurately, and that is nearly impossible to do if you do not have a plan and a process for tracking deal activity.
Sales is often the first point of direct contact between a potential customer and a company in the enterprise software market. Thus, significant weight is attached to those first conversations. They’re not just about building a personal rapport, but also about establishing credibility, expertise and, most importantly, an understanding of the customer’s perspective. It might appear that successful salespeople are naturally gregarious and are able to “wing it.” The reality, however, is that their shtick is the product of a rigorous and thorough system used to improve their odds as they progress from developing a lead to closing the deal.
Every professional salesperson and every highly effective team has a particular system in place. And however it may be described, it basically comes down to a plan, a process and a methodology. This is the holy triumvirate that instills discipline and focus. There are simply too many variables in any given deal to not be rigorous in staying on top of every detail. The salesperson is navigating personalities, product fitness, competition, market conditions, business priorities, internal execution, legal concerns, budget battles and timing in order to make a deal happen. Sure, the product could sink a deal, but oftentimes, it is one of a number of other variables that contribute to a losing campaign.
If there is one flaw that I consistently see across startups, it is the lack of a plan, process and methodology (the other major one is hiring salespeople too early). But what exactly do I mean by a plan, a process and a methodology? Are they not simply all parts of the same thing? While some may use these terms interchangeably, there are distinct differences that as a whole provide the foundation for a high performing, successful sales team.
- Plan. Some may call this strategy. Others think of this as the comp plan. A better way of thinking about the sales plan though, is the point where sales objectives and company goals meet. It helps narrow down the vast funnel of potential opportunities to ones that result in the most appropriate customer profiles that will hit the sweet spot of product-market fit and yield the most upside for salespeople and the company. But beyond aligning interests, it guides salespeople towards accomplishing their individual objectives. In essence, this is the “what” behind what salespeople will do from a target, execution and quota perspective.
- Process. Oftentimes, this word gets mixed-up with methodology, but a process is a broader construct. The process is how a salesperson progresses an opportunity from an unqualified lead to close to post-sales. This often goes hand-in-hand with some sort of CRM technology platform to track progress and to coordinate the sales team. The point is that a process gives salespeople and management a clear understanding of how opportunities are progressing, what gaps exist and where potential issues may arise. Besides providing status updates and reporting, it provides a common language and a shared way of doing things across the sales team. It is also how the company and individual sales efforts will be evaluated, with every key stage of one’s defined process mapping to each stage of the sales pipeline and forecast.
- Method. Along the process, one needs certain tools to actually accomplish something towards some stated objective. This is the “how” of the salesperson’s arsenal. You may have heard of things like SPIN or Solution Selling or Miller Heiman. These are all various branded products that were developed to help salespeople become more effective in engaging with prospects in some manner. They are the toolkits or tactics that help sales move deals along the sales process from each stage. However, one could just as easily create his or her own methodology, and good salespeople generally have some method to their madness. While each salesperson has his or her own tricks, it is helpful to have some standards across the team in order to have a level of consistency with customer engagement.
In short, you need a plan, a process and a method if you are going to have consistent, predictable and high-quality sales. B2B technology sales is a long, arduous slog, especially when you are in a small, no-name startup. It pays huge dividends to become more systematic in your approach in order to minimize surprises and enable your sales team to achieve success
This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.
Image credit: CC by Jeffrey