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As a business leader in a constantly evolving market, it’s critical to be flexible and willing to embrace new strategies. The businesses that see sustained success find opportunities to launch successful new products or enter new markets. 

Alexander Group recognizes the critical role of sales departments in providing the energy and the know-how to power these strategies. Your sales team can see your business strategies through to success by focusing less on what products do and more on what products enable customers to do.

Research has shown that only 10% of business strategies are effectively implemented, pinning the blame on the fact that business leaders often implement strategies without considering how they will impact the workers carrying them out. 

Your organization can execute profitable sales strategies by considering the realities facing your sellers and reinventing key elements of the sales function to emphasize value over discounts. In this article, we cover eight sales force reinvention principles that increase business strategy, including insights from Alexander Group Executive Forum speakers.  

Principle 1 — You Serve Diverse Buyer Segments, So Act Like It

Alexander Group’s Sales Pulse Surveys₁ have found that buyers are broken into three roughly equal categories—Price Seekers, Product Seekers and Insight Seekers.

While about equal in size, these “customer segments” make buying decisions in unique ways:

  1. Price seekers: Procurement types dominate and focus primarily on price
  2. Product seekers: Mid-level functional management, in search of superior products and features that meet their specific needs, have a strong say
  3. Insight seekers: Upper-level executives, looking for insight into how products or services can be used to help run their portion of the business better, enter the buying equation

Note that these segments are not defined by what or how much is bought. They are defined by how products are evaluated.

Reorienting the Customer Segment Approach

Given the size of each customer segment, savvy sales executives realize they must competently cover all three. As a rule, our speakers attempted to address all customer segments by:

  • Shifting more expensive talent to cover Insight Seekers, where the ability to deliver value and insight offers critical differentiation.
  • Pivoting to lower-cost coverage of Price Seekers (inside sales, internet, partners) where the focus is on the deal, not what the products enable.

Improving Sales Efficiency

These two actions are linked—money saved through efficient coverage of Price Seekers can be invested in deeper coverage of Insight Seekers. 

For example:

  • Johnson Controls created three account tiers to more effectively target teams of experts on the very top tier where they would have the most impact.
  • Pitney Bowes replaced 75% of field capacity with inside sales and partners, while targeting the remaining highly skilled and provisioned account managers on the largest and/or highest potential accounts. Savings in one segment enabled investment in the other.
  • Oracle started virtually every seller in an Inside Sales position where they learn products, customers and solutions. The best are moved into different positions and geographies, and ultimately earn an opportunity to manage accounts in the field. Oracle expected to double the size of its current sales team, maintaining a balance of inside and field resources in the process.

Top sales organizations cover different segments with different resources, aiming for efficiency when covering “price seekers” and effectiveness when covering “insight seekers.” Efficiency in lower margin segments is converted to both cost-saving and skill-building to ratchet up the level of coverage effectiveness in other segments. Coverage dexterity helps top sales organizations serve all markets well.

Principle 2 — Serve Different Segments with Different Sales Motions

A sales motion is the combination of messages, activities and resources that, taken together, forge the ideal coverage pattern for a particular buyer segment. The ideal motion is the one that delivers the necessary value to the customer at the least cost to the seller. Innovation buyers expect value-laden insights from “experts” to describe and help execute a better way of doing business.

That kind of coverage is expensive and comes with a price premium. Price-oriented buyers, on the other hand, expect timely and efficient delivery of deal terms. A simple sales motion, perhaps delivered via the Internet, is sufficient. As one keynote put it, “Delivering insight on how to improve a business process is a whole lot different than delivering purchase terms.”

Different buyers, different needs, different motions. There are three basic motions that attach to the identified segments:
table1

Note that the Innovation and Product Advocacy motions require an understanding of both what is important to customers and how your products connect to this value.

Many companies are not poised to execute Innovation, Advocacy and Fulfillment successfully. Two critical questions can help assess the degree of “customer-centricity”.

1. Are You Fundamentally Focused on Serving Customers or Promoting Products? 

Silos of marketing and sales resource dedicated to promoting slices of the product line based on features independent of how customers make buying decisions is a sure sign of “product-centricity.” Here are examples of how companies have pivoted away from such product-centricity to align more closely with how customers make buying decisions were offered:

  • Oracle organized its sales and marketing around functional customers, like the CFO or the VP of HR and provisioned them with the tools and skills to solve their unique functional problems.
  • GE BioProcess went from training account managers on products to teaching them, with the help of Marketing, about what they call “an industry point of view” enabling sellers to bring their clients “perspective and opinions.”
  • Accuray began measuring sellers on customer loyalty and satisfaction, working with Marketing to enable deeper pre-sale discovery and post-sale service activities.

2. Do You Have a Sales Operations Organization Capable of Supporting Customer-Centric Coverage? 

Forum Speakers have identified three important services that their powerful sales operations functions provide:

  • TARGET. Sales operations helps determine what sales motions to deliver to which accounts. Johnson Controls offered the following advice—“Organize your effort around customers, not products.” That means understanding what the account and individual buyer needs are, how much they need of it and then deploying the sales resources that will best influence the outcome.
  • ARTICULATE. Sales operations builds out the details of each sales motion to make sure everyone knows who is responsible for what. Sellers and support resources also need guidance on their specific roles and responsibilities in the motion they are implementing. At Oracle, sales resources “need a structured process—which really means having a methodology.”
  • POPULATE. Sales operations made sure each step of each motion is assigned to a customer coverage resource. Cisco had to collapse 180 separate roles into six (Account Owner, Sales Specialist, Inside Sales, Partner, Sales Engineer, Technical Management) to clearly articulate who was responsible for what in each stage of the sales process. Make it simple, make it doable and hold them accountable.

Principle 3 — Deliver Sales Messages That Matter

The messages that sellers deliver to buyers, especially those who value innovation, cannot be taken for granted. When calling high (and is that not the goal?), the message must resonate quickly, or there will be no second chance. Innovation buyers are frequently close to or in the C-suite. Yet, according to one Forum guest, sales collateral coming out of the typical Marketing department is so product-focused that most innovation buyers “tune you out and send you downstream to buyers who care less about ideas and more about price.”

Where this happens, the sales organization is subject to “the law of the jungle” where sellers are responsible for their own messaging and only the strong survive. Sales leaders know that the key to success is to lift up the whole sales organization, rather than simply depending on the top 20%. While training, coaching and playbooks all matter, success in the innovation and product advocacy motions begins with a message that connects what sellers can deliver to issues that customers must face and surmount.

According to a top business school faculty member at the Forum, the attributes of the most effective messages can be described as follows:

Table1


Where Marketing was not crafting powerful or useful messages, we found sales leaders are stepping in to fill the void.

Accuray’s Viewpoint Shift

Accuray had a Marketing function run largely by “brilliant engineers.” While they excelled in articulating product specs, they had failed to describe what made Accuray products different and valuable.

Their prescription—integrate the Marketing function with executives who possessed a “deeper understanding of customers” (yes, that means some sales experience) capable of turning the message development process on its head by looking at products from the customer’s point of view.

Oracle’s Need-Based Marketing Pivot 

When Oracle found the buying point for its products had moved away from IT toward functional heads of HR, Finance and Marketing, they too needed to craft messages that spoke to Oracle’s ability to help solve functional issues without dwelling on specific product details. To accomplish this Oracle transformed the entire marketing and sales ecosystem.

They pivoted from product marketing groups to marketing and sales specialist units built around serving the needs of specific customer functions, like HR, Finance and Manufacturing. The result—messages, collateral and sellers that integrate a deep understanding of customer needs and expertise in the solutions that Oracle can offer.

Johnson Controls’ Audience Adjustment

Johnson Controls found customers (architects, developers and corporations) were increasingly attracted to green technology, bundles of products and services, as well as the cost of ownership analysis. This was at odds with JCI’s traditional sales approach and messaging that stressed individual product line excellence. It was time for a change.

Johnson Controls created a deep account management structure, supported by specialists, to deliver the insight and messaging customers needed to hear. That meant partnering with Product Marketing to craft messages targeted to real customer concerns—operating expense management, capital budgeting, sustainability—instead of focusing on topics of importance to product engineers.

Principle 4 — Focus Scarce Investment Dollars for Maximum Return

If you organize to serve real customer needs without deference to legacy approaches, great things can happen. This matters a lot when revenue growth expectations far outstrip increases in selling expense.

Companies that do not carefully choose where to focus their investment and where to streamline for efficiency are destined to fall behind in the markets that matter to them the most.

Pitney Bowes upended the traditional sales resource investment model to enable far-reaching reinvention when efficiencies found in covering a large but declining market were used to fund growth in new, more robust markets. Specifically, Pitney Bowes …

  • Distilled multiple sales processes into a select, scalable few.
  • Traded out 2000 direct sellers for 270 Account Managers, 160 Inside Sellers and a limited number of trusted Partners.
  • Focused on a limited number of key metrics to manage and track the motions of each set of resources.

The result—an 8% increase in EBIT in a declining market became available to fund expansion in more promising, higher growth markets.

Cisco found that only 22%-23% of an average seller’s time was actually devoted to selling despite a company goal of about 40%. Digging deeper among sellers and partners with interviews and surveys, Cisco found that Sales Ops, Human Resources, Marketing, and individual Business Units, in their quest to “enable sales,” were actually inundating sellers with messages, materials and training that were confusing, contradictory and often useless. By consolidating all the disparate initiatives into a single Sales Enablement function, dedicated to finding out from sellers what they really need, Cisco was able to …

  • Take $90 million out of sales support expenses.
  • Increase productive seller time by well over three hours per week.
  • Reach and enable over 14,000 sellers and partners by offering easy access to tools and insight that is fresh, systematically updated and consistently useful.

Principle 5 — Position Your Sales Force to Deliver Impact

A technology sales executive at the Forum noted that a customer-centric sales process consists of five steps:

chart

According to another executive from the medical technology industry, “90% of seller time is typically devoted to closing.” Yet closing behavior and activities do not earn a seller the opportunity to meet with C-suite executives to explore any form of “business impact.” “Product push” typically results in being “packed off to purchasing.”

Selling impact requires that more time and resource be dedicated to ideation and design on the front end as well as helping customers implement and use products after the sale.

GE’s BioProcess Division had a competitive environment in which traditional, as well as emerging competitors, focused almost exclusively on perceived product features and advantages. Outside of specific leading-edge products, price emerged as the chief means of competing.

The chief concerns by the executives were less about product features and more about production expertise, production deadlines and capital preservation. They saw a chance to differentiate from the competition by ideating with the customer on how GE could help them deal with their business issues. They shifted the mission of the sales force from “selling product quality and performance to selling manufacturing strategies and their execution.” Sellers needed to move from delivering product specs to delivering:

  • Production design expertise
  • Financing alternatives to capitalize selected operating expenditures
  • Access to other key vendor relationships

To accomplish this, they created:

  • A new structure to focus sellers on customers, not products
  • A new deal hub to give sellers ready access to executive talent in GE
  • A higher-powered sales operations team to target demand
  • A reference account program to offer impact “evidence”

The result—newly appointed account managers could deliver messages and services, along with products, that together could not be matched by the competition. And the enriched capabilities opened a dialog with top management on the customer side that the product alone would never have allowed.

Commenting on the typical customer experience after the sale, Andersen Corporation said, “Dealers expect bad service.” They looked at this as an opportunity to both deliver greater impact and develop deeper, more lasting relationships. The company shifted the service mission from “reacting to problems” to “avoiding error before it happens.” The organization structure was changed as well:

  • Sellers were teamed with specific service specialists to enhance accountability
  • Service centers were regionalized to move personnel closer to sellers and customers
  • Service specialists were integrated into the sales process as true team members to improve both order accuracy and customer relations BEFORE a problem occurs
  • Direct, proactive service outreach went from “discouraged” to “regular”

The result—Andersen was able to accept more orders, process them more accurately and enhance the experience of the dealer in ways that “ultimately saved the dealer and the end customer both time and money. While it is often difficult to justify service costs, putting them into the front end of the sales process was an industry game-changer.”

Principle 6 — Ask Sellers What They Need

Despite the best intentions, top organizations can overwhelm their sales forces when delivering operational support for a customer-centric sales approach. Said one exec, “With IT, HR, Marketing and Sales Ops all supplying tools and collateral, none was focused on what the sellers really needed to better serve customers. For all the money spent, not much value was really delivered to Sales.”

Cisco’s Advice

Recent efforts at Cisco are a great example of how you can do “more with less” if you engage sellers in a discussion of what they actually need vs. push materials and tools on them “from the inside out.” Cisco offered three pieces of advice:

  1. MAKE IT RELEVANT. Start by understanding the needs of the sellers and partners. Ask them. Use surveys, focus groups, panels. Go out and ride with them. Find out what is needed. Create tools and test them. Sellers ignore tools they do not find useful but opine over the ones they love. Create positive buzz by listening, testing and focusing. Less can be more.
  2. MAKE IT GOOD. Cisco organized a curation process that both scheduled the release of new materials and kept lower-value materials off of the site. Further, as reviews were scaled up, materials that did not achieve 3 of 5 “stars” or better were returned to the author for improvement. Continued low ratings would result in removal from the site.
  3. INVITE THEM IN. Invest in how you distribute tools and materials. Create a web portal that is user-friendly and ensure that it is constantly updated with the latest insights and information. Give them something new every day. Better yet, when the seller logs in, push insights to them based on their role and typical needs. If Amazon can do it for customers, why can’t the sales enablement team do it for sellers? Don’t push massive amounts of material on sellers … pull them in by offering a customized, quality experience.

Cisco’s Results

The result—upon quietly launching the Sales Enablement Portal, Cisco picked up 14,000 users almost immediately, as a result of positive, viral word of mouth. This number far surpassed the traffic on all prior web-based enablement efforts put together.

More importantly, the ease of use returned precious hours to the seller (at least three hours per week) and enhanced seller effectiveness by putting the latest tools and cases literally at their fingertips. And because Cisco did all this by combining previously disjointed efforts of several functions (marketing, human resources, sales ops, finance), they were able to deliver more value at a fraction of the original spend.

Principle 7 — De-Isolate the Sales Function

In many organizations, the sales function is in a unique position to play this integrative role. It is the one function that understands both the product line and the customer, and its voice is becoming a necessary part of designing and executing a successful growth strategy.

With the sales function gaining recognition as a strategic asset, sales leaders should be engaging with top company leaders on a more regular and interactive basis. Specifically, sales leadership should contribute to strategic decisions and discussions on how best to implement them.

The leadership teams at top companies (including sales leaders) know that effective strategy implementation requires that management does consider the “realities” of the sellers on the ground with customers. 

Pitney Bowes sought improved transparency in forecasting. Accomplishing this required a new communication cadence that would promise to be an operational challenge. Sales operations took the lead in building a new pipeline review cadence with the CEO, Business Unit leaders and Country leaders every other week. In this regimen, geography management and product management are brought together by the Sales function to discuss strategy and tactics to make the numbers.

Principle 8 — Always Be Learning

Customers are the core source of insight regarding value for companies that are willing to listen. At Alexander Group’s Executive Forums, we’ve heard how some companies maximize their learning by introducing tools and processes that compel marketing and sales to partner with each other and with customers. Noted below are some of the ways in which this is done:

chart-part4

The tools at the heart of the intersection between customers, marketing and sales bring all three parties together. The corporate Center of Excellence provides customers, sales, marketing and top executives with a venue to learn about current strengths and capabilities. Facilitated brainstorming sessions enable Customers, Marketing, Sales and Innovation executives to speak openly of future strategies, challenges and ways they could work together.

How Leading Companies Improve Their Connection With Customers

Other tools (such as Customer Panels and marketer/seller “ride withs”) foster connections between Marketing and the customer or between Marketing and Sales. 

Consider some examples:

  • eBay deployed an entire department of researchers (that report into top sales management) who uncover how their customers derive value from services they buy, then package up this wisdom for Sales and Marketing to use.
  • LinkedIn helped sellers determine how well they are using social media to stay connected with customers.
  • At American Express, Marketing deployed a discovery template so sellers can learn more about customer needs at the outset of a relationship.
  • At GE BioProcess, Marketing helped sellers place their customers in a business context by uncovering industry-wide pressure points and training them on relevant GE solutions.
  • Oracle made sure that Marketing supports a “dynamic learning culture” by providing sellers fresh material every day on the company intranet while sellers are coached to invest one hour per day learning and consuming this new material.

Customer insights are there for companies and for sellers that choose to pursue them. This requires a thirst for learning and a willingness to collaborate. The common denominator among the examples noted here is that each of these companies has carefully created and nurtured a learning culture.

Does Sales Force Reinvention Work?

The numbers tell a story:

  1. A medical device company swung from a $100 million dollar loss to a $172 million profit over three years by focusing on customers instead of products.
  2. An office products firm pushed EBITDA up 25% by emphasizing efficiency in flat markets and bolstering investment in growth markets.
  3. An industrial company pushed sales productivity up 22% and increased key account revenue 21% by shifting valuable sales resources to the best opportunities.
  4. A tech firm cut the cost of sales by 2% and increased sales productivity 8% by streamlining sales enablement.

The numbers are compelling, but they are only a start. Each of the above companies would say the same thing: Reinvention is not an event—it is a process.

Change is a constant among customers, products and competition. Sales leadership is at its best when it finds ways to take advantage of these changes and to better serve its customers. Sales force reinvention is not about revolution. Rather, it is a constant series of small changes, inspired by the customer, that enable the sales force to deliver more value and greater differentiation.

Reinvent Your Sales Force

Alexander Group is a consulting firm ready to partner with you in the process of reinventing your sales force and revenue organization. We leverage innovative tools, insightful data and unparalleled experience to curate strategies that drive results. With Alexander Group as your partner, you’ll optimize critical sales processes for more frequent, more efficient conversions. Please contact us to discuss how we can craft strategies for your organization and reinvent your sales force. 

Categories:

Insight type: Article

Industry: Cross-Industry

Role: C-Suite, Sales and Marketing Leadership

Topic: Revenue Growth

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