Salesforce Effectiveness

There is a tremendous volume of literature on how to be a great individual sales person from the minds of gurus like Zig Zigler and Jeffrey Gitomer.  However, wisdom on how to architect an effective group of salespeople is harder to come by.  If you are in a position to reengineer sales strategy, the good news is that there are only a few critical levers you must consider.

The strategic levers include hiring, compensation, span of control, and territory assignment.  The tactical levers include training and activity management.  The strategic levers are the primary ones on which to concentrate.  If those are set correctly, then account executives can overcome inadequate training and maintain a high level of activity.

Hire the right number of sales people with the right profile

One of the first principles of sales is to match your sales capacity to your production capacity.  In most low fixed cost, high variable cost businesses like professional services, it is pretty easy to get this right.  In contrast, for high fixed cost, low variable cost businesses like software or information services, enterprises often have the opportunity to double or even triple their sales force.  After all, if you are not able to knock on the door to begin with, it is pretty unlikely you are going to sell anything.

Individual hiring managers should have a crystal clear understanding of what great looks like.  In some environments, raw skills like clock speed, enthusiasm, and assertiveness may be required.  In others, you may be willing to sacrifice some raw sales ability for industry specific knowledge.  To figure out the right hiring profile, find the common threads in the background and skills of your current top performers.  You will have to compare the top performers to the bottom performers to identify the critical differences that drive success.  When you single out the top and bottom performers, use long term, fact-based results and not just managers’ opinions.

Align compensation with overall strategic objectives

Total sales compensation is a blend of base salary, commission, and special incentives.  Each of these should be tuned to align with overall strategic objectives.  Specifically, develop a solid understanding of how the compensation system will affect individual sales professionals as well as overall profitability.

The chosen split between base salary and commission is highly dependent on your environment.  For example, if your organization has fixed production capacity that you expect to sell out, then the most appropriate structure is one with a high base salary and low commission.  However, sales professionals are universally motivated by the compensation upside promised by a high commission rate.  Unfortunately, an extreme structure – such as one with straight commission – will generally draw less experienced, more aggressive, and potentially less loyal people into your organization.  The key is to strike a balance factoring in the expected behaviors and the implied skill profile that your system will elicit.

The simplest structure is to pay a flat commission rate on all sales beyond an established quota.  Note that the quota can be zero.  Since you get what you pay for, you can then add complexity to the compensation structure.  For example, you might want to set higher rates on products that are known to drive better client retention rates and expanded purchasing of complementary offerings.  Alternatively, you may wish to establish a tiered commission structure where rates increase with sales volume in order to dangle an ever more delicious carrot in front of star performers.  As you make such adjustments, tread very carefully; the hallmark of a great compensation structure is simplicity.  As a rule of thumb, you should be confident that the typical sales person can determine his or her payout from the next sale on the fly, without so much as resorting to a calculator.  If the sales person needs to look up a table or a spreadsheet, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

If you operate in the nearly fictional world where you have fixed capacity, your product cannot be inventoried, and clients refuse to wait for delivery, then you can set a cap on total compensation to prevent dissatisfied customers.  For everyone else, never set a cap on compensation even if that means your best sales person earns more than your CEO.  Paying sales commissions is like paying taxes.  If you pay a large amount of taxes or commissions, then that is the kind of problem you want to have.

Optimize the span of control

Span of control is a term with military origins that simply means the number of professionals that directly report to a first line manager.  An excessively low span of control is both expensive and has adverse effects on sales effectiveness since it brings de-motivating micromanagement.  In contrast, an overly high span of control also lowers productivity.   In such an environment, managers are left with little time to provide coaching and critical deal support.

Sales managers split their time between administrative tasks, planning, and coaching.  Administrative tasks include forecasting, responding to corporate requests and communications, and managing human resources issues.  Planning includes such functions as account strategy and analysis as well as personal career development.  Coaching includes time spent one on one with sales executives and time spent with your team on their visits in the field.  Each of these three major categories consumes roughly a third of a sales manager’s time.  Hence, a forty hour work week includes just thirteen hours that a manager can spend with a direct report.

In a low complexity, high volume environment such as retail sales or a call center, the span of control can equal or exceed fifteen direct reports to one manager since the need for coaching and for exception handling is minimal.  However, in typical environments a span of control ranging from four-to-one to eight-to-one is considered optimal as that allows the manager one to three hours per week to support each team member.

Match territory assignment to required knowledge

When most people think of sales strategy, they think of how individual sales people are assigned to their own personal pumpkin patch.  Though the word territory implies geographic segmentation, an assignment formula can be a mix of geography, industry, client role, product, or other factors.

The right territory strategy depends primarily on the knowledge base that sales people must possess to effectively close business.  The more that client needs are governed by job role or industry, the more narrowly you will need to define territories.  Generally, you can expect the typical sales person to be able to go deep in only one industry or one highly complex product.  A more focused territory definition allows account executives to build a critical mass of knowledge allowing them to be successful with a consultative selling approach.  On the other extreme, if you offer a low complexity product with broad appeal, then you can get away with pure geographic territory assignment.

Provide adequate sales training

Though formal sales training has its value, you can count on your account executives to learn on the job both through self study and from peers, provided they have a motivating compensation structure and a fertile territory.  That said, it would be folly to dismiss formal training outright.

Since most sales people are extroverted experiential learners, the most effective approach to skill building is role playing exercises that come as close as possible to the real world they will encounter.  These simulated live fire situations should be staged in a group setting.  Raising the stakes through social pressure will make the account executive less likely to choke in an actual client engagement.  Additionally, even those observing will gain a tremendous amount of value.   A distant though still acceptable alternative is electronic (strictly video) learning modules that include questions to test and cement knowledge.  You can safely assume that any reading material will at best find its way quickly into the recycling bin.

The key focus areas for training include order processing, basic selling skills, and product knowledge.  Every sales person will require training on the mechanics of order processing.  The less experienced your sales force, the more emphasis you will need to place on basic selling skills.  Similarly, the more complex your product, the more time you will need to spend training account executives on features.  However, be aware of the following key danger.  With an extremely complex product, sales people fall into the trap of engaging prospective clients in discussions about features and functionality, thus wasting valuable time that could be spent on value-based selling, instead.  After all, they spent hours mastering this knowledge themselves.  To combat this, maintain a constant emphasis on consultative, value-based selling techniques and make it clear that feature selling is not acceptable.

Though order processing, selling skills and product knowledge are fertile ground for formal training, industry instruction is conspicuously absent.  If industry expertise is a critical factor in winning business, then it is worth hiring professionals that come from the prospective companies to which you are selling.  Thriving sales executives will enhance their vertical market knowledge on an ongoing basis through client and prospect interactions and by browsing offline and online periodicals.

Encourage activity that drives results

Like sales training, activity management is a tactical lever that you can worry less about if you have properly tuned the strategic levers of hiring, compensation, span of control, and territory assignment.  When it comes to time management for sales executives, you should first explore if you are your own worst enemy.  Are your account executives being dragged down by excessive internal meetings?  Are you slamming them with administrative overhead that can be eliminated or redirected to a centralized team?  Are you filling their inboxes with excessive and unfocused internal communications?  Clearing this clutter may be all you need to do to drive a huge increase in sales effectiveness.

If you need a little extra juice, then you can set an achievable expectation for the volume of sales activity per week.  This is particularly effective for less experienced sales people and in high transaction volume environments.  Remember that this is a fairly aggressive tactic that also consumes cycles since sales people must enter activity into a tracking system.  Micro-managing sales activity should be used sparingly since it tacitly communicates a lower level of trust and limits perceived independence.  If you do go down this path for sales people tasked with both renewing existing business and growing new business, then you may need to be prescriptive about the split between these two activities.  To make such expectations have an impact, sales people must know that the information is being monitored and is tied to rewards or consequences.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become an adroit manager of sales effectiveness:

  • Hire the right number of sales people with the right profile
  • Align compensation with overall strategic objectives
  • Optimize the span of control
  • Match territory assignment required knowledge
  • Provide adequate sales training
  • Encourage activity that drives results

Building Digital Communities

If you are seeking to develop deeper relationships with clients and prospects, then you will benefit from fostering a digital community.  Conceptually, this is not new, as forward thinking companies have maintained high touch client advisory councils for years.  What is new is that a digital community ups the game on both your ability to influence clients as well as your responsibility to learn from and react to user needs.  Moreover, digital communities foster mass collaboration with participants, providing everything from ideas to functional products.

Recruit Community Members

First and foremost, people will be drawn to your digital community if you establish a concrete, shared value proposition. Moreover, the value proposition should provide a compelling need not met elsewhere.  The most successful and compelling communities allow members to share information, best practices, and lessons learned in very specific domains.  In a few instances, including the open source software movement, value is created by allowing participants to offer premium extensions and services. The breadth of a community like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is more the exception than the rule.  Some interesting communities with a targeted focus include Khan Academy and PerlMonks.

At Khan Academy, founder and executive director Salman Khan personally created a library of over 1,600 videos targeted at kindergarten through twelfth grade students struggling with math and science.  Many of the concepts that Mr. Khan tackled were first requested by friends and family and later by a broader community.  As of this writing, the Khan Academy model exemplifies a digital community with member solicited but centrally created content.

PerlMonks is a very different, and in some ways more traditional, digital community.  The model in this instance is a loosely moderated discussion tread for people looking to polish their Perl (a software language) programming skills.  The PerlMonks folks do a lot of clever things to nurture their community including live chat, tutorials, and yes, even Perl poetry.  Super nerds that they are, the moderators explicitly state that verse can include poetry written in Perl, poetry generated by Perl scripts, and conventional poetry about Perl or PerlMonks.  If you do not think the haiku “Cat please go away! Demanding my attention – does not help me code!” posted by “kitty love” is funny, then PerlMonks is not for you.

Building out a digital community, only to then wait for devotees is a sure road to disappointment.  Start offline to be successful online.  In the early phases, begin with a small, in-person advisory group of core enthusiasts.  They will test and upgrade your value proposition and tell you what would make it worth their time to participate.  This group should also take responsibility for crafting and maintaining a membership guide.  Needless to say, the best enthusiasts are trusted influencers that bring their own large networks.

The live advisory board is one of several ways to confer a select status.  Consider extending this feeling to the larger community by making membership in the group exclusive.  The volunteers that run PerlMonks have elevated this to an art form.  When a new user joins the forum, they enter the Monastery gates in probationary mode with few privileges.  I once posted a question with incorrectly formatted computer code and received a thorough lashing in the form of a demotion.  As people participate by asking and answering questions and by voting, they gain experience points.  Over the course of time, an individual can move from Acolyte to Friar to Abbot and so on.  In fact, there are twenty eight levels, culminating in Pope.  In contrast to the real world, PerlMonks has three Popes as of this writing, one of whom is creator Tim Vroom.

Though the two communities profiled here have a not-for-profit educational mission, you can assemble digital communities around a for-profit product or service that rests on the same principles of sharing information, best practices, and lessons learned.  When you allow your sales and marketing channel into the community, do so sparingly and make sure that any offers provide real value to members.

A final consideration around setting up a digital community is commitment.  In the same way that people are wary of forming deep relationships, potential community members will be able to immediately smell whether you are in it for the long term.  To demonstrate your commitment, you should provide adequate resources to build and sustain the community.  At minimum, that means making a community the full time job of at least one (and preferably more) extroverted, digitally literate person.

Cultivate Community Members

If seeded properly with a concrete value proposition, a core set of influencers, and adequate infrastructure, your digital community will be off to a strong start.  As the group evolves, you will need to review and enhance the value that members receive.  You can approach this in the same way that you approach product development — by exploring complementary needs of participants.

In the for-profit world, such enhancements are more likely to be sourced in offline meetings rather than online interactions.  You can gain intimacy and build trust from quarterly face-to-face forums with your advisory council and other engaged members.

Create a community operating model

To thrive, digital communities not only need basic care and feeding, but also need an operating framework that is adaptive.  People, of course, are at the heart of the model.  The advisory group, or a complementary set of trusted participants, bear the responsibility for guiding the community.  In addition, this core group should be expected to handle exceptions to processes.

If you have ever read an un-moderated discussion thread in a public online forum, then you have seen some of the lowest forms of human behavior.  Consequently, I strongly recommend building, at inception, mechanisms for quality control into your community.  Appropriate techniques range from automated tools to remove content with objectionable language, to a fully moderated environment where information must be verified before sharing.

Communities that are expected to persist need to be self-replenishing to make up for participants that drop out.  Choosing a distinct focus and serving a need not met elsewhere will go a long way to helping individuals self-select into the group.  The key is to get the community large enough to benefit from positive network effects where an ever growing community is continuously adding more value.

Regardless of community size, strive to remain in constant communication with the group.  This is especially important for smaller communities.  Remember that communication can span across a range of engagement levels from e-mail to teleconferences to physical events.

Last but not least, build flexibility into the community infrastructure from the start.  This means that systems should be modular, reconfigurable, and editable.  With this capability, the core group of community leaders will be able to react rapidly to changing requirements.

Deliver Value

It is possible to create communities where some degree of value is delivered in tangible economic form.  A common approach here is to create friendly competition with real prizes.  If you do award prizes, then it is best to make them relevant to your product – think branded merchandise rather than cold hard cash.  A minor problem with competition is that you create some losers along the way.  However, the peskier drawbackwith tangible rewards is that they create the unwelcome aura of pay-to-play.  A bad practice in any era, it is especially dangerous in an age when reputation – especially digital reputation – is an infinitely valued asset.

Of course, intangible value is far more powerful and ethically safe; thus, it should be the focus of your efforts.  The PerlMonks experience system provides an excellent example that plays to social and emotional needs for status and recognition.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at building digital communities:

  • Recruit Community Members
  • Cultivate Community Members
  • Create a community operating model
  • Deliver Value

Webinars

These days, no self-respecting lead generation engine is complete without a web-based seminar program.  Live and even recorded Webinars are a low cost way to find and pre-qualify prospective customers.  These sessions are particularly effective for professional, knowledge based services which have a high cost of direct sales.

Drive registration

Just like every marketing program, the beginning of the Webinar funnel begins with getting behinds in seats.  Here, of course, content is king.  You must select content that aligns the interests of the target audience with the specific benefits your product provides.  Remember that people attend Webinars to learn, not to be sold something.

The title that you create will have an amazing impact on the registration rate.  Craft a title that clearly tells the audience what is in it for them; edit it mercilessly to ensure that you accomplish this in as few words as possible.

In some circumstances, it may make sense to build a Webinar community as part of a larger social networking experience.  If you go this route, then you can develop a series of Webinars adhering to a theme.  However, tread cautiously here.  The ultimate goal of Webinar programs is to accelerate the sales cycle. By deploying a sequence, prospects may feel compelled to wait until the end of the series to pass judgment on the value of your solution.

Every additional field of information that you request on the registration page will lower the registration rate. To that end, simplify the registration page to the bare bones.  Asking for email addresses alone will provide the maximum number of leads.  However, you will probably need to have enough information to route leads to specific sales territories based on vertical market, geography, or named account.  In that case, you can ask for an email address and phone number.  By linking the email domain to a company name and the area code to geography, you will have everything that you need.  Moreover, asking for a phone number will serve to filter out less qualified parties.  To make sure that your Webinar really hits the mark, optionally you can solicit advance questions on the confirmation page.

Since it may require multiple touches to entice people to register for your Webinar, a typical best practice is to begin promoting the event twenty-one days in advance.  Though you can start as much as a month in advance, people generally will not respond to a solicitation for something that is more than thirty days away.  In terms of scheduling, Wednesdays and Thursdays between 11 am and 1pm are the optimal times.  If you have filled the calendar for those days, then Tuesdays are the next best choice.  You should avoid Mondays and Fridays, since those days are unlikely to provide an acceptable return on investment.

Drive attendance

Getting people to register for your Webinar is only the first part of the battle.  The next hurdle is actually getting them to show up.  You should expect registration-to-attendance ratios to range from 25% for general interest topics to 50% for specialized topics with a highly targeted audience.  Of course, if you have exceptionally valuable content and people who actually paid to attend, then attendance rates can be as high as 90%.

The first way to increase attendance rates is to make remembering to attend the Webinar as effortless as possible.  At minimum, you should send a registration confirmation that includes an electronic calendar attachment.  In addition, industry best practice dictates sending a reminder one day before as well as one to three hours in advance of the session.

A second compelling way to drive attendance is to offer a reward.  One form of this is offering a monetary or otherwise fashionable prize to randomly selected attendees.  However, you can do better, particularly if you are focused on a specialized topic.  For example, if you are a customer relationship management software vendor extolling the virtues of using technology to improve client relationships, then you could offer an exclusive and directly relevant whitepaper or electronic book to all attendees.

Deliver content

Congratulations, you not only got people to register for your Webinar, but also enticed them to hear what you have to say.  But, since attention spans are short and Webinars rely on influence at a distance, you have your work cut out for you.

A first best practice is to load the most valuable content at the front end.  This will serve to engage your audience.  In addition, you will demonstrate that the session has value even for those that drop early.

A second best practice is to manage your speaking tone.  As you would with a live audience, speak with passion and enthusiasm, almost as if you are speaking with one individual rather than broadcasting to a group.

A third best practice is to make the experience interactive.  For example, you can integrate polling and discuss results as they are dynamically updated.  Additionally, you may choose to integrate social media feeds into part of the display.

Though compelling Webinars are designed first and foremost to inform the audience, attendees know that your motivation for teaching them is not purely altruistic (unless you are doing a public service session).  Hence, the webinar should end with a call to action that compels the attendees to escalate their involvement.  For instance, consider soliciting them to fill out a post event survey in order to download a free copy of the presentation.

Drive and measure results

Webinars are a marketing activity designed to initiate or accelerate a sales cycle.  Hence, registration rates and attendance rates are not in and of themselves adequate measures of success.  To truly get a sense of any gains, then, monitor the return on investment by factoring revenues from converted clients against program costs.  If you discover the program is not driving profits, then you can adjust it or shut it down and used the money for something with higher proven impact.

To maximize conversion rates, sales executives (or sales automation if you do not have a direct sales force) should respond immediately to attendees.  In addition, it often pays to reach out to the fifty to seventy five percent of registrants that did not attend.  For this latter group in particular, you may want to send an automatic invitation to your next Webinar.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to create a compelling Webinar program that delivers a high return on marketing investment:

  • Drive registration
  • Drive attendance
  • Deliver content
  • Drive and measure results

Product Management

In most organizations, the critical skill for a successful product manager is best summed up as influence at a distance.  Whether the product management function reports in to sales, marketing, or a standalone business unit, there are a distinct set of best practices your team can follow to be successful.

Architect and optimize the channel

If account executives are not selling your product, then you and your team are not going to be around for very long.  A fortunate few may have a dedicated sales force with total focus on your product.  Most product managers, however, need to compete with other project managers for the attention of sales people.  The formula becomes the following: you sell to your sales team and they sell to your customers.

First and foremost, you must keep your messaging simple.  Salespeople, just like all other people on the planet, are bombarded with messages.  Though your product may have fifty incredible features, you want to arm your sales force with just two things.  First, you should train them on the fundamental value proposition of the product.  When sales people are in a meeting and a prospect articulates a problem that your product uniquely addresses, you want a spotlight to shine on your offering in the account executive’s mind.  Second, you should ensure that the sales person has an unambiguous understanding of what is in it for him or her personally if he sells your product.  Though many rewards are financial, never underestimate the power of recognition – especially public recognition among one’s peers.

With only one of you and a great many salespeople, you need to be strategic about where you direct your effort.  Some product managers focus on broadcast messages to the entire sales force.  Others target the head of sales hoping for messages to work their way down.  Both of these approaches are suboptimal and the reason has everything to do with basic organizational behavior.  The bottom line is that people do what their managers expect of them.  Just think of yourself, for instance, sitting in a large, all company meeting where you CEO lays out her high level vision for the next year.  If your boss does not set objectives and manage daily expectations to that vision, then you and your colleagues are unlikely to react.  Taking this message to heart, you will have the most impact as a product manager if you concentrate your effort on first line sales managers.

I can hear your objection already – “but, there are too many of them!”  To avoid this pickle, you simply need to recognize another key organizational behavior principle.  Human beings, yes that includes sales managers, move as a herd.  Even in a herd, a few brave souls wander into uncharted territory looking for sustenance.  In the early stages, these people will appear as widely distributed bright spots.  As you identify them, interview them to learn their best practices and lessons learned and systematically promote those findings to other managers.  As you help these teams win business, they will virally communicate their success.  Ultimately, products perform best when sales people can ask other sales people for advice.  When that happens, you have prevailed.

Know your end customer

If you market exclusively to your sales force, then you will rapidly lose touch with the changing needs of your customers.  Perhaps more importantly, you may fail to capture innovative, unconventional uses for your product.  Just think of Arm and Hammer baking soda, which is no more than run of the mill sodium bicarbonate in a box.  By experimenting internally and by listening to customers, their product has found its way into laundry detergent, toothpaste, swimming pool cleaning tablets, carpet deodorizer, and many other uses.

The easiest way to keep in touch with what your customers care about is to involve yourself in specific deals.  Though you will need to establish trust, most sales people will willingly pull you in as an expert to help them close business.

A more powerful approach for staying in touch with the needs of the market is to create a continual feedback loop.  Quantitative surveys are a necessary but insufficient approach.  You should also have a regular cadence of live, qualitative interviews.  Most critically, this is not something that you can delegate; be there to listen and to ask probing questions.

Prioritize innovation

During the course of the conversations that you have with new and prospective clients, with sales people, and with other interested parties, you will have your hands full with a laundry list of innovations.  Since time and money are limited, you must prioritize those items that will have the greatest impact on your business.

Hence, as a product manager, you should focus on big, hairy projects.  (Unfortunately, this also means that you will likely end up de-emphasizing maintenance.)  As you place bets on a limited set of initiatives, you should monitor in an unbiased way so that you can reprioritize, iterate, and occasionally terminate.  Take the time to choose projects that are likely to succeed and marshal every available resource.  You want to become known as someone that achieves results, not someone that is constantly tinkering and changing direction.

Introduce change gradually

Everybody likes to have a clean slate.  Consequently, most people craft plans to roll out change on a massive scale.  However, the most effective product managers introduce change gradually.  Whenever you would like to make a modification, ask yourself how you can run a pilot.  This test will not only provide you with fact-based evidence that the change will work, but also give you guidance on ways to improve how and what you roll out.  In addition to dedication to using pilot programs, you should also seek to break change into multiple phases, each providing the ability to communicate unambiguous short term wins.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a great product manager:

  • Architect and optimize the channel
  • Know your customer
  • Prioritize innovation
  • Introduce change gradually

Messaging Effectiveness

Exceptional managers need to possess superb writing skills whether they are drafting presentations or banging out e-mails.  Under time pressure, it is all too easy to let the effectiveness of your messaging slip.  To combat mediocrity, you should impose the ‘plan then write then edit’ discipline in all of your communications.  Variously attributed to Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and a host of other scribes and scholars, the hoary “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter” is still one of my favorite quotes.  Take that advice to heart during the planning and editing phases.

Plan

At some point in our writing lives, we are all told to plan.  The prescription, more often than not, is structural, rather than conceptual.  More concretely, a teacher coaches us to create an outline with an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion.  Sound advice, to be sure; but you can up the ante.

The first step in planning to write copy that captures is selecting your audience.  Whether you are writing to a large audience or a single person, picture a single individual in your mind’s eye.  By way of example, imagine that you are marketing pediatric dental services.  Rather than thinking abstractly about parents, develop a vivid image of a mother with two young children.  Build out a persona including her name, her age, her likes, her dislikes.

After conjuring your muse, the next step in planning is to determine the benefits that are important to your audience.  Keeping their needs front and center will help you stay focused on their ego not yours.  For example, the mother that you have called to mind probably does not care about features of your practice such as the number of square feet, your panoramic digital x-ray machine, or your brand of tooth polish.  Instead, you should focus on how your practice serves the physical (hygiene, limited radiation, allergy awareness) and emotional (empathy, entertainment) needs of children and their families.

The last step, often the hardest to commit to in the planning process, is to state one – just one – specific objective that you are trying to achieve in your writing.  Though you will be tempted to extol every virtue, remember that less is more.

Write

Once you have identified your audience and chosen a single objective, it is time to start writing.  Let go of perfection and just write.  Allow the words to flow.  Whatever you do, absolutely, positively, DO NOT EDIT YET; that will come later.

As you write, adopt a conversational tone and let your personality come through.  In the planning phase, you conjured the image of a specific person.  Imagining that you are having a dialogue with this individual puts that task of drafting on a human scale, allowing you to create messages that are directly relevant on a personal level.  A practice that some great copy writers employ is not only to imagine a particular person, but also to pretend the individual is a loved one to whom they are writing a personal letter.

In the course of committing words to paper, frequently you are going to get a nagging feeling that something you have written will elicit a question from the imagined conversation partner.  Pay close attention to that inner voice.  Those questions might probe for additional clarification or they may be outright objections.  You should anticipate and answer questions as your muse would raise them.

As you become a more seasoned writer, you should engender curiosity.  There are two smart ways to do this.  The first is to introduce ideas that challenge conventional wisdom.  Specifically, with respect to the individual you have conjured, provide information that subtly confronts that person’s belief system.  After all, there is a reason that conservatives spend a lot of time consuming liberal media and vice versa.  The second approach to manufacturing interest is to create a knowledge gap or surprise that makes your audience ask ‘how?’ or ‘why?’

The language and the style you employ are both critical.  Write short sentences with simple active words.  Use clear language.  Employ repetition.  Instead of “Eradicate inane matters to culminate in increased work productivity”, try “remove waste to drive results.”

Since you took the time in the planning stage to develop a persona of a distinct individual, you should now use language that paints a vivid mental picture or story for him or her.  After all, you are writing to inspire curiosity.  To do that, draw upon words that evoke positive emotions and stimulate the senses.  Examples include: wonder, imagine, reveal, story, discover, rivet, inspire, and picture.

As a writer, one of your aims is to ensure that your audience trusts your message.  To make your message credible, call upon external sources for proof when possible.  For example, I could simply tell you that children experience less anxiety if they observe their mothers being treated by a dental hygienist before having their own teeth cleaned.  It is far more powerful for me to cite an international study published in the Journal of Canadian Dentistry.  Consider a a May 2009 study of 155 children bythe head of the department of pediatric and community dentistry at Saint Joseph University and the head of a pediatric dental clinic.  The researchers found that children who first see procedures modeled on their mothers have an average heart rate of 96 beats per minute versus 102 beats per minute when modeled on fathers or when not modeled at all.  Sorry dads.

Edit

Once you have completed your first draft, reward yourself by taking a break.  Fierce editing demands a clear mind.  While the goal in the writing process is to unleash ideas, the goal in the editing process principally is to polish language and secondarily to fill in the occasional gap.

In your first edit, focus on the overarching objective that you defined in the planning phase.  As you encounter any text that does not serve your singular goal, ruthlessly delete, no matter how hard it is.

In your second edit, strive to make the language even more clear, riveting, and sensory.  Break long sentences into shorter ones. Transform passive tense into active tense.  Eliminate jargon and highfalutin words.

In your third edit, put yourself in the mind of your reader.  Raise objections when you see flaws in logic or ask for clarification when you are confused.  During this revision, you may want to engage the services of a friend or co-worker to play the role of the audience.  Over time, you may develop a knack for doing this on your own, but there is never shame in drawing upon another pair of eyes.

Depending on how much time you have and how important the copy you are writing, you can go through the three edits in successive waves.

My final piece of advice is to finish what you start as well as you can and then release your writing into the world.  You do the best you can with the time you have.  Completion, not perfection, is the goal.  Even Twain and Cicero knew that, at some point, they had to let go and just send their letters.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to write copy that captures:

  • Plan
  • Write
  • Edit

Selling To Executives

You would think that every professional services firm on the planet would be well versed in consultative sales practices.  And yet, I am sure you have had a recent experience with a potential supplier who spent the first forty minutes of a one hour initial meeting walking you through a set of slides detailing his or her background, capabilities, and so on.  If you are lucky, the presenter started to ask you about your needs with the little time left at the end.  On paper, this is a glaringly terrible practice.  And yet, these meetings happen thousands of times every day.

The wonderful news is that the pervasiveness of bad sales behavior creates a golden opportunity for you.  To become proficient at selling to executives, you need to adopt a few simple practices.

First identify the value

The days of most executives are filled with back-to-back constructive problem solving meetings where they are asked to make thoughtful, albeit rapid, decisions.  When presenting to an executive, the best internal staff lay out the facts, discuss problems or opportunities, and bring forth potential solutions.  Since this is the language that executives speak, you should be fluent when engaging them on your products and services.

Selling the value means working with the executive to construct a forward looking plan that will deliver tangible results to their entire business.  To do that, you need to ask questions, listen, and be diagnostic.  By understanding your customers’ strategies and their critical problems, you become a consultative partner in the best position to link the unique benefits of your solutions to their needs.

Selling the value does not mean describing your features, functionality, and capabilities.  Most executives have no time and no interest in that level of detail.  To be great at selling to executives, imagine that your job is to make them a hero to their company.  Executives become heroes by pulling strategic levers such as:

  • increasing revenues
  • lowering costs
  • improving operational efficiency
  • enhancing employee productivity

Once you have uncovered the executive’s strategies and problems and linked the unique benefits of your service to clear bottom line business results, you have another key responsibility.  Good sales people work hard to understand what it will take to commit to buying.  Great sales people also work to understand why the customer will not buy and then work systematically to overcome objections.

Establish yourself as a trusted partner

At some point, a prospect will narrow their purchasing decision down to you and to one or two of your closest competitors.  You can safely assume that the prospect has a sense of near equivalence between your company and the alternative suppliers when product attributes, service, pricing, and so on are netted out.  In the end, their decision will come down to which supplier he or she puts the most trust in to deliver on the promised value.

To get over the risk of buying your product or service, you must prove how you help clients to be consistently successful over the long term.  The most effective ways to offer proof are by providing references or by sharing case studies that are directly relevant.  Moreover, since you are selling to human beings, you should address not only the business value delivered, but also the individual personal value realized.

The consultative approach that you take during the sales process builds trust.  By listening and bringing new ideas, rather than purely pitching your wares, you establish that you care about the client and his or her barriers to business and personal success.

Finally, to build trust, you must demonstrate that you are always prepared.  This begins in the very first meeting that you have with your prospects.  Prior to that meeting, you must do your homework on their company and their individual goals so that you are fully primed to discuss their business.  Preparation should continue to remain supreme in every subsequent interaction so the client has the security that they can depend on you.

Determine the customer’s purchasing process

Successful sales people know that one of the most critical tasks is figuring out who holds the purse strings in the organization.  In recent years, mid level managers have lost purchasing authority, though they do not care to readily admit it.

An excellent strategy to completely determine the key decision maker is to ask the prospect who in the organization will be involved in the purchasing process.  This allows the prospect to save face.  In the process, you will learn if the person’s manager, manager’s manager, CFO, or even CEO needs to be brought in.  When they identify these people, you gain the ability to architect ongoing access to power.  You are within your right to require one-on-one interviews or a kick off meeting with all stakeholders early on.  Moreover, you are within your right to require periodic status meetings with the key participants.

Develop a written value plan with your client during the sales process

While it is possible to shepherd a complex sale from early consultation to proposal without a formal roadmap, there is a better way.  Early in the process, skillful sales executives create a written value plan in partnership with the prospect.  This plan should cover every stage of the sales cycle including pre-sale, purchase order to go live, and go live to value realization.  Depending on the situation, it can be as informal as an email or as formal as a prepared document.

For starters, this plan gives your prospect that confidence that you are in it for the long haul and not just for your commission check.  It proves that you understand the outcome is business and personal value realization and not a signed purchase order.

Most importantly, the value plan is also an excellent place for you to capture and address client objections.  Ultimately, you want the document to build commitment that the prospect will purchase, provided you meet clearly articulated criteria.

Manage the change process for the customer

Once you have a signed deal, your work is only just beginning.  In years past, you would simply ship your product to the customer with an instruction manual and be done with it.  That worked reasonably well in the age of relatively unsophisticated products and less demanding customers.  Today, you should take on the responsibility of managing the customer through the change process required to get the expected return on investment from your product.

By way of example, a plethora of studies have examined the percentage of customer relationship management (CRM) software installations that succeed and that fail.  It turns out that approximately 20% of all CRM projects completely fail to deploy and another 50% do not provide meaningful return on investment.  Given that the CRM market as of this writing is about $10 billion, companies are collectively pouring $7 billion down the drain.  And, that $7 billion does not include untold billions in additional services, wasted time, and opportunity cost.

The big problem with CRM projects, and more generally with projects involving sophisticated products and services, is that suppliers rely on their customers to enact the change required for success.  Inevitably, however, customers systematically underestimate the degree of change required and lack direct experience in getting value from your offering.

As the supplier, you have the most knowledge and experience of what it takes for customers to get value from your product.  You will have seen the change processes that deliver success and those that result in failure.  You have a moral and professional responsibility to manage the change processes on behalf of your customer.

Conduct Regular Value Reviews

I am willing to bet that most of your suppliers disappear after the sale and only magically reappear a month or two before you are expected to make your next purchase.  I am also willing to bet that you find that unsavory.

Fortunately, there is a higher ground that you can reach which will make you stellar at selling to executives.  That higher ground is reached by conducting periodic value reviews with your customer.  During a value review, you have two main objectives.

The first objective is to collect and communicate feedback.  If you did your job well during the initial sale, then the executive has a tangible set of expectations of the value that you will deliver.  Ask the scary questions.  Did we deliver what we promised?  What could we have done differently?  Also, gather insights on what went especially well.  In many cases, the executive will not have direct knowledge of value received. Therefore, the opportunity rests with you to amass and communicate information from your people and systems and, more critically, from other individuals inside the executive’s company.  Statements confirming value that are made by individuals in the executive’s own company are a thousand times more powerful than your own data or estimates.

During the value review, your second objective is to optimize value after the sale.  This is your opportunity to suggest additional best practices and applications for your product or service.  In short, it is your opportunity to delight your customer with service in a way that transforms you from just another sales person into a trusted partner.

At the end of the contract period, you should be able to confirm effortlessly that you met or exceeded the value the executive expected.  By capturing feedback along the way, you avoid the scramble of trying to piece together the long forgotten past.

Create a new value plan to extend your relationship

During the course of periodic value reviews, you will have picked up on many opportunities to deliver new solutions in the next sales cycle.  At the end of the contract period, go back into consultative selling mode.  Take the time to uncover new unsolved problems as well as the executive’s updated strategic priorities.  With that information, you can create a new value plan to extend your relationship.

Recap

Odds are that your competitors are lousy at consultative selling.  You can excel by establishing value, ensuring that it gets delivered, and confirming the success of your relationship.  Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at selling to executives:

  • First identify the value
  • Establish yourself as a trusted partner
  • Determine the customer’s purchasing process
  • Develop a written value plan with your client during the sales process
  • Manage the change process for the customer
  • Conduct Regular Value Reviews
  • Create a new value plan to extend your relationship

Customer Satisfaction & Loyalty

A war has been raging for decades over whether or not customer satisfaction and loyalty drive profitability.  Proponents reasonably argue that happy customers will pay more, buy more, and spread goodwill through word of mouth.  Similarly, every marketer has heard the warning that an unhappy customer will condemn you directly to ten of his or her friends.  In the age of ubiquitous communications, an unhappy customer can indirectly trash you to billions of people.  The position of the proponents requires little further illustration.

Skeptics of the link between customer satisfaction and profitability actually make a convincing case, too.  The argument goes that there are tradeoffs between customer satisfaction and other factors that drive profitability – in particular, a tradeoff between productivity and satisfaction.

Take the business of delivering print newspapers.  Imagine that a newspaper delivery service makes sure that customers get a paper delivered to their property in good condition by eight in the morning come rain or shine.  This newspaper company could provide exceptional customer satisfaction by making sure that every paper is delivered with consistent daily precision on the mat at your front door.  To guarantee that level of service, the newspaper company would have to hire a lot more delivery people since the productivity per employee would drop precipitously. Without raising prices, that extra cost would obliterate profits.  Newspaper companies figured this out a long time ago. so your mornings, like mine, probably begin with an exciting treasure hunt through front yard hedges (assuming you don’t get your news solely electronically).

Back in 1997, Eugene Anderson and Claes Fornell from the University of Michigan, along with Roland Rust of Vanderbilt University, published an extensive study on the relationship between productivity, customer satisfaction, and profitability.  In 12 out of 16 industries they studied, businesses with high customer satisfaction measures earned higher average return on investment than those with low satisfaction.  The four exceptions were department stores, gas stations, newspapers, and supermarkets.  The characteristic these four shared relative to the other twelve was some degree of monopoly protection generally conferred by location advantage.  In each of the four, people would clearly have a better experience if the companies in question added extra human capacity.

Though academics will split hairs for years to come, your common sense tells you that it pays to deliver great customer satisfaction.  Great satisfaction is not meant to be blind and absolute.  Rather your goal is to optimize customer satisfaction in a profit maximizing fashion.  (Yes, there is that pesky efficient frontier concept again.)

You have no doubt noticed that I have been playing a bit fast and loose with the terms ‘customer satisfaction’ and ‘customer loyalty’.  Now, I will get a bit more precise.  Of the two concepts, customer loyalty is the more powerful one, because customer satisfaction is merely an ingredient of customer loyalty.  A satisfied customer may or may not come back for more.  A satisfied customer may or may not tell his or her friends.  A loyal customer will do both; he or she is a repeat satisfied customer who also spreads the good word about your product or service.

To build great loyalty, you need to measure it and continuously optimize it.  Here is how to do that.

Measure customer loyalty

Fred Reichheld, a management consultant at Bain & Company, wrote the most compelling and most accessible book on customer loyalty, The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth.  While the following summary is no substitute for reading it cover to cover, I’ll attempt to distill its key lessons.

More accurately, Mr. Reichheld’s book should have been titled The Ultimate Questions, since he recommends a quality survey that has one question to measure loyalty and one question that allows you to continuously optimize it.  Let us explore the measurement question first.

The ultimate loyalty measurement question is the following: “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend [Company X] to a friend or colleague?”  I have come across many brilliant and well-intentioned people that have embraced this question but missed one of the key subtleties: they apply a 1 to 5 scale to measure loyalty.  Now, that can make for a good measurement.  But, to be great, Reichheld prescribes a 0 to 10 scale.

Though this seems like nitpicking, the expanded scale is necessary to determine the Net Promoter Score (NPS) ™ for your product or service.  The NPS is calculated by starting with the percentage of “Promoters”, subtracting the percentage of “Detractors”, and ignoring the “Passives.”  These three groups are defined as follows with respect to how they respond on the 0 to 10 scale:

  • Promoters (response 9 or 10): These are the customers that really love you.
  • Passives (response 7 or 8): These are the customers that are merely satisfied.
  • Detractors: (response 0 to 6): These are the customers that hate you, but have varying degrees of kindness.

By way of example, imagine that you survey 500 people and get 30% promoters, 60% passives, and 10% detractors.  Your resulting Net Promoter Score ™ is 20% (computed as 30% minus 10%).  The average firm tends to have scores between 5% and 10%, though negative scores are all too common.

In the absolute, the Net Promoter Score probably paints a rosier picture of customer loyalty than reality since the people that truly despise you will not do you the favor of responding to your survey.  However, great loyalty managers focus primarily on the trend of their score over time and secondarily on their score relative to the competition.

Though the Net Promoter score has its own detractors, I challenge you to find a loyalty measurement that comes even close in simultaneously being easy to apply and easy to interpret.  Start a continuous process today to measure customer loyalty that relies on this concept.

Optimize customer loyalty

In my opinion, the ultimate customer loyalty survey has not one but two questions (and preferably no more than two).  Measuring loyalty alone will tell you how healthy you are at a given point in time.  However, to figure out what you need to do to get a more steadfast following, you need to listen to your customers.

To optimize customer allegiance, you must ask the question: “What key improvement can we provide that would make you more likely to recommend us?”  The wording here is flexible, but the gist is to ask a straightforward question that will elicit improvement ideas from your customers.  From the promoters, you will learn why they came to love you in the first place and what you need to do to earn their continued loyalty.  From the passives, you will learn the potentially modest steps you can take to transform them into promoters.  And from the detractors, you just might figure out what it will take to convince them to stop posting nasty comments about your company all over the Internet.

As with any survey, your mission is to find the common threads and select the actions that deliver the greatest impact taking cost into account.  While it is true that your customers will not necessarily suggest every valuable idea, they will suggest most of them, and rest assured that the ones they suggest do matter.

If you ask people what they want, then you need to be prepared to systematically address their requests.  At the very least, you must acknowledge desires and provide an informational reply.  In many instances, customers will cite immediate product or service failures that need to be addressed. Research shows that customers who complained and had their problems solved are significantly more loyal as a group than customers that never had a known problem to begin with.  However, if a customer highlights a problem and you do nothing, then you can pretty much write them off.  It might have been better never to have asked in the first place.

Recap

In almost all industries, customer loyalty drives profitable growth. To become a great loyalty manager, you must institute an ongoing program to:

  • Measure customer loyalty
  • Optimize customer loyalty