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Winning Sales Culture Starts At The Top

A winning sales culture starts at the top.

“Culture” is about patterns of behavior and the blend of values, habits and practices that exist in an organization. The habits and patterns of behavior that lead to an organization’s success are established by those at the top of the organization. In a B2B sales organization, we are talking about the head of sales and his or her front-line sales managers.

Having worked with roughly 150 sales organizations over the last thirteen years, I have been exposed to all types of different sales cultures.  A range of cultural labels come to mind as I think about companies I’ve come to know.

Winning Sales Cultures versus The RestLucky sales cultures exist in those organizations that seem to win despite themselves. They have no discernible patterns of behavior or values, but they seem to win (i.e. grow bigger) anyway.  Typical markers of the lucky sales culture include organizations with big, recognizable brand names, shiny silver objects, or partnerships with big, recognizable brands with shiny silver objects.  Frantic cultures exist where the sales organization is always playing catch-up, rarely setting the pace, and mostly reacting to issues and opportunities that bubble up.  They have no operating rhythm and no apparent focus on any one, important thing.  Instead, everything is important, and everyone in the organization is exhausted.  Groundhog Day cultures exist in organizations that don’t ever seem to learn.  They apply the same bad habits and practices over and over again, never changing, and they hope for  better results than they had in the past.  One could also call these cultures “insane.”

I expect you might be able to come up with your own list of cultural labels, ranging from those that indicate high function and performance to extreme dysfunction. Rather than dwell too long on the negative experiences we’ve all had, let’s instead consider what winning cultures look like. I’ve worked within several winning cultures and played a role in helping to shape them.

Winning sales cultures share some important, common characteristics.  They have a discernible rhythm in which important trumps urgent.  They proactively focus on doing what it takes to differentiate and win, making the effort to create maximum value for customers in each and every interaction.  Winning cultures start at the top.  Their senior-most leadership makes a conscious choice to pursue excellence in all aspects of client relationship management.  They intentionally focus their company’s best resources and effort on the clients and opportunities that are best aligned with their strengths as an organization.  They do not make nor will they accept excuses for operating in a way that does not conform with the company’s standards of excellence.  If things ever go badly, people in winning cultures own up to their role in causing the bad outcome rather than blaming others. They fix problems rather than make excuses for poor performance.

Winning sales cultures are customer-focused in all that they do. In their habits and practices, you see evidence that their people are proactive, intentional, focused, and they learn and improve when things do not go according to plan.

It is the beginning of a New Year, and now is a great time to take stock of your sales culture. What label would you place on your sales organization? Can you confidently say that you’ve established a winning culture? If not, what do you / your leaders need to do more of, do less of, change, or stop altogether?

If you have a winning culture today, what can you do to sustain and build upon your team’s winning habits and practices? What will you do to raise your own game?

United Sales Resources provides actionable intelligence and practical advice to sales leaders, so they can drive better sales results. If you would like to discuss this post with Matt McDarby or learn more about how our sales leadership coaching and advisory services help our customers to grow, then contact us for a brief tour or a conversation.  Thank you again for your time!

Future In Focus: Guest Post

Future In Focus, a new firm based in Washington, DC that we like a lot, provides access to one of the largest bodies of foresight research in the world.  The research they offer provides valuable insight on issues and opportunities that may materially affect the way we live and work in the future.

Today’s excerpt from Future In Focus zeroes in on the future of organizational practices.  If you’d like full access to this report and others like it, please visit the Future In Focus website at www.futureinfocus.com.

The Future of Organizational Practices: Introduction

There are a wide variety of visions for how work and the workplace will change in coming decades. Some focus on technology—e.g., on how new devices or big data will change workers’ lives—while others analyze the way in which Millennials and other generations will mix to create the workforce of the future. One area often left out of the conversation is how changes underway in organizational culture will help transform work.

Edgar Schein, MIT professor and thought leader in the study of organizational culture, is quoted as saying, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” Organizational culture includes the collective values, norms, visions, language, beliefs, and habits that characterize an organization.

If an organization is to thrive in 2025, leaders will need to recognize and embrace organizational practices that are emerging today. They will need to create new cultures for the future, using the many new tools available now, such as data analysis, social media, and experimental trials of new HR practices and policies.”

The full brief from Future In Focus presents four forecasts designed to illuminate how organizational culture and practices could plausibly look in 2025.  The remaining excerpt below focuses on one of those four forecasts.

Motivation Will Be More Important and More Difficult

Organizations in every industry are becoming more aware that a skilled, motivated workforce is the distinguishing characteristic of success. In knowledge-based organizations, imagination and innovation are required to stay ahead. Service industries thrive or fail on individual client interactions, amplified quickly on social media, while manufacturing requires constant adjustments to optimize processes, materials, and “silicon co-workers.” And the data bears out that motivation matters. Organizations with motivated employees—i.e., with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every disengaged employee—reported 147% higher earnings than their competition (based on 2010–2011 numbers).

However, a 2013 Gallup Poll of the American workplace highlighted that just 30% of employees report being engaged at work, while 52% say they are present but not fully engaged, and 18% say they are actively disengaged.  This suggests organizations still need to find novel ways to motivate and incentivize workers, partners, and other key stakeholders.

Motivation is a difficult topic because its sources are very individualized, but there are some general perspectives worth understanding. Going forward, organizations will need to rethink motivation and not default to what has worked in the past. This could develop in several directions:

  • Different eras, different values. Each of the past three eras of production—the Machine Age, the Information Age, and now what is often called the Knowledge Age (or Conceptual Age)—has its own corresponding set of values. The Machine Age valued control, commitment, materialism, and consistency. For the Information Age (which is still the prevailing paradigm), it is access, connectivity, equity, equality, and analysis. The Knowledge Age, while still nascent, appears to value choice, co‑creation, flexibility, individuality, self-expression, honesty, and authenticity.  Management needs to reevaluate all sorts of organizational practices, from employee selection to retirement, to ensure they are consistent with the emerging values of the Knowledge Age in order to move the organization forward.

–  Baby boomers: “You’re important to our success.”

–  Gen Xers: “We’ve got the latest technology.”

–  Millennials: “You’ll be working with other bright creative people.”

  • Positive messages need to dominate. Studies have shown that 80% of the messages that workers need to receive should be positive. They will listen to the other 20% if the ratio remains at 4:1.

In today’s competitive environment for top talent, it might be easy to consider salary or monetary rewards as the key to motivation. However, studies have shown that “the association between salary and job satisfaction is very weak,” and the same research found that intrinsic motivations are a better predictor of job performance than extrinsic motivations such as money.  In light of these kinds of findings, leadership needs to find creative new approaches to motivation that are also in line with generational and “Knowledge Age” values.

If you found this excerpt to be interesting or useful in some way, let us know.  We plan to feature more content from our friends at Future In Focus, and we would like to know which pieces are of particular value to those in sales leadership roles.  Please either comment in reply to this post, or contact us directly by email or social media at your convenience.  Thank you very much for your time and your feedback.

Revenue Growth Hacks for 2015

Revenue growth is a nearly universal objective for small and middle-market businesses, and there are a number of different paths that companies can pursue to achieve revenue growth.  There are also at least as many traps and obstacles along the way.

I’m frequently asked to give my point of view on the best path to revenue growth by the leadership teams of small and middle market companies.  Before I prescribe, of course, I diagnose.  I typically ask questions to clarify and confirm some things about the current state and also about their future, desired state.  Important questions that I will tend to ask first are…

“Can you define success for this coming year?  How much revenue growth do you want to achieve and why?”

In the course of these discussions about future revenue growth, some common issues and opportunities arise.  One of the more common issues that we have to confront is the fact that small and middle market companies have limited resources with which to pursue growth.  We are forced to focus only on those ideas that offer the most benefit while mitigating the risks associated with stretching for growth.  Some of these ideas are more ingenious and creative than others.  We’ll call those ingenious ideas “hacks,” and they are crucial weapons in the fight for revenue growth that might just be relevant for you.

Did somebody say 'hack'?
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As you consider your company’s plan for revenue growth in 2015, consider applying some of the revenue growth hacks that we’ve identified and applied elsewhere for very positive gains.

Attack the Discount Monster! — It may be an obvious point, but discounting to win in B2B sales has a direct impact on revenue.  Some companies aren’t even aware of the extent to which their sales team discounts to win new business.  I’ve personally witnessed relatively successful businesses operate without a handle on how much discounting goes on, to whom those discounts are being offered, and why.  They literally give away large chunks of their revenue based on an assumption that the only way they can win is by knocking down the price of their offerings.  In reality, instead of discounting, they should be focused on creating more value for customers throughout the buying process.  How much more might your company be able to drive to the top and bottom lines simply by attacking the discount monster that lurks within the sales organization?  Let’s consider a simple process for attacking this issue and increasing revenue simply by holding onto more of it:

  1. Focus on the early-stage opportunities in your sales pipeline.  It is in the earliest stages of a sales opportunity’s development in which your sellers can raise the importance and relative value of your solutions in the eyes of the buyer.  Plan to help customers understand the scale, cost, and impact of the problems you can solve for them BEFORE you propose solutions, and you will likely reduce or possibly eliminate the need for a discount to win.
  2. Propose your offer to the buyer, and hold firm to your price.  If you can’t hold firm, then look back at your process and why your customer doesn’t fully see the value of what you have to offer.  If necessary, go back and revisit problems and their impact and the potential value of the solution before repositioning your offer.
  3. Commit to avoid discounting as a means to overcome value gaps in the customer’s mind.  Focus on the “benefits” side of the equation instead of the “cost” side.

Focus Where You have the Best Opportunity to Differentiate (and try to avoid those opportunities where you do not.) — Dismiss opportunities where you cannot win, even if they look like big revenue opportunities.  They are a waste of time and they cost you money!  Don’t over-invest in selling opportunities where your only point of differentiation is price.  Following is an illustration of what I mean:

  • A middle-market firm, NewCo, has a huge sales opportunity worth roughly $1 Million over the next couple of years.  NewCo and several of its competitors are invited to participate in a competitive bid and bake-off.  All of the competitive solutions are very similar and the customer’s procurement process is designed specifically to narrow down all of the differences between competitors until there is only one difference left, price.
  • NewCo has another sales opportunity to pursue at the same time.  The NewCo sales rep has been in dialogue with key players involved in the decision making process for the last few months.  It is likely that competitors will be invited to offer a proposal, but the NewCo sales team clearly has the inside track.  The deal is worth roughly $500K, and NewCo has an excellent chance of winning without offering significant concessions and discounts.

Assuming NewCo has limited resources with which to pursue these opportunities, they have to choose which one will get priority attention and a full complement of resources.  To which opportunity should resources be applied?  If you’re thinking it’s the second one, then you just might be a revenue hacker.

Prioritize opportunities where your company can deliver a product / service / solution successfully and easily. — Sell what you’re good at delivering.  If your sales team is more inclined to offer highly customized solutions instead of your core offerings, then your company’s ability to deliver its products and services is likely taxed.  Answer the question, “What are we really good at delivering?”  Once you know the answer, direct / encourage / coach your sales team to fill the pipeline with opportunities that look like that.  The less that your delivery organization has to strain to deliver customized solutions, the less they will need to drag sales and revenue producers back into the fray.  Revenue generators unencumbered by delivery or operational responsibilities are better enabled to deliver revenue growth.

Those are my top three revenue growth hacks for the coming year.  What sorts of ingenious things will you do to drive revenue growth?  Please offer your idea in response to this post.  The best hack will earn a special shout out from yours truly in a follow up post to come in early 2015.  Thank you again for your time.

3 Reasons I Won’t Take Your Call

Note To All Salespeople: If you plan to call me, you should know that there are 3 reasons I won’t take your call.

I am a senior executive in my company, and you should do everything in your power to understand what matters to me if you want to do business with me.  However, if you plan to call me, you should know that there are 3 reasons I won’t take your call, Mrs. or Mr. Salesperson.

First, I’m busy, and I don’t have to.  I have plenty to do during the course of the day…problems to solve, opportunities to try to capture, details to which I need to attend.  When I need you or someone like you, I will look you up, doing things like the following:

  • I am going to try to clarify how I can solve my problems or address my opportunities on my own.  I can educate myself on what other companies have done to address similar issues without your help.
  • If I conclude that I should take some action, I will visit your company’s website and the sites of several other companies that appear to do the same thing you do.  I’m a bit of a do-it-yourselfer, so I may also look for solutions that I can implement on my own without outside help.
  • If I think we might gain advantage by bringing in some outside expertise and help, I will ask a lower level manager to gather some information.  That person will take your call, and though you will see them as your ‘primary point of contact,’ you should know that they have no power whatsoever to make decisions.  I have the power, and I won’t use it until or unless they pull together a strong business case that convinces me that I should take action to address the problem or opportunity I asked them to investigate.

Second, I make decisions on my timeline, not yours.  While I appreciate that there is some urgency for YOU in our getting together, I don’t have that same urgency.  I act with urgency when one or more of the following conditions are met:

  • I have a problem that is so big and gnarly that I must act.  Sure, I have business problems.  Who doesn’t?  But if I spent time addressing every little problem that arose in our business, I would get nothing done.  I have to prioritize, and unless I believe a problem is costing us significantly and creating a bunch of other knock-on effects, I simply won’t act.
  • I have an opportunity I absolutely must pursue.  Nothing motivates me more than identifying a big opportunity for my business, but those opportunities don’t arise and make themselves known every day.  When they do, I act as quickly as I can without disrupting my business.
  • I have arrived at a new or different way to address the issues that exist in my business.  Did you ever have one of those “Eureka” moments?  When I have them, I move quickly to put the new idea or solution in place.  I will act swiftly on creative ideas that help me to achieve an outcome that I really want or need.

Third, your message (whether it was a voice message, an email, or some marketing material that I happened upon) didn’t help me understand why I should talk to YOU versus someone else.  Don’t make me work hard to figure out who you are and why I should speak to you.  My job is hard enough.  Maybe you should work harder at yours, and figure out what you want to be known for!  Once you’ve done that, try to reach me again.  No promises, but I might get back to you.

** Does this peek into the mind of a busy executive resonate with you?  If so, why?  Can you really do anything about these 3 reasons why a senior executive won’t take your call?  Responses are welcome.  I look forward to your comments.  Thank you again for your time and your interest.

Is It Really an Innovation (If Your Customers Don’t Care)?


“Innovation?!?”  Your customers ask you to be innovative. You build something new.  You show customers your latest innovation, but they don’t seem to care. You wonder if they would know an innovation if it bit them on their behind.

Have you ever heard a salesperson complain about how their customers don’t quite “get” their latest offerings?  Perhaps they blamed the customer for not recognizing an innovation when they saw one.  Have you or <gasp> someone from your leadership team ever complained about this?

If so, take heart.  You are not alone.  Innovation is one of those “know it when you see it” sort of things, and sometimes, customers don’t see our innovations quite the same way we do.

What is innovation?  Ask this question of ten different buyers, and you might get ten somewhat different definitions.  In short, the word literally refers to a new method or idea.  I checked with Mr. Webster on that.

in·no·va·tion [n] a new idea or method.

But like a tree falling in the woods, if no one is there to recognize an innovation and its impact on a business, then we have to question if it really occurred at all.  Perhaps innovation has more to do with helping customers recognize new ideas or methods than it has to do with creating new products or services.  It may be about creating insight and not about building anything necessarily.  When you think about it that way, it seems that innovation is primarily the responsibility of the sales and marketing department and not that of the Research & Development team.

Perhaps innovation has more to do with helping customers recognize new ideas or methods than it has to do with creating new products or services.

Traditionally, R&D has been tasked with the creation and development of new products and services to sell to customers, but if innovation were the exclusive domain of R&D today, then all that department would be doing is creating more falling trees.

The question I pose to you is:  What have you done to help a customer recognize a new idea or capability as an innovation?  What have you done to help them appreciate the full value of that innovative offering of yours?

Have you struggled with this challenge in the past?  Are you struggling with it now?

If so, please send us your comments.  Let’s see if other members of this community will share their stories, as well.  If you’d like, you can also get in touch with me (Matt McDarby) or another member of the USR team directly to discuss the challenge of selling innovative products or services.