Monthly Archives: October 2012

What a brilliant presentation! Don’t call us we’ll call you.

We’ll be in touch…at some point

When your sales people say they are making sales calls, what are they actually doing? The assumption here is that your people are in fact putting in the road hours (are they?). Even if they are on the road and visiting customers, many sales people tend to set (if any) vague call objectives. Nowadays it is becoming crucial, wherever this is not endangering the sale and of course without becoming pushy fridge to Eskimo type sales people, to reduce the closing time of our sales. We simply can’t afford to wait as long as we could four years ago for the prospect to sign. The key phrase here is “efficient planning”. This requires sales persons to set targets for each sales call. Just booking an appointment and playing it as it comes once we sit down in front of the customer to be, was never a best demonstrated practice but under today’s circumstances it is criminal. Time is a resource and this is no time to be wasting resources. Customer facing time is a valuable commodity and not a minute of it should be squandered. On the sales person’s side, their company has probably made cut backs so that they are doing more with less. Maybe sales support has been trimmed; maybe some of the lagging sales reps have gone the way of the dodo. Whatever the case, time is money. The same applies on the other side of the desk so prospective clients will appreciate professionals who don’t waste their time.

Make sure that your sales people, especially the less experienced, can rate the success of a sales call. According to one school of thought a sales call always results in a sale: Either you sell them a product or they sell you bull. The more scientific approach is that, barring an outright rejection and the equivalent of a kick in the proverbial, there are two possible outcomes: A continuance or an advancement. In the first case the customer may comment favorably on the presentation, the sales pitch, the excellent brand name and so on, but doesn’t commit to anything. The rookie sales rep feels good leaving the customer’s premises and is satisfied with a job well done. The seasoned sales person recognizes the continuance. The whole process has been pushed to some vague point in the future. What the rep should be aiming for is the advancement. Some deliverable that brings the closing phase that little bit closer. This could be a meeting with the CFO, a request for specific prices or referrals etc.When planning their calls, your sales people should have in mind what kind of advancement they are aiming for, and then go out and get it.

So, are you selling or being sold?

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Posted by on 20/10/2012 in Managing sales


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On assumptions and lost opportunities

Stop assuming and start digging

When I was a kid (all those years ago) I saw a comedian advising his audience never to assume because “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me”. He was right about the assumption part anyway. It is particularly dangerous in a rapidly changing environment to make decisions or act based on unfounded assumptions. This is especially true when talking to sales people about opportunities. It is especially especially true if the discussion refers to existing customers or opportunities that have been examined in the past. The basic message here is that everything changes.

“Have you spoken to client X about product Y?”

“They don’t need it”

“How come?”

“We discussed it last year”

This is the trap many sales reps and even their managers fall into. The point should be that we don’t reject an opportunity unless we can swear on whatever holy book or relative’s final resting place that we have followed it up, revisited it or looked into it and we are sure beyond a reasonable doubt that there is nothing there.

The other common assumption is that existing clients actually know what we sell. Customers build up an image of their suppliers and in many cases don’t even consider them for services or products that for some reason fall outside the scope of what they have come to conceive as your range of offerings. You need to talk to more than the usual contacts in companies and gain a thorough understanding of what they do and which suppliers they use, namely your competitors both direct and indirect. You will be surprised by the number of times you will receive answers along the lines of, “I didn’t know you guys did that!”. These days, in many cases the lines between direct and indirect competition are blurring as companies adapt and become more elastic in their effort to increase share. Throw in commoditization and a reality check and you may be opening up a whole new world of opportunities. How wide is the line that separates two market segments? Can you turn a boundary into a continuum?

Make sure your sales force has disabled preconceptions before they visit prospects. Get out on the road with them and lead conversations that uncover possible hidden opportunities. Give a fresh perspective. Then let them follow it up. They should then go out and emulate this in their own way. Hey! A coaching ride! Stress the importance of meeting with different people in your clients’ organizations. New acquaintances will, most probably, not be familiar with your offering and may well be in other departments that you can cater to with an additional product or by adapting one to their needs. Another assumption you should stop making is that everybody in a client company (especially the bigger ones) is talking to everybody else and knows what is going on three divisions down the road. If your service is something of a commodity, don’t assume that top management actually knows the details. You need to take the differentiating factors to them.

Stop losing opportunities because of routine thinking.

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Posted by on 17/10/2012 in Managing sales


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Action Plans and why they fail

Without discipline and focus on the target, your project won’t even get off the ground

There is an African saying that roughly translated (and I take this on faith) states that next to “I shall do” you will always find “Not done yet”.

Maybe this rings true to most of you. If you are not a “must do” fan, then surely you have heard it all from politicians and inefficient managers. Especially in times of downturn, we should be hearing more “This is what we have achieved so far and that is what we expect to have completed by blah date”. Instead, we still hear what committees have to convene to examine the possible ways forward and propose alternative solutions which will generate plans. Sometime, somewhere over the rainbow, any day now. The road to unachieved change is paved with procrastination. There are loads of proverbs that describe how people will find excuses not to do something while putting up a show of trying to attempt it. On the corporate level, the tool most frequently employed to achieve this is known as an “action plan”. The two words seem to put together a contradiction in terms. In most cases they do. You spend too much time on planning and not enough on action. Semantics aside, action plans under any name are crucial if a team of people is to come together under certain guidance to achieve a specific goal. In a company where people pull out “We need an action plan” too often and leave it at that, the term simply becomes associated with sarcasm and is filed to the bottom of the priority pile. The truth is that we DO need action plans. So how do we go about getting them to work?

In order for an action plan to work, four statements must ring true:

  1. Management is backing it
  2. It is detailed and specific
  3. Everybody involved has bought in
  4. Progress is being monitored

If either of the above does not apply, the goal will most probably not be achieved. If Management is not behind it, people will realize this is not a priority and treat it as such (that’s right, good old human nature again). On the other hand even if managers are selling/pushing/imposing it day-in day-out, if people are not clear on what it is they are supposed to be doing deliverables will not be delivered. Finally, even if a plan is specific and precise, if nobody is following up it up it will ultimately fail.

So why do people take it more seriously when you refer to a Project Plan? Because it has a better reputation. It gets things done. It uses specific tools. It sets time frames and assigns responsibilities. It has a project manager whose purpose of existence is to see the plan through and deliver within budget and on time. Is there a message in there somewhere? Obviously. So where do we start? Well, first of all you need to determine the value of whatever it is you are thinking of drawing up an action plan for. Under current market conditions you need to be constantly questioning which projects and activities are adding value to your organization. Once you have determined that, yes this must be done, then start talking about it. Call in your team and ask for their input. It has to be clear where the buck stops but a Manager who arbitrarily goes about imposing his or her ideas on people runs the risk of rejection, passive resistance and of course missing something. You need different types of people in your brainstorming sessions: experts, visionaries, worker bees and at least one Omega type. Even if you can’t have the others, make sure you have an Omega. These are the types that disagree by default. They always find fault with the reasoning on the table. If allowed to get out of control they can destroy a team and stand in the way of anything getting done. If handled correctly they can be invaluable to the process. You can be sure that they will always find that one problem you overlooked. Whatever you do, don’t put together a team of yes-people. Otherwise don’t waste time on getting input.

The next step is to start putting your action plan into place. Involve people and get their buy-in. There are workshop tools for process building that can help these sessions be productive.

At the end of the process you should have a Plan. Everybody knows what is expected of them. With dates, milestones and measurable parameters. Finally you need control. You have defined what you want everybody to do, you have determined how you will measure progress. Now the whole process needs to be followed up. Relentlessly. No excuses for lack of adherence. Remember? Everybody involved has already signed off on the solution they contributed to.

In our new world we don’t have the luxury of missing opportunities or doing things in a half-assed way. It’s all about discipline. And just a while ago, from the perspective of a generation, we must admit, discipline has not been a strong point. Were this the case we would not be in the predicament we have found ourselves in today.

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Posted by on 14/10/2012 in Managing people


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Rules of engagement

Are we engaged yet?

What is employee engagement? You have probably been assigned the task (especially during these trying times of slashed budgets) to increase your team’s engagement. But without spending anything. It has been a well known fact for many years that salary isn’t everything. These days, some may argue, “A” salary is everything; in so much as you have a job and are being paid to do it. So it’s back to good old Muslow and his pyramid. Just when these guys were going out of fashion, the markets get thrown twenty years back and the golden oldies are making a comeback. Gone are the cash rich and time poor customers. Gone are the affluent customers, hell, where did all the customers go? So now, we are left with highly sophisticated buyers with even more time to research purchase options (because of the unemployment) and less disposable income (because of the unemployment). It’s a marketer’s nightmare.  Add lot’s of amateur entrepreneurs buying market share and you get the picture. Still, you need to engage your employees. In a cost effective manner. What the hell is the boss thinking? Actually he is thinking along the right line if you think about it and assuming that he or she has. Many companies are looking at zero voluntary turnover. This is not a sign of a healthy market. Quite the opposite. Come on, guys! Somebody has to be ticked off with The Man. But if you walk these days, it’s straight to the unemployment line. And the line is getting longer. So where does engagement come in to the picture. Let’s imagine we are back in the good old days. What is employee engagement? Actually it’s the same as it is today. But back in the GODs, the boss probably said something like, “throw them a party”, or “throw them some money”. Now, we are actually getting it right. A disgruntled employee with a pay rise, in three months time will simply be a disgruntled employee in a better suit.  So what is engagement? If you ask me, it is what makes somebody prefer to work for you rather than for somebody else with the same salary. Think of your employees as your customers: we are talking value for money. That is, in fact, the secret to selling and it is no different if you are selling employment. So, back to Muslow: People need esteem. They desire respect and acceptance from others. Couple this with the fact that they don’t want to lose their job plus the fact that happy employees mean happy customers and it shouldn’t be too hard to connect the dots. Show respect for your team’s work. Show understanding to their needs. Reward them with recognition. People know it’s difficult to give fat pay raises these days. Get them to want to come to work because they feel valued. Make them part of the system. Then they will look to make things better. They will feel included instead of excluded. They will accept brutal facts easier. If you can achieve this, even if you are no longer dishing out the fat bonuses, you will see a continuous improvement in the level of your customer service. Engaged people care about their work and this becomes apparent to the customer. They become recipients of genuine customer care rather than customer service policy.

Keep people in the loop. Be honest about the company finances. Make it clear that as long as you have paying customers you will be able to be a paying employer. You will be surprised at the impact this will have on the sales effort and the tendency to give big discounts at the drop of a hat.

Treat your people as that: your people. It makes all the difference.

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Posted by on 10/10/2012 in Managing people


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Why high tech communication has failed

Never miss the opportunity to put on a suit and take your laptop to the beach

Email. Electronic mail. Fast, ethereal, efficient, catastrophic. Like the photograph in this post (seriously though) , the term electronic communication is riddled with  antitheses.

For, oh, lots and lots of years email has been the main means of communication in both the corporate and the private world. And it’s amazing. The technology is unbelievable. The brainpower behind making it happen is (as in most such cases) well, mind boggling. And as in the case of most tools developed for the betterment of man’s life, man totally mis-uses it.  A while back I did a little research (via email) and came to the conclusion that  on receiving an email communication, people feel more pressure to respond faster (or even immediately) than, say, to a fax or a letter. If the message is from the people upstairs the pressure increases further. And what do people in a hurry and under pressure often do? That’s right. They make e-stakes and i-screwedups.

Think for a minute. In many cases you don’t when answering an email. Strange when you think that we consider it so important that we activate that god annoying pup up so that it can interrupt you no matter what you are working on. Opps! There goes one now. Shall I stop writing and open it, or should I finish what I’m doing first. It doesn’t really matter since my train of thoughts has been derailed anyway. And as I already have more than twenty tabs sitting on my task bar I really have to ask, what the hell am I thinking of. Seriously, what are you thinking of when you have for or five spreadsheets, six or seven websites, a couple of presentations and several PDFs open? Would it be safe to assume your mind is not 100% on the task at hand? Well, it never is unless you are bald, have a long beard, are probably wearing orange and are sitting cross-legged on a rock near a yak – that kind of focus takes years to develop. You get the picture. How many of your resources are focused? How many are wandering off in twenty different directions. And then you get Spam. A ridiculous “forward” just popped up. Add antisocial networking and you might as well tattoo UNPRODUCTIVE on your forehead. (AUTHOR’s NOTE:Yes, antisocial networking. If you want to network get out and meet, have coffee with, touch, feel and joke with people. Sitting alone in a dark room in front of a bright monitor clicking on hyper links is not a social activity no matter what you have heard. If your parents were social networkers social intercourse may never have occurred and you probably wouldn’t be here reading this right now).

So you get an email, glance over it and feel compelled to answer. Chances are you haven’t scrolled down far enough to see the preceding messages. You never know, the first may have been “Let’s see how many idiots get stressed and answer this”. If the answer needs some research you click on a search engine tab (remember, one of the five you already have open) or open a new one and type in the burning issue. You then look at the first ten hits out of half a million options and click on a couple. You scan through ten pages of text, adverts, links and pictures of smiling “gurus”. Maybe you copy something. Back to the email, a quick paste, a smart comment, what you believe is a documented response and off it goes. You may have used the term “educated guess”. It’s still a guess, just in a more expensive polo shirt. Hang on! Was that reply or reply to All? Quick! Sent items! Oh, crap! She wasn’t supposed to get that! Recall! Recall! Where’s Recall!! Folks, stop looking, it never works.

As managers we need to expel info stress. This is the term used for the headache and gut cramps you get when trying to deal with all the “information” whizzing around the information super highway. In fact, most of it is BS. All the  BS you can handle only a click away. It has come to a point that you need to shovel through so much BS to get to the information, by the time you find it you forget what you wanted it for or have become engrossed in something else you happened upon. You are, of course, multitasking. Or so you think. Two or three threads: multitasking. Twenty threads: who are you kidding?

Take time to focus. Make it a rule not to answer (or even read) emails as soon as they pop up. Turn off the pop up! Incidentally this practice can also save you from particularly awkward moments during presentations.

Treat emails as you would a good old fashioned letter. Take the time to read it. Without pings and pops. Hang on, my mobile is beeping. Sorry, it seems one of my son’s dragons gave birth. Really important stuff. Where was I? Oh, yeah – letter. Then take time to compose a reply. Put it down for a while and go back to it twenty minutes later. Then send it. Oh, and never fill in the recipient’s address until you are ready to send. And mind the drop down lists so you don’t send your competitor your customer price lists by a slip of the cursor.

So one can’t help but wonder, to what extent has this half-assed approach to communication, with projections into decision making, contributed to the mess the world economy is in today? How many hours do people at the office spend actually working or focusing on the job? How many important business decisions (or feedback leading to them) were based on amateurish web searches and hasty replies to emails?

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Posted by on 06/10/2012 in Management tips


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On customer satisfaction

Make sure this is the digit they raise

What makes for a satisfied customer? When do you feel satisfied as a customer? When are you not a satisfied customer? It all boils down to good old expectation management. What have you led your customer to expect? Or even worse, what are his or her default expectations or preconceptions? It is so easy to become customer critics instead of customer advocates. “Oh God! it’s Mr. Jones again! He’s such a royal pain!” and so on. This is not the time for such behavior. People are angry with the downturn, with shrinking incomes, with bad payers, with increasing running costs and cost of living. It’s so easy for them to add you and your company to the anger list. Don’t give them reason to. So, manage the expectations. If you sell dirt cheap and have a crappy service, then advertise this fact. People expect not to expect good service and they walk out so happy with the bargain they got. If you buy something for ten dollars and its value turns out to be ten dollars, you are most probably not a satisfied customer. At best you are a neutral customer. Paid ten, got ten. Nothing to post on the social network about (my first, outdated impulse was “nothing to write home about”). If on the other hand the value turns out to be eight, then you are a peed off customer. Depending on your character you may be a letter writer or a lawyer user or a thumper of fists at the front counter. Or maybe you just take your business elsewhere in future. Take your pick – they are all loss makers. And nowadays word of mouse is much stronger than word of mouth. One click and the whole world knows about it. Welcome to the wonderful world of antisocial networking. Finally, on a brighter note, we have the case in which you pay ten and for some reason the value you get is twelve. Your expectations have been exceeded. You are now a satisfied customer and net promoter of the company that went the extra mile, click or even smile for you. Yes, even a polite smiling employee at the counter can make the difference in the value received.

Manage your customer expectations. If you really want satisfied customers you need to create the correct expectations and then exceed them on the deliverable. And remember, you can do it even by proactively notifying a customer of a problem with their purchase. Most of all, we expect companies we give our money to, to act responsibly.

So walk the talk.


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Process revisited: The hidden cost saver

Uncover the smart savings

How often do you take a really critical look at how you do things in your company? Seriously. Processes are strange creatures that exist whether you believe it or not, irrespective of whether you actually set out to design them. This is what many empirical managers fail to understand. Have you ever made a cup of coffee? Is there an underlying process? Of course there is! How else would raw materials and kitchenware end up as an enjoyable and stimulating beverage on your desk? You have inputs, you follow certain steps and get output. Simple as that. So maybe every time you make a cup of coffee you do things a little differently. Get the coffee jar out first, get the mug first, warm the mug, don’t warm the mug and so on. And that’s OK. It’s just a cup of coffee. Why all the fuss? What if you had to prepare a hundred cups of coffee in half an hour? Or two hundred? If you do it a little different every time, you’ll be running for the hills laughing in a manner usually associated with villains in cartoons and vintage thrillers. That’s when you need to design a process and stick to it. So how do you go about it? In ridiculously simple speak, you decide which is the most efficient way to do whatever it is you are trying to do, lay down the process and then stick to it. Religiously. And as they used to say in the olden days (back when people thought things through before hammering out emails to fifty recipients) practice makes perfect. If you do it the same every time, as time progresses, things can only get better. Repetition is the mother of learning. Ad hocking it the mother of cock-ups. And a mean mother in deed…

So, take a look at whatever it is you are doing, whether it’s answering the phone and taking messages, or billing a client, or arranging for a delivery- whatever- and then see if it makes sense to keep on doing it the same way. Usually it doesn’t. There is always room for improvement, to use a cliché, and herein lie opportunities. Here be the smart savings, as the old maps say. Any idiot can fire half the workforce. It takes work, brains and leadership skills to manage change, even if it is efficiency driven.

Process re-engineering can save a lot of time and ultimately money. So where’s the catch? There is no catch, but do be warned: a process left unattended will degenerate. Such is the nature of the creature.  Ever miss a gym session after religiously following a schedule for months? Then next time something turns up and before you know it it’s been three months. If you set up a process also set up the controls.

Put together the nature of processes and the nature of humans and you end up in a process improvement workshop with a lot of people looking flummoxed, at each other or the floor when you ask, “So why do you do it like that?”


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What sales plan?

If you plan to sell, sell to plan

When talking with small companies (and some not so small ones) It never ceases to amaze me how little concentrated effort goes into Sales. What is even more surprising is the fact that this also occurs in organizations with reasonable earnings. So I have come to soundly believe that mediocrity will indeed ambush excellence nine times out of ten. This, I feel is a factor contributing to the deep… hole many companies have found themselves in during the past four years or so. If you are getting along, why rock the boat. “We’re in the green”, “We’re not out to dominate the market”, “We don’t expect miracles”, are common answers from people asked (pre-downturn) why they are not pushing for more sales.  “What do you expect in these conditions”, “Can’t you see what’s going on out there?”, “There’s no growth left”, are but a few sales reps’ responses to the question “Why aren’t you selling more?”. Put the managers giving the first set of answers in the same company with the sales people giving the second set and you might as well call it a day and go home before the debt becomes unserviceable. Entrepreneurs are those alive go-getters. The when-the-going- gets-tough guys. The “we’re doing OK” guys are simply not entrepreneurs. Like I said, excellence has very slim survival chances in a mediocrity infested environment.

The first thing you notice is the total absence of planning. More specifically there is no sales plan. No matter whether there is one, two, ten or a hundred sales reps in the company you need to have a sales plan. The company’s revenue and profit is built up from the bottom, sales territory by sales territory. It depends on all sales people delivering on target. Admittedly, most companies do have sales targets. They are handed out in a top down fashion without any attention to what are supposed to be the constituent parts. Someone upstairs decides on the figure and then the sales force is expected to miraculously deliver it. Then once a quarter there is some sort of sales review where sales people are chewed out over their results and the target is upped to cover the gap. Come on, guys!

Sales management is a rather complex and specialized discipline. However, you don’t have to be a guru or have thousands in software to be able to put together a serviceable sales plan. For a company already selling something, it’s a matter of going territory by territory and then customer by customer. What is their performance? What is their potential? Are they splitting with your competitors? Are they growing, shrinking, going belly up? Are you selling them everything you can? Do you know everything they need? Once your sales people put your customers under the microscope, then they can make informed decisions about what sort of revenue they can pin on them for the next period. Some will be up, others will be down, a few may be lost. The result should show where you stand in relation to the target (which has been shared across the sales territories depending on their potential. People then know how much new business they need to drum up to make target.

Find a way that works for your company, but get a sales plan in place. Otherwise  you are just taking pot shots in the dark. And more often than not they miss.


Posted by on 01/10/2012 in Managing sales


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