THE BIG PICTURE ON SALES STRATEGY
Conceptualize, measure and understand the opportunities to improve your customer pipeline and journey.
SALES STRATEGY: "HOW DO WE GET MORE CUSTOMERS TO BUY OUR STUFF?"
WHAT DOES A SALES STRATEGY LOOK LIKE?
SALES IS SIMPLY A SERIES OF INTERACTIONS & CONVERSATIONS
When you strip out all of the noise, from a customer's point of view, their journey to purchase is a series of interactions and conversations. A customer is trying to solve a problem, and in their journey to solve it, they may become aware of your potential solution, show interest by seeking more information, consider the solution versus other competitors, and hopefully convert into a customer and a loyal repeat customer.
These interactions could be through a company's website, app, online content, stores, salespeople, partners and distributors, and other customers. You can conceptualize this series of customer & company interactions in two ways. From the perspective of the customer, you can codify the interactions in a customer journey map. From the perspective of a sales team, you can conceptualize the interactions in a sales pipeline.
The first step in developing a strong sales strategy is to abstract the performance of the sales pipeline by applying a series of longitudinal metrics to each stage of the pipeline. How many potential targets are there, suspects, prospects, customers, or repeat customers? How long do they stay in each stage? How many drop off in each stage? How valuable are they in each stage? How have the metrics evolved over time?
Like any process, if you can't measure it, it becomes challenging to improve it. High-performing sales teams automate much of this data through a well-utilized and updated sales CRM system. If your company can't systematically report on the sales pipeline, then developing the capability, infrastructure, and discipline to measure and improve the pipeline should be an initiative in your sales strategy.
TAKING SALES INSIGHT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
THE 4 WAYS TO GROW SALES
There are four ways to grow sales through a customer pipeline:
- Increase Addressable Market - put more people through the mouth of the funnel
- Accelerate Deal Velocity - make each step/stage shorter for the customer
- Improve Stage Gate Success - have the customer say yes to the next step more often
- Increase Deal Size - upsell and focus efforts on the larger deals
Understanding how these four growth metrics evolved over time is a good starting point for diagnosing customer pipeline issues and opportunities. These four growth metrics are outputs of the sales growth drivers, which we go into next.
THE 3 SALES GROWTH DRIVERS
Sales growth comes down to better customer interactions and conversations, more of them, along with a better value proposition and marketing. To make these things a reality, there are three main components to a strong sales strategy:
2. Incorporating corporate growth strategy initiatives in the sales strategy
3. Developing a strong sales team strategy to improve the sales process and interactions executed by the salespeople, infrastructure, and partners
1. DON'T PASS GO UNLESS YOU HAVE A KILLER VALUE PROPOSITION
Many CEOS misdiagnosis their weak sales by concluding, "it must be the sales team."
A strong sales team is important, but the most important driver of sales is a killer value proposition that creates more value than the competition for target customers. Once you have a killer value proposition, then you need the right messaging, marketing, and distribution that clearly amplifies the value proposition to the target customers.
So, the first thing any sales strategy should address is to make sure there is a clearly defined and articulated target customer, a killer value proposition for the target customer, and impactful messaging, marketing, and distribution focused on the target customer. Alignment on a target customer will make everyone's efforts more focused, efficient, and effective, while differentiation will make customers say yes more often.
Seriously, don't overlook this point. Pretty much every company that grows for decades and becomes a leader in their industry has and continually improves a killer value proposition that creates more value than competitors for the target customers. It is the heart that makes the sales flow for any strong sales team.
Now, we often hear, "well, that isn't under my control." Well, you better figure out how to influence it, because, without alignment and differentiation, the customer will more often than not choose not to do business with your company.
2. WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THE BIG PICTURE STRATEGY STUFF?
Hopefully, you have a killer value proposition and aligned marketing and distribution, now what? Well, you need to think through how the high-level corporate growth strategy is going to affect sales and the sales team. Is the company expanding into new markets, customer segments, and geographies? Are there new and improved products, services, and pricing? Are there new distribution channels or marketing campaigns? While it may be a lot to think through, growth expansion initiatives can have a significant impact on sales and the sales team.
Now, a few words of caution. First, be careful not to go after too many options, which can quickly overextend the sales team and the entire company. Companies that fail often go after too many new markets, customer segments, and geographies at the same time. Inevitably, the ambitious agenda creates fragmented efforts, massive complexity, opportunity cost, and ultimately failure. Second, while sales leadership should have a sizeable role in shaping the corporate growth strategy, it should not lead the effort. We see too many companies that try to say yes to everything sales wants to do, which often leads to a lot of running in place and going nowhere. Successful companies have a strong and balanced leadership team stewarding the big decisions and execution around corporate growth strategy.
Growth strategy initiatives are significant inputs into the last part of sales strategy, which is the sales team strategy. The big question is how growth strategy initiatives will affect sales and the sales team. Is there a need for new processes, people, partners, and technology? What is the expected impact on sales, quotas, customer metrics, and pipeline dynamics? This is one of the reasons why sales strategy is so complicated since there are so many dimensions that ultimately need to be addressed by the sales team, with the ultimate goal of having better customer interactions and conversations and more of them.
3. WHAT THE HECK ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH THE SALES TEAM?
Now to the heart of sales strategy, which is the sales team strategy. Any team, including a sales team, is simply a collection of processes executed by people, infrastructure, and partners. And, strategy is simply the goals we choose and the actions we take to achieve those goals. So, sales team strategy comes down to the sales team goals and the portfolio of initiatives to improve the processes, people, infrastructure, and partners to a level necessary to achieve the goals.
Below are some options to focus those sales team strategy initiatives on. We'll go over the high-level framing of some of the strategic options.
GET THE PROCESS RIGHT AND THE SALES WILL FOLLOW
Everything every member of a sales team does is a process, whether acknowledged as one or not. Has your sales team documented their processes, measure them? If not, that is a great place to start.
There are four main levels of a sales process outlined below.
At the highest level is the sales team governance, which includes the processes that strategically manage the sales strategy, forecasting, opportunities, overall pipeline, and sales operations. It typically involves weekly or monthly pipeline reviews, quarterly business reviews, and annual strategic planning, budgeting, and forecasting. The better the governance, the better the accuracy of forecasts, sales strategy, performance, and understanding of cause and effect.
The next level of the sales process is the customer journey, which includes every aspect of the journey customers take through an organization's processes to discover, evaluate, purchase, and consume the company's services and products. Strategic initiatives typically target reducing customer effort (e.g., self-help, automation, digital enablement), leaning out the customer processes, and increasing the rate of success on prioritized pipeline stages.
The sales methodology is one of the most critical processes for a sales team. The sales methodology is the overall sales approach between sales team members and customers to drive deal velocity and success. Most sales books focus on sales methodologies, such as spin selling, solution selling, MEDDIC, key account selling, GAP selling, and many others. We'll go a little deeper and synthesize all those books into a handful of important questions to quickly qualify and accelerate a deal.
The last level of the sales process to solve for is the daily, weekly, and monthly activity at the team and individual levels, which typically includes the day-to-day activity management and reporting to drive productivity and deal velocity through the pipeline.
ANSWER THE BASIC QUESTIONS TO ACCELERATE & CLOSE DEALS
There are hundreds of good books on sales methodology, but most of the methodologies come down to answering the basic 5 Ws (who, what, where, why, when) and 1 H (how) questions of a deal to qualify, accelerate and close the deal.
Once again, sales growth is driven by better customer interactions and conversations, and more of them. Weaving these questions into customer interactions, and recording and addressing the answers will help deals get through the pipeline. If you don't have a strong sales methodology, then start developing one that asks and answers the basic customer questions necessary to get a deal done.
TAKE A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO THE PEOPLE PART OF A SALES TEAM STRATEGY
For many B2B companies, sales expense, in the form of salary and commission, is often their largest financial expense, making it especially important to elevate and realize the potential of salespeople and the collective sales team.
There are many questions to answer about the people part of a sales strategy, which all fall into the various categories of our people strategy framework:
- Org Design (Mission, Corporate Strategy, Structure, Roles & Competencies)
- Employee Journey (Recruiting, Hiring, Onboarding, Development, Evaluation, Advancement)
- Culture (Comp & Benefits, Environment, Norms, Values)
For a complete overview, visit our entire section on organizational strategy, hr strategy - org design, and hr strategy - employee journey & culture. Below, we'll cover some of the more unique elements of sales team strategy.
WHAT SHOULD THE SALES ORG LOOK LIKE?
A challenging question that typically comes up is, "what should the sales org look like?"
There is a lot of art and science in answering this question. Regarding the size of the sales org, utilize benchmarks on revenue productivity per sales team member and percent of sales spend to revenue. You should also analyze the span of control, where each manager should have 8-12 direct reports. You also need to solve for the right amount of levels to the org, the fewer, the better. Finally, there are the actual roles and accountabilities, which we'll get into a bit more next.
HOW SHOULD WE ORGANIZE THIS SALES TEAM?
For many sales teams, better customer conversations and interactions necessitate a high level of specialization to address the needs of specific customer segments, markets, geographies, or stages within the sales funnel. This specialization leads to sales teams organizing around one or more of these dimensions (customer segments, markets, geography, sales funnel stages). What dimensions to organize around is a function of the customer experience, specialization, economics, and complexity.
Many companies are constantly reorganizing their sales team from one dimension to another, such as reshuffling the team from a segment focus to a geographic focus. These reorganizations often fail, due to the ensuing chaos. Most existing sales teams have optimized and refined their multitude of internal and external processes based on their existing organizational dimensions. When a sales team reorg happens, a sales team has to reconfigure its processes, infrastructure, and partners. If the change management of the sales reorg isn't stellar, often the customer journey and sales team devolves into a bit of chaos.
THE LOW HANGING FRUIT OF A SALES TEAM STRATEGY
The adage goes "it's all about the people." We like to expand that to it's all about the recruiting, hiring, onboarding, development, evaluation, and advancement of the people. Improving the employee journey is essential in any sales strategy. The first place to start is to establish best practices in recruiting and hiring. The lowest hanging fruit is typically increasing the number of candidates you recruit and interview while professionalizing the interview and hiring process with standard interview guides and scorecards, group and immersive interviews, and team decision-making.
When it comes to the rest of the employee journey, one of the most impactful exercises is to survey team members about their employee journey, which not only creates a baseline but also solicits good ideas while providing built-in buy-in to improvements. Furthermore, there are a ton of established best practices in each stage of the employee journey.
YOU GET WHAT YOU REWARD
CREATING A SALES STRATEGY
In developing a sales strategy, always keep in mind you are solving for two things: 1. the goals the sales team will strive to achieve, and 2. the strategic sales initiatives necessary to achieve the goals.
Whether it takes a few days, a few weeks, or a few months, there are typically four steps in developing a sales strategy, which is:
- Generate insights into the sales pipeline, customer journey, corporate growth strategy, sales team, and overall alignment & differentiation.
- Develop opportunities on how the sales team can improve the processes, people, partners, and infrastructure.
- Prioritize the potential initiatives based on value & benefit versus cost & effort.
- Set the goals and roadmap of the portfolio of sales initiatives
Given the breadth of possible analyses, gaps, opportunities, goals, and initiatives, it is imperative to assemble the best possible internal strategy team to develop and execute a very focused and impact-oriented project plan.
STEP 1: GENERATE SALES STRATEGY INSIGHTS
In developing a strong sales strategy, there are five main areas to generate insights on 1. the sales pipeline, 2. the customer journey, 3. corporate growth strategy initiatives, 4. alignment & differentiation, 5. the sales team (processes, people, infrastructure and partners).
A focused set of hypotheses and analyses will generate a ton of insights, otherwise, a team can "boil the ocean," wasting precious time and resources on things that don't matter. Focus on answering the key questions below, utilizing some of the typical strategic analyses and tools. By doing so, the team will generate the big "aha" insights that will guide the entire strategy project.
STEP 2: DEVELOP SALES STRATEGY OPPORTUNITIES
Once you have foundational insights for the sales strategy, then you enter the "create options" phase, where you need to come up with and develop the improvement opportunities that will drive sales to the next level. This phase drives the overall value of the strategy, since the number and quality of options limits strategies. Make sure you solicit ideas from as many places as possible and get the most creative and knowledgeable people involved to push the thinking.
There is always the opportunity to improve the customer journey, internal sales processes, and cross-functional processes. The lean toolkit, automation, and digital strategies will help sprout and nurture the best ideas. Solicit ideas and feedback from the entire sales team. A simple survey with both structured and open-ended questions will do the trick. There are also hundreds of best practices to improve the maturity of the sales processes, methodologies, people, and infrastructure.
STEP 3: PRIORITIZE THE GREAT IDEAS
Hopefully, at this stage of the project, you have more improvement ideas than resources and budget to execute. Now, we are in the prioritization phase of the project. Before diving into prioritizing the ideas, you first want to see how much you can simplify, rearrange and combine the ideas into some larger potential initiatives.
Now, we get to the fun and collaborative stage of decision-making. Utilize some sort of prioritization or decision matrix to problem solve and debate the potential value/benefit, and cost/effort of each initiative. Get the right leadership and stakeholders in the room to have this robust debate, and potentially have a few rounds to refine and improve the thinking. In the end, focus the strategy on those "no brainer" ideas that are high value/benefit and low cost/effort with a shorter time horizon (3 months to 1-2 years). For the "big bet" initiatives, figure out the timing, budget, dependencies, etc., before making a decision.
One of the most difficult challenges for sales team leadership is deciding on the right portfolio of initiatives. The first part of this challenge is getting enough skilled talent mobilized to successfully execute the initiatives and change management. The second part of the challenge is understanding the amount of change the sales team can realistically handle.
Whatever your decision-making governance, by the end you should have a strong portfolio of initiatives, budgets, owners, timing, and a pretty clear idea of the potential impact on the core metrics of the sales team.
STEP 4: SET THE SALES GOALS, FINALIZE THE ROADMAP, AND EXECUTE
Strategy comes down to setting goals and executing the portfolio of improvement initiatives necessary to achieve the goals. You should distill all of the strategic analyses, problem solving, collaborating, and decision-making into one page of sales goals and initiatives. Of course, there should be a lot more detail (e.g., project plans, resource plans, change management plans, budgets, spreadsheets) behind the one page. However, as you think about communicating the big sales strategy to upper management, the internal sales team, external stakeholders, and partners, one page is always best.
One last thought, invest the time, resources, and commitment to change management. The hardest part of executing any strategy is the necessary behavioral change at the individual level. Thinking through the change management framework for each initiative will pay dividends in driving the change you are seeking.
If you want to talk about your sales strategy with an experienced strategy coach, set up some time with Joe Newsum, a Mckinsey Alum, and the author of this content and website.
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