This post originally appeared on Forbes on February 20, 2018.
In business and in our lives, change is often hard, especially when we’re not ready.
Six years ago, I was brought in to consult at a Fortune 500 software company that hadn’t adequately prepared its sales team for change. Business was, ostensibly, good, and investments in the company’s cloud-computing services were rising. At the same time, though, the industry was seeing a major shift in who purchased software. Recognizing that chief marketing officers (CMOs) were grabbing budgets from chief information officers (CIOs) and IT (a trend we still see today), the company executed a huge campaign focused on the CMO buyer. It was a resounding success -- from a marketing perspective, that is -- and flooded the sales team with leads.
But then deals stalled. The sales reps, who’d only had conversations with CIOs in the past, floundered when trying to capitalize on the demand. Faced with a new breed of buyer, reps didn’t know what questions to ask and what the value proposition was. Reps were neither confident nor competent. In short, they weren’t ready.
These types of struggles aren’t unique. It turns out, a lot of salespeople simply aren’t ready to engage with new buyers. In fact, executive buyers say eight of 10 sales meetings they take are a waste of time, according to Forrester (registration required). These lost opportunities and the resulting lost revenue underscore why sales readiness is so important.
This begs the question: What exactly is sales readiness?
It involves assessing and certifying whether salespeople are equipped with the proper skills and knowledge to have the conversations needed throughout a buyer’s journey. Training and coaching play an important role in creating a productive, knowledgeable, agile and ready sales force.
Of course, a prime goal of readiness programs is to prepare salespeople to close more and bigger deals, but it’s also important that buyers leave their interaction -- whether it happened face-to-face, on the phone, in a web conference or via email -- feeling their time was well-spent. Even if, for whatever reason, a deal can’t move forward, you want the buyer to think: “That’s a company I’d like to do business with” or “That’s someone I’d want on my sales team.”
Sales Readiness In 2018
While CEOs and their teams put plans in place to drive business growth, it’s sales execution that ultimately makes or breaks it, making sales readiness extremely important. Consider this: if your company didn’t hit its numbers in 2017, chances are that was preordained in March. A major culprit is not having the sales talent in place to execute on your strategy. Especially if you’re undergoing a major strategic shift, like that software company, it’s critical to have sales talent ready to support it.
Here are three tips to improve sales readiness:
1. Develop Core Competencies Through Proactive Learning
The traditional “if-you-build-it, they-will-come” approach to continuous learning programs doesn’t work in sales. Instead, organizations need to move from a reactive learning model -- where the onus is on reps to participate -- to a proactive approach. This means pushing out learning content -- ideally in bite-sized video/multimedia modules -- at regular intervals and establishing that competencies will be measured and mastered.
One of the biggest gaffes I see is when organizations force their reps to learn in the field and “practice” on the people they’re selling to, which is unfair to both the buyer and seller.
Having recognized its lapses, the aforementioned software company worked to get reps ready to pivot -- providing manager-led training, eLearning and video coaching on how to sell to the CMO role. Then, at its annual sales kickoff, the company brought in former CMOs the reps could practice on. They provided feedback and objections in an important setting -- one where real-world stakes weren’t at play.
2. Tie Readiness Into Your Growth Strategy
As a former SiriusDecisions analyst, I often quote the five paths the firm cites for B2B growth:
1) Expanding into new markets, 2) Targeting new buyers, 3) Launching new products, 4) Growing through mergers and acquisitions and 5) Driving productivity.
It’s important for companies to articulate and align around what their key growth lever(s) will be at a given time. Then, sales enablement leaders need to build their readiness programs to support that, with the end in mind. This means asking, “What kind of conversations do our salespeople need to have to be successful with our strategy?”
If the answer is radically different than the status quo (as with the software company, on growth path #2), this usually merits a heavier investment in sales readiness. Just as you can’t change a football team’s offensive scheme from passing-focused to running-focused or a dance company’s emphasis from classical ballet to modern without supporting those skillsets, you also can’t execute a sales transformation without the right talent in place.
3. It Starts With Sales Manager Enablement
For the software company, it was important to start the sales transformation with an emphasis on its front-line managers. After all, they were no more competent calling on CMOs than the salespeople. So expecting managers to coach to a foreign skillset would be unrealistic.
The company worked to train and certify its managers, putting them through the same rigorous process the reps would go through and making the managers active participants in the training and its rollout. This foundation enabled managers to provide and support rep training, video assessments and field coaching initiatives.
Ready? Then Ready, Set, Go!
Change is hard and pushback is a given, so it’s key to continually communicate why changes are being made and to broadcast early wins, internally, from the highest mountain.
As reps become more equipped to adapt and thrive in the face of change, their confidence breeds competence -- which manifests as success. For example, by emphasizing sales readiness, that software company was able to capture a significant portion of the marketing analytics market and continues to be viewed as a trusted partner for CMOs today.