Over the past several months, the devastating hurricanes that have swept through the Caribbean and United States have been heartbreaking in the breadth and scope of both their immediate and ongoing impact. An acquaintance of mine is in the disaster recovery industry, and during a recent conversation he shared the unique challenges for island communities in the face of devastating storms. A hard truth I took away from that conversation is that, even with the best preparation, islands in the path of powerful storms will endure significant disruption to normal life, driven by the nature of their geography. They are isolated, with limited resources, and require massive organization to bring supplies and services when they are in need.
This conversation left me with much to mull over. One thought that occurred to me is that the sales function of a company can also be an island, facing disruption and chaos when struck by major “storms” – like a failure to hit sales goals, or the emergence of a market-disrupting competitor. Unlike geographic islands, however, companies have the ability to fix this problem. Indeed, in my experience working with dozens of established and early-stage companies, I have found that the universal attribute of the most successful high-growth companies is a unified approach to revenue growth. This approach minimizes the risk of sales being an “island” and clears the path for companies not just to survive disruption, but to thrive in it.
What do I mean by this unified approach to revenue growth? Companies that adopt this approach break down siloes, and open communications across the entire organization in support of sales. These companies create a deliberate process that integrates key functions – product management, marketing, sales, account management – to develop a strategic approach, message, and value to their customers. Without these functions working together, companies unintentionally create conflicting messages and experiences for customers that scatter the sales effort and confuse the market.
A recent conversation I had with an emerging healthcare IT company reminded me of how elusive this concept can be. The company described their current state as follows
The company wanted me to architect a better sales process, and define what the existing sales reps needed to do to manage an opportunity to close.
I absolutely could have done that. But I knew simply drawing out a sales process was not going to get them where they wanted to go. A sales process is only as good as the organization that supports it. Thinking about the sales process in isolation is a fruitless effort. Even if an island has an extraordinary distribution network, it can’t spontaneously produce new resources in the wake of a disaster. In the same vein, the best sales process in the world can’t accelerate revenue growth without fuel.
In this case, the fuel that drives successful execution of the sales process is a completely integrated approach with marketing, inside sales, product management, sales engineering, and account management. You may say, “we’re small, and don’t have all of those functions.” Well, if you’re selling something, and you have customers, you have all of those functions. Someone, whether they are identified in that capacity or not, is doing the activities that fall into those buckets. Whether they are doing them well is a subject for another blog.
Unifying these functions requires a go-to-market plan. You have to look at every stage of prospect interaction, and how you are going to guide them from the first touch all the way to the closed deal. Often, you aren’t selling the product/solution/service throughout most of the process. You are selling the next stage in the process.
Let’s look at the functions that need to support whatever sales methodology you decide to employ:
Marketing. Organizations often fall into the trap of looking at their marketing efforts as separate and distinct from their sales efforts. While reporting on different areas of sales pipeline performance is important, joint ownership of that pipeline by sales and marketing is key to alignment, which is the secret sauce of a great sales-generating company. Everyone should clearly see how their work drives sales.
Marketing is typically the first touch in the creation of a sales opportunity. To get good leads in, you have to know what good leads are. Who do you want to sell to? What type of companies and people? I’ve seen so many organizations conduct blanket marketing, often rooted in SEO and Google Adwords, that results in wasted sales efforts: the sales team chases any lead that comes in, regardless of whether the deal has a good chance of closing. Aligning the marketing efforts to generate leads based on a go-to-market plan, which includes the characteristics of the companies and people you most want to sell to, is necessary to use sales resources most efficiently – meaning that they close more deals per dollar invested in sales.
Marketing also needs to support later stages in the sales process beyond lead generation. Creating awareness and momentum in accounts with existing sales cycles is important – and completely different from typical lead generation campaigns. Sales needs good case studies, testimonials and references to validate their value proposition. They need professional sales presentations, proposals, and collateral. All the things that a sales person uses to advance the sales process should be consistent with the brand that is created in marketing.
Inside Sales. The most effective Inside Sales teams I’ve worked with have actually been under the direction of marketing, but very collaborative with sales. The best inside sales reps are in tune with the go-to-market plan, as well as the marketing calendar, so they know what campaigns are dropping that will send leads their way. Inside sales needs access to actionable reporting so they can effectively prioritize their follow-up activities. They should know which deals are most likely to close, which companies have the highest revenue potential, which personas/roles tend to champion products in their space, what messages are resonating in the market right now, and so on. Inside Sales teams can’t become data administrators for sales reps, and they can’t be out of sync with marketing.
Product Management and Sales Engineering. I combine these because often in emerging companies the same people wear both hats. Determining how the product is positioned (and where the product needs to innovate) must align with sales’ experience of what is selling, and often why the current solution is not selling. That is classic product management. How the product is presented to the client, often through a product demonstration, is classic sales engineering. All of these things need to be aligned with and reinforce the value proposition sales is presenting.
Account Management. So often in high-growth companies this function gets overlooked. The company is so focused on new sales that they don’t have a smooth transition to ownership over the account once the deal is closed. A typical sales person will lose focus on closed accounts, because their compensation is heavily weighted (if not completely weighted) on new sales. The ideal here is to keep a consistent and favorable experience for the customer from the sales process to the account management process, creating a client who wants to do more business with you.
A gap in account management can often be seen in what we call the company’s “white space,” the other products in the company’s portfolio that their existing customers have not bought. In other words, a lack of account management means the entire organic revenue stream, or upsell/cross-sell into their customer base, is missed. And that’s often the easiest revenue stream to secure.
To be absolutely clear, any successful, high growth company needs a robust and efficient sales process. But you can’t have a great sales process without identifying how all of the above functions support it. And that is your go-to-market plan. Be wary of consultants or teams who claim they can implement a new sales process that will dramatically grow revenue if they don’t have expertise in each of the supporting areas. Frankly, teams with that breadth of experience are hard to find.
So, my advice to companies that have the potential for high growth is to create a go-to-market plan, however rudimentary, and build processes that bring the required functions together to jointly accelerate sales. Resist the temptation to solve point problems without a big picture in mind. If you can do that, you can avoid the risk of your sales function becoming an isolated island, and ensure that any market storm can be weathered with minimal disruption.