Miller Heiman Blog

Coaching the Underperformer, Part I

It’s late October as I write this and, for many sales organizations, that means there are only two short months left to make quota. Hopefully, your team is on target to make their numbers, but if you’re like most sales managers, you probably have a few that have fallen behind.
Let me make a bold statement. How you coach your underperformers is as important to the long-term success of your organization as how you coach your top professionals. Probably even more so.
That’s why my colleagues and I here at MHI Global are collaborating on a series of posts focused exclusively on helping frontline sales managers (FSMs) coach their underperformers. In this first post, I want to look at year-end coaching from a high-level perspective. In subsequent posts, we’ll delve deeper into some of the tactics that can help your underperformers turn things around.
I should note that this advice works whether you’re approaching the end of your fiscal year or just the end of the quarter—or at any point in between. Sound coaching is always in style.
Are You Coaching Opportunities or People?
At this time of year, it’s tempting for the FSM to turn from coaching salespeople to coaching opportunities. That is, instead of seeing their salespeople as individuals who are somewhere along the continuum toward making their numbers, the FSMs turn inward toward their own quota attainment. They think, “I’m at 80 percent. What do my people have in the funnel that we can close before the end of the year?” They identify enough big deals to get them the rest of the way and that becomes their focus for the remainder of the year.
Big mistake. First of all, you can’t coach an opportunity; you can only coach people. If you only focus your efforts on those likely closes, you’re probably just ushering the sale through the rest of the process. You might be helping the opportunity over a hurdle or adding a little management-level gravitas to the negotiations. But is that coaching? Not really.
When You’re Selling, You’re Not Coaching
Look over the activities you’re doing to help close these deals, and you’ll see them for what they are: selling. When you’re selling, you’re not coaching. It’s like the coach of the high-school basketball team jumping off the bench and substituting himself for a player who just can’t hit his free throws. Maybe the player will learn something by watching, but wouldn’t it be better to help the player develop the skills he needs to make his own free throws?
Will coaching always get the underperformer to goal? No. In fact, I would suggest that most of the time it won’t. But it will get them closer. (And maybe help you make your numbers.) More importantly, it will turn them into a better sales professional and, in all likelihood, set them up to have a much better first quarter than all of your top performers who are busy clearing out their funnel in December.

Posted by: Scott Hartman | Sales Vice President
Posted: 10/22/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

In Sales, Perception Is Reality. Or Is It?

Everyone in sales is familiar with the phrase “perception is reality.” If a customer thinks your price is too high, it is too high. If they think a competitor’s product is better, it is better. If they don’t think your company has what they need, you don’t.
Salespeople complain all the time about customers and their (mis)perceptions. For the sales rep, a common way to attempt to overcome a customer’s negative perception is to discount the product or to dig up dirt on the competitor. If that fails, they’ll keep the prospect in the funnel, sending them a new brochure every now and then, hoping they’ll eventually wear them down.
Sales professionals handle customer perceptions a bit differently. They understand that new information is the only way to overcome a customer’s perception, but that doesn’t mean a barrage of irrelevant sales brochures. Not just any information can incite a change in customer perceptions. If it could, then the sales rep’s method of sending out a new brochure every month would work, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
To change a customer’s perception, sales professionals focus on adding perspective.
The Foundation of Perspective
The ability to provide perspective is one of the key differences between a sales professional and a sales rep. Perspective requires the sales professional to understand two primary customer data points:
  • The customer’s context defines the environment in which the customer exists. Context is essential because it helps the sales professional define the problem and see the world from the customer’s point of view – both of which are essential to influencing the customer’s decision.
  • The customer’s concept defines how the customer sees the possible solution. Just as it’s important to understand the individual buyer’s role in the sale, it’s critical to understand their concept of a solution to their problem. If you don’t understand how they see the solution, you can never know how far off your proposal is, nor present it in terms that will bridge the gap.
The sales professional takes the time to thoroughly understand the customer’s concept and context, as well as their decision dynamics. By doing so, they are able to provide perspective, or a new way of looking at the problem, that can then alter the customer’s perceptions and influence their buying decisions.

Posted by: Jason Buma | Sales Vice President
Posted: 10/20/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

A Frontline Sales Manager’’ Triangle

In school, I questioned the value of learning geometry. But today, it makes perfect sense to me. Regarding the daily challenges of a frontline sales manager (FSM), an equilateral triangle seems to be a perfect visualization.

The frontline sales manager triangle – customer, business, and people

An equilateral triangle has three equal sides and three equal angles. These three equal sides can easily be mapped to the FSM’s core areas – the often-competing areas of customer, business and people.

Customer: This area is all about customer-management strategies, their implementation and execution across the sales team. It covers customer definition and segmentation, territory and account management. Understanding the customers’ typical challenges, their context, the relevant buyer roles and how they want to buy are key criteria for designing tailored engagement and growth strategies. This knowledge has to be mapped to the individuals on the sales team—their specific expertise, skills, competencies and talents (see below)—to make the right resource-allocation decision.

Business: The business area is all about executing the concepts and frameworks sales operations has implemented—for example, in the areas of sales-funnel management and reporting, performance management, and compensation plans. FSMs have to implement and execute these concepts with their sales teams. The FSM’s special focuses in the business area are funnel management and forecasting. Based on their regular coaching sessions with their team members, FSMs get the necessary clarity on current leads and opportunities to generate accurate forecast data. The availability of leading indicators that measure the performance of the sales activities that are directly managed, influenced and measured by the FSMs is the foundation for coaching.

People: This area describes the FSM’s most important role, the role as a frontline sales leader and coach. Whatever team the FSM is leading, sales performance begins with knowing each individual and understanding his current level of skills, competencies, knowledge and expertise to determine the best strategies for resource allocation, professional development and coaching. Whatever has to be executed in the customer and business area, the seeds for success are planted in the people area based on a thoughtful coaching approach. Apart from individual coaching, the FSM has to build a collaborative, sharing and learning culture across the team. Inspiring A-players to share their best practices allows everyone to learn from everyone else. Performance management is another key area based on sales operations’ criteria. Performance management cannot shirk the tough calls on resource allocation, hiring and employee dismissals.

The triangle’s foundation

The FSM triangle works as a framework to balance the three often-competing areas of customer, people and business to increase sales productivity and to drive transformation. The FSM triangle’s foundation is based on core values and individual behaviors that work across the triangle. That’s conscious collaboration and performance accountability.

Posted by: Tamara Schenk | Research Director
Posted: 10/15/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

Should Female Sales Professionals Try to “Sell Like a Man”?

A female associate recently told me she gets a little irritated when other executives tell her that female salespeople should “act like a woman, but think like a man.” In her words, “Do they somehow believe that female thinking, if there is such a thing, is somehow substandard?”
I try never to get bent out of shape about the silly things people say without really meaning them, but her comments got me thinking more about it. Sales professionals have different styles. Some are more empathetic than others. Some are better at building the business case. Maybe it’s based on gender or maybe it’s just based on the way their brain is wired. I don’t really know, but in my experience, the “why” doesn’t matter.
Sales professionals, both men and women, need to understand the strengths of their inherent personality styles. If they lack empathy, they can learn to spot the signals from successful colleagues who are better at it. If they are challenged when it comes to building out a business case, sales enablement can provide the tools and education to help them overcome their natural deficiencies.
At the end of the day, the most important style element in a successful sales cycle isn’t how sales professionals sell, but how the buyers buy. Let me repeat that even more succinctly. The focus is on the customer, not the salesperson.
One of the key tenets of the MHI Global sales philosophy is that every buyer makes every decision differently, every time. Even if this is the third time they have bought a solution like yours – or even your solution – there will be nuances to this buying decision. Maybe their time frame is shorter. Maybe they’ve expanded their buying community. Maybe they have a new CFO. The list of things that may have changed in their world is never-ending.
Professional salespeople take the time to discover these nuances. By combining this insight with an understanding of the customer’s concepts and context, they are able to add value to the customer’s world by providing their perspective. In the end, it’s the sales professional who adds value that wins the business, regardless of gender.

Posted by: Jennifer Young | Director of Sales
Posted: 10/13/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

Put Your Heart into Your Work

People spend a substantial part of their lives working, whether in a high-tech startup in Singapore, at a financial institution in New York, or as a machine builder in Stuttgart. As a result, the quality of their workplace experience is inevitably reflected in the quality of their lives. The major quoted factors for work-related stress include weak organization culture, poor management practices, unclear job assignments with continuously growing demands, inadequate work environment, difficult work relationships within teams, poorly communicated change initiatives, and unclear assignments. All of these factors can be attributed directly to poor management.

Based on Gallup’s most recent study, we learn that only 14 percent of all Western Europe employees in sales functions are actively engaged in creating value for their employer. Not surprisingly, managers and executives are only 1 percentage point higher at 15 percent. For me, there is a direct correlation—most Western Europe companies have been struggling for years to achieve consistent growth. What’s missing? Start putting your heart back into work using my simple formula: There are things in life you can directly influence that are relevant and where you put your heart. And there are significantly many more things you cannot influence and this is where you stop worrying.

Start with understanding your company’s mission, vision, purpose. All companies have them. You’ll find them on your company’s Web page (and sometimes they come with different tag lines). My colleague Tamara Schenk just published a step-by-step blog about that. This allows you to focus on your core values and to be clear about assignments, as well as fostering broader collaboration. Start using a common sales process with leading and lagging indicators. Document your customer interactions, your opportunities, and your account strategies. Use available automaton tools (SFA, CRM), keeping them updated while improving your productivity. Keep sharing successes and progress within your sales team and wider organization. Take every opportunity to connect with clients in person—not through multiple emails but by meeting real people in their work environment. Invest in your own education, continuously. Start researching your industry, technology, markets, products, competitors. Reflect on your documented client interactions and actively seek coaching advice (not just from your boss) and ask for regular training based on a transparent, agreed-upon future career path. Enjoy sharing your acquired learning and be vocal voicing your perspective within your team, your management and, of course, your customers. Lastly, start managing your boss by actively giving feedback and engaging your executive management in valuable client interactions. Take full accountability for your actions and put your heart into work.

Posted by: Klaus Leutbecher |
Sales Vice President
Sales Vice President
Posted: 10/8/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

Quick Momentum: Why Speed to Results is So Important

Typically if something is going to help drive results then you should start to see some sort of progress rather quickly.

I bring this up because I see far too many situations where sales leaders construct long, drawn out strategic plans backed by impressive thinking and insights. But, the leader never gets a chance to complete the plan because he failed on one key aspect--> his team didn’t hit the numbers.

It may seem unfair but the reality is that sales leaders need to be constantly showing progress and improvement with key sales metrics. Even the best-laid plans fall apart when performance wanes and the organization begins to lose confidence in the sales leader. 

When you think about it, this dynamic is not short sighted; it’s actually healthy. Salesforces that win do not typically execute on plans that build off a downward trend of performance. Instead, they implement ideas that get quick traction and build momentum. This momentum creates the fuel to keep executing on the change initiative and brings even more commitment to it because everyone can see the progress that is starting to take shape.

Winning sales organizations know that quick momentum almost always connects directly to customer conversations. Improving one’s understanding of the account; getting a better handle on the client's objectives; gaining insight on the decision process and better understanding the strengths and weaknesses of key competitors are all initiatives that can drive quick results. Fortunately, they can take place today in direct conversations with customers. The challenge is to get to discussions related to these issues rather than just move aside after you hear that “budgets are tight.”

Don't get me wrong. Strategic plans are requirements for any effective sales effectiveness or sales transformation plan. Market-leading companies are executing systems and processes to put these smart-sounding ideas into result-producing action. One thing is clear though: they all start with a focus on talking to prospects and customers and finding out how you can be a partner in helping grow their respective businesses.

Good luck and good selling.

Posted by:
Sam Reese | CEO - MHI Global
Sam Reese | CEO - MHI Global
Sam Reese | CEO - MHI Global
Posted: 10/6/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

Give and Receive

Collaboration is a key in successful business transactions, and at its heart is the concept of giving and receiving. In fact, sharing economies are based on the collaborative principle of “you have to give to get.”

At the MHI Research Institute, giving begins when we share the highlights from our 2014 MHI Global Sales Best Practices Study. Last year, our research narrowed down three attributes found in world-class sales organizations. The three qualities each corresponded to a cultural component that drives the attitudes and behaviors in an organization. The organizational qualities we identified from the 2013 study, Customer Core, Collaborative Culture, and Calibrated Success, tied into our analysis of the 2014 data, where we found three classifications of sales behaviors that define World-Class Sales Performance. These were: Provide Perspective, Conscious Collaboration, and Performance Accountability. When we connected these individual behaviors with the attributes that we identified in world-class sales Organizations, we arrived at a framework for a performance-oriented sales culture.

What is a performance-oriented sales culture, exactly? In our findings, we found it’s one that consistently knows how to connect and engage with customers, knows how to work together, and that has a framework for measuring, recognizing and rewarding.

Let’s examine the qualities in more detail.

Provide Perspective: Providing perspective is a level of connecting and engaging with prospects and customers that goes beyond just knowing the customer’s products. It means that you take into account the customer’s situational context and the different concepts of each impacted stakeholder. In this framework, you understand that in complex buying environments, every customer makes every decision differently. In an organization, the sales team needs to understand the specific decision dynamic before the team can map all of the findings to the portfolio of capabilities, products, and services. Once done, the sales team can then come up with a specific, customized solution that enables customers to achieve their desired results and wins.

Conscious Collaboration: Conscious collaboration begins with customers. When you collaborate, you achieve better results in a shorter amount of time. Individuals with various areas of expertise and roles come together using a common language and strategic frameworks. Collaboration occurs across teams, organizations and companies, and individual contributions are multiplied. It’s important to understand that collaboration objectives are different for a strategic-account environment when compared with the tactics used by an inside sales team. Therefore, collaboration should be defined specifically and spearheaded by the sales leadership team. In other words, sales leaders need to establish the guiding principles for different collaboration situations in order to create a foundation for conscious collaboration.

Performance Accountability:  The performance accountability metric is the one that separates world class from all others. Our research found that World-Class Sales Performers hold themselves accountable for their customers’ success and wins. Sales performers who score high on performance accountability know that the success of their customers is the foundation for their own success, and they hold themselves accountable along the customer’s journey. When a deal is closed, the sales professional doesn’t just walk away; instead, the sales professional identifies additional possibilities to create a value-add for customers. Additionally, we found that the sales professional also holds him- or herself accountable to the standards and expectations set by the frontline sales managers.

Giving and receiving: Where you come in

In the spirit of sharing knowledge to foster collaboration, we hope you can take some of the points we just shared from our research and apply it to your organization’s practices.

Ready to share your knowledge with us? Please lend your insights to our own research so that we can have true collaboration. The 2015 MHI Sales Best Practices Study is now open. Please take 20 – 30 minutes of your time to go through the survey questions. When you participate, we give back – true collaboration. Here’s what you’ll receive when you participate in the study:
  • Timely business intelligence—exclusive, first access to the full study results when they’re published in Q1 2015
  • Entry into a drawing for a World-Class Sales Performance Gap Analysis—an opportunity to take advantage of a service provided by the Institute’s research analysts that compares the participant’s organizational behaviors to those of World-Class Sales Performers as identified in this study
  • A complimentary report from the MHI Research Institute, Perspectives on Productivity: The Next Level of Transparency
Click here to participate in the study – it’s open through November 30, 2014.

Posted by: Tamara Schenk | Research Director
Posted: 10/1/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

The Make-or-Break Skill for Today’s Top Performers

Sitting in a restaurant with a client the other day, I spotted a table filled with well-dressed young professionals. They could easily have been sales professionals of one kind or another. Instead of talking to each other, they were all swiping away at their smartphones. While I love to see salespeople hard at work, part of me felt sorry for this generation of young people who don’t often sit and just talk with one another.
Then, on the way back to the office, my thoughts turned back to that table of young professionals. Maybe they aren’t so unfortunate after all. They have grown up with tools that many of us at the senior levels of sales leadership never had when we were their age: social media.  We had our business cards, Rolodex, and a telephone.
Study Links Social Selling to Improved Performance
If they’re like my young adult children, these sales professionals communicate almost exclusively through their smartphones – seldom checking voicemail, preferring the instant gratification of text messages and putting up with email because corporate culture requires it. Over lunch, the top performers are spending time checking updates and alerts on sites like Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and, depending on who they are selling to, maybe even Pinterest.
In fact, social selling is a key attribute of world-class performance. In the 2014 MHI Global Sales Best Practices Study, those sales professionals who used social media on a regular basis outperformed less social-savvy sales professionals across a number of key metrics, including lead generation. What a change in thinking from the days when we, as sales leaders, were concerned about salespeople “wasting” time on social media. Now, we’re kicking new-hire candidates off the short list if their LinkedIn profile isn’t up to snuff.
Sales Leadership’s Social Responsibility
Yet, before we get too excited about the benefits of social selling, we have to remember that there are drawbacks, too. As in all sales activities, more is not necessarily better. Just spending more unproductive time on social media doesn’t equate to improved outcomes any more than making more bad sales calls leads to more sales.
Sales leadership’s responsibility is not to force the sales team to engage in social selling. Frankly, if you have to force your sales professionals to engage online, something’s wrong. Either you’ve hired the few remaining salespeople who aren’t comfortable with technology, or there is some sort of obstacle standing in their way.  Aside from hiring the best professionals you can, your job is to remove any obstacles to performance. Isn’t that what much of sales leadership is about, anyway?
I see two immediate avenues for removing obstacles:
Sales enablement. Removing obstacles is what this team does, and social selling needs to be an integral part of their enablement programs. Just as sales professionals need to be taught how best to prospect and engage customers through other means, they need to be taught the finer points of social selling. Best-practices need to be established, and those with more experience need to mentor those who are less comfortable with the social-selling competency.  Common profile structures need to be established for your sales team that represent your brand in the way you want it to be represented, rather than the random way each individual may create it.
Social media technology. Your team is already inundated with data every day. Once they start engaging in social selling, it’s only going to get more intense. In some industries – a LOT more intense. You need to make sure they have the technologies, such as the latest linkages of social data to your CRM applications, that can help them sift through the barrage of data to pull out those nuggets that will help them find prospects and move opportunities through the funnel. Reducing duplication of effort and maximizing the leverage of this valuable global data source will pay deep dividends in the long run.
One more quick tip. If you’re thinking, I know how much leverage there is in social media, but I don’t really need to change my own behavior– you need to get your own ducks in a row. Social selling is definitely a lead-by-example technique. If executive management doesn’t engage online, your sales professionals will have no one to model. The best way to get comfortable with social media? Just do it!

Posted by: Rich Blakeman | Managing Director - Channel Enablers, a Division of Miller Heiman
Posted: 9/29/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

4th Quarter Sales Strategies

In my last post, “Sun Tzu and the Art of the Fourth Quarter,” I talked about the importance of cleaning out the rubbish from the sales funnel in the fourth quarter. As I acknowledged in that post, it can be difficult to turn your back on an opportunity, any opportunity, with your quota hanging in the balance. But walking away, at least temporarily, from opportunities that have little chance of closing this quarter will give you the best chance of meeting your numbers.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
So how do you know when to walk away and when to hang in there? You need to ask the right questions. Here are three that can help you decide.
1. Is this the right person? Remember, it’s not about your sales process but the customer’s buying process. Only they can decide when an opportunity progresses to the next phase. If you have an opportunity that looks like it’s going nowhere, you may be spending your time with buyers who don’t have the authority to make a commitment to the next phase. Find out who has that authority and set up a meeting with them to get their assessment of progress.
2. Is this the right solution? Do you understand the prospect’s concept of a solution and does it match your proposal? If not, you may not be as far along in the buying process as you think you are. You may not need to throw the opportunity out of the funnel, but perhaps you need to reposition it and reallocate resources – at least for now.
3. Is this the right time? Often, a customer’s financial year matches our own, and they have just as much incentive to spend their budget dollars as we have to close the business. But year-end can also mean the opposite is true. Perhaps their budget dollars have been cut, or other priorities have taken precedence. Take the time to find out what’s going on in their world.
When the timing isn’t right, agreeing to put the project on hold can be a relief to both you and the prospect. Stop hounding your prospect with desperate-sounding voicemail messages and offers of ever-deeper discounts and let marketing nurture them while you focus on other opportunities. Your credibility will increase, and the customer will likely welcome your call again after the first of the year.
Turning your back on any opportunity is hard this time of year. A smaller funnel can send a cold chill down one’s spine. But hold fast. If we focus on what’s truly winnable, there’s still time to drive the quality of our customer engagements and make a real difference before the end of the year.

Posted by: Dan Donovan | Sales Consultant
Posted: 9/24/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

Yes Man or Trusted Advisor

I don't watch a lot of TV but once in a while, I happen upon a late-night show and stay to watch. “Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s Mean Tweets” segment was on. It was fun to watch how celebrities react to not-so-flattering comments from non-fans. I’m sure stars are used to hearing adoring praises from their followers, so it was refreshing to see how their sense of humor helped them get through reading mean tweets about themselves.

That got me to thinking about the sales profession and our business here at MHI Global. Back in the day, sales professionals were taught the customer is always right. To make the sale, you needed to say all the right things that flattered the customer. The key was to be agreeable and accommodating to your customer’s every whim and fancy. Well, we all know that even if that approach worked then, it cast a bad rep on the sales profession.

To make the sale in today’s world, salespeople need to be credible and trustworthy, and to earn credibility and trust, you need to provide perspective. Think of perspective as the polar opposite of a scripted, canned pitch. Perspective is about converting input to insight. It’s about weaving together the customer’s inputs with your own experiences, and coming up with insights not previously considered.

If customers could diagnose their own problems and come up with solutions on their own, then all they would need is an order taker, and salespeople would be out of work. There’s a reason they turn to you and your firm; they're in a rut and they need your help. If you stick with just saying what the customer wants to hear, how are you helping them think through the results they’re out to achieve, including the possible unintended consequences? I’m not saying be brutally honest to the point of being mean like the tweets I mentioned above. What I do encourage is to have the audacity to bring what you know to the table that will help the customer see beyond his initial thinking and introduce points of view they never considered before. This could mean bringing up a thorny issue that the customer has tried to avoid. Or having a candid conversation with the customer to flesh out why she is devoted to a particular solution and muster the courage to ask, “How great is this idea, really?” To be a trusted advisor, you need to be able to mentally walk them through all possible scenarios, filter through all the options, and distill them to help customers arrive at the smartest decision possible.

You can keep playing the “yes-man” role that feeds customers’ egos and rely on luck to meet your quota. Or you could be the trusted advisor who can look them squarely in the eye and answer honestly when they ask, “What do you think?” “What do you know?” “What is your experience?” “How does it compare?” Customers value perspective from the people they work with, and they look to you to provide them with perspective on the pros and cons of the situation to make a well-thought-out buying decision.

Posted by: Sam Reese | CEO - MHI Global
Posted: 9/22/2014 6:00:00 AM by | with 0 comments

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