Monday, November 29, 2010

In Sales, Persistence Pays Off

There are myriad reasons why technical professionals falter at selling. Many are uncomfortable with the role. Others yield to utilization pressures. Some lack the requisite competencies. But perhaps the most prevalent reason for lack of sales success is simply failing to give adequate effort.

One study purportedly found that 80% of sales are closed after the fifth sales call. But 90% of salespeople quit after the fourth call. While I've been unable to track the original source of that finding, it correlates well with a recent study by BPM Forum that found that over 80% of sales leads are never followed up on, are dropped, or are otherwise mishandled.

This problem is particularly acute among professional service firms, in part because--according to of sales leads are "long term," meaning they take at least several months to close. Busy technical professionals are prone to give up the chase too soon. Oh, they may well get involved again once the RFP hits the streets. But by then they've missed the opportunity to position their firms for success.

All this points to an important reality: Persistence pays off in sales. That may be stating the obvious, but we can certainly benefit from being reminded again. Better still, perhaps we need to take some specific steps to help us outwork and outlast the competition:

Have a plan for each key sales opportunity. The discipline to execute effective sales tactics starts with planning. Outline how you intend to contact different buying influences, build critical relationships, fill information gaps, and position your firm as the go-to resource. This plan must be periodically updated as new information is uncovered and the situation evolves. Of course, having a plan is one thing, but carrying it out is what really matters.

Be selective as to which opportunities you pursue. To do sales right takes time, and you only have so much of it. You won't beat the competition by simply chasing more sales leads, but by outworking them on the ones you target.

Stay in regular contact, both directly and indirectly. Client research by BTI Consulting found that clients notice when professional service sellers are sporadic in their contacts. They perceive it as a lack of commitment. So you want to sustain the conversation with the client. But don't waste the client's time simply to make an appearance (a common occurrence). Always bring value to every sales call. To avoid overstaying your welcome, supplement sales calls with periodic emails that forward helpful information to the client.

Advance the ball with each step of the sales process. While regular contact is important, each meeting or phone call with the client should represent a deliberate step towards closing the sale. Don't fall into the trap of simply "touching base" with the client on occasion. Instead, consider how to take the relationship a step further each time. This is where the aforementioned plan really comes into play--not just a task list, but an evolving gameplan for each encounter with the client.

Budget sales time. The best way to resolve the inherent tension between selling and being billable is to specifically budget time for sales. Then treat it like a project commitment. Track "sales utilization"--how much of the allocated budget is being spent as intended. Match expended hours with completed activities, just as a project manager would.

Have your "sales team" meet regularly to encourage follow-through. In many firms, taking on sales responsibilities is largely solo duty. That can make the inevitable delays and disappointments all the more dispiriting. That's one reason I favor organizing the sales team and having them regularly interact to discuss progress, share commitments, offer support, and hold each other accountable. That will help you sustain the sales effort over long periods.

Stay engaged even when the project is not imminent. As noted earlier, most sales leads in our business are long term. That can work to your advantage because most of your competitors are likely to either (1) mishandle or neglect the lead over the long haul or (2) arrive on the scene only as the RFP is approaching (or has already been released). If you stay involved with the client, providing support and nurturing the relationship over many months, you will have effectively screened out most of the competition.

Skeptical? One of my clients, a large international engineering firm, has found that while their normal proposal win rate is about 35%, it jumps to 70-75% when they develop and execute a "capture plan" that spells out most of the steps I describe above. Makes you wonder why they can't convince more of their client managers to take this approach. And what's your firm's excuse?

1 comment: