Written by Steve Gielda, Principal – Ignite Selling

Let’s start with a question. If your sales people are amazingly talented does that mean they don’t need attention? Let’s say they do a lot right. Does it mean they don’t have areas for improvement? Every amazingly talented sales manager knows: sales people need coaching.

At Ignite Selling, we have a six step strategic coaching process. The six steps are:
1. Select your target account
2. Establish preliminary strategy
3. Ask the right questions
4. Take action
5. Status check
6. Refine strategy

Step 1. Selecting your Target
A military commander sets his sights on one or two specific targets, narrowing the scope. Why? First, resources are always limited, with some more limited than others. It is, as a practical matter, impossible to allocate those scarce resources adequately at a plethora of targets. As Tolkien’s character Bilbo says, “It’s like too little butter over too much bread.” So, just as military strategists understand the need to focus on the crucial few, successful sales strategists carefully select those few opportunities which are most important. They realize there is neither the time nor attention to hit every available target. (This is why you will observe us visibly shudder when we hear companies attempt to claim partnering relationships with nearly all their customers; not only is this not advisable, it’s not even feasible.) If you want to improve strategy coaching, a good place to begin is selecting the right accounts on which to focus the effort. But how do you choose which opportunities to pursue?

We need to mention up front that this activity is no different from a customer’s process in selecting a vendor. The first step might be to create a set of targeting criteria – choosing those things that might be important in working with a customer. You might consider things like their financial viability or credit worthiness. Of course, the overall revenue potential and profitability should be factors, and in some cases volume. How about their referenceability? (That is, are they someone whose name we might drop on occasion to gain credibility with others?) You might consider your current relationship status. Is a company more attractive if you are already doing some business with them? What about future growth potential?

After developing a list of targeting criteria, you should then prioritize them. What is most important and what is least important? This simple task can actually prove quite difficult and even somewhat arbitrary. For many sales reps, it is daunting, which is why your guidance will be invaluable. The ranking depends greatly on many factors, such as your market and your place in it, your strengths and weaknesses in the market, and your company’s overall strategic objectives.

The third step in this process is comparing the prioritized list of selection criteria to the accounts in the territory. Who is most attractive and who is least, based on their alignment with the criteria?

Sales reps often believe that each of their suspects and prospects have near equal attraction. We find this to be true whether the seller is a cock-eyed optimist or a jaundiced skeptic. One frequent trap is targeting an account simply because it fits well with one or two of the criteria. Sales reps left to their own devices often choose to select those customers to whom they have a good relationship. Unfortunately, this criteria alone rarely makes for a smart target strategy. Therefore, investing significant time to develop a comprehensive opportunity strategy based on one or two factors may be a poor use of resources.

To create value in this process, you have to know something meaningful about the prospects and the market. It’s difficult to provide strategic input if you don’t know the targets very well.

Developing a smart strategic plan requires multiple people, with varying perspectives, all contributing to the common good. As the author, Matt Ridley writes in “The Rational Optimist,” these idea contributors don’t have to be the brightest of the bright. Just working collectively will produce better results for the rep than he would on his own. And what’s needed here is not necessarily subject matter expertise, but something which might be called subject matter skepticism.

An Unfortunate Example
This trap played out unfortunately quite graphically for one of our clients, a global financial solutions provider. Terry, an Area Sales Director, and his team had recently implemented a strategic opportunity planning process. Terry was excited about the new process and asked his sales team to begin applying the process to “their highest revenue potential accounts.” This was a reasonable request – in some situations maybe a smart request. Unfortunately for Terry, his plan did not work as well as he had hoped.

Pat was one of Terry’s sales reps. Pat wanted to apply the new opportunity planning process to a major manufacturer where he had been trying to get some traction, but without success. His top competitor owned the account, and had owned it for some time. But Pat had been steadily working to build relationships with some influential Advocates. He was getting some signals that he might have a shot of getting his foot in the door. In Pat’s view, the situation seemed ideal.

So, Terry worked with Pat to develop a strategic plan using the new process. Together, they established a number of action items and began to implement them. Pat’s enthusiasm for the process and his confidence in his plan were high. However, 30 days into their plan, Pat learned that the customer had extended their contact with his top competitor. Pat’s opportunity to get his foot in the door was closed. How could this happen? How could Pat not know that his competitor was in the midst of negotiating a contract extension?

Unfortunately, scenarios like this play out all too often. A sales rep selects a targeted account, hours are put into developing a preliminary strategy, the rep invests time with the customer, information is swapped between the sales rep and the customer, but in the end…it was all for naught. The opportunity vanishes like a mirage.

One of the most valuable contributions you can make as a sales manager is to ask hard, probing questions that un-settle your sellers’ presuppositions and hypothesis about their targeted accounts. It’s not good enough to ask questions to ‘test’ our reps’ understanding. We need to challenge their assumptions about the targeted opportunity. It’s a form of Cartesian account strategy: question everything. Certainly, it’s important for the seller and his chances of pursuing the right targets. But it can also be beneficial for you as you work through your own scarce resources. How many fool’s errands can you pursue without compromising the very real, winnable opportunities before you?

Stay tuned for more information about Steps 2 through 6.