Enter Colleen Francis, a woman on a mission to put an end to the boom-and-bust cycles that too many companies go through. The author of the recently released “Nonstop Sales Boom: Powerful Strategies to Drive Consistent Growth Year after Year“ works with businesses and sales leaders to hone their sales teams and drive better – and more predictable – results. Colleen is also the owner of Engage Selling Solutions, which provides custom sales training programs for companies in need.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Colleen on a variety of issues, including the biggest takeaways from her book, why companies need to sometimes fire customers, and the trick to getting more referrals.
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1) Your book primarily addresses the sales boom-and-bust cycles that many companies go through. In your experience, why is this such a common problem with most sales organizations? What about the way they are set up lends itself to this boom-and-bust cycle?
The sales boom-and-bust cycle is common because people assume that it’s natural, and they fall into the mistake of thinking, “Oh its ok, we’ll make up for it another time.” It’s also common because sales leaders and sales individuals don’t know how to spot that it’s coming. The research that I started doing on sales booms and busts actually started by accident.
A number of years ago, a couple of prospects and clients said to me, “We don’t need you or any consulting help. We’re having our best month or best quarter ever.” I thought, “Oh I’m glad they’re having success.” A month later they call me and say “Now we’re having our worst month ever, can you help us?” And two or three months later they were still struggling. A lot of people don’t see what’s coming, they don’t know how to predict it and they just think “Oh well, I guess boom-and-bust is just what naturally happens” and they accept it as the norm, which is so damaging to the way they run their business.
2) Even if they end up hitting their quarterly or annual goals in the end, why does an unpredictable feast-and-famine cycle hurt companies?
We once had a client in the software business that got excited about a new product they launched. They threw all their resources behind it and had tremendous success. But as a result of all that focus on the new product, they ignored their stable of cash cows, the products in the past that always brought them consistent revenue and the ones they were known for. They were hitting their overall sales targets – thanks to their new product – but they were doing it at the expense of the backbone of their business. When they realized that customers were fleeing from their core product, it was too late and their whole business came crashing down. Even though it looked like their overall revenue was staying stable, it was actually headed for the bust because of the way they were allocating sales resources. The unpredictability of feast-and-famine blinded them.
Everyone loves that adage – “80% of revenue from 20% of your sales reps” – but think about how dangerous that is. (Click to Tweet)This type of feast-or-famine also hurts because sometimes organizations will look like they’re hitting their revenues on a consistent basis, but they’re doing it on the backs of 20% of their sales force. Everyone loves that adage: “80% of the revenue from 20% of the sales reps” but think about how dangerous that is. For whatever reason, that 80-20 rule has found a comfortable place in business. Because it’s considered a norm, it’s almost like people say “That’s the way it is, so I can’t get in trouble for that.” I think smart sellers know if you have that type of disparity, that’s a very dangerous place to be, a very risky proposition. I believe that the best organizations hire right (to ensure equitable revenue contributions across their sales force) or fire fast.
- Colleen Francis
At a more individual level – and I talk about 14 other reasons why boom and bust cycles are damaging for the organization in the book – these cycles hurt organizations because of sales rep stress and exhaustion. There’s just so much stress and exhaustion and administrative overload on sales reps. You have to think about emotional contagion. One bad attitude inside an organization can drag the whole organization down. If you have one rep who’s in a bad slump, that person is going to be louder and more aggressive about their failure than anyone else, and they will be at risk of dragging down your mid-level performers. That can be very hurtful to your organization.
Inconsistent sales performance ultimately points to poor sales leadership, and I like to tell sales managers that their jobs could be in jeopardy. Even if you hit the target at the end of the year, but your sales performance fluctuates wildly from quarter to quarter, if you work for a publicly traded company, that type of unpredictable cycle won’t be tolerated.
3) Early in your book, you talk about the Sales Radar; what is this, what should sellers and readers know about it, and what impact can this have on their sales success?
Sales Radar is a fundamentally different way of looking at your sales process. Common sales processes are very linear; a lot of sales people will think they’re walking through with their clients in a linear fashion. That really restricts your overall ability to generate revenue. I think we need to think of the sales process like a radar on a ship, and opportunities can exist all around you. Clients can be in more than one place at a time, and they can move in different directions. I am fundamentally opposed to any sales process that doesn’t allow you to move backwards and forwards and up and down, based on the buying behavior of the client.
What we said was, in the client’s life-cycle, it’s not a linear process; it’s 360 degrees, completely circular. There are 4 states of engagement in the radar. There’s the attraction stage; everything you’re doing to attract net new prospects or buyers into your community. Then there’s the participation stage – all those things you’re doing to qualify the buyer, to get them to buy from you but also to get them on-boarded quickly. What we discovered about companies who are in this nonstop sales boom phenomenon is that they don’t believe closing ends with the signing of the contract; closing ends once the client is fully utilizing the product. The faster they can get clients participating fully in implementation and usage of the product, the more opportunities they have to grow. Growth, the third stage, is what you are doing to enhance the value to you and your client. It’s not just about selling them more product, but more services, expanding the relationship to include more decision-makers. Growth doesn’t necessarily mean increase in revenue; it means protection of the account. Building out multiple decision-makers, really becoming that insider, because that leads to leverage. Finally, leverage is when your clients are advocating on your behalf and becoming that secret sales force, through testimonials and references that are feeding back into the radar as net new clients.
Growth doesn’t necessarily mean increase in revenue; it means protection of the account. (Click to Tweet)What’s really critical is to get your sales reps thinking holistically about these 4 components, because far too many sales reps think only in terms of closing net new business. They have a real stereotypical hunter mentality, chasing that bright shiny new object, and they ignore their customer base. They forgot that they have more opportunities to grow, and as a result they hit these boom-and-bust cycles. Closing new customers month over month is much harder than expanding your current client base, so we want them thinking in a holistic way – using the Sales Radar – and taking advantage of short-term revenue, long-term revenue and new client growth.
- Colleen Francis
4) Firing a customer is something you address in the book, and something most companies don’t think about doing. Under what circumstances should firing a customer be considered and why is this a good thing in the long term?
I think we should take one step back, and remind readers: the whole point of the qualification system in the sales process is for you to qualify buyers in and out of your pipeline. We talk about firing clients, but you should also think about firing prospects because not everyone that you talk to deserves to be a client of yours, and not all of them are the right fit. I like to remind people, in a tongue-in-cheek and loving but stern way, if you have a client base that is horrible, cheap, hard to deal with, you have to remind yourself that it was you who sold to them in the first place. It’s your fault! Make sure your qualification system is so rock solid that you only have people in your community that you want as clients. That being said, sometimes clients have turnover in their organizations, and there’s a new contact that’s horrible to deal with, or they go through corporate culture changes, and you want to fire them.
Salespeople talk about partnerships all the time. If you and your clients achieve a desired outcome, it should be celebrated as a team effort, but if something goes awry, it also shouldn’t be about finger pointing. If you have a client who is constantly threatening you or blaming you or generally poisoning that relationship, then that’s something that you want to get rid of, no matter how profitable it is. If it continues, it not only hurts your relationship with that customer, but it hurts your organization. It creates a lot of animosity. It also hurts your position in the marketplace, especially if you’re selling in a small market.
I call clients who take massive advantage of you the noone-else-matters client; they expect you to work for them and only them all of the time. They call you on weekends, on your cellphones, and I found that over the days and years, those relationships never work out and they often turn ugly when their inappropriate expectations aren’t met. If you find yourself in those situations, then those clients have to be fired. And of course, if you find clients that try to do illegal things, you want to be very careful with those too.
5) Social media networking and relationship building are increasingly critical, with both prospects and customers, in today’s Sales 2.0 world. What do you think most organizations are currently doing wrong when it comes to this?
The lines between sales and marketing are blurring. Salespeople have to be good marketers. (Click to Tweet)I’ve moved to Sales 3.0 – we’ve been in Sales 2.0 for way too long and it’s time to move on. To me, Sales 2.0 was all about embracing social media and digital marketing and all that great stuff. Sales 3.0 says what companies need to do is achieve balance. Our concepts in the Sales Radar, in the client attraction stage, is you have to be ubiquitous.
- Colleen Francis
I will say, quite proudly, that the lines between sales and marketing are blurring more than ever before. Salespeople have to be good marketers because they have to be ubiquitous in the marketplace. The best companies that we work with, big Fortune 500 companies all the way down to little companies, have salespeople learning some marketing skills when it comes to social media or publishing or just communicating with clients. We’ve got clients that use Salesforce, tools like InsightSquared and Marketo, and they are controlling the message that goes back to their clients electronically. At the same time, they’re still picking up the phones and still going to networking events, still putting things in the mail. The mistake companies make is thinking social media is an either-or activity, when in reality it’s a yes-and activity.
We never know these days where our buyers are going to be. What’s fascinating to me is that most companies are selling to this multi-generational buying community, selling to 65-year old clients and 25-year-old buyers in the same day. Just given that generational span, we have people wanting to make decisions differently. Some buyers want to text their questions to me, others want to use Facebook, and then I have clients who can barely turn on their computer!
6) Word-of-mouth referrals are also becoming a valuable tool, something you touch on. What is the secret to making your current customers do a lot of your future marketing and selling for you?
Clients have to be incredibly happy and satisfied, not only with you as a business but the individual sales rep as well, because a referral is a personal act. It goes without saying that you have to provide an extraordinary service to make sure your clients are well-satisfied and loyal.
Referrals are a fascinating lesson in human psychology. We’ll use InsightSquared as an example. You guys are a successful, growing company. You put out press releases about how fast you’re growing, you’re on social media, you have all this great content, and people see you as a successful company. So your customers might think, “Wow, InsightSquared is so successful, they’re growing so fast, they don’t need my help.” They don’t consciously think that they’re not going to give you a referral, but they don’t actively think to help. They think they should help someone else who is more needy.
You have to remind your clients that you’re always ‘open for business’ or ask them directly for referrals (Click to Tweet)You have to remind your clients that you’re always “open for business” or ask them directly, telling them you’re actively looking to grow and raise awareness. You have to be very specific and say, “Hey, we would love to do your business with your European operation, can you refer me to your VP of Sales there?” or “I noticed that you have a parent company in this other location” or “I noticed your supplier is this company, and I think they might be a great fit. Can I tell them we do business together?”
- Colleen Francis
The secret is to do your homework first. Come up with the names or the titles of the people you want to be introduced to and go to your clients and ask one of two questions: “Can you help me with an introduction?” or, if you don’t know if there’s a connection, simply say “Can I tell them about your success with us, or that we do business together?” The mistake most companies make is they ask way too general questions. I call it the date-night question: “What do you want to do tonight?” “Well, I don’t know, what do you want to do?” That frustrates everybody, and that’s what happens when you ask your clients, “Do you know anyone who might be a good fit for us?” and they’ll respond “Well I’m not sure, let me think about it.” When you don’t hear from them, that negative mentality creeps in and you think they might not really like you or they’re not very satisfied or they’re not influential in the marketplace. They probably just forgot about it because they couldn’t think of anybody in that moment.
7) How important is data and metrics to you? What types of sales metrics should organizations be focusing on, and how can this help them become better sellers?
It all starts with metrics. You can’t execute on a sales plan or Sales Radar without the metrics. Yes, there’s always a way to improve the performance of your metrics – people say “It’s not about the quantity of calls, it’s about the quality,” – but on the other hand, if you make too few great calls, you’ll still not hitting your number, because there are some realities wrapped up in the numbers. The data is critical, and of course the data is different for every organization.
People forget that the actual sale is a lagging indicator of success. (Click to Tweet)An inside sales team needs to understand how many hours of talk time and how many calls you can get in an hour, with that kind of granularity. I like to take these numbers down to as small as I can get; how many contacts do we need? How many leads do we need? How many qualified leads do we need? How many attempts or calls a day do we need? How many leads have to be generated by the channel team? We need to understand what the numbers are today, what we can improve on them, and are we executing based on the numbers that we know are going to help us hit our targets? I call those leading indicators. I find it fascinating that most sales reps and Sales VPs forget that the sale is a lagging indicator of success. Of course it’s the thing we all strive for, to ring the bell, but all it tells me is that you did a bunch of things right in the past that got you to that place. If you only focus on lagging indicators, you forget that you need to make calls and make pipeline. Too much energy and effort is put in on that close, to the detriment of the rest of the pipeline.
- Colleen Francis
8) If readers could take only one thing away from your book to make themselves better sellers, what would it be?
I think it all starts with sales math or sales metrics. They have to understand what is their ideal target or buyer, and how many of those do they need to be talking to in order to hit their target. The whole concept of Sales Radar is all predicated on knowing how many leads have to come into the client’s attraction phase every month quarter and year in order for you to perpetually hit your target. When I say “Nonstop Sales Boom,” what I mean is that companies are hitting their revenue month-over-month, quarter-over-quarter, year-over-year. I don’t mean that they’re growing at an exponential rate every year, but they should be on target or above target on a consistent basis. The only way to know that and create that is to know the activity levels – quality and quantity – that will get you there. Far too many sellers are basing their performance on their gut feel, and not paying attention to what it actually takes. And organizations are letting them get away with that.
9) What do you think the next 5 years looks like in the sales landscape, and what can sales organizations do to gird themselves for this change?
Buyers, clients, customers, consumers – whatever you want to call them – are gaining power at an alarming pace. They have access to more information, more reviews, more products than ever before. Over the next 5 years, we’re not going to see a slowdown of that. We’re going to see consumers taking more and more power, and demanding a more unbalanced relationship in their favor. I see that organizations are going to have to let go of the linear sales process or sales funnel that they enforce, and they have to embrace this notion that our jobs are to facilitate a buying process. There’s just far too much choice out there for buyers to not want to take control. We can’t force buyers into the sales process anymore.
We also have to recognize that buyers are coming to us at increasingly different or disparate positions, ready to buy. We have to be prepared for that, and we also have to attract people like that. We have to be using more media, more marketing, and more publishing than ever before. We have to be able to capture buyers at different stages of the cycle. It used to be that buyers didn’t hear about us until we reached out to them. Now, we don’t hear about buyers until they’re ready to buy, and that’s going to become more and more prevalent over the next 5 years.
10) What is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?
I ride a Harley, so a lot of people would say that’s pretty dangerous. I also scuba dive, so a lot of people might think that’s pretty dangerous too. I like to remind myself that neither scuba diving or my motorcycle registers on my life insurance, so it can’t really be that dangerous. But I think probably the most dangerous thing I have ever done was take a chomp on an unknown red pepper while in the Caribbean. I knew it wasn’t a jalapeno, but I thought, “How bad could it be?” That was a mistake. Took me a few days to recover from that.