By ROBERT S. GNUSE
While sales are sharply declining, technical professionals are happily busy with existing work and headquarters…well…the mantra is consistently implying that “we’ve got to sell, sell, sell!”
Sound familiar? If you’re one of the many professional services firms that depend on your technical professionals for new sales generation, this is anecdotally referred to as “just another round of the feast or famine cycle.”
Ready to break the cycle and re-think your sales process?
Implementing an integrated sales management process will invariably increase top-line revenues, and as the sales pipeline becomes more manageable, the benefits are exponentially increased for the seller and buyer. An integrated sales management process has several variables to consider and senior management is pivotal in not only the organizational acceptance, but implementation of any and all systems. When implemented correctly, the value added from quality-based forecasting and improved client relationship management will benefit several key functions, such as finance and marketing, as well as all aspects of operations.
For clients, there are three inherent advantages:
What will an integrated sales management process accomplish internally? Plenty:
The following scenario is based on a compilation of experiences garnered from professional companies, most of which are multi-disciplined and have geographically dispersed offices. It illustrates some of the potential short- and long-term growth challenges, and later outlines how an integrated sales management process can mitigate some of these issues.
The company’s success and growth are measured primarily on gross revenues derived from selling technical professionals’ time on engineering/architectural and construction projects. The company generates new business using a sales force that is largely composed of technical seller-doers, with only the largest office locations having the luxury of full-time sales professionals. The term “sales” may rarely be used by the technical professionals, who view their job as charging billable time to projects; not being salesmen.
Management of the seller-doer sales force is decentralized, residing at the individual business unit level (office), and is typically the office manager’s responsibility. Consistency in the sales management process is not guaranteed, but is situational: with some managers more engaged than others. Typically, sales personnel have technical degrees, limited formal sales training and experience. This “limited” exposure creates a lack of comfort which essentially allows room for not prioritizing sales activities over project chargeability focus.
Without company-wide consistent processes or automation tools for sales force accountability of opportunities; no reliable method for monthly and/or quarterly sales forecasting is possible. Operations management has limited visibility into the up-stream pipeline of sales opportunities, including: type and size of opportunities, probability of success, and clients’ timetables for awarding contracts. Vulnerability of the seller/doer sales force model due to various constraints can cause under performance in sales and over-optimism in sales forecasting.
Compounding the above, there is increasing demand for the company to provide regular and timely top line growth forecasts to shareholders, the board of directors, banks and other interested outside parties.
The company’s use of seller-doers as the predominant sales force is quite different from most product-selling companies that employ a full-time sales force. Harris Interactive, a marketing research firm (Harris Poll), used the seller-doer approach and found that when their researchers handled sales they experienced a sporadic revenue stream, as researchers shifted their focus between acquiring clients and meeting clients’ needs to a satisfactory level.
Harris’s solution included hiring a number of full-time sales professionals to work in teams with the researchers while implementing a sales force automation system. In Harris’s case however, automation alone did not solve the problem; it had to be aligned with the right sales management processes, based on a requirements analysis. Sales pipeline management is an area where implementing the proper processes can drive incremental sales and margin growth. A McKinsey & Co. survey of top sales executives indicated a potential for a revenue increase of 10 percent or more through improved sales pipeline management.
So what must this professional services company do? Paramount is redesigning the current sales management process to provide one that is more disciplined, requires data-metric quality, and is actionable. The redesign begins with a “requirements analysis” conducted by a cross functional team (e.g., Finance, IT, Marketing, HR, Quality and Operations), including office managers who will assess and manage the sales process.
The “requirements analysis” must focus on how the new processes will add value and reduce time constraints in regard to what the sales force does, which in turn will emphasize better reporting for the firm. By aligning the sales process with the “requirements analysis” each of the functional areas should have their needs addressed to a satisfactory level. A pilot study (typically a few office locations) is recommended to evaluate results before a full-scale implementation is attempted. Enterprise-wide implementation should be led by a corporate champion with unanimous support from senior operations management.
There are three key elements to designing and maintaining the sales pipeline management process.
First is optimal opportunity management with an emphasis on developing multi-dimensional communications strategy. This means maximizing the outcomes from opportunities in the pipeline via vertical and horizontal information sharing. These improvements can be measured by better win/approval rates, increased velocity of deals, or improved overall deal size. Greater visibility of activities helps to prioritize sales management and align sales resources (including corporate) against the right opportunities for the firm.
Second is developing an accurate sales forecast, based on actual opportunities in the pipeline, to identify potential shortfalls against a sales plan. The nature and size of the sales gap will determine the actionable steps to be taken; thus, determining the degree of the generation requirements necessary. These response actions are designed to replenish the pipeline and determine the window for new opportunities to develop. Improvement metrics and measurable variables that can enhance productivity and longevity might include increasing the number of new opportunities, increasing the average deal size, decreasing the overall sales cycle time, and increasing the win rate.
Third and likely the most important is the means by which the organization will hold itself accountable for adhering to the sales management program. This includes how frequently validation of progress and results occur and what are the outcomes (consequences/rewards/ actions) of the validation process. Essentially, an achievement of a general consensus is necessary on all levels in regard to sales goals, resource allocation, and process management.
An implementation plan must be developed and should include an initial pilot study, conducted to determine probable success of the sales management process, based on the key metrics for measurement. As part of the implementation plan, Marketing and HR should develop and provide sales training for seller-doers and sales management training for supervisors who will manage the sales force. IT must provide necessary training for any automation tool selected, as data quality and user acceptance is inversely proportional to the user-friendliness of the software application. This investment in training the sales force will provide support for the cultural and technological change needed. A clear message must be sent from line management that the sales force must use the new pipeline system and processes, including any technology automation tools required.
Lastly, any technology automation tools should promote the effective and efficient use of time and resources and should be built and leveraged around the sales process to support it and not negate company/departmental goals and agendas. There are many automation tools commercially available, such as CRM system software that should be able to effectively track future client information and opportunities. In selecting the best software, remember the application should support the process – not drive processes that are not productive to your needs analysis.
Data quality is another important element to consider in using the automation tool for sales pipeline forecasting. If opportunities are allowed to stay in the pipeline reports for months without new or updated information being furnished, a lack of confidence in the validity of the reporting will occur. This lack of discipline in timely inputting of key information changes on opportunities will result in the information being undependable for forecasting purposes; requiring the end user to spend additional time trying to validate information. This invariably increases the additional time spent by the source of the information as well, often a seller-doer. Preventing this requires disciplined entry of the pipeline opportunities data by the sales force on a regular basis.
The most challenging aspect of implementing a sales management process will be overcoming the seller-doers and line managers resistance to cultural and technological change. They are more likely to embrace the change if management’s focus is on how to deliver valuable information and recommended actions to seller-doers that help them successfully create more opportunities and close more deals. Without a doubt, unanimous company-wide approval and support helps facilitate process efficiency, but in many situations to expect that is unrealistic.
The program must be driven from the top, managed, and feedback loops assessed to build the program framework necessary to institutionalize it with seller-doers and company-operations. There is not a guaranteed one-shot remedy for implementing an integrated sales management process but with adequate planning and proactive management, the potential for peaks and valleys reduces while more revenue streams are constantly being created.
Robert S. Gnuse is President of Gnuse Consulting Group, LLC, based in Cumming, Ga. He has more than 40 years of sales/marketing/operational management and engineering expertise. He is a registered professional engineer-civil engineering, in Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina and Texas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.