UK: Sales – Making the Step Change For The Smaller Company

Last Updated: 5 December 2012

The primary driving factor in high-growth companies is the acquisition of new accounts. However, there are two parts to fast growth: creating it and managing it. If you don't have the ability on the back end to scale the business, it doesn't do much good to grow it quickly.

How do you rate on the elements of sales?

Consider the following elements of your sales organisation:

  • marketing, branding and messaging
  • prospecting process
  • sales process
  • process for growing exciting accounts
  • sales management
  • sales staff
  • sales information dashboard.

Then rate yourself on each element, using the following scoring system:

  • 1 = a fatal weakness
  • 3 = same level as our competitors (me-too)
  • 5 = a unique competitive advantage.

If you want to grow quickly, and you score three or lower on any one of these elements, you have a problem. Three or lower means you are no better than the competition, and the best you can do is rise and fall at the same rate as your industry.

Focus on sales process, not sales training

To grow quickly, it's important to focus on sales process rather than sales training. Most sales training is about one-to-one communication. It emphasises ways to become more effective in the one-to-one relationship.

When you buy sales training for your company, the salesperson benefits the most. However, that asset (the salesperson) regularly leaves you and goes to the competition or out of the industry altogether. So you're investing in something that has the potential to dramatically deteriorate.

When you improve the sales process, the vast majority of the benefits stay inside the business. As you add sales staff, they have a process to follow – and you have a greater and more predictable potential for success.

It is also important to distinguish between marketing and selling. Marketing is about pushing your message out to the marketplace and seeing how many respond. It is a broadcast approach that carries one message to many. Selling is about going out and communicating a message one-to-one. Both are important, but they need to be used appropriately in order to generate fast growth.

The characteristics of smaller and larger companies

Less than 1% of all companies in the UK are bigger than £10 million. They tend to have very different characteristics from larger companies. With smaller companies (£10 million and under):

  • The market is local or regional.
  • The culture is entrepreneurial. Smaller companies will do just about anything they have the people and resources to do.
  • Management style is unilateral management, meaning that sooner or later most decisions come across the CEO's desk.
  • Most small companies practise avoidance when confronted by a big competitor, and try to stay under the radar.
  • Everything is driven by "magic, culture and relationship".

With larger companies (£50+ million):

  • The market is national or international.
  • The approach is more solutions focused. The message is: "Here's what we can do and will do, and we won't do a lot of other things unless the deal is really big."
  • Management style is professional. There are systems, processes and metrics in place throughout the company.
  • When a big competitor appears, they confront it head on.
  • Everything is process driven.

Crossing No Man's Land

The area between the £10 million company and the £50 million company is called No Man's Land. Very few companies manage to cross it. Even fewer manage to cross it in one generation. However, most entrepreneurs are very creative, motivated and driven, so they try to get across by cheating.

The cheating route

Entrepreneurs typically cheat in one of three ways:

  • Merger or acquisition. The goal with this strategy is to quickly add professional management and all the pieces that larger companies have as a natural part of their business.
  • The miracle product. If you can just get the right product or service it will take you to the moon.
  • Change the market. If you succeed in one market, other markets must be just like it.

In reality, these three approaches are not the best way to cross No Man's Land. They require large amounts of money up front and have a low probability of success. In effect, they are like gambling with the success of your business.

The incremental growth route

Another approach that doesn't work very well is incremental growth, where you bet on better management, better people and better sales technology. The problem with betting on "better" is that you can only get so much better. If the market rate of growth is 5% and you get 5% better each from your salespeople, management and sales technology, at most you will get 20% better.

If you're a £5 million company, it will take you a long time to get across No Man's Land. Eventually you get to the point where "better" no longer works and you have to change dramatically in some way.

The "whale hunting" route

The best way to cross No Man's Land is by focusing on larger deals, or "whale hunting", which involves developing a sales process that enables you to consistently and more predictably bring in more business.

The belief exists in small companies that it is very hard to get big when you have to compete against big companies. Big companies prefer to do business with other big companies for these reasons:

  • Safety.
  • Capacity.
  • Service.
  • They understand each other.
  • Pricing.

Yet big companies also work with small companies. They do so for the following reasons:

  • Innovation.
  • Control.
  • Speed.
  • Leverage.
  • Flexibility.
  • Service.
  • Better pricing due to lower overhead.

In essence, big companies buy from other big companies out of fear. Big companies buy from small companies out of advantage. If you're a small company, all you have to do is take away the fear and you can do business with more big companies. If you're a big company, you have to convince the other big companies that you are really a small company that is fast, flexible and willing to let them control you.

Fear versus advantage

The issue of fear versus advantage is very real. As a small company, you can compete against bigger companies, but not by selling your advantages first. Instead, you must address the fear issue.

Most small companies start out talking all about their flexibility and speed, and then wonder why they never win the deal. You must start with their fear issues, and you have to develop that into your sales process. For example, if the big company doesn't believe you have the financial resources to handle their business, bring your banker into the meeting.

How to succeed at whale hunting

The elements necessary to have a successful whale hunting culture are the same as those in business. It involves skill, teamwork, vision, leadership, courage and training, so that everyone knows their role on the team.

However, deciding to hunt big whales also requires real culture change, and most people don't like to consider themselves part of sales. But if you're going to get big deals, the customer doesn't want to talk to the salesperson. They want to talk to all the people who are going to make it happen after the deal has been signed.

Therefore, everyone in the company has to know their role in the overall sales process.

The key is letting your people know they won't have to "do sales". Instead, let them know they will be involved in the sales process at the point where their expertise will have the greatest amount of impact. They will use their expertise to provide credibility and "credentialisation", not to make the sale.

Choosing your whales

Whale hunting is a process of carefully defining the customers you want and going after them. If you can define the market closely enough, you can guarantee the customer that you are the best solution. This requires a one-to-few, not a one-to-many, approach. That's what whale hunting is all about: picking exactly what you want, and going directly after it using a process orientation.

When defining your market, keep in mind that there are no perfect whales. In any business there will be A, B and C whales. Go after the As, but don't necessarily reject the Bs and Cs.

Using target filters

Target filters help to define your market. Ideally, you want to operate with no fewer than 12 and no more than 20. The first five target filters are things like size of revenue, geography, industry, etc. These do not define a whale, because they don't give you a tight enough market. Plus, your competitors are using the same filters. To define a whale, look for more discrete and discerning characteristics – ones that your competition probably isn't using.

The kill ratio

Once you have identified your whales, look out into the marketplace to identify the market behaviours of those types of companies. This allows you to look for companies that meet all your requirements.

It will also focus your hunting on only 5% to 10% of all the companies that could buy what you sell.

What is the benefit of filtering out 90% of your marketplace? It's all about the kill ratio. Hunting whales is expensive. The idea is to get rid of those whales that you have a low probability of winning as early as possible, so that you can generate very high closing ratios. That's where a good target filter is invaluable.

Looking for whale signs

Once you have a very specific list of whales to hunt, start figuring out whale signs. Just as the Inuit scout looks for signs in advance of the normal whale signs, you need to do the same in your business.

Whale signs:

  • are predictive of upcoming changes that may trigger opportunity
  • are not obvious – if everyone else can see the same opportunity, it is too late
  • are simple
  • are factual, not emotional or interpretive
  • need to signify opportunity, timing, scope and location – they have to tell you it is time for a deal.

When you have a closely targeted market, scouting isn't very difficult. If you're listening to the entire marketplace, you don't know whether the guy in charge of procurement lost his job or not. If you're listening to only 200 whales, it's easy to get that kind of information.

By figuring out the indicators that your competitors can't see, you know when it is time to launch a boat, get out there and sell.

Building a whale hunting sales process

Building a whale hunting sales process starts with five basic steps:

  • qualification
  • first meeting
  • needs analysis
  • prototype
  • close.

Obviously there are more steps in the sales process, but these are the most basic. Each step in the process must have a unique and distinct owner, and each step must have clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

In addition, you must clearly define the resources needed for each step, especially if you use outside resources. Figure out when to use them, how to use them and why you use them, and measure their performance.

Each step has sub-processes. For example, the "close" step has sub-processes such as legal review and signing the contract. Be sure to include these in your process.

Make sure your process measures cycle time, as it is one of the most critical factors. As a small company working against big companies, time never works in your favour. You have to know how long each step in your whale hunting process takes. That way you can tell when the process is getting off track and/or people aren't performing within the process.

Tracking your whales

Use spreadsheet or contact management software to build in a whale tracking system that looks at each step in your process. Developing the rigour and discipline to do this is very challenging because it requires a very different approach from sales management.

It is much less emotional, and more oriented towards movement and less towards motion. It is less oriented to the conversation and more to empirical evidence around how many deals you are moving along and whether you are doing it within the appropriate cycle time.

To get started:

  • Think of sales in a different way. Think of sales as a process, not an event, department or person. Otherwise, all you do is chop heads and swap bodies. What are the steps in your process?
  • Solve the power problem. When whale hunting, many companies make the mistake of focusing solely on the economic buyer. However, in a large, complex sale, the person who can say Yes is not the person who has the most power. The people in IT, safety and supply chain management are the ones who have the power, because they can say No.
    In smaller deals, the person who can say Yes or No has the power. In larger deals, it is the person who can say No. Get your salespeople to identify all the people who can say No and figure out how to take away their Noes before investing too much time working with the person who can say Yes.
  • Define a target list that meets your criteria. This takes a lot of time and effort. However, it is the discrete pieces after the first four to eight that end up being really important. That is the part that takes you from knocking out 60% of the marketplace to getting down to the ideal 5% or 10%, where you can really hit some home runs.
  • Identify the steps of your sales process. There is no magic number to the number of steps in your sales process. Have as few as possible but as many as necessary. In long buying cycles, it is especially important to have discrete steps because it gives your salespeople things to focus on and celebrate when they accomplish them.
  • Keep score. Decide how to keep score at each step in your sales process. Then keep score at every step, all the time.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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