Perfection-1There are so many potential variables and unknowns in any complex B2B sales environment that the idea of running a completely perfect sales campaign feels like an impossible dream (or more accurately a hallucination).

That’s why rigid sales scripts, standard sales presentations and canned product demonstrations are largely ineffective in convincing the modern prospect to move forward with you – they expect more than that from you.

But it is entirely possible – and I would argue, very necessary – to focus on avoiding predictable and preventable errors when pursuing a sales opportunity…

Preventable errors fall into three major categories: errors of ignorance, errors of application and errors of competence.

Errors of Ignorance

Errors of ignorance happen when we fail to uncover accessible information that in retrospect turns out to have a material impact on our sales strategies, tactics or chances of success.

These errors of ignorance typically stem from not doing sufficient research, or from failing to ask questions that could have revealed important information about the prospective customer’s situation.

Sometimes the errors are related to timing: it is not uncommon to hear salespeople observe “if only I had known that earlier, I would have followed a different path, or qualified out sooner”.

In other words, wishing that they had known then what they know now. Or they may remain completely ignorant of important facts throughout the sales cycle – because they failed in their research or their questioning.

Top sales performers tend to suffer far less from these errors of ignorance than their less successful colleagues. They appreciate the value of doing research and investing in deep discovery. They avoid rushing to pitch their solution before they have fully understood the customer’s actual situation or motivations.

Errors of Application

Errors of application happen when the necessary knowledge exists somewhere within the system but was not applied in this specific case. Examples include hard-earned lessons and best practices that are not shared or universally applied across a sales organisation, or the failure to appreciate the significance of or to act upon information that the salesperson has become aware of.

Errors of application are particularly painful because they reflect a failure to do something that we ought to have done but did not because a failure to take into account knowledge that was or should have been available to us.

Errors of ignorance and application can be managed through the implementation of simple checklists and knowledge sharing systems. These checklists should reflect what the organisation has collectively learned salespeople need to know and do during each phase in the evolution of an opportunity in order to maximise their chances of success.

These checklists and shared knowledge sources need to be easily accessible, simple to use and regularly updated to reflect the latest learning. The best place to embed this intelligence is directly in the CRM solution that the salespeople are expected to use on a day-to-day basis.

Errors of Competence

Errors of competence happen when salespeople have the relevant knowledge and understand how they need to apply it but fail to do so because they lack the skills and competencies necessary to do so successfully.

These skills gaps can rarely be addressed through a one-off training course, although such courses can provide a stepping-stone on the path to competence. It requires an ongoing programme of training, coaching, mentoring and tools that encourage salespeople to be thoughtfully self-aware.

Regular role-plays and other forms of safe practice can be particularly helpful. Whilst it is impossible to anticipate and train for every scenario, we can certainly train for the most common situations and in doing so develop an ability to (with due credit to Sir Clive Woodward’s TCUP acronym) Think Correctly Under Pressure.

Eliminating Avoidable Imperfection

Salespeople and sales organisations cannot realistically expect to achieve perfection in any complex situation, but they can certainly take practical steps to avoid and progressively eliminate preventable sources of imperfection and error.

The best way to start is by dispassionately and uncritically examining where deals can and have gone wrong. What were the things we could and should have known, but didn’t? What were the things we could and should have done, but didn’t?

And where did our attempts to do the right thing go wrong because we didn’t handle a specific situation as well as we could have? There is no merit in being in denial about our failings. In fact, an unwillingness to admit mistakes is a critical failure in any salesperson or sales organisation.

We need to create a blame-free environment where every member of the team feels safe when critically assessing their actions and the consequences. We need an environment where anybody – whatever their rank or position in the organisation – feels empowered and supported to speak up when they see something that feels wrong to them or have an idea for improvement.

We all need to take constructive feedback and the hard-won lessons of others on board. And our sales organisations need to find ways of collecting, capturing and harnessing our collective knowledge to the benefit of all. Having the right systems clearly helps.