Given the inevitable complications and unique considerations involved in any complex sales environment, it’s hard to imagine that we could ever execute a completely “perfect” sale.
Unlike a typical manufacturing environment, which seeks to produce highly replicable solutions with standardised raw materials, rigidly defined process stages and accurately measurable quality inspection criteria, many aspects of a complex sale are unfortunately either unknowable or uncontrollable.
This is particularly true if we are selling to a new customer for the first time, or if our customer is making an unfamiliar purchase. The complexities are further amplified if there are multiple stakeholders involved in the decision-making process (as there almost inevitably are).
But if perfection is unattainable, what can we do to systematically improve outcomes? The answer lies in a simple concept: we must systematically identify and eliminate the avoidable sources of error that bedevil any complex sales environment…
Atul Gawande, in his best-selling “The Checklist Manifesto” (if you haven’t read it, you must) described the two major sources of failure: errors of ignorance and errors of ineptitude.
Errors of ignorance
In a complex sales environment, errors of ignorance stem from having a less-than-complete understanding of the key facts relating to the situations we find ourselves involved in. Some of these facts will, for all practical purposes, be unknowable. Despite all our efforts, we will inevitably remain ignorant of certain things. We cannot achieve perfect knowledge.
But errors of ignorance frequently include things we could have known but didn’t. They include questions that we should have asked – but didn’t, and research that we should have undertaken but didn’t. These are errors of choice, and in any complex environment there are many potential errors of ignorance.
Maybe we didn’t prepare carefully enough. Maybe we simply weren’t curious enough. Maybe we didn’t listen attentively enough. Maybe we didn’t follow up on something that was said or done and so missed a critical fact or implication or to recognise a potential line of investigation.
These errors of ignorance are avoidable. They are things we look back on and wish we had known. We can help to eliminate them by having a structured approach to discovery – by knowing what we need to know, by recognising what we currently don’t know, and by systematically filling in the gaps in our knowledge.
Many errors of ignorance turn out to be errors of assumption. We think or hope we know something, but we have failed to verify it. And if (as is so often the case) those comfortable, untested false assumptions turn out to have a fundamental bearing on our chances of success, we only have ourselves to blame.
Errors of ineptitude
On the other hand, errors of ineptitude stem from a failure to apply knowledge that did exist somewhere in the system and could have been applied to the situation in question. These errors of ineptitude can happen at both a personal and at an organisational level.
At a personal level, they can happen because we failed to recognise the importance of something we had learned and did not act upon the information. Maybe we failed to make the connection between what we might have regarded as isolated data points, and so managed to miss the big picture.
Or maybe we failed to follow a best practice that we had been trained on, or to complete a task that we can retrospectively recognise as being more important than it seemed to be at the time. Maybe we were simply in too much of a hurry to stop and think about our priorities.
At an organisational level, avoidable errors of ineptitude often happen because someone else within the system learned something or had a valuable experience that their colleagues could have benefited from, but the organisation failed to share the information with everyone who needed to know.
Or maybe the organisation simply didn’t recognise the value of establishing best practices and making it easier for sales people to follow them than to ignore them – simply leaving sales people to work things out for themselves without the benefit of the accumulated learning of their colleagues.
These isolated “islands of information” are incredibly dysfunctional, and yet they exist to one degree or another in almost every sales organisation. Here are just a few examples – it would be surprising if you were unable to recognise many more:
- The failure of sales and marketing to agree on the common characteristics of an “ideal customer”
- The failure to induct new sales hires in the hard-won lessons learned of their more experienced colleagues, leaving them to repeat the same mistakes
- The failure to establish common standards for the information sales people are expected to gather during the all-important discovery phase
- The failure to establish common best practices for what experience has told us that successful sales people need to know and do at each stage of the pipeline
- The failure to pool experience from the field with regard to commonly-asked, tough-to-answer customer questions and how best to respond to them
- The failure to ensure that everyone involved in an active opportunity has the chance to collectively review the situation, strategy and tactics on a regular basis
Eliminating errors of ignorance and ineptitude
So how can we systematically eliminate avoidable errors of ignorance and ineptitude? We can start by assessing our wins and losses and identifying the common patterns of success and failure.
When we won, why did we win? What were the customer’s circumstances? What did we know and do? What were the things that caused the opportunity to advance? What were the potential obstacles, and how did we deal with them? Looking back, what were the key “moments of truth” that helped us to secure the sale?
And when we lost, why did we lose? Were there any aspects of the customer’s circumstances that could in retrospect have been seen as warning signs? What did we fail to know or do? What were the things that caused the opportunity to stall? What were the obstacles that we failed to deal with? What could we have done better? If we were bound to lose, how could we have qualified the opportunity out earlier?
In every organisation, there will be a number of common best practices – as well as things that we must learn to avoid. We can and must distil these lessons into a series of simple guidelines and checklists that – if followed – will increase every sales person’s chances of success.
We need to share that information in an easily accessible form – preferably embedded into the CRM system we expect our sales people to use. We need to position the guidelines as best practices that if applied will inevitably make our sales people more successful, rather than as a series of tasks our sales people are forced to follow.
We need to appeal to each sales person’s best interests rather than position our system as a series of tasks our organisation requires them to complete. Nothing we do should serve to in any way to suppress any sales person’s creativity or sense of curiosity.
We need to position this sales effectiveness programme as something that reflects the winning habits of their top-performing colleagues and ensure that the guidance is continually updated to incorporate the latest learning from the field. If we do this, it becomes something our sales people own rather than something our company imposes on them.
If you haven’t yet implemented this sort of initiative, I strongly suggest that you do. Both industry research and personal experience suggests that organisations that implement these sorts of dynamic processes significantly outperform their competitors.