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Sales Strategy
Jul 26, 2012 | Ken Valla lock

Strategic decisions are made at the top – Do your sales professionals call there?

What growth strategy is your sales organization pursuing as the economy begins to show signs of recovery? If your organization has been in survival mode over the past year, you may have been focused primarily on protecting your customer base. Now, the question is how best to take the first steps toward jump-starting increased sales. Should you invest in higher levels of prospecting activity to expand your customer base? Or is it more productive to seek out hidden opportunities in existing accounts?
It may seem that the quickest path to substantial new business is through the doors of new customers; expanding the base, however, is always expensive, and at present, it may be more so. Caution is still the prevailing mood across most industries, and few firms are ready to take the risk of starting out with new suppliers. It makes sense to look for opportunities in your own backyard—in the accounts where you already have an established relationship.

The Challenge: Familiarity Breeds Entrapment
The good news about working with your existing customers is that you are already in the “magic circle” of trusted suppliers. The bad news is that the same familiarity that brings repeat business can also become a straitjacket. Sales professionals become comfortable with a small number of contacts in a particular area, such as IT in the case of a technology offering. Although they may have been exhorted to call higher and wider in their accounts, it can seem risky to break out into other areas, and especially to call on executives who have little obvious reason to talk to sales people. 

Yet without such conversations, opportunities will be missed. It is at the higher levels of the organization that decisions are made about priorities and funding. Currently, many lower-echelon and mid-level managers have less budget authority than they had even a year ago, as spending continues to be tightly controlled. Customers are being especially cautious when allocating still-scarce resources, and are highly focused on a few strategic goals. It is in those targeted areas that the real opportunities will be found. 

A Calling Strategy to Uncover Additional Business
To uncover those top few strategic priorities, sales professionals need to overcome their reticence about developing relationships with executives outside their usual circle of contacts. What is required is an enterprise-wide calling strategy to meet with the right people at the right levels with the objective of confirming the top business priorities. Based on this information, sales professionals can prioritize opportunities and determine which solutions can provide the greatest benefit to the customer. To be successful, however, it’s essential to know how to 1) identify whom to call on, 2) prepare for the call to ensure credibility, and 3) lead the conversation in the role of a business resource, not a salesperson. 

1. Identifying the Right People: Whom are you going to call?
The sales calling strategy should start with identifying which functional areas of the company to target and then which people to contact. Decisions about where to call should focus on uncovering information about issues, such as:
• Competitive challenges
• Research and development goals
• Financial metrics
• Go-to-market strategy
• External changes such as new regulations or the emergence of new technologies or competitors
• Internal changes such as acquisitions, mergers, restructuring, etc.

Once the right areas have been determined, functional leaders should be identified who can discuss specific departmental goals and accountabilities, as well as the executives who have both a business unit and corporate perspective.

2. Preparing: Establishing Credibility by Understanding the Critical Success Factors
For many sales professionals, the biggest barrier to calling higher in the organization is the lack of a clear answer to an obvious question: “Why do I want to take time to meet with you?” Answering with confidence requires a transition from a sales mindset to a business mindset, and the ability to talk about something that is of interest to every executive: his or her most pressing business concerns. 

Although only a more detailed conversation can verify what those specific concerns are, a sales professional can begin to establish credibility from the first contact by demonstrating broad knowledge of key issues affecting the customer’s industry. These can be thought of more precisely by using the concept of Critical Success Factors (CSFs), defined by John Rockart of MIT as “the few key areas of activity in which favorable results are absolutely necessary for a . . . [company] to reach its goals.”1 

In this definition, the words “few” and “to reach its goals” are especially important. Typically there are just a handful of CSFs to be identified, and they are not the same as goals. Rather, they are the things that need to go right for the goal to be attained. They are deemed critical because if these things don’t go well, the organization could fail, perhaps catastrophically. This is why CSFs are sometimes described as “the things that keep executives up at night.” Had Lehman Brothers maintained enough assets to fulfill financial obligations (once considered a given in the financial services industry), there might have been no financial collapse and the firm would still be in business. 

CSFs exist on the industry, corporate, and functional level. For example, in the distribution industry, supply chain management and delivery efficiency is a CSF. This might mean that an executive in charge of operations for a large distribution company has a specific goal to reduce delivery time by 25%. One of his CSFs—particular to his situation—might be to streamline warehouse picking and packing operations. At the level of the warehouse operations manager, this CSF turns into a goal—to implement new procedures, possibly new inventory management software, and so forth, within a specified time frame. 

How does this concept help in preparing for a conversation with a specific executive? For a start, it provides a well-defined objective for “due diligence” research to learn about the customer’s industry and business environment. 

3. Leading a Business (not Sales) Conversation
Having laid a foundation of knowledge about the executive’s industry and company, the sales professional should be able to plan for an effective in-person call on an executive. The key is to focus on two objectives: delivery of value to the executive and confirmation of his or her goals and CSFs. The sales professional may be able to add value in another way if there is information to share based on conversations in other business units or at other levels in the executive’s own area.
A useful protocol for a CSF conversation is to open the conversation with a reference to one or more industry CSFs, then to narrow the focus to identify one or two key goals. With respect to each goal, questions can be asked to discover the CSFs, which will be the executive’s top priorities. A model for the conversation might include questions like the following:
• “As I work with other companies in X industry, I have found that many of them are concerned about Y. Is that a concern for you as well? How has your company responded to that issue?”
• “Could you tell me a little about your current goals for your business?”
• “In order to achieve goal A, what are the key activities that have to go just right?” 
• “Are there any other areas where you absolutely have to get good results to attain goal A?”

The Payoff: Uncovering New Business Opportunities
By having a series of such conversations in the right areas of the account, sales professionals will derive an accurate and clear understanding of where resources and attention will be directed. An analysis of the specific goals and CSFs of key decision makers and the overall company goals and CSFs will provide a template for determining where your offering can have the greatest impact on the customer’s business. More than likely, a number of opportunities will open up as a result of a successful call strategy, and the CSF information will provide an additional tool for prioritizing those to see where your own company can focus sales efforts for the biggest payoff. And the return on the investment in the call strategy as a whole comes not only in terms of an individual sale, but in terms of establishing a relationship with more contacts, at higher levels, than you had before. 

While this kind of network and relationship building in an existing account requires an investment of time and resources, it is more efficient and effective than starting from scratch to prospect for and develop new customers where you have no existing relationships or insider knowledge. Nonetheless, as companies become more confident about new capital expenditures and more of them open up new projects for consideration, the same approach can be used to expand the base of your business, building a greater variety of relationships in new accounts from the very beginning. As this kind of calling strategy becomes a common practice for your team, it can boost sales and profitability across the board, in both older and newer accounts.

About the Author:
Ken Valla, Regional Vice President, Wilson Learning Corporation, is responsible for driving sales strategies to increase revenue, profitability, and market share in North America. As an experienced sales executive, he understands what is required for sales people to succeed in today’s highly complex environment. To learn more about the concepts shared within this article and how Wilson Learning can assist you in addressing these issues, contact Wilson Learning at 1.800.328.7937 or

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author. CPSA does not endorse any of the companies, products and services mentioned within this article.

1John Rockart, “The Changing Role of the Information Systems Executive: A Critical Success Factors Perspective,” MIT Sloan School, 1982

Recommended Reading:
- Protect Your Customer Base: 3 Strategies for Retaining Your Most Profitable Accounts
- Are you really customer-focused or just pretending?
- Everybody Sells! Transforming Exceptional Service into Revenue Growth
- Keeping Your Clients Loyal - Nine Questions You Need Answered

View more sales articles from CPSA’s Knowledge Centre.

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