As the world confronts the human and economic cost of COVID-19, sales leaders must focus on a strategy to survive and position their businesses for success in 2021. Our Five Imperatives series, based on the five steps we feel sales leaders must take now to stay ahead of the curve, details our recommendations and perspectives on how to thrive, even in uncertainty. Part Five covers how you can remove friction in the sales process by examining your current strategies, metrics, and resources and adapting them for the new environment.

IMPERATIVE 5: REMOVE FRICTION

Legendary French fashion designer Coco Chanel famously said: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off”. While Chanel’s advice was no doubt focused on one’s style it is also (surprisingly) appropriate when thinking about most of today’s sales processes. Today’s Sales Leaders often ask their sellers to jump through extra hoops to “de-risk” or validate their deals. All the extra steps may do more harm than good. When asking sales reps to push harder in a more difficult environment, often under difficult personal circumstances, sales leaders have an equal responsibility to look for activities or requirements that can be safely off-loaded. This not only builds greater team affinity but makes necessary room for better preparation and execution of customer-facing activities. In a world where 77% of respondents reported having fewer opportunities to pursue, it matters more than ever that sellers are as well-prepared to execute as possible.

Beyond these immediate benefits, however, lies another opportunity. Thinking through how work gets done also represents a rare opportunity to re-imagine how it should be done. Do your sellers and managers comply with legacy reporting requirements simply because that’s the way it’s always been done? This could be the perfect time to question them.

Rethink processes

In Challenger’s experience, salespeople begin to fight a process once they perceive it to be bureaucratic and the “why” for completing it is no longer obvious. You may hear, “Why does legal need to examine every new contract, even if it’s a standard version that has not been amended?” or “Why does the shipping department need to sign off on every change to the shipment process?” Chances are there are very good explanations for these questions, but are they good answers in THIS environment and do they carry opportunity costs?

We suggest sales leaders take a Pareto approach to identify those processes that create 80% of the friction. It should be possible to put guidelines around the worst offenders, so sellers are empowered to solve 80% of requests on their own. This then means the other 20% of exceptional cases can receive the care, attention, and cross-functional collaboration they deserve.

Unclog the bureaucracy

Even as you work to stop internal gridlock around opportunities, buyers will ask for new concessions and may even refuse delivery of existing contracts. Sales leaders can get ahead of these demands by collaborating with finance and supply chain proactively to identify policy with regards to some of the following:

  1. Where customers may find it difficult to take delivery, can you identify potential changes to the order that will make it possible to continue the relationship? And can you proactively distribute standard change orders to accelerate these conversations?
  2. Are there standard adjustments to contract terms (e.g. invoicing schedules, indemnification, cancellations, etc.) that the organization could empower sellers to use that will expedite the proposal and negotiation steps?
  3. Will you need shorter-term contracts for certain deals, even if this raises the per unit price?
  4. Do discounting procedures need to be streamlined, with increased empowerment of sellers and front-line managers to make the final call?

The goal here is for sales leaders to aggregate the various customer requests and work with peers to put new policies in place. Close involvement of sales leadership then makes it less likely that any relationships are inadvertently hurt.

Identify new metrics

Beyond an overall focus on customer-facing time, we believe that it has become more important than ever to track the following pipeline metrics:

  1. Volume of outbound outreach
    Whatever your method for prospecting (done by sellers themselves, or through SDRs), tracking and monitoring prospecting activity is critical. Sales Engagement Platforms can be very helpful, particularly in a remote work environment.
  1. Customer responsiveness
    Lack of customer responsiveness could indicate broader problems with sellers needing to reach out to different contacts, or the need to develop a better sense for what’s happening with the customer. Now is also a good time to re-examine assumptions about how this should be done. Ask yourself, “Do we have the right role/experience level/talent in seat who can spark prospect attention and convert it to interest?” If the answer is no, activity volume won’t help you. Take bold actions based on your measurements.
  1. Conversion rates by type of opportunity
    Tracking this metric well requires you to more aggressively close out stalled out opportunities, something which sellers resist. But keeping an unrealistic pipeline distorts your understanding of the market. A clean, realistic pipeline allows you to focus resources where they’re needed most and improves your ability to forecast and make bold decisions.
  1. Contract amendments
    This may not sound highly valuable at first, but tracking the amendments made to standard contracts provides a) a method that allows you to better standardize them going forward to get future deals done faster and with less effort and b) leading information on how to change your offer to better appeal to a changing market.
  1. Engagement
    An anonymously administered survey that tracks seller engagement across a number of dimensions (personal engagement, satisfaction with manager, company, product) can help you identify frustration and apathy. Disengagement can be poisonous in times like these. Early intervention and bold action to have difficult conversations will save careers and protect future pipeline. Lack of engagement always leads to bad outcomes, but the degree of those outcomes (either weeks or months of lost performance) depends on when you choose to address the problem.

To summarize, while it will be tempting to ask sellers to simply do more – because more is needed, and support resources are few – leaders should also ask themselves whether everything should be done as it used to be. Circumstances will differ, but experience suggests that almost every company supports too many processes that are now redundant. Ask hard questions about internal bureaucracy and measure the metrics that give a clear view into early and late funnel efficiency. Quality is key in how opportunities are found, nurtured, and closed. If current processes don’t yield quality, increasing activity will just produce more of the same.

If you’d like to have further conversation with Challenger about these ideas, please fill out the form below.


Spencer Wixom & Timur Hicyilmaz

Spencer is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.