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By Richard Hilton, Managing Director EMEA, Miller Heiman Group

Richard Hilton, Managing Director EMEA at global sales consultancy Miller Heiman Group, discusses why sales leaders need to look beyond surface growth figures and build a cohesive, data-led strategy to guide businesses through difficult economic times

On the face of it, sellers appear to be on a winning streak. New figures from CSO Insights, the research division of Miller Heiman Group, reveal that, between 2017-2019, sales organisations saw a 6% increase in revenue target attainment and a 9% increase in their staff hitting quotas. However, before sales teams are too quick to pat themselves on the back, closer scrutiny of these statistics reveals that there is more to them than meets the eye.

In fact, the World-Class Sales Practices Study casts serious doubt on the sustainability of these numbers. While one might assume that these results are due to effective salesforces surpassing targets, our analysis attributes the trends to external economic factors. In spite of current strain, the global economy has enjoyed a strong performance in recent years, with a global GDP growth rate of 3.6% for 2018. Meanwhile, closer examination of internal sales practices reveals that they remain wanting, and some areas severely so, with half of all expected deals never closing and customer retention in fact decreasing by 2% as sales staff churn has increased.

However, the steady economic growth that global markets have enjoyed up until now is looking increasingly precarious. With the World Trade Organisation forecasting weak global growth, largely due to the US-China trade war, and Brexit uncertainty causing the UK’s services sector to stagnate, organisations may soon face significant hardship if they do not optimise their sales practices.

The C-suite must prepare to lead their businesses in times of uncertainty – especially senior sales leaders who are tasked with establishing and retaining customer relationships and forecasting future revenue figures. And so what are the key considerations that directors must focus on to drive better business outcomes?

Our World-Class Sales Practices Study compares the practices of sellers generally with those of organisations that are excelling and identifies three main focus areas which can be applied to sales teams more specifically:

  1. Design your customer engagement from the customer’s perspective

Effective customer engagement is critical to building a revenue-driven business, and starting with the customer’s path in mind, from awareness to buying and using the product, will help establish a credible buyer-seller relationship from the get-go.

For sales leaders, this means engaging with the specific problem a customer is looking to solve earlier in the sales process, rather than waiting until they turn to competitors. Mutually valuable sales calls can help establish this wider picture early-on, ensuring that sales teams do not appear target-driven but instead eager to add value to customer interactions.

More importantly, the buyer-seller relationship should not end once a deal has been closed. Appropriate after-sales consultancy will ensure that this pitfall is avoided, whether this entails a timely note or follow-up call to gauge how the customer is getting on. In difficult economic times, high customer retention rates may be the difference between a business growing or sinking.

  1. Ensure strong performance support across the business: no sales team is an island

While front-line customer engagement may be a seller’s bread and butter, sales leaders must also focus on improving internal team performance to guarantee effective strategies are in place for when markets are slow.

Bringing together separate sales divisions across management, operations and enablement will avoid teams operating in silos. Providing a holistic sales experience will also help sales directors learn from the deals which don’t close as forecasted. Sharing such insights across teams, for example, communicating the point at which a customer stopped engaging with a particular sales portal, could prove vital to ensuring success in hard economic times as leaders will know where to drive attention.

Continuous development of individuals as well as at a team-level will reveal where sales directors should add support. Driving high internal performance and monitoring for weaker areas of the team will help sales directors nurture existing sales teams and hire new talent, so that internal sales practices do not become complacent in steady economic times.

  1. Align your overall strategy through better forecasting

Strong strategy alignment will prove vital to maintaining healthy business performance. While some organisations can get by with a poor sales strategy when economic conditions are favourable, outdated and lacklustre sales practices will always trip up a business’s growth when conditions change, even if revenue numbers seemed to be thriving.

Across the broader business, sales, marketing and customer service should all be aligned in their goals so that customers know what they are getting from each stage of the buying process. While for sales leaders specifically, having a better forecasting strategy through use of artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics will not only prevent unrealistic sales targets, but will also drive overall business credibility and avoid disparities between forecasted deals, actual sales figures, and the value of an organisation’s sales performance.

To plan for success, prepare for the worst

 

With economic turbulence on the horizon and competition set to increase across all industries, it is not good enough for sales teams to rest on their laurels simply because revenue and quota attainment targets are being surpassed. A savvy leadership team is always striving to improve and prepare for less propitious times, and for sales leaders, this means looking closer at the detail behind their figures. This is where having real-time visibility into quality data and the power of technology such as AI can be harnessed to produce valuable actionable insights. This will also help business units across the company operate more effectively too, underpinning the success of the wider business’ top line in times of uncertain economic headwinds.