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Is Failure an Option for Your Account Based Selling Teams?

If your sales reps miss quota this year, they might not deserve the blame.

The account based selling leader has the right priorities and behavior if he/she trains the team properly in referral selling.“We’ve never lost an American in space; we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option.”

This famous line from the Apollo 13 movie is delivered by Ed Harris, who plays NASA flight director Gene Kranz. The more I delved into the film’s history, the angrier I became with sales leaders who let their account based selling teams fail to meet quota.

In preparation for the movie, scriptwriters Al Reinert and Bill Broyles interviewed Gene Kranz to find out what it was really like to be in Mission Control. One of their questions was, “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?”

“No,” Kranz told them. “When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”

After the interview, when the writers got in their car to leave, Broyles started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the tagline for the whole movie: ‘Failure is not an option.’ Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.” Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history.

NASA wouldn’t let their mission fail, so why do sales leaders let their account based selling teams fail? Granted, salespeople don’t die if they fail to meet quota. But their sales lives are at stake, and we can’t save their lead generation strategies with duct tape.

Is Failure in Your Team’s Forecast?

Account based sales reps are only as good as their last deal, as the saying goes. Failure to make quota isn’t just a now-and-then occurrence; it’s an epidemic. CSO Insights’ 2017 Best Practices Study revealed that quota attainment—averaged across all geographies, industries, and company sizes—dropped from 63 percent of salespeople in 2012 to 53 percent in 2016.

Only a little more than half of salespeople made quota, and we’re OK with that?

Pointing fingers usually doesn’t help, but in this case, I’m pointing … vigorously. And I’m not pointing at the account based sales development reps. I’m pointing at their leaders.

Years ago, when I asked new salespeople what happened when they showed up for their first day on the job, they said, “I was given a desk, a phone, and a phone book.” Today they tell me, “I was given a desk, a phone, and a password.” It’s not much more than that in many cases.

Account based selling teams fail because sales leaders allow it. Yes, they allow it. Salespeople miss quota from time to time for a variety of reasons, sometimes because of a clue they missed or a relationship they didn’t develop. But they will definitely miss quota if sales managers continue to focus on the wrong behaviors and don’t shift their priorities.

How Leaders Fail Their Account Based Selling Teams 

No matter how experienced or talented, every salesperson loses a deal from time to time. Hopefully they learn something from it. Maybe they can even get referrals from those lost prospects.

However, when failure becomes a pattern and the whole team is struggling to close deals, it’s time to take a closer look at sales leadership. Here are three common ways that leaders set account based selling teams up to fail: 

  • They have short-term thinking: They task account based sales teams with finding new sales leads, building qualified pipelines, and closing deals. Their lead generation strategies focus on driving revenue in the short-term. Buyers feel the pressure and know they can anticipate an end-of-quarter and end-of-year push. They wait for the discounts that regularly come, and they pressure reps for even more discounts. That buyer behavior impacts our ability to make quota while dwindling our profits. Plus, we become flagrant discounters. We become vendors waging pricing battles, rather than reputable salespeople solving problems for our buyers. Simply put, we become replaceable.
  • They set the wrong KPIs: A sales manager told me his account based selling team had KPIs for referrals, but they weren’t asking for referrals. I explained that referral selling is a skill that must be built, and KPIs alone don’t change behavior. He still insisted that asking for referrals was a metric he wanted his team to improve on. Managers can’t set KPIs that aren’t explicitly linked to a skill or behavior. It’s like giving new account based sales development reps a desk, a phone, and a password and telling them to figure it out.
  • They’re not coaching their teams around leading indicators: It’s not OK to set revenue goals and let your account based selling team figure out how to get there. Revenue is a lagging indicator. Your sales force needs a system that managers can use to measure the right sales activities, manage to those activities, and coach reps on the behaviors that turn those activities into revenue. 

Why Does Any of This Matter?

Like anything worth doing, understanding the underlying problem is step one. Based on data from CSO Insights’ 2016 Sales Performance Optimization Study, the dominant challenges for sales managers are:

  1. The inability to generate enough qualified leads (53.3%)
  2. Difficulty with competitive differentiation (41.3%)
  3. Too long sell cycles (32.1%)

These challenges have barely changed over the last several years. In 2013, the #1 issue was enhancing lead generation (48.9%) The top sales effectiveness priority going into 2009 was optimizing lead generation. In 2010 and 2012, over half of respondents said capturing new accounts was the primary focus.

This consistent focus on lead generation (capturing new accounts) should not be a surprise. Without enough qualified leads, account based sales reps won’t capture new accounts and won’t make quote or meet revenue goals. Top sales performers understand that selling begins and ends with prospecting.

My “feet on the street” research mirrors this dedicated research exactly. Sales leaders tell me their key challenges are generating enough qualified leads, getting their reps to call high enough, and reducing the length of their sales process. The focus of their account based sales development is to enable reps to land and expand within their named accounts.

A measurable and disciplined referral system addresses these challenges and more. When account based sales reps prospect through referrals, they:

  • Score every meeting with decision-makers in one call
  • Ensure only qualified leads enter the pipeline
  • Collapse the sales process
  • Ace out the competition
  • Convert prospects to clients well more than 50 percent of the time
  • Reduce the cost of sales

Referrals are not a panacea. Referral selling is a skill that must be built, practiced, reinforced, and coached. Sales leaders become intimately involved in the buying process and leveraging the relationships they’ve built. They adjust KPIs to reflect referrals, coach their account based sales teams, help them assess hidden problems, offer insights, and reward successful referral behaviors.

Bottom line: They commit to a referral system and recognize that the best way for their account based selling teams to land and expand is by asking for referrals. Even if reps lose a deal from time to time, they have a referral system in place to generate introductions to other buyers. The process doesn’t end. It has a life of its own. That’s why failure is not an option.

Want more than 53 percent of your account based sales team to reach quota next year? Invite Joanne to speak at your Sales Kickoff Meeting, and your reps will learn how to fill their pipelines with hot referral leads.

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