The one size fits all questions often included in our sales playbooks, and sales plays stand in the way of us supporting buyers through their buying journey. To compound the situation, they also provide us with little value supporting a value-based sale.

Asking general or the wrong question is a common mistake we all are guilty of in sales. Unfortunately, most sales playbooks and sales plays guide us to ask the wrong questions or questions that are too general.

The conversation is the surface of sales, whereas real selling is what goes on beneath the surface. A one size fits all question that is not followed up with another question to discover important insights allowing us to build a value-based sale, is where many sales playbooks and sales plays fail us. I discuss this further in the sales blog – Why are our sales playbooks failing us?

To demonstrate why – consider the following hypothetical scenario. You are selling a sales development platform to support sales teams to achieve their sales quota targets. You have a sales playbook to work with, which includes the following question to ask prospective sales teams.

“Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”.

There is no guidance or follow on questions provided on how to use your audience’s response to this question and dig deeper to discover important insights that will allow you to help buyers through their buying journey.

Discover the different stakeholders involved in the buying journey

Discover the different stakeholders involved in the buying journey

A sales team at a minimum includes two stakeholder groups involved in the buying journey – Sales Leaders and Sales Reps.

Typically, if a company were looking to invest in a sales development platform, the buying journey would also include sales operations and other functions with a vested interest in the sales team consistently achieving their sales quota targets. We also need to discover who has the authority to ultimately sign off the budget to make the purchase, the steps and people involved in the internal purchase process.

To keep our hypothetical scenario simple, we will consider only the sales reps and sales leaders.

You are confident both stakeholder groups will benefit from your sales development platform. You also have good references demonstrating other clients who have improved their sales team close rates, forecast accuracy and consistency, achieving their quota targets.

The challenge you will face asking the question, “Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”, is it is too general. It needs to be more specific to be of value to you and help each stakeholder group with their specific buying struggles.

To explain why – consider the following research.

  1. According to CSO Insights, Selling in the Age of Ceaseless Change: The 2018-2019 Sales Performance Report, quota attainment has increased only slightly between 2017 to 2018, moving from 53.0% to 54.3%. These rates are still below 2014 at 63% quota attainment.
  2. According to a Salesforce survey, sales teams are struggling, 57% expect to miss their quotas this year.

This research highlights that of half of all sales organisations surveyed are struggling with their sales teams consistently not achieving quota attainment.

We can, therefore, expect, based on both these surveys, we will receive a “No” response from over half the sales reps responding to your question, “Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”.

However, the same 2018-2019 Sales Performance Report from CSO Insights highlighted that over 90% of companies are achieving their fiscal plans.

According to Xactly Corp, a global leader delivering sales performance and incentive management solutions, their survey reports 69% of enterprises to achieve their annual revenue goals.

Consider each question response an opportunity to dig deeper

Consider each question response an opportunity to dig deeper

Depending upon which survey reflects your business situation, you can expect less than 10% and up to 31% of sales leaders who are ultimately responsible for their companies’ fiscal plans to also respond with a “No” to your question, “Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”.

How could the same question have such a significant difference in responses from sales reps and sales leaders?

This is why I said above the conversation is the surface of sales, whereas real selling is what goes on beneath the surface. Few take the time to go here, which is a shame because these insights give us the greatest leverage building and managing a value-based sale. 

It is now, armed with what seems to be contradicting responses to our question, that we dive beneath the surface of the conversation and start to sell.

The problem many sales reps face is that their sales playbooks, sales plays, sales enablement and training have never taught them how to be effective asking follow up questions.

Too often, sales playbooks, sales plays and sales enablement is inward-focused on our products, services and solutions, they often ignore the conversations, interactions, and questions we need to be managing that earn our audience’s trust. That trust enables us to influence and move them and be more consistent closing a value-based sale when forecast.

If we had slowed down and taken the time to consider the initial response to our question, we would quickly have discovered that sales reps and sales leaders must be struggling with two different buying challenges. If they were dealing with the same challenge, we would expect a similar percentage of “No” and “Yes” responses from each group. To help us with our hypothetical scenario, we are using the survey data as the responses to our question, which confirms:

  • Sales Reps: Over 57% of the sales reps will not achieve their quota attainment, according to Salesforce’s survey.
  • Sales Leaders: Whereas, according to CSO Insights, over 90% of companies are achieving their fiscal plans, or according to Xactly, 69%. Which means, 10% to 31%, will respond with “No” to the same question. “Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”.

These conflicts within a business between sales leaders and sales reps are occurring all the time.

To be effective solution selling, we need to focus on finding the pain and conflict each group of stakeholders are struggling to manage. To ensure this pain and conflict is important to them, we must keep pressing on it to check how and why it is important to remove it.

The subtleties of conversation are complex. We should never take what people say literally. It is the same for insights and data we discover, we need to validate we fully understand who is involved in the buying process, and our understanding of their respective struggle is correct.

The situation is not as clear cut as the survey data leads us to believe. What about sales leaders who are not ultimately responsible for their company’s revenue goals? If we dug further, we would discover there is a grey area between the ultimate sales leader and the sales reps responsible for achieving their quota attainment.

Gartner, highlighted in their report, The New B2B Buying Journey that sales leaders often attribute the lack of customer access to a failure on the part of sellers to deliver enough value as part of a typical sales interaction.

If you are a sales leader, you maybe be frustrated by the failure within your sales team to access and connect with everyone in the buying process. Depending upon your team’s success, your answer to the question, “Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”, will reflect enough members of your team achieving quota attainment to reach your quota target.

The bigger challenge is customers’ struggle to buy

The bigger challenge is customers’ struggle to buy

However, in studying ways to address the customer access challenge‚ Gartner’s research found a different reality altogether. The problem is rooted far less in reps’ struggles to sell and far more in customers’ struggles to buy.

Considering the Gartner research, and the conflicts that can occur within a business between sales leaders and sales reps, when sales reps are not achieving their quota attainment. We need to stop assuming the problem is only with the sales reps.

Just because a sales rep does not achieve their quota target does not automatically mean they are not capable or have the potential to be a consistent sales performer. All too often, sales leaders, themselves struggling, place struggling reps under more pressure rather than focusing on how to support them better.

Putting a sales rep into a performance improvement plan, or PIP risks disrupting your team’s morale and culture. The sales rep will often consider this the first step moving them out of the business. If you are to place a sales rep onto a PIP, make sure you have the data, sales discipline and process to support a sales rep to improve. I discuss this further in the sales guide, 7 Sales Performance Management risks and how to avoid them (  ).

If you are a sales leader with one or more sales reps struggling to achieve their sales quota attainment, I recommend you first look at your sales playbooks and sales plays.

Often, the reason contributing to sales reps struggling to achieve their quota attainment is:

  1. The lack of or the wrong type of sales enablement and support invested in developing their role in the company. 
  2. Your sales playbooks and sales plays are inward facing towards their sales process and the solutions, services and products sold.

To help sales reps be consistently achieving their quota attainment, sales playbooks and sales plays need to support salespeople focus on helping customers overcome their buying struggles.

Supporting buyers move through their buying journey requires a salesperson to understand each persons’ situation quickly. To discover the problems, they are struggling with and offer solutions on how to overcome them.

The selling challenge becomes more challenging because there will be more than one person involved in the buying process. And each person will be working in a different situation with different priority needs and dealing with different buying challenges.

Returning to our hypothetical scenario selling a sales development platform, and asking the question, “Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”. Each person struggling to move along their buying journey will perceive your question relative to their situation, their specific needs and their outcome goals.

Having multiple people involved in the buying journey is why general questions included in sales playbooks and sales plays, such as “Are you achieving your sales revenue target?”, can often receive contradicting responses from different stakeholders.

Focus on making it easier for buyers to make a purchase decision

Focus on making it easier for buyers to make a purchase decision

In 2014, the Corporate Executive Board or CEB, a subsidiary of Gartner, started measuring the number of people involved in a typical Business-to-Business decision. The average number of people involved in the decision process was 5.4, which makes sense when purchasing a complex enterprise software solution.

More concerning was when it was measured again in 2016, it was 6.8, which represented a 25% increase in just two years. In 2018 the figure was closer to 10.2, which is another four stakeholders involved in the decision process compared to a few years before.

CEB’s research uncovered another sale challenge we must manage. When a single buyer makes a purchase decision, the odds of purchase are 81% in our favour. When a second person gets involved in the buying process, the odds drop to 55%. However, introduce a third person and the odds increase in our favour to 60% because they help arbitrate the buying decisions to avoid a no-decision outcome.

Have five people involved in the buying process, and our success in securing a sale drops to 31%. CEB’s Analysis research predicts the odds securing a successful sale will continue to drop the more people get involved in the buying process.

Gartner, in their report, The New B2B Buying Journey give us a clue how to manage this situation to our advantage.

Customers who perceived the information they received to help them complete their buying “jobs” were 2.8 times more likely to experience a high degree of purchase ease, and three times more likely to buy a bigger deal with less regret.

In other words, help buyers along their buying journey and we improve our fortunes consistently achieving quota attainment.

Pulling it all together…

Being effective selling and supporting buyers move through their buying journey is where our sales playbooks and sales plays must focus. Do it well and we will earn buyers’ trust because we are helping them overcome their struggle to make a buying decision. That trust is key supporting us build a value-based sale and forecast accurately.

To transform our sales playbooks and sales plays into that killer sales tool we need, focus on the buyers’ journey. They need to guide salespeople to prepare for and ask good questions to understand each stakeholders’ situation and their problems better, and to provide the information on how to solve them.

Instead of focusing our sales playbooks and sales plays on the solution, product or service we are selling. We need to focus them guiding salespeople to help customers overcome their struggles to make a good purchase decision.

One area we can help you achieve this is to include a sales prospecting tool supporting salespeople have the conversations they need to earn trust, build a value-based sale and forecast accurately.

The Conversational Solution Sales Scorecard and Training Platform, is such a tool that will better guide salespeople to help buyers to make good purchase decisions. Moving the focus away from ourselves to helping buyers, we will strengthen our sales pipeline, better manage a value-based sale and improve our forecast accuracy.

About the Author

Treve Wearne is the founder of Nazca Services Limited. Treve supports businesses and sales teams positioning themselves and increasing sales revenues. Improving sales forecasts, talent development and retention in the most challenging business environments.

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