We can learn much from how the software industry has evolved its approach to agile development, supporting a more fluid approach to delivering what the customer needs.

Sales teams’ skills, discipline and behaviour is often an afterthought because all focus is on achieving short-term quota plan targets. I discuss this further in the sales guide – 7 Sales Performance Management risks, and how to avoid them, Risk No. 7 – Not driving value growth and sustainable profits.

Those companies that prepare to strengthen their sales pipelines and digital transformation adapt to virtual selling will emerge from the current crisis as future market leaders.

Strengthen sales pipelines learning from agile software development

Strengthen sales pipelines learning from agile software development

The Harvard Business Review article – Approach your data with a product mindset highlighted that companies’ success managing their digital transformation is not a technical challenge; it is a “people challenge”.

People and their behaviour are the main barriers to adopting more data-driven decision making that is fundamental to succeeding in a fast-evolving digital-first world of sales.

Implementing an agile sales pipeline strategy faces the same “people challenges”. Salespeople and managers approach to managing their sales pipelines is rooted in habit and pressure to achieve short-term quota goals. This barrier prevents creating the space required to reflect and act on what is essential to your prospects.

Only by adopting a more agile, analytical approach to managing sales pipelines, will sales managers be better placed to support their teams create that space to discover the insights and data-points required to strengthen their sales pipelines.

Strengthening sales pipelines requires salespeople to demonstrate how their proposed solution will support prospects to achieve their critical business outcomes.

We will unpack where the agile product development originated and guide you on how to apply it to implement an agile sales pipeline strategy.

Learning from the Agile Manifesto

Learning from the Agile Manifesto

In 2012, Adobe ended annual performance reviews, in keeping with the famous “Agile Manifesto” and the notion that annual targets were irrelevant to the way its business operated.

The agile manifesto was ideally suited to software vendors who had become frustrated with the time lag between business requirements, the applications and features customers were requesting, and its delivery that led to many projects cancellations.

At the heart of the lag, time challenge is the final product did not meet the then-current needs when delivered. The lag is a similar dilemma many salespeople face when managing their sales engagements through a sales pipeline, resulting in a slip or loss.

Slipping and lost deals increase anxiety and frustrations within sales teams. The main reason for a slip or loss is not demonstrating value on how a proposed solution will support achieving the required critical business outcomes.

The proposal did not meet the then-current needs. In the world of product development, the challenge was the product developed lagged what the customer needed. Information collected would be fixed into a development plan that did not consider changing needs and the evolving situation.

In other words, the insights and measures used were lagging. Often, it is too late to act when the product is being delivered to the customer.

When this occurs in a sales pipeline, salespeople revert to an execution mindset. Left with limited time and few options to win the deal, they lean towards price discounting.

A further challenge is an impact on salespeople’s performance as they become more anxious, which distorts their perception and cognitive skill to manage their sales engagement better to achieve a quota target.

When a deal slips or is lost, many salespeople are also often not be able to explain why it occurred or perform a post-mortem to better understand and learn from the situation leading up to that outcome. I discuss this further in the sales blog – Are your sales play helping you close deals?

Agile is discovering insights and using these insights as leading indicators that guide salespeople to demonstrate the value that earns them buyers’ trust. Agile requires bringing the prospect and customer into their sales engagement and in turn, stepping into the buyers’ journey. I discuss this further in the sales blog – Do your sales playbooks focus on the buyers’ journey?.

If we are to learn from companies such as Adobe that successfully applied the Agile Manifesto to lead the way for agile development, we need to step back and better understand what the Agile Manifesto is.

The Agile Manifesto comprises of four foundational values and twelve supporting principles that lead to an agile software development approach.

Applying the agile four foundational values to your sales pipeline strategy

Applying the agile four foundational values to your sales pipeline strategy

Each Agile Methodology applies the four values in different ways, but all of them rely on each other to guide the development and delivery of high-quality, working software.

In this sales blog, we will focus on adapting these four foundational values as guidance for introducing a more agile sales pipeline strategy.

Applying Value #1: Individuals and actions over processes and tools

One reason I value the Agile Manifesto is that its first value focuses on people, not money, bricks and mortar, systems, and processes.

One reason I value the Agile Manifesto is that its first value focuses on people, not money, bricks and mortar, systems, and processes.

Good leaders recognise long-term behavioural change is not achieved using carrots and sticks. Your best salespeople and managers are motivated by purpose, autonomy, and an opportunity to improve themselves.

It is your people that manage their sales pipelines using your systems, processes, and policies you put in place. To foster agility, give them purpose and autonomy, which includes adapting to support their work regimes, not forcing them to adapt to your processes and policies.

The Agile Manifesto refers to developing software. I am looking to apply it to two aspects of sales behaviour and development.

  1. You are developing your salespeople, managers, and leaders’ skills in managing sales pipelines.
  2. You are listening to the needs of your prospects and customers to deliver value that strengthens your sales pipeline.

In the sales blog, – How should I develop and reward sales talent?, I refer to the Harvard Business Review article, The Performance Management Revolution. The HBR article highlighted managers hating doing reviews, as survey after a survey made clear.

Willis Towers Watson found that 45% did not see value in the systems they used. Deloitte reported that 58% of HR executives considered reviews an ineffective use of supervisors’ time.

If processes create friction and inefficiencies, your sales teams will be less responsive to change and less likely to acquire the skills required to strengthen their sales pipelines.

They will be less likely to discover insights during conversations. To ask the right questions and keep digging to deliver a compelling business case and be awarded the deal.

How do you value individuals over processes?

Communication is, in our opinion, the difference between valuing individuals over processes and policies because the flow of information gives you the insights required to implement a more competitive sales engagement.

The reason why we focus on the deal review is that it facilitates this fluid communications and collaboration between salespeople and managers, required for strengthening sales pipelines.

Consider your sales reporting, if it is reliant on your sales process, all communication with individuals is focused and scheduled around those processes and the information it acquires.

No surprise then that vital information required to implement an agile sales pipeline strategy and awarded the deal, will often be overlooked.

Consider it from another perspective. Your sales pipeline is the beating heart of your business. Your sales forecast is the health of your business. To keep both robust and accurate, you need regular health checks, which is your deal review.

We focus on the deal review because it is the point at which human interaction and collaboration meet process. It is here you will have the most significant influence to implement and maintain an agile sales pipeline strategy.

It is why we built the Sales Pipeline Development Platform to support salespeople and managers have more meaningful conversations. To collaborate, share wisdom and skills to be more proactive and agile, helping prospects and customers solve their priority problems and struggles, and support them achieving critical business outcomes.

Applying Value #2: Working software over comprehensive documentation

Working software over comprehensive documentation

The Agile Manifesto’s second value was to address the enormous amounts of time spent on documenting the product for development and final delivery.

Agile does not eliminate documentation, but it streamlines it in a form that gives the developer what is needed to do the work without getting bogged down in minutiae.

Agile development documents customer requirements as user stories. These give a software developer the insights to start building a new software function. The Agile Manifesto values documentation, but it values working software more.

Stories are also powerful sales skill. Some years ago, I wrote a sales blog – What can we learn from screenwriters? Part 1, and Part 2.

If you are in software development, this will all sound familiar. If you are in sales, you will probably be feeling frustrated because internal processes are maybe part of the cause for poor sales performance and a lack of focus on talent development.

Take a pen to paper and consider the amount of time your business takes away from salespeople to perform their role selling. According to Salesforce’s article – 26 Sales Statistics That Prove Sales Is Changing.

Statistic Number One: Today’s sales professionals spend just 34% of their time selling.

Your sales teams are probably also struggling to keep up with data entry, quote generation, and other tasks and processes that take them away from customers. Unsurprisingly, 57% expect to miss their quotas this year.

Consider how you could apply the Agile Manifesto’s second value to give time back to your salespeople, allowing them to focus more time on selling.

We developed the Sales Pipeline Development Platform to give time back to salespeople and managers to focus on their sales engagement rather than maintaining internal processes and systems.

Applying Value #3: Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

The Agile Manifesto’s third value is focusing on customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

Within the world of software development, negotiation is typically the period when the customer and product manager work out the details of delivery, with points along the way where the details may be renegotiated.

Collaboration is entirely different. If you are familiar with the world of software development, you will have heard of an approach development called the Waterfall Model. Customers negotiate the requirements for the product, often in detail, before any work starts.

The waterfall approach means the customer is involved in the process of development before development begins and after completion, but not during the process.

The Agile Manifesto describes an alternative agile approach with the customer engaged and collaborating throughout the development process. An agile approach to collaboration makes it far easier for developers to meet customers’ priority needs and critical business outcomes.

Now, consider your sales environment and sales pipeline tracking the progress of a deal through sales stages to completion. Is your sales pipeline and forecast a sequential process like the waterfall model?

If it is, it will lack the agility, fluidity, and collaboration the agile manifesto gives developers. More concerning, your sales pipeline is the foundation for presenting the sales forecast, that is used by management to make operational and strategic decisions.

Too often, sales pipelines are inward-looking tracking sales lead through sales stages. An agile approach would balance that view by also looking outward, inviting collaboration throughout the complete sales engagement. An outward focus will guide your salespeople to focus on the buyers’ journey.

To support more significant levels of customer collaboration, invest in helping your salespeople adapt their behaviour to focus on discovering insights and developing their data-driven decision-making skills.

Using the Sales Pipeline Development Platform, we represent using a buyers’ journey as a timeline upon which to present data points and insights. Strengthening your sales pipelines and forecasting accuracy is all about timing.

The image above presents an empty timeline report. Timeline reporting steps your salespeople into the buyers’ journey, supporting insight and data-driven decision-making.

Timeline reporting also supports more significant levels of collaboration, guiding, tracking, and reporting on the different conversations and activities that must be undertaken during the buyers’ journey to earn their trust and build a value-based sale.

By helping buyers with their buying struggles and moving them along their buying journeys, salespeople will earn their trust and awarded the deal, when forecast.

Even if there is no project timeline because the salesperson is searching for one, managing time from your sales leads’ perspective remains a critical sales skill for earning trust and delivering value.

To be agile in sales means regularly engaging with customers throughout the sales engagement, not just at the beginning and the end, when you are looking to close the deal.

Regular, active engagement means having the right conversations, and adapting to deliver on customers’ priority needs and fears, and critical business outcomes.

Being more agile supports you be more competitive and earn the trust to deliver on your promise. Rachel Botsman, in her book, Who can you trust? How technology brought us together – and why it could drive us apart, says we need to think of trust as trusting someone to do something. You would trust me to support your sales team to improve their selling skills. You probably would not trust me to drive a tank or fly a plane.

We also need to think of negotiation in terms of an ongoing collaboration. In the sales blog – Are your sales plays helping you close deals?, I discuss that to be effective influencing our prospects and customers, we need to sharpen our questioning skills.

We need to move our audience to a position they trust we will deliver on our promise.

Applying Value #4: Responding to change over following a plan

Traditional software development considered change as an expense, so it was to be avoided.

The focus was given to developing a detailed, elaborate plan, including features that all shared a similar priority, with lots of dependencies all fitting together like a puzzle.

The same can be true with sales agreeing on elaborate plans with marketing or sales strategies. It is similar with deals flowing through sales pipelines. Too often, these reflect how the salesperson feels, their assumptions, anxieties, and pressure to achieve quota target.

What checks and balances do you have within your sales pipeline and forecast to filter out these assumptions, anxieties, and pressures?

Too often, there is nothing to challenge the information presented during deal reviews that are rolled up into your sales forecast.

Do you consider your sales managers are your checks and balances?

Sales managers’ perception and behaviour managing deal reviews are influenced by their assumptions, anxieties, and pressure. Consequently, deal reviews often lack the structure and consistency across your business, to maintain an agile sales pipeline to deliver an accurate sales forecast.

All attention is closure to achieve quota targets and little consideration given to how the customer feels. It is all about execution to close the deal. The time to build a value-based deal and earn trust has passed.

Implementing an agile sales pipeline strategy requires you create the time-space to develop the sales behaviour, time management and sales skills needed to strengthen sales pipelines. A business cannot do this if its sales process and pipeline are inward-looking and taking their salespeople away from interacting with customers.

Human behaviour also plays a role. Those that define and implement a well-laid plan taking a waterfall approach will be more compelled to defend it, rather than be agile and adapt to insights gained while collaborating with prospects and customers.

We developed the Sales Pipeline Development Platform to create the space and time required to deliver value and earn trust.

Your sales enablement strategy is also part of your sales pipeline strategy. I discuss this further in the sales blog – How do I leverage EdTech to reinvent my sales enablement? 

We include in the Platform online courses guiding salespeople and managers develop their selling skills. One course – Accurate sales forecasting and closing deals quicker consists of 30 hours of online, interactive selling, integrating with your own sales pipeline to work arrangements through to closure.

Your sales playbooks and sales plays are also part of implementing an agile sales pipeline strategy. In the sales blog – Why are our sales playbooks failing us?, I present why most businesses focus on moving the product, service or solution through a sales process.

Selling is not moving product. It needs to be agile, influencing and moving people to act in line with our shared intent. Building a value-based sale, earning trust, and forecasting accurately has less to do with moving products and everything to do with being agile and moving people.

Pulling it all together

Implementing an agile sales pipeline strategy must focus on developing sales skills to earn trust, influence, and move prospects’ behaviour by changing how they feel and perceive what we are communicating and proposing. It is why we often refer to the conversation being the surface of the sale. Real selling is what goes on beneath the surface.

It is essential we not only look inwards; also look outwards supporting and helping buyers better manage their buying struggles and move along their buying journey.

Adopting a more agile, analytical approach to managing sales pipelines, sales managers will be better placed to support their teams create space to discover the insights and data-points required to strengthen their sales pipelines.

We can learn valuable lessons from applying the Agile Manifesto to implement an agile sales pipeline strategy.

Applying the four foundational values, using the Sales Pipeline Development Platform, you will address the “people challenge” often holding back strengthening your sales pipeline. You will better guide their behaviour to adopt a more data-driven decision making that is fundamental to succeeding in our fast-evolving digital-first world of sales.

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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