B2B Selling is Like Spinning Plates on Sticks

by Thomas Bulow | (Dec 9, 2015) | 0 Comments

Artists that spin plates for a living, have to monitor and revisit all plates constantly to keep them from falling down. If you are selling complex B2B deals you might want to start thinking of yourself as a plate-spinning artist. In sales, you also have to revisit all the moving parts constantly to keep your deal alive and to get applauded when it crosses the goal line. Broken plates will not get you a bonus.

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What does spinning plates on sticks have to do with B2B selling? At ARPEDIO, when we talk to customers about how our solutions help sales organizations win more business, we have the same dialogue with sales management again and again. Allow me to explain:

Most companies have defined their sales process in certain stages from Prospecting to Closing. This has been done thousands of times and it looks something like this every time:

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Generic Sales Process Template

That is all good and fine. These stages are used by sales management to assess the quality of the pipeline and to establish, what deals to put on the forecast. Roughly put. Most companies have also gone through a rigorous exercise of defining the criteria for being in a certain stage and what actions must be completed to move deals to the next stage.

Getting accurate deal health established is a cat and mouse game and waste of resources

But sales management still spend a lot of time and energy chasing sales reps to figure out the true status of sales opportunities. They might start by looking in the CRM system, but quickly get the urge to chase down the rep to get an accurate read on deal health. Or even worse, they decide to fly reps to HQ for a Quarterly Deal Review session. An invitation that reps dread, mainly because it’s typically accompanied by a five page Powerpoint template with questions and tables that need to be answered and filled out prior to the review. But only for your top 5 deals! A 2-day task that shouldn’t be necessary when you pay a million dollars annually for your CRM system!

Some companies set up their CRM system, in such a way, that deals can only move from one stage to the next, if the rep have put check marks in little boxes, indicating that the actions have been completed. Even with a system that rigorous (reps hate these systems by the way) sales management rarely find what they need in CRM and they still can’t forecast with confidence.

"The problem is that you are mistaking activity with accomplishment."

Let’s go through an example: Most companies selling B2B solutions have a checkpoint in the earlier sales stages that looks something like this: “Have we identified the approver for this deal?” Let’s look at the rep Joe, who sells advanced manufacturing equipment. Let’s say Joe met with a VP of Manufacturing, who says that his CEO will approve the deal. Now Joe can confidently put a checkmark in that approver checkpoint. Another checkpoint for the same stage could be: “Have we identified and met with someone who will sponsor us and help us get access to the approver?” Let’s say that Joe assesses that the VP will be this sponsor. After placing a few other check marks, Joe is ready to move from stage Qualification to Positioning (which is the stage where most reps start getting access to sales support resources, who can help them sell. That is why reps are really eager to get to this stage and often get there too early).

If you look at sales as being a linear process like this, you will lose many deals. Let’s assume that Joe, in our example from above is up against a sales rep, Bill, from another company who looks at selling holistically (= spinning plates). Bill has picked up the exact same information as our first rep and has moved his sales opportunity to the same stage, but instead of putting a checkmark in an action box and moving on to new actions, Bill keeps spinning the plate labeled “deal approval and sponsorship” and revisits this plate from time to time. One month later, he finds out that the CEO does have to put his signature on this expenditure because of the size of deal, but the decision about who to buy equipment from, will not be made without the plant managers in a couple of remote facilities reviewing and approving new plant hardware. Strategic sourcing will also be involved and will probably try to force an RFx process. Bill re-plans his strategy to win over each stakeholder, while Joe plows on with the next activity on his laminated sales process sheet.

What are your spinning plates?

“Deal approval and sponsorship” is a small spinning plate and belongs in a category of multiple spinning plates called “Stakeholder Management.” Spinning plates in sales often fall in the following categories:

  • Stakeholder Management - Sales reps must constantly, across all stages of the sales process, gauge the stakeholder landscape and plan actions that will help convince everyone involved in the purchase, that they should choose their solution over the competitions. Simply thinking that a deal has an approver, a sponsor, a couple of influencers and a technical buyer and so on will lead to failure. The buying environment when it comes to people involvement is much more than that. Don’t be fooled by outdated sales methodologies that want you to use a fixed set of stakeholder categories and that emphasize gaining access to “Power.” Even if you are participating in “Dancing with the stars” and have the CEO as your dancing partner, the nerdy IT security guy can kill your deal, while you are practicing your rumba moves.
  • Controlling the Process - This is another spinning plate that starts in the earliest stage and it doesn’t stop spinning until the deal has been signed and the money is in the bank. If you put a check mark in the box “Customer has agreed to mutual process” early and simply move on, you will lose. One stakeholder might tell you that he or she will help you follow a process, but company purchasing processes are complex and change constantly, as the priorities and politics change within the companies we try to sell to. I have seen many reps position and get agreement to a “joint evaluation plan” only to have them admit that the process was never followed because the very next week, someone else entered the buying scene and proposed additional steps that needed to be carried out before at decision could be made. (related article: Be The Boss and Stay On Top of Your Sales Process). 
  • Sense of Urgency or Compelling Event - I love this one. It’s a classic checkmark item in every sales process I have seen since 1992. In sales, we love it when we have a meeting with a potential customer and they start to cry about things they can’t do and must fix to be able to meet their strategic goals. Yes!!! We found the compelling event. Sense of urgency has been established. Check. Move on. Fail. As soon as we are out of the door, there is another meeting with new participants, who have nothing to do with our deal. They also cry about business problems that they have to fix and your sponsor realizes that his project is light-years away from getting prioritized.
  • Solution Positioning & Competitive Strategy - Another spinning plate that spans across the entire sales process. As a matter of fact, this one starts in marketing and it doesn’t end until you prove to the customer, months after the close that your solution indeed has a much more compelling value proposition compared to the competition. Simply putting checkmarks in the boxes “Competition has been identified” and “Competitive Strategy in place” doesn’t win you the deal. Reps must constantly monitor every competitor’s move, gauge the threat and plan actions with each stakeholder to secure their vote.

Don’t mistake activity with accomplishment. Selling is dynamic. The moving parts when selling are numerous. Selling B2B solutions is holistic and doesn’t follow a straight line. Don’t settle for going through another exercise of defining your sales process along with the checkpoints for each stage. And please, don’t pay a consultant to help you with this. It’s cookie cutter work that you shouldn’t pay for. Instead, drop me an e-mail (thomas@arpedio.com) and I’ll send you a generic version of this template to get you started.

More importantly, describe the spinning plates that your reps must constantly revisit to be able to sell successfully. Define assessment criteria for each spinning plate and tell your reps what you expect from them, if any of the plates are about to fall. If you design your sales playbook this way, you will differentiate yourself from the competition. Instead of simply replicating a sales approach that thousands have implemented over the last two decades, implement a sales approach that empower reps to achieve results instead of asking them to simply complete activities. 

Hint: ARPEDIO’s solution supports this holistic approach to selling. Feel free to use the e-mail above, if you want to learn more about what we do.

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