I remember it like it was yesterday. The sales rep stood outside an imposing office building in North Carolina, got out a handkerchief, wiped his brow, took a deep breath and gave me (a sales consultant and coach) one last call on his cell phone. We ran through his presentation a final time, and I tried to steady his nerves. “You’ve got this. You’ve been working toward this for nine months. You are READY.”
And he really was ready. But that didn’t negate his nervousness as he ventured far outside his comfort zone. Working at a maintenance and reliability consulting firm, the rep was accustomed to selling to buyers with hard hats and metal desks—not the one sitting behind the walnut desk. But his firm had implemented a strategic pivot, focusing its product messaging on C-level buyers—and now here he was, about to meet with a CEO for the first time, at a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. The idea was, understandably, nerve-racking.
It was my job to make sure he and his fellow reps were ready to handle these new C-level conversations. Key to their success: sales readiness.
Though it’s based on age-old concepts of preparing sellers for buyer interactions, the term “sales readiness,” itself, is a relatively new one. As more companies realize its benefits, they’re addressing the discipline with renewed vigor, and awareness of the field is on the rise. Earlier this year, for example, Forrester Research published its first analysis and articulation of the sales-readiness market (“Now Tech: Sales Readiness Tools, Q2 2018”), noting that 42 percent of B2B firms have already purchased, or intend to purchase, a sales-readiness tool this year.
So, what’s the definition of sales readiness anyway? Put simply, it involves equipping salespeople with the knowledge and skills required to have the conversations needed throughout a buyer’s journey—and assessing whether, and certifying that, reps can do just that. Regardless of how a deal pans out (of course, you want it to close), you always want the buyer to think, “That rep knows their stuff. That’s someone I’d like to do business with.”
Along with helping reps manage the content required to enhance buyer conversations, sales readiness is also a critical (I’d argue the most critical) component of an overarching sales-enablement strategy.
There are four primary pillars of sales readiness, all integral in implementing a 360-degree approach to preparing sales reps and customer-facing team members. In all these cases, product marketing and sales-enablement departments can and should work together to make sure reps are truly ready to optimize every conversation they have. And if you’re a sales-enablement leader, you need to have a strategy in place to execute effectively within each pillar.
Pillar #1: Foundational Readiness
Foundational readiness centers on creating a ready-to-execute onboarding plan for every role in the sales force. The goal is to accelerate new reps’ time to full productivity and improve knowledge retention across every sales role in the field.
For many companies, a common onboarding mistake is the “all-at-once onboarding” that typically takes the form of a four- to five-day boot camp. Reps are inundated with the minutiae of every single product, with product manager after product manager delivering their PowerPoint pitches. In this setting, reps are drinking from the proverbial fire hose, and retention is often low.
A much more effective approach is to implement agile sales onboarding, based on the same principles (flexibility, responsiveness, collaboration, etc.) that define agile software development. With agile onboarding, the emphasis is on developing specific skills at agreed-upon times, all mapped to discrete sales activities in which the rep must be proficient. So, for instance, if reps need to conduct their first prospecting call within two weeks of joining the company, their onboarding plan should first focus on developing phone communications and listening skills, and mastering the company elevator pitch. Once they’ve been certified for those skills, it’s on to the next ones—again, mapped chronologically to the next key activity they’ll need to perform, across both the customer buying process and portfolio of products/solutions they have to sell.
Pillar #2: Continuous Readiness
For product marketers, this next pillar, continuous readiness, should be a focal point. The goal of continuous-readiness programs is to make sure reps are ever-ready to maximize every buyer interaction. The truth is, sales readiness is never done.
To get to a state of perpetual readiness, taking an “if-you-build-it, they-will-come” approach to sales learning just won’t cut it. Instead, companies should implement a “push” model—proactively delivering learning to reps at regular intervals and in bite-sized modules. They should also shift from consumption-centric metrics (e.g., Did reps take the learning module?) to assessment-based ones (Can reps perform the skill?). It’s important to remember that sales training is a process. Sales readiness is a result.
In addition, as part of continuous-readiness programs, product marketing and sales enablement should work jointly to keep reps up to speed on the full product portfolio, including:
- The latest and greatest capabilities. Speed of innovation requires speed to readiness. No one will benefit from the latest whiz-bang features if sellers can’t sell them. So reps need to be equipped, messaging-wise, to articulate and position the benefits of each latest product iteration.
- New product launches. Among the many items on marketing’s checklist, sales readiness should also be a key component on new product timelines—so that come launch day, reps can start making sales. Data sheets, Q&As, e-learning modules and dedicated coaching can all prepare reps to position new products effectively, relative to buyers’ roles, industry-specific needs and pain points. Practice and simulations are critical too. When I worked with a large software company, guiding them through a major product launch, reps were a key presence at our kickoff. We put their new product knowledge to the test during live role-plays with the executive team. The execs, who held roles/titles that mirrored those of target buyers, grilled reps on product benefits and particulars. And we videotaped the role-plays—making standout interactions resources for the sales team at large and using the individual videos as coaching tools.
- The broad product portfolio. When reps don’t cross-sell and upsell frequently, it’s often due to a lack of confidence and competence. They’re likely well-versed in their company’s core offerings but don’t feel ready to position peripheral ones. Enablement campaigns should bridge this gap.
Pillar #3: Transformational Readiness
The initial example—with that nervous rep, about to call on a CEO for the first time—is a perfect representation of transformational readiness. This pillar involves reboarding the entire field force in a way that minimizes any adverse impact on productivity or revenue. Transformational readiness comes into play when sales organizations need to fundamentally change the nature of buyer conversations or with whom they’re having those conversations. This often happens due to mergers and acquisitions, new sales methodologies, new markets entered and new types of buyers. You know you’re in a transformation when you are asking your reps to have very different conversations from what they currently have with buyers—and there is a large gap in the competence and confidence of the reps to have these new conversations.
Don’t underestimate the time and effort involved in getting reps ready. At that maintenance and reliability consulting firm, it was a nine- to 12-month change-management process for the rep and his colleagues. The first step to enabling those reps was actually enabling and educating their sales managers—so the managers could be effective resources and coaches. We then focused on rep research skills, how to gain C-level access, presentation refinement, and practice and role-play—all bolstered by various workshops, e-learning content and video-based coaching.
Pillar #4: Reactive Readiness
We live in the era of instant news. You could wake up in the morning to find your company in the headlines and the talk of social media. Reactive readiness is about getting your reps message-ready in hours, whether their business is facing a product recall, a hostile takeover attempt, the merging of two competitors, etc.—any good or bad news about the company or its competitors, or geopolitical events that could sway sales. In these cases, the field force often needs to be ready and certified almost immediately to deliver on-message answers to customers and prospects, and keep competitive incursions at bay.
A sales emergency-response system (similar to what municipalities use when preparing the public for emergencies) plays a key role. It should include an execution plan for all communications and processes, as well as tools for building and delivering content quickly.
With the speed of business today, all types of sales teams need foundational, continuous, transformational and reactive sales-readiness plans. Putting these plans in place isn’t a one-and-done process; it should evolve and adapt to support the various scenarios and needs that sales teams encounter.
Put simply, sales readiness works. It prepares salespeople to address whatever comes their way. Remember that nervous rep I mentioned, about to pitch his first CEO prospect? Bolstered by months of training and practice, he went in and nailed it. He called me immediately afterward from the parking lot, practically in tears of joy. (I was moved!) With this confidence boost, he and his colleagues went on to close more and bigger deals. In fact, thanks to the sales-readiness initiative, the manufacturing consulting company grew its business by 40 percent year over year, and deal sizes doubled in the accounts that had C-level conversations.
Every business needs to grow. The question you need to ask yourself is, “How ready are our reps to achieve that growth?”