Sales agility – the key to succeeding in the new disruptive landscape
Agility has become something of a buzz word in recent years. Increased disruption, spurred on by technology, stronger competition and cost cutting, is driving the need for organisations to become agile in all areas in order to succeed in this changing landscape. Against this backdrop sales agility may seem like a new and trendy concept. It’s not the case.
In reality, effective sales professionals have always been more agile than their less successful peers especially when it comes to winning complex sales. The correlation between sales success and agility has been around for decades.
Why? Fundamentally because no two customers are alike. Customers’ needs are wide and varied, influenced by their own goals and those of their department as well as their contemporaries within the decision-making unit (DMU) and the organisation at large. And the product or service requirements a customer started out with can morph and change as they journey through the Buying Cycle.
To be persuasive and engaging from customer to customer, to be able to create and articulate value not just for the person in front of you but for everyone involved in the DMU, while all the time keeping tabs on shifting ground, needs skill. And that skill is agility.
David Freedman, Director at sales and negotiation specialists Huthwaite International, sheds light on the crucial attributes of agile selling.
- Active listening
Every customer’s perception of what agile looks like can be different.
Finding out what this means in each case is essential if the salesperson is to respond effectively. It’s not something that can be asked. And it’s not something most customers would think about in depth either, so may find hard to explain. The sales person has to work it out. The first essential skill in sales agility is therefore listening. That means really digesting the words the customer uses and how they choose to communicate their thoughts.
Years ago a not-for-profit organisation had problems with their fund-raising team. When asked by a specialist at Huthwaite to describe their organisation they talked about having poor performers, average performers and prima-donnas. They used a pejorative term to describe the high performers but not the other two groups. When this was pointed out it started to become clear that the charity had no culture of working with commercially successful people, so had difficulty communicating with their own high performers. That one piece of active listening and the insight it gave was all it took to find the right solution.
- Flexible verbal behaviour
As well as deeply understanding how the customer is using language, skilled salespeople are equally careful when choosing the words they use.
It’s often unconscious. Many effective salespeople can’t tell you what it is that makes them successful or they ascribe their success to something that, on closer inspection, isn’t actually what they do. It’s what we call the perception gap or unconscious competence and it’s the reason why Huthwaite’s models are based on observational research – not just the consultative approach taken by many of our contemporaries. Research shows us that perception gaps are much narrower for skilled sales people as they are fully aware of the language they use.
The good news is you can train people to become more aware of their language and narrow that gap themselves. Even better, as people become more self-aware, they can make choices and adapt their verbal behaviours to become more effective. We call that flexible verbal behaviour and it’s the key to success in every verbal business interaction.
- Questioning skills
Salespeople cannot be agile in meeting their customer’s precise needs, priorities, concerns and desired outcomes without an in-depth and complete understanding of what they are. Gaining that understanding needs rigour. When it comes to questioning a seller must develop a systematic, consistent, structured approach. Huthwaite’s SPIN® Selling model is one of the best examples of a questioning methodology; and that’s why it’s used by sales teams around the world including many of the Fortune 100.
Value and risk are important considerations in the decision to buy but they are perceptions first and foremost. The customer’s perception is what counts. They have to work it out and know it for themselves but the seller can help them reach a conclusion by asking insightful questions about the problems they face, the consequences of not solving them, and the benefits of using your solution. That enables the customer to communicate the value of the product or service to the rest of the DMU in a much more compelling way. There’s a huge difference between “the sales person told me we’ll save…” and “I’ve worked out we’ll save…”
Before a sales professional starts asking more questions it’s crucial to know what questions to ask. No matter how well developed their listening and questioning skills are, if they bombard the customer with questions that are irrelevant nothing will move forward.
Knowing the right background information on the customer will help. Information such as the problems the customer may be experiencing that your product can solve, and particularly where you know you can solve it better than the competition, is useful. As are any industry developments or general trends that may be driving the purchase decision.
One of the most powerful tools in the sales person’s repertoire is their confidence. There is little that impresses potential customers more than the calm, assured demeanour of a genuinely confident sales person.
A confident seller develops trust, provides reassurance and enhances their and their company’s reputation as well as the customer’s experience. Confidence enables the sales person to explore the customer’s needs and offer ideas in the most persuasive manner possible. Confidence cannot be learned, it has to be gained, and there is no better way of gaining it than by being fluent in a sales methodology that works. Investing in high quality sales training can be a wise move for any organisation.
- Understanding the customer’s business strategy
Customer organisations can be complicated things, with any number of challenges that need addressing and almost certainly not enough resources to do it all. Prioritisation is crucial. Doing the important before the urgent is sometimes hard, but it’s an ability all great leaders have.
Whatever is closest to the customer’s strategic direction is what matters most. If the client company has a defined and universally accepted business strategy that lies at the heart of every decision they make – and all good companies do – it’s vital sellers understand it too. They must have the skills and knowledge to uncover and understand their customer’s business strategy. By aligning solutions to strategy, sellers will maximise the chances of their project being prioritised and being allocated the resources to close the deal.
- Consider the whole customer DMU
It’s a fact of life that corporate buying decisions are rarely made by one single individual. It always involves a team. It may be through a formal buying committee or simply asking for a second opinion over the coffee machine. But be aware that somewhere there is someone influencing the buying decision who you will probably never meet and may never hear of.
Current research suggests, on average, there are 6.8 individuals involved in a B2B buying decision. That’s at least six people, all with different needs, alternate, and possibly conflicting decision criteria and varying degrees of enthusiasm (or apathy) about the project, as well as each of the potential suppliers. How does the sales person manage that? In theory, they just get all the key players to the decision point at the same time and with all of them favouring their solution. In practice it requires a deep understanding of the role each person has in making the decision (which incidentally may have nothing to do with their job title) and a clear strategy to address each one.
So, you invest in sales training, develop your team’s skills, strategies and confidence and give them the knowledge they need to do an outstanding job. And they do; they accurately assess the customer’s view of agility, build both value and clear competitive differentiation, present a persuasive case for your solution and effectively manage the complexities of the buying organisation. You’ve ticked all the boxes – the users love your proposal and your company has signed it off. So that’s it, the deal’s yours, right?
Wrong. Now you have to go and see Procurement – the professional buyer. It’s time to negotiate. It’s Procurement’s job to tell you they like your proposal but they can get the same thing 20% cheaper elsewhere, and what can you do. Of course, what they’ve told you isn’t always true. If they can really get it 20% cheaper, and it really is the same thing, they’d have bought it from someone else. They want to do a deal with you but they want better terms. They claim it’s a buyer’s market and they have all the power but that’s not true either. Unless it’s an entirely frivolous purchase they have to buy from someone. (The clue is in their job title.) But that won’t stop them doing everything they can even to the point of undermining your confidence and devaluing your proposition.
There’s one thing you can be sure of. They are experienced negotiators. Are your sellers equally familiar with the process? If not, they should be. Negotiation skills are the last piece of the jigsaw, the final weapon in the ultimate sales person’s armoury. And don’t think you can cut corners by just training the sales managers to negotiate and sending in the ‘big guns’ at the close. Buyers love it – because the only thing a manager can do that a sales person can’t, is give more concessions.
When used in combination, these attributes unlock a deeper customer intelligence and a clearer understanding of what’s needed to win the business without compromising margin, or undermining the integrity of the product or business behind it.
Budgeting the unknown, forecasting the uncertain
Tarka Duhalde, Vice President, Financial Controller, IRIS Software Group
Volatility and uncertainty are still looming large. In late March the Bank of England raised interest rates from 4% to 4.25%. While many think interest rates will peak at 4.5% in Summer 2023, no one knows for sure. Likewise, no one knows what the price of fuel or the price of energy will be in six months, despite the UK not falling into a recession, as announced by the Chancellor in his Spring Budget.
Nevertheless, the high level of uncertainty will not disappear overnight, making the tasks of budgeting and forecasting even more difficult than they normally are, as there are simply so many unknown quantities at play. However, senior business leadership are continuously looking to their finance team for clarity – often asking them to generate accurate forecasts at a faster pace. In many ways, this request makes sense. After all, in a climate of uncertainty, who doesn’t want visibility?
However, generating multiple forecasts can put a lot of pressure on already-overworked finance teams. What’s more, when it comes to budgeting and forecasting, speed and accuracy can be at odds with each other. Too often, finance teams feel they have to choose between turning around an accurate forecast at a slower pace or a less accurate forecast at a quicker pace. Obviously, neither option is ideal.
That said, hope is not lost. If the right tools are in place, it is possible to turn around accurate forecasts at a rapid pace.
Eliminate guesswork and assumptions
Businesses and finance teams should want their forecasts to be as close to reality as possible. Yes, forecasts are about predicting the future, but they’re not magic, they’re science.
There are many ways to generate an accurate forecast, but the first step should always include cutting out wishful thinking, guesswork, and assumptions. If this isn’t done, businesses run the risk of inaccuracies. The ‘single truth’ is the goal and a wildly conservative forecast is just as incorrect as a wildly optimistic forecast.
Instead of relying on wishful thinking, guesswork, and assumptions, finance teams and businesses should base their forecasting on robust quantitative and qualitative techniques, including strong research, reliable data, and facts. As well as assessing the accuracy of previous budgets and forecasts, looking at the business’ historical data, checking the latest industry analysis, and seeing how the competition is doing. All of this will help get forecasts as close to reality as possible.
Embrace artificial intelligence
In addition, businesses should consider investing in automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as the right tools will be less error-prone than humans. On top of this, they can help with eliminating conscious and unconscious bias and will spot data patterns finance teams cannot. They can also vastly reduce cycle times – freeing up team members’ time to focus on adding strategic value.
It is crucial to remember, the aim is not to replace employees with AI tools, rather the ultimate goal is for AI to work with people – helping to optimise the budgeting and forecasting process.
What’s more, the tools are only going to get more sophisticated as time goes on. Businesses and finance teams should seriously consider getting ahead of the curve and adopt these technologies sooner rather than later.
Adopt rolling forecasts
Instead of finance teams just generating a yearly static budget, they should also look to adopt rolling forecasts – ideally revisiting and reforecasting on a quarterly or even monthly basis. This will maximise visibility, giving leaders the crucial insight into how the business is performing in real time or near-real time, allowing more informed business decisions to be made. Especially in more uncertain times, it’s important to stay agile and rolling forecasts can facilitate this.
Whilst static budgets have their place, they cannot adapt to change. For example, if shortly after generating a budget, the business loses a major client or the wider economy takes a turn for the worse, the budget will already be out of date. However, rolling forecasts can adapt to change. In this way, they are more accurate and, by extension, more useful than static budgets.
Once a business is up and running, rolling forecasts can be highly efficient. What’s more, if AI and automation have already been embraced, there won’t be a need to sacrifice accuracy for speed.
If businesses and finance teams want to generate accurate budgets and forecasts during these uncertain times, they will need the right tools, the right strategy, and the right mindset. For maximum visibility, casting aside assumptions, embracing automation, and adopting rolling forecasts are three great places to start.
5 Often-Overlooked Investment Options To Consider Exploring In 2023
When choosing what to invest in, many people will initially focus on the stock market which is considered a more mainstream investment. However, investments are more than stocks, and there is a wide range of alternative investments you can add to your portfolio to not only add growth to your long-term returns but also to spread the risk. If you’re looking to diversify your investments or if you simply want to get started with something different, this guide will cover the overlooked investment options that you should consider in 2023. From investing in EIS schemes and commercial property to commodities and collectables, there is plenty to discover.
One of the first on our list of overlooked investments is EIS investment opportunities, one of many flagship policies developed by the UK government to support early-stage companies. With an EIS investment, you would be helping to support businesses in exchange for various tax reliefs. Depending on your circumstances, this could include 30% income tax relief, tax-free gains, CGT deferral, loss relief, or inheritance tax relief. To understand more about investing in EIS schemes and their benefits, head over to Oxford Capital, to learn more.
When property developers are looking to finance new commercial or residential projects, they typically do so with property bonds. These bonds are used to raise capital for the projects from investors and typically last for a fixed term, between two and five years. This form of investment is attractive due to the higher interest rates, ranging from 4% to 15%, offered in comparison to traditional government bonds, which generally perform at under 4%.
While there is a risk that the project could be abandoned due to external factors such as a rise in material costs, disruptions to supply, and a lack of finances, if the project goes to plan, you will see a return of your original investment as well as any interest accumulated. However, you can also opt to receive the interest payments monthly, quarterly, or annually throughout the course of the project, in which case, at the end of the project, your original investment will be returned with any leftover interest that has not yet been paid.
The term commodity encompasses a variety of physical investments you can make. Unlike traditional investments such as stocks, bonds, or funds, these investments have both a use-value and an exchange value. This is because when you invest in commodities, you gain ownership over a small amount of the resource you are investing in. As there is always a need for physical goods, these commodities are an excellent way to diversify your investment portfolio and hedge against inflation, market changes, and the depreciating value of different currencies.
Some of the most common commodities you can invest in include:
- Agricultural products.
- Crude oil.
- Precious metals.
- Diamonds and other precious stones.
- Spices, sugar, and salt.
When looking into properties to invest in, many people choose residential options as they can renovate and sell or rent these homes. However, as the property market can be particularly volatile, a great option when you want to invest in properties is to look to commercial options instead. When it comes to commercial property, there are many ways you can invest, and these include:
- Direct investment:This means buying a share or all of a property, which can then be rented out to businesses.
- Direct commercial property funds:Often referred to as bricks-and-mortar funds, this is the most popular way to invest in commercial property. With this fund, you invest into a scheme that invests directly into an existing portfolio of commercial properties, which pays out the interest of your investment monthly, quarterly, or annually.
- Indirect property funds:Similar to the direct commercial property fund, with this fund, you would invest in a collective investment scheme that invests in the shares of property companies in the stock market.
Peer-to-peer lending is a risky venture where you would invest directly into start-up enterprises in order to help them get off the ground. It’s an excellent way to help small business owners get going with their dreams while also creating a lucrative investment. When you choose peer-to-peer lending, you loan the start-up a specific amount with the promise to pay back with interest. You can determine a timeline for this, or you can also choose to have the interest paid back monthly, quarterly, or annually.
However, as already mentioned, peer-to-peer lending is a risky venture, as the company you invest in could fail, and in that case, they would default on your loan. With this in mind, before you choose peer-to-peer lending, you should always thoroughly research the start-up’s fundamentals first, as this will give you a better insight into the viability of the business.
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