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5 Lessons for SME Bosses – how to remove the dependency on “you” for doing all the selling!

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At Firestarter, our client base falls broadly into two categories. The first type is the “large” corporates who already have established, sizeable sales teams but want to drive a new direction, break a new market or inspire a next generation of leaders. At its simplest this is “change management” coupled with a sizeable sprinkling of life-experience – journeys we have seen many times before – and the courage to short-cut the learning paths of those we are working with.

For the second type of client, those in the SME market-place, the journey tends to be a much more personal one for business owners/leaders who have realised they need a “leg-up”, significant additional horsepower or simply a skill-set which they realise they don’t have (or want) themselves and can’t afford to put in their business full-time. Most of these people have built their business on “passion” and a specific skill-set, but breaking through the glass ceiling of growth takes a different type of leadership which in most cases is too hard to deliver amongst the cut and thrust of the day-to-day goings-on!

In our latest series of “5 Lessons” we’re going to concentrate on this group of people and share some of the findings of working with over 50 clients (and business owners) on long term contracts over several years.

Lesson 1: To get out of “doing the selling” you’re probably going to have to get into “doing the selling”!

This may sound contrary and a bit of a “you’re going to have to suck it up” argument, but in our very early Firestarter days we realised that the single biggest inhibitor to business growth was the “affordability” question – a classic chicken and egg of “I know I need to make the next big leap, but I can’t afford to put the right people in”.

Out of this conundrum is born the logic of three key principles that probably make the difference between those that break through the glass ceiling and those that don’t. These are:

Find a way to make selling your number 1 focus for an intense period of time – this is likely to be somewhere between 3 and 9 months.
Really hone in on what has worked historically and do more of that, faster, better, with more intensity and lack of distraction.
Be rigorous about having “growth gates” – so points at which you are prepared to invest in next-generation resources. g. when our monthly income is consistently £x, that’s when I’ll hire person y; until then we’re going to have to “tough it out”.
To explore each one of these themes in more detail:

The short-term selling intensity: the reality here is that if you have built a business from scratch and if you are the person who has done most of the selling historically, then even if you don’t naturally see yourself as a sales person the chances are you are pretty good at it. What you probably lack is some of the discipline that a full-time professional sales person may have (the relentless focus and constant high-activity rate) as well as the freedom from other distractions – so you have a business to run, get sucked into operational delivery and all sorts of day to day bits and pieces. However,, if you can zone into a sales mode for 3 to 9 months you will almost certainly surprise yourself. The point here is that “you doing the selling” is not what you want your business to be about but “you doing the selling” at faster rate for a short period is probably the quickest way you’ll be able to afford hiring someone else. Think creatively and work out how your team can support with “everything else” whilst you bring home the bacon in a condensed period of time.

Do what works: this is so obvious it shouldn’t really need stating but so often business owners who have built success from doing one thing suddenly think the answer to “more” cannot simply be playing to their strengths. It’s a simple message – if people buy what you sell, and they buy it in a certain way then just focus on doing more of that faster in the short-term as you can pretty well guarantee it will work. As you start to approach this with a higher level of consciousness you suddenly start to see that there is a far greater logic in what you do than you might have imagined – all excellent preparation for when you have to start working out how to condense what you have done naturally for years into something a professional sales person could do in your place.

Set yourself “growth gates” so there is an end in sight: if you adopt the approach described here it is going to be really hard work and you are going to have to keep digging deep when sometimes the temptation is to slow down a bit and just resign yourself to not getting through the glass-ceiling. The simple answer to this is to know exactly where your trigger points are. The classic way to do this is focus on monthly revenue (or profit) and agree with yourself that the minute you hit a certain point (and it is sustainable) you will commit to the next stage of your growth plan. This works really well if you can build a recurring monthly revenue model in your business because then the trigger points are really simple – e.g. once I hit £100k of recurring monthly revenue I’ll hire a sales director!

This first lesson is very much about getting over the affordability hump and accepting that you will have to lead from the front for “just a little longer”. In the next lessons the key focus areas are all about getting “what’s in your head out” and finding a way to build a team that will deliver you the long term rewards for the initial hard yards!

Lesson 2: You have to get a process – the art of “bottling” your selling methodology

For SME bosses who have built their businesses on a good idea and a lot passion, it can often seem counterintuitive to suggest that what they do when they are selling is actually not that complicated; that with a little of intelligence it should be possible to capture the “process” and build it into something that the right person would also be able to do. (see Lesson 3 for the principles of finding the right people).

Selling is often compared to story-telling and like any good story the art of the sale is divided into several stages, not least a beginning, a middle and an end.

For bosses attempting to “get what they do out of their head and into someone else’s” the actual dissection of this can be virtually impossible, but the harder you think about it the more likely you are going to be able to map out what you do.

At its simplest, successful SME’s should be able to really put their finger on why their customers buy from them, the common problems that lead to an enquiry in the first place. Understanding this at a clinical level immediately opens up a new level of appreciation for the right leading questions to ask when starting conversations with potential customers. In many cases simply listing out a few of these common problems is enough to drive engagement with your buyer and to encourage them to tell you everything you need to build a very compelling solution to their problem.

So, once you start thinking like this it’s possible to pick apart the component parts of your selling process one by one. These are some key areas to understand to help you document a rudimentary analysis of what you do:

Understand why people buy from you and how you can use these common problems as the mechanic to get the buyer to “open up”. In reality in most cases a successful first sales meeting will be driven by the buyer sharing their woes and the seller convincing that they can solve them.
Once these painpoints are understood work out how you succinctly demonstrate to the buyer that you can solve the problems. The key word here is “succinctly”. Many SME bosses believe that they have to tell “everything about everything”; not so – the buyer only wants to know you will solve their problem. This massively helps when working out how to transfer knowledge as if you can plot the flow from problem/painpoint to specific relevant solution, training others becomes much more focussed.
Understanding and documenting obstacles that potential customers will come up with is also key. SME bosses will have evolved to a comfortable method of dealing with obstacles but in terms of training you want to be as clear as “if the obstacle is this, the solution is this”. Using obstacle handling to close deals is a well-trodden sales path by the creatively-minded so fully leveraging this more scientifically is absolutely the way to go.
Knowing when to move from “selling” to “closing” is critical. Ironically sales people that you hire may well be better closers than you are, but through time you almost certainly will have learnt when the right moment is to stop talking about the product and to start talking about the deal. You need to make it clear to others when this “switch-point” is.
Finally understand the milestones in your end to end sales process and what your critical points of “closure” are at each stage. For example, you may have worked out that to close a deal takes three meetings and that if you pace the flow in a certain way you invariably get the deal. This is something that only experience will have taught you – when to press the accelerator, when to press the brake. It will however be less of a dark art than you imagine and a rudimentary flow chart will help focus your thinking very quickly.
This skill of documenting (and optimising) selling processes that have been largely built by one or two key individuals is undoubtedly one of the hardest things to achieve (and frankly not one you will be doing on a regular basis) but you have to start somewhere. Imagine trying to teach a nine year old how it all hangs together and you’ll probably give yourself a very good head-start because simple is usually best, there will be a sequence of events that you can teach and generally less is more.

Once you have a good grip of this it tends to inform a range of other key points – what sales tools do you need, how do your processes need to sharpen up and, as Lesson 3 outlines, who is going to do the doing if it isn’t going to be you?

Lesson 3: You have to find the right people – don’t hire yourself

Through the exercise of picking apart your selling process as described in Lesson 2, you will hopefully have created a new insight into both the tasks involved throughout the customer buying journey and also the bits of your knowledge which are critical to being able to control advancing a sales opportunity ever-forwards towards a close. As mentioned previously the discipline of taking apart what makes up the process that gets you a sale is a very difficult one to do on yourself, but even more difficult is the task of deciding how to replicate yourself in the sales element of your business.

For entrepreneurs especially, the cry of “I just need someone to be able to sell like me” is all too often heard when, in reality, the real challenge is the picking apart different elements of what it is the entrepreneur is actually doing day to day and redistributing them amongst a next generation team.

In the field of sales this is exaggerated still further by the fact that most SME bosses sell through passion rather than sales skill-set. This therefore really confirms the conclusion that when hiring, the last thing you want to do is to hire someone who is “just like you”. In most situations it should be the case that you are able to hire someone who is a better sales person than you are.

This will suddenly put a new set of pressures on making sure that you have a documented selling process and the right toolkit, that you understand what works and what doesn’t and that you have clear process around the levels of flexibility your sales person is allowed. What tends to happen when bosses do the selling themelves is that they make the rules up as they go along because they are looking at the business through a different lens from an employee.

It’s critical that new sales people moving into a business are giving the absolute best chance to succeed, the right tools, management and systems but even more importantly that the historic success, the lessons learned along the way are communicated clearly so that the “magic formula” gets handed from sales generation to sales generation as speedily as possible.

Inexperience of hiring sales people can be a real cross to bear – and obviously you would expect a good sales person to first and foremost be able to sell themselves at a job interview. As metioned in other articles we have written there really are only 2 critical tests that you must fulfil (probably at second interview stage): 1) ask the candidate to “sell” you whatever it is they currently sell. 2) really dig into sales track record – quarter on quarter for the last 2 years. Talk about how long they took to get up to speed in their last job and what irritated them. If in reality you find a likeable, but easily irritated candidate who once challenged turned out he didn’t sell much, it’s highly likely you’ll see the same when he joins you.

Good sales people are very hard to find so once you do you should bite their hand off and then, once you’ve got them, make sure you build a real rhythm into everything they do. If you find a consummate, self-motivated “closer” you really won’t go wrong and by managing your own involvement, your work becomes far more “sales support” and far less “sales” and you will speedily see the way ahead to next key business growth milestone. Hire badly and you’ll end up with a hole in your bank account before you even realise.

So don’t hire yourself, hire someone who is a better salesperson (with track record) who will concentrate entirely on the business end of doing business.

Lesson 4: If you’re going to sell consistently, you have to embed rhythm and rigour!

This lesson is probably the one that ultimately separates the winners from the losers. Rhythm and rigour, little and often are the absolute fundamentals of sales success and whether it’s part of how you manage yourself when you are heading up the charge to build your business (Lesson 1) or how you manage those responsible for the delivery of those all important numbers, this focus and discipline is what will really make the difference.

Having worked with thousands of sales people and seen hundreds of staff-members in client settings, there is a reality that pretty well everyone is “not very good” at getting down to the nuts and bolts of doing the things that need to be done to drive sales performance. Everybody always seems to be able to find a reason why they were too busy to make some calls, see some people, research some potential clients, chase some prospects and all the other obvious things that go towards making sales happen.

In SME’s, busy bosses (and staff with responsibility for operational delivery as well as sales) have a major challenge to carve out time to concentrate on sales – especially when sales cycles are long and other “urgent” matters are naturally competing for time. In sales teams, where you would expect this not to be the case (after all you would think a sales person only needs to worry about selling), it’s amazing how easily and quickly people find themselves doing anything but selling. The distraction of “getting ready to sell” but not actually “selling” is far more prevalent than you might imagine.

So, is there a magic answer?

In most cases, passionate bosses can sell whatever it is they sell and good sales people can close deals. The key thing that seems to fall by the wayside is the discipline of “putting enough in at the top of the pipeline”. This very quickly turns the conversation to one about “inputs” not “outputs” which in some ways can feel counterintuitive to those who say that sales is all about orders”

But, where most of us fail to make progress is that we are not unrelenting in our business development effort. When it comes to managing staff the failure tends to manifest itself in being too relaxed about ensuring that the teams’ daily/weekly/monthly inputs are consistent.

When you think it through it’s simple. Everything is cause and effect and most things have mathematical patterns. Most people can quote conversion logic to you straightforwardly. e.g. if I three potential customers it means that I end up doing two proposals and get one order. But by the same token, most people lack the discipline to actually do the right level of “input” day in, day out, week in, week out and so the outputs are naturally as erratic as the input.

Selling is a continuum and at every moment you have to have prospects at the start, middle and end of the cycle. Be unrelenting in your focus on this both for yourself and the teams you build: little and often, rhythm and rigour. Work out the right things to do, those inputs that directly lead to outputs and make sure that you just keep going! You’ll be amazed at the material difference that this application actually makes.

Lesson 5: Once you start seeing some sales success you need to be ready for what’s going to happen next.

So in the journey to remove dependency on themselves, SME bosses are going to experience a range of challenges centred around working out how to build sales in their business. This however is only going to be the start of it as obviously, the more you sell, the more you have to deliver, but, as described below, if you can begin with the end in mind everything will be much more palatable.

The previous four lessons follow a straightforward path, which simplified, can be summarised as:

Lesson 1: To give yourself more options, to be able to afford better people to do the selling for you, in the first instance you’re probably going to have to dedicate yourself to selling for an intense period and be more focussed and better at it than ever!

Lesson 2: Whilst you’re living the pain of Lesson 1, you must work out what it is you do that actually works. Understand what makes people buy, what to say when you are selling, what not to say, how you handle obstacles and how you make it easy for people to buy. Whilst you have probably convinced yourself historically that what you do is a black art, you need to take proactive steps to change this and build a method that others can learn.

Lesson 3: When you get to a point where a) you can afford it – as a result of Lesson 1 and b) you have a proper method/technique – as a result of Lesson 2, then focus on hiring the best people you can afford. Do not fall into the trap of “hiring yourself”, hire for the role you need, someone with the intelligence to pick up on your method and deliver even better results.

Lesson 4: Finally whether it’s for yourself or those that you hire, never lose sight of the fact that business sales and growth is about activity, inputs and consistency. You should be waking up every morning focused on making sure that today actions are taken that drive sales and opportunities forwards. Every day that passes where today is “not the day” is a dent in the pace of your business growth. Every time your sales people pick something to do that is not directly adding to pipeline development or deal closing they are not doing their job.

But, in the journey towards “exit”, getting your sales right is just one thing. However, by following the path above you can’t but help to flush out your next range of challenges and they will probably look like this?

Now that you have started to build a proper sales function in your business how are you going to manage this – or more specifically manage the people?
Will your operational delivery be able to cope with increased sales?
Will your long-serving team appreciate that the business is changing and that what used to be the way you did things is going to need to evolve?
Are your systems – especially financial and operational – good enough to cope with this next stage?
Can you consistently deliver quality as you scale up?

This new set of challenges demand a next level of leadership from you but crudely centre on two things, namely the need for better next-generation leaders/managers and the need for better systems. As a business owner these steps become incredibly exciting as delegation of real responsibility starts to become a reality. Again you can set yourself milestones which are probably related to sales. E.g. “I will hire a much better operational leader once our turnover is consistently £x per month.” This keeps taking you back to sales consistency and the need to scale your sales engine, but also makes enduring the growing pains easier if you know you have a plan to “get help” at a precise moment.

Integration of next generation managers and leaders into a long-established team that has always been used to “you” as the boss is a whole topic in its own right, but, if you can pull it off, the day will come when you can look in the mirror and say:

“I’ve built a way for someone else to do the selling in my business”
“I created a leadership team that can run the business without me”
“I embedded systems that make my business robust and organised”
“I have choices about my role in this business”.

So today, when you are slogging it out selling whatever it is you do, remember that if you give the “work of today” a real purpose, if you adhere to the 5 lessons described above your path will become so much clearer, your eyes opened and the destiny of real longer-term success much more realistic.

At Firestarter, we consult daily with businesses like yours to ignite and sustain their sales growth. Our business growth consultancy is second to none, with over 25 years industry experience, and a diverse portfolio of clients that span throughout the UK. Get in touch with us today – we’d love to hear from you.

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