Mastering the Art (and Science) of Sales with Emerging Technology

By Todd Gracon

Sales, like any form of persuasion, is an art. A smooth sales cycle is like a beautiful painting, where individual elements are brought together with masterful finesse. If even one element is out of place or poorly executed – if the lighting is off or the perspective is sloppy – the entire painting suffers; so, too, in sales.

But sales is also a science that can be analyzed empirically. If it were an equation, it would look like this:

Average Deal Size × Likelihood of Close × Number of Deals ÷
How Much Time You Have to Move Them Forward

It’s important for sales professionals to have a solid grip on both the art and science of sales. Today, it’s much easier to do so thanks to emerging technology. In fact, according to a Salesforce survey, high-performing sales teams use about three times more technology than underperforming teams. Here are a few ways I’ve seen sales professionals leverage new tech to be more productive, waste less time, and sell smarter.

Make Time for Your Art with Automation

In sales, time is crucial, and nothing is more frustrating for a sales professional than wasting their time. Efficiency equals money – and being inefficient can determine the size of your commission check.

Yet, every day, salespeople waste valuable time doing repetitive tasks like looking up contacts, updating leads, and logging demos. Every second spent on administrative work is a second you don’t have to meaningfully move forward in the sales cycle. The more administrative work you do, the less time you have to practice your art.

You can use automation to cut down on the amount of administrative work you need to do throughout the day. For example, a friend of mine created an automated workflow that takes any new email in their inbox, looks that email up in Salesforce, and creates a contact if one doesn’t already exist. The workflow also logs the new contact in Evernote; my friend gets a summary of all new updates to Salesforce via Slack at the end of the day, so he can easily track which prospects he has yet to follow up with.

That’s a simple example of how automation can fit into your daily life as a salesperson, but it’s by no means all that technology is capable of. I’ve seen sales pros create automated workflows to alert them of new activity on VIP accounts, send contract approval requests to a designated Slack channel, and more.

Leveraging Technology to Time Travel

I’ve written before about why time traveling is the most important skill a sales professional can cultivate. The key here is to remember that sales, as a discipline, is like spinning plates rather than juggling balls. You need to get processes going as quickly as you can while simultaneously ensuring no process ever loses its momentum.

The artistic aspect of this process is found in how you qualify prospects; a lot of the time, there’s an element of instinct that guides the decision. Are you asking the tougher questions? Are you giving them the “why”? Are you making it easy for them to make a choice? Do you identify potential proof points, make good use of social engineering, and get existing customers to sell on your behalf?

The science of time traveling can be tricky to deconstruct; there are so many micro-processes to manage. How do you know whether a process is inefficient or not? How can you tell when it’s time to get started on another step in the process?

That’s where analytics come in. It’s crucial for every sales professional to know how they’re performing according to certain KPIs. CRMs do a good job making pipeline analytics available to sales reps, but these measurements are only as good as the information available. If you have poor demo-logging or lead-updating habits, it’ll be harder to get an accurate picture of your pipeline and processes.

Intelligent automation and integration not only make it easier to keep records up to date; they can also open up new ways to measure your efficacy – and efficiency – as a salesperson. You can create a 360° view of every customer by pulling information from different apps into your CRM. You can see which marketing campaigns they’ve been most responsive to, for example, or whether they have any customer support tickets open. These are key bits of information that can help you strike while the iron is hot, as well as allow you to better analyze which of your processes could work better.

Sales professionals are constantly looking for ways to make more money and have more success. The smarter and more innovative ones know that technology isn’t to be feared; instead, it’s a tool they can leverage to up their sales game and scale their franchise. Regardless of the process you want to optimize, chances are there’s new tech that can help you do it!

Todd Gracon is the VP of sales at Workato, the world’s first intelligent automation platform. As a sales executive with 20+ years of experience and an MBA from UC Berkeley, he has worked in roles ranging from selling and architecting to developing and consulting. Todd is passionate about disruptive and innovative approaches to problem solving; prior to Workato, he spent time at Accenture, BEA Systems, Oracle, and Tableau.

How to Be Smart When Shopping for a Sales Intelligence Solution

By Sharon Gillenwater

When it comes to sales intelligence and business “data” providers, buyer beware.

What passes as company/executive “data,” “intelligence,” and “insight” is often so out of date and inaccurate that customers have to go out to the open Web to verify absolutely everything.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

You’re paying for something that is wrong so often that you don’t trust it and feel the need to constantly re-verify it.

As a sales intelligence provider who wants to do right by our customers, that just breaks my heart.

I’m not making these claims lightly or trying to trash other vendors. But I know all of the above to be true because I have sampled many of these services. In fact, their flaws – mostly significant omissions and inaccuracies – were the reason I created my own executive profile database while doing consulting for tech companies.

Unfortunately, the sorry state of “sales intelligence” has led to the sad fact that customers have developed a very high level of tolerance for inaccurate data and have become quite cynical when it comes to sales intelligence providers.

Why is this such a problem? There are three main reasons.

  1. It is very hard to do. Companies are constantly changing – and the people who work in them are constantly moving around. Consequently, over time, the information in a sales intelligence database becomes less and less accurate. Most vendors don’t invest in adequate verification and update processes.

  2. Most providers are scraping their data. Smart use of technology can help data providers scale their products as well as automate the updating of their data. The problem? Bad/old data gets out there and all the providers scrape it up – creating more and more instances of it and making mistakes difficult to correct. Without any humans to verify it, inaccurate information gets perpetuated for years.

  3. There is more emphasis on scale than accuracy. “How many records do you have?” is often the first question we are asked about our executive profile database. While it is a valid question, no one seems to think about the fact that the number of records you have doesn’t matter when those records are wrong. Venture capitalists who back sales intelligence companies make things worse by emphasizing scale – and speed to scale – over everything else. When I was looking to raise money for Boardroom Insiders nearly 10 years ago, a VC actually snapped, “Stop talking about the quality of your data. No one cares!”

Well, I care. And YOU, the CUSTOMER, should absolutely care.

So, with this sorry state of affairs, how can customers smartly size up sales intelligence providers?

  1. Ask them how they collect information. If they are relying exclusively on technology with no human-centered editorial process, be very afraid. While some technology is necessary as part of the process, using experienced human editors and analysts to create executive profiles adds a significant layer of relevance to profiles.

  2. Ask to see samples of companies and people you know. This is the easiest way to size up a service for accuracy as well as determine if it can add value beyond what you already know.

  3. Compare “apples to apples” from different providers. Choose a company or a few executives and ask the companies you are considering to provide samples for that company/those people.

  4. Ask to pilot before signing long term. If a company is confident in its service, it will do this because it knows you are going to get so much value that you will want to buy an annual subscription. If a company has trepidation about a short-term pilot, that indicates they may have something to hide – and it’s probably their data quality.

Finally, beware anyone claiming to have a “silver bullet.” There isn’t one. Recently, one of our customers got very excited about a sales intelligence vendor that has raised tens of millions in venture capital. She recommended that we consider using it as a source for our executive profiles.

I had been following the company for several years and there seemed to be no “there” there; but, since our customer asked, I decided to give it another look. Following my own instructions above, I searched for a few executives I knew – and every single profile that came up was either woefully incomplete or completely inaccurate. This was even the case for some very high-ranking executives, such as my friend (let’s call her “Doris”) who is an SVP at Wells Fargo. Not only did the company not have Doris at Wells Fargo (where she has been since 2012), it didn’t have any of her previous jobs – going all the way back to 1990! Other searches yielded similar results.

While I won’t call out this vendor by name, this particular example is egregious. The thought that my customer might be duped into paying for such inaccurate information – that was so easy to get accurately (and for free) on LinkedIn and elsewhere – really made me angry. When companies in our industry do this it hurts the industry by making us ALL look suspect.

If you buy sales intelligence, please beware and do your due diligence. You don’t want to waste your money. And you do want to have access to deep, relevant executive insights that will help you and your team proceed with potential and current customers with confidence.

Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market – from Fortune 500 companies to independent nonprofits – to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.

How to Use Numbers to Increase Your Numbers: The Role of Data in Driving Sales

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By John Turner

If I can give you one word of advice that could revolutionize your number of sales wins, it would be the word “data.”

TriNet is a data-driven culture – and the activities of my sales team are driven by metrics. In fact, all of our strategies and tactics are backed by data. If you sat in a weekly meeting of any of our sales teams, in any vertical industry in which we operate, you will likely hear the word “data” come up several times. We are constantly asking, “What does the data show?” “What data do we have to justify this action?” “According to the data, how did we do?”

When my CEO asks me, “How is sales going?” I don’t respond with “good” or even “great.” These words don’t tell him anything. Instead, I give him our sales numbers, our leading indicators, how we’re doing on proposals, the financial successes of our reps, our client retention rate, the number of prospects we have in the pipeline, our penetration of the vertical industries we serve, and development of the general business landscape.  

The reason I’m sharing all this with you is not to show off how great my team and I are at math. I simply want to give you the tools to use data to increase your numbers – because a data-focused sales organization works. I know this because the data tells me so. Here’s what I mean.

Data Sharpens Your Aim

So many sales professionals I encounter use personal observation of their business landscape as their basis for creating a sales strategy. While intuition and field observation are important, they are far too subjective to be the sole deciding factor of something as important as the success of your business. I guide my sales leaders to first look at the data and then observe the data in action out in the field. It is truly an eye-opening approach the first time you do it.

If you are not using data to drive your actions, you are firing from the hip. For me, it’s like buying a house without first assessing the home’s value, hiring an inspector, or even doing a walk-through. It’s an unnecessary risk that could result in disaster. Your great personality, natural sales talent, and knowledge of the industry may get you some wins – but data will tell you where to focus all those great qualities, how to do so with the smallest investment of time and money, and how well your efforts paid off.

Data Reinforces Your Sales Culture

In a previous post, I wrote about another proven strategy in sales leadership: creating a winning sales culture. Data feeds directly into the strength of this winning culture – and vice versa. It firmly roots measurement and accountability into your organization’s daily practice. When data is part of your organization, there is less second-guessing of decisions, more confidence in management, and more trust that everyone is working from the same playbook.

A sales rep armed with data is a sales rep who is confident and assured when approaching a potential customer. This is a rep who can answer a prospect’s questions with facts and hard numbers not speculation. The result of integrating data into your organization is the culture of transparency, inclusion, and teamwork I discussed in my previous post on culture.  

How to Implement Data into Your Sales Organization

Creating a culture that utilizes data is incredibly easy. Just start by measuring everything and teaching your team to do the same.

Okay, so getting your data-driven culture off the ground is a significant time investment. But it’s an investment that I promise will pay off in sales wins, sales rep retention, and organizational success. And, if implemented well, data will become second nature to your business.

I use and highly recommend two things in order to start ingraining data into your sales culture. I talk about these in more detail below:

  • A strong customer relationship management (CRM) database
  • A victory plan

Why You Should Invest in a CRM Database

A database is just that – the basis for all your data. If you don’t have a CRM database, get one. It will streamline gathering, reporting, and analyzing your data. Please don’t rely on spreadsheets, self-reporting, or some other willy-nilly tactic. A database can remove guesswork, margin of error, and wasted time. It also helps you maintain quality customer service and retention.

At TriNet, my team uses Salesforce and I highly recommend it. Personally, I find it to be the best tool on the market for serious data users.

Create (and Rely on) a Victory Plan

My victory plan is an annual plan that measures everything you can measure in a sales organization, including trends, history, successes, failures, and all the output from our database.

The details of this victory plan are not static. I review and update it daily. Thanks to our database, it includes information and feedback from the most entry-level sales rep, through our frontline managers, and all the way up the sales pipeline to me.  

My victory plan quickly answers the question, “How is sales going?” It prevents us from being reliant on that popular bane to sales success: lagging indicators. Lagging indicators are a way of looking at the performance of your sales efforts after the fact. This is akin to driving your car by using only the rearview mirror as a guide. If you aren’t looking at the road ahead, you will not only miss your upcoming turns but you will have a lot of trouble avoiding potential accidents.

Your victory plan replaces lagging indicators with leading indicators, which are tools that let you look into future possibilities so you can plan your strategy for success. A good victory plan full of leading indicators – will include business results, customer information, prospect information, retention information, sales rep information, patterns, and trends – all things readily available in your CRM database.

A victory plan based on solid data and leading indicators lets you make adjustments to your sales plan before you deliver on the results. It changes you from a reactive organization to a proactive one. Of course, being proactive is much more efficient – and has a higher rate of success – than being reactive.

The other good thing about my victory plan is that it is readily available when it comes time for me to report to my CEO, investors, and our board of directors.

I would love to hear your thoughts on using data in sales. How do you implement metrics into your own victory plan?

John Turner is senior vice president of sales for TriNet, where he has grown the sales force to seven times its size since 2012.