The Rules Have Changed
by Graham Curme

The 1990s were the age of the global enterprise. American led corporations set the standard for success with year on year revenue growth, strategic expansion through vertical markets and competitive dominance across world territories. The structure behind this huge shift in business thinking was borne at a time of economic boom and it is still being used today.

It is however, no longer relevant in the downturn economy that has ensued. The rules of selling have changed.

Strategy and action

Since the end of the boom period there has been a growing disconnect between strategy and action. Although productivity and profitability can be increased through downsizing this must be accompanied by positive actions which have an actual effect on sales revenues. During the good times the customers are lining up to buy and are essentially completing the deal themselves. A tougher market means a tougher approach - not a sales structure that is based around marketing strategies that do not focus directly on crude results.

Know your market

It sounds simple but understanding where and why you have won business is crucial in the process of turning strategy into real results. Why have you succeeded in a particular vertical market? Is it really the vertical that is your definitive target market or is it one particular characteristic that could be found across other sectors or populations? By developing a profile of what constitutes a good client and qualifying prospective customers in or out before the process of selling begins you will have a better understanding of the true potential pipeline.

Inaccurate forecasting

How aware is the sales force of how its day to day actions affect the whole organisation? Forecasting what will close and by when is often regarded by sales teams as a necessary evil. It is also often highly subjective and inaccurate forecasting has a negative effect from the ground level up. Confident forecasting is key to making the right strategic decisions. CEOs must take an active role in communicating regularly with their sales leaders to ascertain the true picture and not just rely on a process which passively feeds the information through.

A decade of under-investment

In a buoyant economy where spending is high the sales process is about managing the customers' needs. In a downturn economy the sales force must have the ability to uncover those needs first. They must actively sell and not just respond. When spending rates are high the cost of sales is lower. Training costs are reduced as high-level training is viewed as an overhead; account management skills replace true sales skills. In short sales teams lose the ability to actively get themselves in front of the person who can (and possibly will) agree to the deal.

The market malaise

For over two years now Boards have been listening to the argument that "everyone's struggling" and that "the market is tough". But there are companies out there who are succeeding. Instead of finding out about a customer need or project once it has already started, the successful companies are actively uncovering needs (and budgets) before the project has even been formalised.

Sell the buying process; don't buy the selling process

It is imperative that your sales force knows the enterprise that they are targeting and the priorities (business and personal) of the person that they are selling to. That's where pre-sales qualification and sales training come in. But that is not enough; the sales person must have the ability to pick through the needs of the prospective customer and take control of the selling agenda. Yes, the buyer will have processes which must be followed but a successful sale relies on the sales person being able to take the reins. If the sales person takes control from the outset then they have a greater chance in both finding a project and reducing the time taken to close the deal.

Over-compensating the sales force

During the economic boom sales salaries rose at unprecedented rates in a relatively short period of time. Conversely, completing the deal became less demanding and as a consequence the sales force became idle. There needs to be a balance between the amount that is paid and the results that are achieved and the key is motivation. Motivation isn't just about communicating a corporate message which has been written to inspire. By sharing the bigger picture and communicating real and tangible objectives, sales teams can be motivated to succeed.


Graham Curme is one of the founders and chief executive officer of Optima Consulting Partners, the global sales effectiveness company. A successful entrepreneur, he was also one of the founders of PGP Europe, later acquired by Network Associates, and has over 14 years of senior sales and marketing experience in high profile software technology companies including Callidus Software Inc where he was European Managing Director. Visit www.optimaconsult.com for additional information.

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Copyright 2003 by Graham Curme. All rights reserved.

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