The following is a guest post by Tim Bertrand. I have the pleasure of knowing Tim since the late 1990’s when we worked together at my last startup. Tim now heads up world wide sales and field operations at Acquia, an Enterprise class cloud computing company founded by the creator of Drupal, Dries Buytaert. In this post, he offers some great advice for how to get consistent results in taking marketing qualified leads (MQLs) through to closed deals.
In a day & age where knowing your metrics cold, and selecting the right tools & productivity platforms for your sales team takes center stage – the one problem I’ve seen is that some start ups get away from basic sales skills and processes (the ABC’s of sales) that have existed since Glengarry Glen Ross, and many years before that! In this post, I’m going to discuss some tactics that, when combined with reliable data, scientific demand generation & some hard work can help drive much better predictability and will ultimately help you scale your business.
A little background – Acquia has been one of the fastest growing private companies in the United States over the past five years. We’ve grown from a 25 person company with 4 inside sales reps to a global company, with a 200 person sales organization that includes SDR’s (Sales Development Reps), inside sales, pre-sales, enterprise/field sales, account management, channels, and so on.
At Acquia – we generate pipeline in a variety of ways. About 50% of our pipeline still comes from inbound marketing. The other 50% is spread between account management (upsell opportunities), the channel (partner influenced opportunities) and good old fashioned outbound prospecting.
Our sales team has two distinct roles that focus on prospecting – one is focused on qualifying all of our inbound leads (ISR – Inbound Sales Rep) and one is focused on outbound (SDR – Sales Development Rep). Both teams have geographic reps and vertically focused reps. The global SDR/ISR team is currently over 50 people.
Our new business Account Executive (AE) team, from a prospecting/lead gen perspective are focused exclusively on select target accounts. In fact, we embarked upon a targeted program for this year focused on key target accounts (globally) of this year that took us about 4 months to orchestrate, and was an extremely collaborative process across our field teams and our marketing organization. Each new business AE had the opportunity to select 10-15 target accounts that span 5 key verticals that we are focused on. We are using tools such as our Demandbase, Lattice Engines, and our own Acquia Lift which is a big data marketing platform for user targeting, personalization & recommendations to target users from our target accounts. Today – if you are from one of our target accounts – when you visit the site, we know where you are coming from and we personalize your experience and all of the content you see based upon your industry vertical and even the specific company you are visiting us from. An extraordinary amount of time went into ensuring that we agreed upon the target list, building our database, content creation, implementing the tools and all of the agency/creative work around building targeted banners, etc for the industry verticals.
One thing we’ve done across the business to ensure equal accountability is to directly align goals & compensation for sales and marketing to ensure we were all focused on the right goals to scale the business. Too many times in the early days – I’d hear “the leads are green” (meaning that Marketing thought they were generating sufficient volume), but in reality the pipeline was “red”, as the leads they were generating were not high enough quality for it to be worth the time it cost a sales person to call them. We solved this problem by creating a “contract” between sales and marketing, where sales agreed to the definition of an MQL that would be worth spending time on. In return for delivering leads with that level of qualification, sales agree to a SLA where they will call the lead within a specified timeframe.
Today, our marketing team is measured on MQLs, raw pipeline, sales qualified pipeline, and bottom-line bookings. Our SDR’s and ISR’s, and their managers are also goaled similarly and are responsible for the SLA’s to our marketing counterparts for MQL follow up. Our teams are absolutely joined at the hip. Sales managers are meeting with their demand generation counterparts daily, we have a weekly stand up meeting at the executive level, and we have a monthly review to discuss any major changes.
So that’s a bit on “how” we generate the pipeline, but generating the pipeline and getting to a consistent result on closed business is where many companies falter. We haven’t always been perfect – but using some of the techniques that I’m about to discuss, we’ve gotten a lot better for sure. For example, we know that over the last few years, based upon the pipeline that we’ve generated, that our bookings results have been within a slim range of our previous quarter pipeline metric. So when we walk into a quarter and the previous quarter we over achieved our pipeline goal, or fell short of our pipeline goal – we have a very good feeling for where we will land for bookings in the coming quarter.
We’ve done a number of things to hone in on this process. Huge credit must go out to a key leader in our global sales org – Mike Stankus, who runs Sales Ops and Account Management, who helped us design many of these processes. Mike has 30 years of experience as a sales leader and executive sales coach.
Validated Discovery Letter
First, before the opportunity even goes into Salesforce, a rep has to have a “validated discovery letter.” In order to generate one, a rep must do deep discovery over the phone and then we send the prospect a discovery letter that outlines everything we have learned about the project, we send this back to the prospect, and that letter then has to actually be validated by the prospect – in writing. It’s not a situation where we had a conversation and I sent you something and then I put the opportunity in Salesforce. Instead, the prospect has to respond back and say – “Yes. You’ve heard me correctly” or “Oops. You have this part wrong”. One of the biggest issues I see with any startups I’ve advised is that a good portion of their pipeline is “stuffed” with junk that reps entered in order to impress their boss, or convince someone they are doing their job. In our organization, if you don’t have a validated discovery letter – Sales Ops deletes the dollar value on your opportunity, sends you (and CC’s your manager) an email, and you either need to resolve the issue or you don’t get credit for the opportunity.
Here are some details on the Discovery Letter. It should include:
- A detailed description of the sales person’s understanding of the need and what is driving the need
- A description of the timetable, budget, and approval process
- Re-cap of any recommendation you made
- A list of open questions that were not answered (and may have been tabled for off line discussion during the meeting)
- A list of agreed upon next steps and owners. This list is one of the best ways to push things forward, especially if there are due dates attached to each next step.
- A discovery letter MUST BE VALIDATED / ACKNOWLEDGED by prospect
Example of a Discovery Letter
Thank you for your time today. I now have a much better understanding of your needs.
I have summarized my notes from our conversation. Please let me know if you have any comments / clarifications.
- ABC company is currently hosting their Drupal site at XYZ hosting provider
- Significant user growth has crashed the site five times in the past two months
- The site outages are tarnishing ABC’s brand and the CEO has mandated a fix ASAP
- Neither XYZ hosting provider, nor ABC, have the Drupal expertise to troubleshoot / manage this environment. There is a concern that the site has security flaws
- ABC is looking for a company to provide hosting and application support 7/24
- The annual budget for hosting and support is $X. James and his boss will make the vendor decision.
- James will complete the hosting questionnaire by …..
- James and his boss will participate in a 60 minute requirements gathering / validation call with Acquia on ______
- After this call, Joe will turn a proposal around in 24 hours
- Joe and James walk through the proposal on ______
James, I look forward to working with you on this project.
The next thing we do is before you can move an opportunity from the prospect stage into our “best case” (upside) forecast categories is that they have to pass The Qualifying Test.
The Qualifying Test
This is something that someone on the Sales Management team sits down with each rep before they move an opportunity into one of forecast categories and they answer these particular questions:
- Do they have a problem?
- Be able to identify the pain
- Be able to identify the business impact of the pain
- Can we provide a solution that solves this problem?
- Be able to identify the solution
- Is the problem compelling and are they planning to take action?
- Be able to determine timeframe for a decision
- Do we have access to key decision makers?
- Identify key decision makers
- Do they have a realistic budget? (is it big enough for Acquia?)
The Pursuit Drill
The next step, – before a rep can move an opportunity from best case into our “Likely” forecast category is that the rep must do what we call a Pursuit Drill which has to be validated with a Sales Manager. A pursuit drill is really the “The 15 Things You Have To Know About a Deal” in order to discover where the holes are in the deal.
The pursuit drill ensures we answer these kinds of questions:
- Does the customer have a need?
- Do we have the right solution?
- Is this a closable opportunity?
- Where do we have red flags?
- What pro-active strategies should we deploy?
The last step, before a rep can commit a deal is that they must lay out what we call a Vision to Close. A vision to close MUST be done AND Validated by a manager prior to moving into a committed forecast. A vision to close covers the following kinds of questions:
- How do we get business buy-in? Do we have access to THE person who will sign the deal and how we will get them bought in?
- How do we get technical buy-in?
- Do we have 100% technical buy-in, and if not – how do we get it?
- What is the procurement / legal process – in detail, and how do we navigate?
We have a few other tricks as well. The first we call a Dear John – and it focuses on a deal that has gone “dark” or a “stuck” deal.
The “Dear John”
The purpose of a “Dear John” is to force the prospect to confirm that they can execute by your target date OR tell you no. We know that no rep likes to hear “no” – but no is OK. It helps us focus on REAL deals, and ones that can make an impact for the quarter. Our motto is – “Yes is great, No is ok, maybe is unacceptable”
In our business – because we are real onboarding processes and lead time for each deal we do, and often times customers have very rigid launch dates – a Dear John can be relatively simple, as follows:
I have been unable to reach you for the past few days. The last time we spoke, we agreed that you would speak with Bob and we could expect a redline on our contract by last Friday.
I am concerned that we have not been able to reach you, nor have we received a redline – and you have a XXXX (DATE) launch. As I have mentioned, our onboarding and provisioning processes take 3-5 weeks depending on the complexity of your site and also the quantity of customers we are onboarding at any given time. In order to guarantee that you would be able to launch by the date we have discussed, we would need to have a contract signed in the next ten business days.
Please get back to me and let me know if you believe we can still complete this in the next ten business days, or if we should focus on other customer opportunities and regroup next quarter.
The Internal Selling Document
The last thing – also a very powerful tool is the Internal Selling Document – for your prospect.
Many times, your champion inside of a deal will need to get approval for your proposal from the decision makers that you cannot get access to. In these situations, you need to help your champion sell your proposal internally. Never assume, however, that your customer can “sell” this initiative with any degree of competence.
Customers who have to go in front of the Executive Committee to get the decision will typically need to put a document together (one or two pages) for the committee. If necessary, volunteer to help your champion create an internal selling document for the decision makers that briefly outlines:
- The need
- Why this need should be addressed now
- The options we evaluated
- The solution we recommend, and why
- The details of the initiative (cost, time frame, etc.)
- How this initiative will support the company goals (save money, improve control and visibility, etc.)
If your customers are willing to sit down and create the document with you, they have really brought you in!