Revitalizing the Enterprise Sales Channel

By David H. Deans

Few communication carrier business leaders would argue, that our industry is experiencing the toughest time in its history. However, even though most would agree that this is no time for business-as-usual thinking, substantive ingenuity within the telecom service provider enterprise sales channel has apparently reached a plateau.

More than two decades after the first American upstart IXCs went to market with their simplistic offering of "we're just like AT&T, only less expensive" -- the industry has advanced only slightly to the CLEC's current offer of "we're just like your ILEC, only less expensive." Meaning, this lowest price-centric perspective is tired and ineffective, and it's devoid of meaningful differentiation. Clearly, there's room for a more compelling offering.

Similarly, while much has changed within the communications service provider realm, one thing that has stayed consistent is the way carriers hire, train, and develop their customer-facing human capital -- the quintessential telecommunications business-to-business salesperson.

As most mainstream service providers continue to struggle to position their offerings through their underlying network technology or infrastructure, other forward-looking carriers will actively seek a fresher, more compelling and ultimately a more defensible value proposition that will set them apart from the throng of "state-of-the-art lightwave network platform" clones.

Those carriers gravitating towards a customer-centric value proposition will study the staffing composition and mix of resources within their business market sales channels. Their newfound vision will be to create and deliver substantive value through their sales team's unique skills and abilities, rather than the more common practice of assuming that value proposition progression was exclusively limited to selling value-added telecom products and services (i.e. a product-centric perspective).

However, somewhat coincidentally, the typical employee turnover rate within front-line sales organizations has lowered the overall competency level of many service providers' core customer-facing asset -- their professional sales force.

In fact, the typical spread separating a carriers' most skilled and least skilled salesperson has never been greater. A case in point; it's estimated that only a small fraction (typically less than 20%) of an established incumbent carrier's sales force consistently sells to their valued customers at what could be considered world-class selling competency levels. Yet ironically, those select few salespeople that have demonstrated superior selling skills, and related subject matter expertise, are rarely utilized as role models or mentors for their less-skilled peers.

In addition, the untapped tacit knowledgebase of proven "lessons learned" and resulting "best practices" is not being routinely captured from these high-performers. Therefore the inherent lasting value of their practical wisdom cannot be appropriately leveraged and applied across an entire carrier sales organization. In an effort to help improve salesperson performance, most carriers' implemented sales force automation tools.

SFA Evolves into CRM

In spite of the high expectations for various iterations of Sales Force Automation (SFA), it is not at all clear that they have delivered on the promise of anticipated productivity returns. Sales process efficiency software platforms, such as the prevalent first or second-generation contact manager and opportunity manager-based SFA tools, have received mixed reviews.

Market research by the Gartner Group (1) exemplifies that the implementation of pervasive SFA technologies are drastically falling short of a salesperson's (their intended beneficiary) expectations. Specifically, "more than 80% of salespeople view the technology that was imposed on them in the last 12 months as a failure." Moreover, sales management is equally disenchanted because "for 30% of sales organizations [surveyed], only limited use of the technology will be made 12 months after implementation, and 55 percent of projects fail to deliver a measurable ROI."

Furthermore, a prior Andersen Consulting (renamed to Accenture Inc.) study of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) grabbed the attention of carrier executives when they broadly proclaimed that "a typical $2 billion communications business unit that improves its overall CRM performance from average to top-tier can increase its return on sales by 16 percent, or some $320 million."

And yet, enterprise software industry analysts have since estimated that 70% of all CRM system deployments have been labeled a failure. So, if CRM was envisioned as the "new and improved" front-line system for carriers seeking to drastically transform sales processes, and thereby improve their customer relationships, then what went wrong?

The short answer: carriers who have already deployed CRM systems clearly repeated some past mistakes from their disappointing SFA experiences. Specifically, they myopically equated CRM with a software platform purchase and deployment, instead of the real and more absolute meaning of the term.

Industry experts say a CRM strategy was intended to start with a vision that incorporates people, process and technology (intentionally in that order). Further, CRM is a comprehensive business transformation game plan that engages the whole enterprise to become more customer-centric.

Big five consulting companies have stepped in to help some carriers re-launch their CRM deployments. They're quickly discovering that their CRM deployments may never meet expectations, given the fact that most were originally implemented with little if any study of the carrier's current sales organization culture, account management methodology, or the sales order process (i.e. typical workflow).

In many cases, it's now believed that carriers have already made a significant investment into automating what can be defined as previously known dysfunctional business processes. Clearly, its time for something totally different, perhaps best characterized as a pragmatic applied-selling solution that salespeople willingly utilize -- because it helps them with their primary role -- in the act of selling. Moreover, it's time for a people-centric solution that's focused on wisely investing in changing behavior, not software.

The Emergence of Communities of Practice

Traditionally, service providers have called upon skilled managers and other subject matter experts to help salespeople, who are trapped in one of the first two stages, reach the next level of selling proficiency (See sidebar below: The Four Stages of Telecom Sales Proficiency). However, this skills elevation often depends on the availability of expert resources assigned to a particular sales region. So, as service providers continue to expand geographically, the likelihood of finding a world-class subject matter expert in each region has greatly diminished. Put simply, in the absence of a qualified business-oriented coach, most novice salespeople will creatively improvise at best, and in worse cases they will flounder aimlessly.

Correspondingly, when service providers are able to envision their sales teams from a virtual perspective, rather than merely a geographic one, practical experience and best practices can be culled and accessed in real-time -- regardless of where the expert physically resides within the carrier's organization. The most successful sales organizations have already developed either formal or informal online communities of practice, whereby salespeople spontaneously interact with their respected peer group and actively share practical ideas to overcome obstacles or other challenges within their sales process. Within these sales organizations, success propagation (via storytelling techniques) is a systemic part of their demand-chain stimulation activity.

Therefore, the intentional elimination of traditionally restrictive organizational boundaries can empower carriers to maximize their utilization of a highly valued human resource -- the recognized thought-leader. In addition, by proactively enabling frequent interaction among all members of virtual sales teams, and by also encouraging or rewarding thought-leadership, carriers can create a blueprint of sustainable competitive advantage by optimizing and leveraging their ongoing human capital development efforts.

The Interdependency Between Learning and Work

Sales training experts are attesting that learning and actual work are most effective when they are closely integrated together. In addition, salespeople cannot possibly retain all the raw data that they'll need to know, or always predict what information will be needed for a given sales situation, and exactly when in the sales cycle that knowledge will be required.

According to a CapitalWorks study, "approximately 75 percent of the skills that employees use on the job were learned informally. Only 25 percent were gained from formal training methods such as workshops, seminars and synchronous classes." In a separate Motorola study, they found that "employees tend to retain only 15 percent of what they learned within three weeks after taking a corporate education course, and just one day after hearing a lecture, knowledge retention might be only 5 percent."

Therefore, there's an apparent need to tap into key value proposition details literally as salespeople need it, in real-time, and this information must be presented in such a way that it's contextually relevant to their current stage of a sales process. However, this definition somewhat negates the implied value of many existing corporate intranet or enterprise portal deployments, because they typically don't adapt well to this spontaneous information retrieval requirement.

Stepping up to this challenge has motivated software developers to think beyond insular applications and software product category silos. This awakening has led to the aggregation and integration of several previously unrelated information technology disciplines -- knowledge management, content management, rules-based guided workflow, e-mail, e-collaboration, e-learning, and human capital management and optimization.

Carriers will significantly benefit by moving toward a distributed, interactive and collaborative learning experience for their sales force. Moreover, the just-in-time learning model (unstructured real-time learning retrieval) complements and in some cases supersedes the more traditional just-in-case learning model (the structured corporate training class).

Enabling Power Selling by Leveraging Tacit Knowledge

In an attempt to empower service providers to elevate productivity and achieve tangible results, a new class of highly focused sales process-oriented application software is being created. Characterized as a domain-specific solution that positively improves the actual sales process by facilitating learning through participation, and enabling the enterprise-wide utilization of proven world-class selling methodologies.

Additionally, by promoting virtual collaboration and pre-populating an ExperienceBase of telecom sales best-practices, these Sales Effectiveness Systems (SES) provides inexperienced salespeople with the expert mentoring and detailed, context-sensitive information they need to achieve higher levels of sales performance.

Filling the apparent void between traditional Sales Force Automation (SFA) and Operation Support Systems (OSS), the Sales Effectiveness System solution provides carriers with a truly systematic approach that culminates in the presentation of a compelling sales proposal to customers.

The application enables a true virtual sales team model comprised of the salesperson, sales engineers, subject matter experts, and other field marketing support resources to work together efficiently to present the best possible solution to the customer's needs. Rather than limiting the collaborative sales process to only physical interactions between sales teams and their customers, the SES takes extended sales team members online to work together to deliver tangible added value, and complete the sale expediently.

The SES thereby provides carriers with the practical means to measurably boost top-line sales channel revenue by leveraging the full power of sales-related organizational knowledge -- essentially enabling the process of Power Selling.

Shifting to a Customer-Centered Sales Process

In conclusion, there's no question that the most exacting enterprise customers will continue to greatly value a salesperson with substantive broad-based business knowledge. Moreover, the quality of the customer experience with a carrier's sales force is really only as good (or as bad) as the salesperson leading the account team.

Therefore, it's a golden opportunity for a prescient service provider to reinvent the dynamics of the traditional telecom sales process, by not merely using software applications to capture information about routine interactions with customers, but more wisely apply it to reengineer key business process attributes that negatively impact an otherwise positive sales cycle outcome.

The shift to enabling customer-centered positive outcomes is absolutely fundamental to a forward-looking service provider's deliberate game plan to raise the mainstream bar of expectations for its front-line sales force. Sales success can't be the exclusive domain of just the select few "President's Club" honorees, if aggressive carrier productivity and top-line revenue growth targets are to be consistently met.

Consequently, given the availability of this new breed of powerful Sales Effectiveness Systems, there's absolutely no logical reason why all members of a service provider's sales force can't be armed with the essential means to collectively succeed. All that's really required is a compelling vision, and a keen sense of what applied world-class selling skills can do for a carrier's business, its salespeople, and of course the valued enterprise business customer who now has more options to choose from than ever before.

Again, we know that business-as-usual thinking will deliver predictably tepid results. So, isn't it time for you to take charge of revitalizing your enterprise sales channel with appropriately skilled salespeople, and to focus on improving the customer's buying experience? Try to imagine how refreshing this welcomed change will be to your existing and prospective customers.

"In the competitive communications market, providers are searching for ways to help salespeople be more productive while continuing to control costs. By combining WhisperWire’s PowerSeller sales effectiveness software with the Convergys Infinys business support system, providers now have a single solution that gets proposals to the client faster, speeds the order process, and ensures order accuracy," said Sheryl Kingstone, CRM Program Manager for the Yankee Group. "In addition, clients benefit from greater satisfaction in both the buying process and order management phases, leading to reduced customer churn."

Reference Source:

1. "Top Ten Management Failings in Sales Technology Rollouts" - Gartner Research Note, 3 November 2000


GeoNetworker - the quest for enterprise skilled talent, using expertise networks.

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Four stages of telecom sales proficiency (chart)

The Four Stages of Technology Sales Proficiency

As salespeople become more proficient, they increase carrier profit attainment through lower service order error rates, improved sales close rates, and increased product up-selling and cross-selling opportunities. Additionally, salespeople who are able to move beyond "selling what they know" can help service providers maximize top-line revenues through the sale of enhanced products, managed service bundles, and other high-margin solutions.

Besides, customers really crave consultative salespeople who truly invest the time and energy to understand their product applications, and the customer's business. However, in order to attain the coveted world-class consultative selling status, salespeople must typically evolve through four incremental stages of skills development.

Stage One: Transaction Oriented

Order Taking -- Sales skills characterized by cold-calling prospects for leads, and often combined with minimal lead qualification expertise.

While most service providers would like to say that this group represents the smallest portion of their enterprise sales force, they will reluctantly admit that too many of their tenured salespeople always revert back to transaction-oriented selling practices. Salespeople often become stuck in this stage through the absence of a desire for progression, or a lack of basic selling skills. Since avoidable sales order errors are reportedly as high as 50% of all orders generated in this category, these front-line workers can cost their employers dearly by exhibiting the lowest levels of employee productivity.

Stage Two: Product Oriented

Feature Benefit Selling -- Sales skills characterized by basic understanding of a carrier's core technology or partial product features and attributes, with perhaps some level of understanding of a competitor's offerings.

The salespeople who fit into this category are often viewed as being productive until a closer assessment is made of their typical sales calls. These salespeople sell what they know, often forgoing higher-margin, and more complex solutions for simpler, lower-margin products. If they are unsure about a product's technology or features, they will ask other account team members to join them on a sales call. This common selling technique, often called entourage selling, can be costly for carriers as valued subject matter experts are squandered in simple selling situations rather than in the intended complex sales situations where they are needed most.

Stage Three: Application Oriented

Solution Selling -- Sales skills characterized by a broader understanding of all products and services, complemented with an awareness of customer premise equipment operation and associated use or benefit of the combined offerings.

Salespeople who have gravitated to this level of expertise are at a point where they're clearly starting to provide a valued service to their customers by understanding the fundamentals of their application environment. Moreover, experienced salespeople are better able to convincingly sell complex value propositions to their most informed technically oriented customers, and can develop some semblance of an account development strategy that other account team members can understand and follow.

Stage Four: Business Oriented

Consultative Selling -- Sales skills characterized by a comprehensive value-added knowledgebase that incorporates a carrier's full product portfolio, strategic partner offerings, competitor's offerings, customer application environments and a functional understanding and awareness of the customer's core business processes.

This stage is essentially the pinnacle of professional sales excellence. Core and extended sales team members are appropriately positioned and actively involved in the substantive relationship building and proactive account selling or servicing throughout a customer's entire organization. And yet, it's estimated that less than 20% of any established carrier's sales force is routinely selling at this level of expertise.

Even in best-case scenarios, it typically takes a novice salesperson a minimum of three years of intense training and interactive one-to-one coaching from a skilled sales manager to reach this level of functional selling competency. However, this investment in time and attention returns a significant dividend, as business-oriented salespeople are proven to repeatedly deliver the lion's share of a carrier's high-growth revenues and high-margin multi-product deals.

Furthermore, while it's true that there are instances where customers will appreciate something less than a business-oriented salesperson (i.e. a customer who already knows exactly what they need, and the specific product configuration, might actually prefer a transaction-oriented procurement experience), it's also apparent that carriers will sometimes suffer very negative consequences when their salespeople aren't capable of being multifaceted. In fact, given a choice, most customers would prefer the web-based self-serve procurement of a commodity service to the implied added cost of a minimally skilled or otherwise uninformed order-taking salesperson.

Put simply, the ultimate goal of reaching world-class selling mastery is to establish an evolved symbiotic business relationship with a customer that weaves the carrier's direct and/or indirect sales team members into the inner operational fabric of the target enterprise. In summary, this intuitive customer-centric business development perspective is proven to be the heart and soul of a meaningful and sustainable customer retention strategy.

Industry leading carriers that have evolved beyond merely selling core network technologies have done so by also embracing the concept of field marketing, and thereby extended their previously centralized product marketing expertise out closer to their customer's operational business centers. This incremental step is key to the development of complex strategic account plans, and the nurturing of influential C-level business relationships.

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About the Author:

David H. Deans is the founder of GeoActive Group.  David conceived the telecom 'Sales Effectiveness' SaaS software category and wrote the product requirements for the PowerSeller prototype, while at WhisperWire (acquired by Convergys).  PowerSeller received '2002 Product of the Year' awards from two major technology trade media publications.