magazine | June 3, 2016
8 Disciplines of Sales Execution
Do you ever wonder how some companies beat their number year after year? Anybody can hit their growth number once. Delivering sustainable revenue growth, at scale, requires disciplined sales execution.
Execution is a popular buzzword. Turn on any postgame sports interview and the losing coach will likely lament poor execution by his team. Take football. The head coach often states his team didn’t execute on the key plays required to win the game. You rarely hear this from coaches who’ve won multiple championships. They are maniacal about every facet of execution, down to seemingly mundane fundamentals. This is why they win over and over again.
The same is true in B2B sales. Missed the number this quarter? It likely had something to do with poor execution by members of the team. Sales didn’t bring the big deal across the line before the quarter ended. They had everything they needed to succeed: the right tools, processes, products, etc. In the end, they still didn’t get the job done. Top B2B sales leaders rarely let this happen. Many of them make their number well before the final day of the quarter. They’re looking two to three quarters out to see what’s coming—and figuring out how to adjust their resources to make sure they meet or exceed their number.
Strategy focuses on doing the right things; tactics focus on doing things right. They are highly interrelated, especially when it comes to sales execution. Many companies have deployed brilliant strategies and still missed their number. This is due to poor execution. Companies who fall into this category will likely survive, but will find growth difficult. Counter this with having the wrong strategy. When companies deploy ineffective strategies, they die. Their ability to execute simply determines how quickly they will die.
The alignment between strategy and tactics creates sustainable growth year after year. The execution of those tactics is where the magic happens. It’s one thing to have a great playbook. It’s another to actually be able to run the plays effectively. This is the essence of execution.
SBI research finds companies that successfully execute both strategy and tactics have a four times better chance of making their growth objective compared to companies that don’t. If you’re wondering whether the juice is worth the squeeze, the answer is a definitive yes.
In top sales organizations, every member of the team knows at the end of each week whether it was a good one or not. They’ve done this by removing ad hoc productivity killers. They don’t spend time on random report requests, meaningless conference calls, or endless emails. In their place are the eight disciplines of sales execution.
How well aligned are your objectives? Your company’s sales goals likely look something like this: Achieve annual revenues of $500 million, which is 15 percent growth from last year. These are clear objectives, but they are only the beginning.
The hierarchy of objectives drives alignment down through the organization, all the way to the field. For example, let’s say you are launching a new product in the first quarter of the year, and it needs to generate 15 percent of this year’s bookings goal. Some ways to test alignment of objectives cover the following area:
Every person associated with the goal should be individually measured on their contribution to success. This is cross-functional by design, not just focused on sales. Tying individuals to the goal across functions is the first step in driving execution through strategic alignment. It signals to the individuals throughout the organization that “this is important and part of our success depends on me.”
The best organizations use a stoplight report to measure progress against their objectives. This is a simple and highly valuable part of execution. The stoplight report measures the KPIs each functional group requires to meet the objectives. To keep this simple, each functional area should have no more than five KPIs tied to each major objective. These are the key integration points between functional groups that will drive alignment and execution. The term stoplight is a simple way to measure how you are doing against those KPIs:
Unlike many New Year’s resolutions, these objectives are not meant to be stuffed in a sock drawer and forgotten. Progress reports should be updated and reviewed by the key leaders every month. This allows for agile decision-making on the strategy versus waiting for the quarter to end.
Now for the hard part. In many sales organizations, setting and measuring objectives is common practice. But aligning and measuring objectives at the individual level may be a new discipline to improve results. This gets done through various activities across the organization. Execution is about focus and attention daily, not just quarterly or annually. When it comes to how the best companies execute, four activities are a key differentiator: daily huddles, weekly meetings, monthly alignment sessions, and quarterly business reviews.
These are 15- to 20-minute meetings between managers and direct reports to discuss what activities will be performed that day. If the proposed activities do not support the KPIs, don’t do them. This step ensures individuals focus on doing the right things every day.
The daily huddle is markedly different from the typical weekly team meeting, during which a manager does a lot of talking while the team tunes out. The huddle requires the participants to come prepared with their action plan for the day. The leader’s role is to listen to the action, and agree with or redirect the team member to focus on different activities to meet the objectives.
This step is incredibly powerful because it puts daily focus on executing the right things. When done properly, the possibility of being surprised by people spending days, weeks, or months on the wrong activities is eliminated. In its place is real-time decision-making to support business objectives.
During the daily huddles, obstacles will arise that are preventing the team from accomplishing its objectives. However, the huddle is not the forum to focus on one-off issues or to spend time problem-solving larger issues.
The weekly meeting is used to address recurring themes that come up during the week. This is a longer meeting (usually 60 minutes) that allows the leader to name the issues and decide on solutions with the team.
An example might be a team of inside sales reps having trouble getting access to a new buyer persona. On the weekly call, it’s determined that a persona enablement session and a few email templates from product marketing will help them improve results. The manager takes the action and schedules the enablement session for the following week.
This is an example of an actionable meeting that can easily replace an existing unproductive one. At one hour in length, the return on investment for the time spent can have a huge impact. Additionally, the level of engagement from team members goes through the roof. They are actively surfacing challenges in their daily work that are getting addressed and removed by their manager to help them hit their goals.
The monthly alignment sessions are two- to three-hour meetings in which leadership reviews and takes action on the results of the critical KPIs. This is where the stoplight report comes in. The agenda for the monthly alignment meeting covers the following ground:
To use the stoplight report in this session, start with the red areas. These are underperforming KPIs that put you at risk of missing the number. Understand what is causing the problem and assign ownership to take action immediately.
An example might be that marketing has delivered only 50 percent of the leads required for the quarter with a month left. A shortage of leads means sales won’t have enough opportunities to hit the bookings goal next quarter. The marketing leader should arrive at the alignment session with the cause of the shortage and a proposed solution. The team should collectively agree on the solution and decide who will help ensure it solves the problem.
Next, focus on the yellow items. These are cautionary results that may or may not require action. The group should determine if action is required this month or not. If so, follow the same ownership and action process you did for the red KPIs. If no action is being taken, keep your eye on these to see if they improve or decline.
For the green KPIs, congratulations are in order. You’re meeting or exceeding the goal. In this case, make sure the team members celebrate hitting the metric. The tendency in average-performing sales teams is to focus on the bad news. Winning is contagious. The best sales organizations embrace the opportunity to congratulate the people responsible for beating their goals.
This should cover action items and progress from the prior call, as well as determining new actions to be taken in the coming month.
The quarterly business review is a two- to three-day offsite to assess how you’re executing against your strategy. If things are not working, leadership will make decisions about how they will reallocate people, time, and money to improve results. This may mean stopping or starting new projects in support of the overall objectives.
Let’s say at beginning of the year, a strategic assumption was made that marketing, partners, and sales would each contribute one-third of the sales pipeline for the year. Through the first two quarters of the year, marketing and partners are each generating 45 percent, while sales is generating 10 percent. In this case, the decisionmaking focuses on whether sales should invest more of its resources (people, time, money) catching up, or whether the marketing and partner organizations should get even more resources to improve their results further.
If key leadership is not in the room with the right information, strategic decisions don’t get made. Organizations operate in silos instead of collectively determining what changes will improve results. The quarterly business review provides an effective forum to execute on strategic business issues.
The disciplined cadence of daily huddles, weekly meetings, monthly alignment sessions, and quarterly business reviews may seem like a lot to tackle. However, many of these meetings should replace time wasters including unproductive updates and ad hoc reporting requests. This is about becoming great, not just good. It requires a time investment from everyone in the organization to do the right things.
To be the best requires balancing both short-term and longterm execution. Whereas the first six disciplines focus on in-year execution, the final two require looking ahead.
Some companies refer to the annual planning process as annual operations planning. This should start in Q3 of your fiscal year. Leading organizations assess their strategies using market research. The goal is to understand changing dynamics in the market, in the industry, and with buyers. This work helps uncover emerging trends and best practices in the marketplace, and documents the functional strategies that define how the organization will address these changes. For sales, this research informs many decisions along the following lines:
The other functional groups will also develop their strategies during this process. Once complete, the functional leaders get together to review and determine the key integration points. These integration points become the KPIs that start the hierarchy of objectives and stoplight reports for next year. Without this alignment, the functional teams will operate in silos. Execute on this step and you have an aligned plan to optimize your investments and make your number.
The final execution discipline is called the multiyear strategic planning process. Many companies have a threeyear rolling strategy, which they update every 12 months. This is similar to the annual planning process, but it looks beyond just next year. For example, if your product road map goes out three years, you should be accounting for this. The sales leader should be part of this process and incorporate it into the sales strategy.
Let’s say your CEO decides he wants to expand into new vertical or geographic markets in the next two years. Key decisions need to be made on how to enter those markets. Three common ways to penetrate new markets are:
As it relates to sales execution, it’s often outside the scope of a sales leader’s strategy to decide whether or not to build, buy, or partner. The CEO usually determines this. However, if the strategy is to build, sales leaders need to know this in advance so they can groom the necessary talent in time to meet the objectives. If the decision is to buy, the integration of two sales organizations needs to get reflected in the multiyear strategic planning process. Lastly, a partnership will require the sales leader to account for things such as partner recruitment and enablement, rules of engagement, and compensation parameters.
With a multiyear planning process, top organizations don’t get caught flat footed when decisions like this take place. Looking into the future allows for the appropriate planning and increases the odds of consistently making the number.
The order in which the eight disciplines of sales execution are applied is critical. For example, if the hierarchy of objectives is correct, the stoplight reports will focus on the right KPIs. Using the right KPIs means the daily huddles and weekly meetings will reinforce the correct behaviors. This helps ensure the monthly alignment sessions and quarterly business reviews are spent optimizing versus dealing with fire drills. When it comes to annual and multiyear planning, the internal information available to make strategic decisions will be accurate and increase the chances the strategic decisions that get made will ensure the revenue objectives are met.
Attaining strategic alignment and consistently hitting your revenue objectives is not for the faint of heart. SBI research findings indicate that only 9 percent of companies are in strategic alignment. That leaves more than 9 out of 10 companies in their wake.
If you’re serious about scalable, multiyear growth, these eight disciplines of sales execution are for you. This is how the best companies in the world are hitting their revenue goals year after year. They do it through daily, weekly, and monthly execution that’s focused on alignment to their long-term strategic objectives. Are you up for it?
© 2017 Sales Benchmark Index (SBI)
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© 2018 Sales Benchmark Index (SBI), B.V.
A Business Strategy Consulting Company
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Amsterdam, The Netherlands