Chris Hickey knew what he was getting into. In June 2012, he’d accepted a position as vice president, North American sales, for GXS, an enterprise technology company based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Hickey’s challenge was to manage about 100 people, including roughly 40 field sales reps divided into four regions. GXS was growing nicely, but the sales goals were aggressive. GXS had been with the same private equity firm for almost eight years, so focus on growth was key given there might be a change in ownership.
GXS sells managed services, establishing and operating the electronic links between its enterprise customers and their customers and vendors. The most difficult part of selling the service, says Hickey, was that “it requires the customer to outsource something they could do themselves.”
In other words, GXS wasn’t losing deals to savvier competitors; the problem was that, too often, after the sales team had been working on a prospect for months or even a year, the potential customer chose to do nothing. “If a CIO understands what we do, but isn’t willing to outsource, the opportunity usually dies unless there is pressure from other parts of the organization,” he explains. GXS often couldn’t generate that pressure, and Hickey believed there was something about the customers’ decision making process that they didn’t fully understand.
Hickey had worked with SBI previously, and turned to them again. SBI, he thought, could help the GXS sales team better understand its buyers and the buying process. They’d be able to diagnose which parts of GXS’s sales process were working, and help fix the parts that weren’t.
The first meetings with SBI included only Hickey, his boss (the global head of sales) and two colleagues in sales enablement/operations. Once the basic issues were established, about 10 other people from sales joined the team. Together, the group talked through the sales cycle and the obstacles encountered when meeting with prospects. It originally started as a process to look at the existing sales methodology, but SBI suggested a more detailed focus on the buyer and their decision process.
Then SBI went into the field. They interviewed customers who could provide a useful perspective on GXS. They went on ride-alongs with some of the more seasoned sales people to better understand their actions and goals as well as how they were received by the buyer. “Maybe the sales person thinks they’re hitting a home run but parts of the message are falling flat,” says Hickey. “Are we delivering to the wrong person? At the wrong time? Was it just not a compelling message?” Even the best reps had room for improvement, especially when it came to a key question: Were the reps trying to reach people outside of the CIO’s office?
The GXS sales team generally called on big company CIOs. If the CIO’s reaction was lukewarm, the reps had a hard time pushing ahead. By and large, they weren’t looking for another supporter within the company or another business issue to address. Instead, they were sticking with the CIO, or worse, waiting for a new CIO.
Hickey didn’t think his reps were lazy. He just didn’t think they were comfortable talking to the head of supply chain or the CFO about how GXS could help them. In these cases, the sales team didn’t speak their prospect’s language, and they didn’t understand the priorities and pain points. “We were asking the team members to put themselves in an uncomfortable position,” says Hickey.
The priorities of people outside the CIO’s office, such as the head of supply chain, were very different. “Say a company is trying to digitally enable more suppliers or customers. They need to be able to support that infrastructure. If they can’t do it internally, it could limit their growth or revenues, or the required support could add to their costs,” says Hickey. “If I’m the head of supply chain, that’s what I’m thinking about.”
CFOs could be important allies too. GXS manages many digital transactions for its clients, and often there are cash positions associated with those transactions. “Those transactions might not be moving through, or they might not be moving through efficiently, or the CFO might not have great visibility into them,” says Hickey. That conversation wasn’t taking place either.
To help facilitate these discussions, SBI decided to create a set of buyer personas representing everyone who was likely to be weighing in on the buying decision. The personas would include the business and professional goals, and concerns, of each role. SBI would also map how involved and influential each persona was at each stage of the buying process.
The goal was to complete the personas within six months, in time for GXS’s annual sales meeting. In retrospect, Hickey says, that tight time frame was a mistake. Also, training took place over two days, but it should have been extended to at least a week. A wider variety of personas would also have helped, but the schedule didn’t allow for that. “I would caution people about that. Make sure it’s ready, make sure it’s right,” says Hickey. “This needed to be a two year process, not six to nine months. That would have allowed us to get it into the overall DNA of our company, not just sales.”
The personas were completed and unveiled on time, to a generally positive reception. But as with any new program, there were skeptics. Hickey’s pitch to them: “All we’re trying to do is allow you to talk to more people in an organization than you might comfortably be talking to now. The hope is that you might be able to find out more about where there is pain and therefore an opportunity. Then you can rally support to make sure this is something that has to be done.” He emphasized that there was nothing shocking or surprising in the findings. This was blocking and tackling.
In February of 2014, GXS was officially acquired by OpenText, an enterprise information software company based in Waterloo, Ontario. The ownership change made it harder to keep the team’s focus on sales process improvements. It also meant that Hickey wasn’t able to track the program’s results as closely as he’d intended. “This stuff unfortunately didn’t get the attention it deserved as we figured out our new organization,” he says. But he does have a pretty good sense of how the project performed against the initial goals. OpenText also values the overall solution selling model geared around a buyers journey and decision process, which also reinforces the work previously done by GXS.
To start, GXS wanted to close a higher percentage of the deals that were already in its pipeline when SBI came on board. The goal was to increase the win rate by five to seven percentage points. Hickey says GXS was successful in this.
GXS also wanted to make sure the sales team was actually using the tools SBI developed. In the first three months, about 60 to 75 percent of the sales force was using them, says Hickey.
The later stage goals were more challenging. First was the all important win rate, which Hickey wanted to improve by six percentage points within a year. This was the win rate for all deals, not just those that were already underway when SBI began working with GXS. Hickey says the win rate has increased, but he can’t say for sure that it’s six percentage points better. He does know that GXS is now better able to qualify opportunities, and that internal conversations about a prospect’s willingness to take action “absolutely improved.”
Hickey set conservative goals for boosting GXS’s average deal size, aiming for a five percent increase. “That did happen,” he says. “We were able to get other business peers involved in the sales cycle, and they were able to more clearly value what the service was adding. It wasn’t just the CIO making the decision.”
There were other objectives, too: Shortening the sales cycle; increasing sales productivity; achieving more balanced performance among the team, and reducing the time to the first sale for new hires. While Hickey says more of his team is now making their quotas and new hires seem to get up to speed faster, he doesn’t have the data he needs to know for sure. Now that the dust from that acquisition has settled, he intends to revisit the project because, he says, “it’s that important.”
“Additionally, my goal is to leverage the work we did across marketing, product strategy and other internal groups who can utilize these personas and tools to better message to our clients and prospects.”
Leading the Sales Team As CEO
This month, our cover story profiles Jack Lynch, the CEO of Renaissance Learning, the educational analytics company that counts Google Inc. among its investors and was acquired last year by private equity firm Hellman & Friedman for $1.1 billion. You’ll get a close-up look at how Lynch has worked to transform Renaissance’s sales operation and improve market penetration.