When a West Coast shipping company sought to up its game in sales prospecting, a consultant advised its executives to stop relying on cold-calling and email blasts and instead, try social selling, one of the best tools in the modern sales prospector’s toolkit.


“At first, there was a lot of skepticism because social media was perceived to be something that ‘kids play with’ as opposed to grown adults,” recalls Greg Alexander, CEO of SBI, which helped the company implement its social selling strategy. “But they got behind it and rolled it out, and it’s taken on a life of its own, and they’ve had great success.”


Modern prospecting techniques can make a big difference in whether your sales teams hear those critical words from potential customers: “I’m interested. When can we meet?” To get started, you’ll need a prospecting playbook, a how-to guide for executing the three main principles of modern prospecting: social selling, referral generation, and offline prospecting, says SBI Partner Matt Sharrers.


“The playbook is about enabling the sales force to execute social selling and do it at scale,” Sharrers explains. “So, inside the playbook, it’s one thing to create the design process; it’s another thing to actually have it trained and coached.”


Training teaches clients how to use the process; coaching takes them from beginner to expert. “What the playbook does is embed all that information into a tablet, like an iPad, and allow people to reference it when they’re in a sales call.”


Sounds good, but too often, companies skip this preparation tool, as a typical SBI case study reflects:


The client: A $485 million provider of enterprise information management software and services.


The problem: Only 28% of the company’s sales team members were reaching their quota.


The initial diagnosis: Quotas, surprisingly, were set correctly. Instead, the source of the client’s poor quota attainment was a pipeline-to-quota ratio of 7 to 1. That meant that even if sales team members closed 100% of their deals, which no sales team does, they would still miss their goal by 30%. “The pipeline,” Sharrers says of this client, “was clogged with the wrong types of accounts”—meaning customers unlikely to buy the product or unable to spend the volume that the client’s sales team needed.


The sales reps’ prospecting methods — cold calling and batch emailing — were clearly ineffective. So SBI’s strategy was to design and implement a custom-prospecting process that included:


  • A prospecting methodology—a step-by-step process a sales representative can follow to generate interest with a decision-maker inside a tar- geted account.
  • Prospecting courseware—use of the university system of 101/201/301, where sales team members are certified in prospecting methodology at increasingly challenging levels.
  • Adoption plan—use of gamification techniques involving leader boards and prizes, to reward top performers and generate peer pressure to drive execution.


The results: The average number of sales appointments per representative rose from 6 to 11. Given the client company’s 200 representatives, this increase amounted to 1,000 more sales appointments per week, or 50,000 per year.


After you’ve created your playbook, you’ll need to categorize your sales team member by performance: superstars, perennial underperformers, who should be eliminated if possible, and inconsistent contributors, whose performance you can improve. Zero in on how this latter group can prioritize prospects, using the techniques of market segmentation, account segmentation, and buyer segmentation. Put things into categories, this technique advises: Which accounts will generate the most revenue in the shortest time? How do buyers in this group make purchase decisions?


“It’s not enough to say ‘I sell to the CFO,’ ‘I sell to the CIO,’” Sharrers says. “What you want to know is, what puts them into the market for your product or service? What are the questions they ask themselves as they move along their buyers’ journey?”


Another important focus is leadership—because having the right person at the top of your sales operation makes all the difference. Choose someone who understands territory design and how to choose the exact right “A+” salesperson for, say, a high-potential target. After you’ve accomplished segmentation, important next steps include channeling, which is knowing how your buyers consume content and spending time in those channels; messaging, which is knowing what market problems your buyers are trying to solve, then customizing your prospecting message around the products, services and solutions you offer to solve those problems.


Once salespeople have their lists of prospects, you can incorporate social selling. “Social Selling means using social media to gain intros to buyers, usually via referrals. Referrals work,” advises SBI’s recently published The Power of Social Selling ebook. The predominant social media platform to consider: LinkedIn.


The reason is that 84 percent of B2B decision-makers start their hunt using referrals. Yet, the appoint- ment rate for the traditional route, cold-calling, is a mere 1% to 3% , while email-opening rates are hardly much better, at 4.4 percent, according to the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals.


Still, many decision-makers hesitate about jumping into social media. They worry that LinkedIn is just for job hunters to post résumés, or that their particular buyers aren’t on LinkedIn. Both assumptions are usually false. “Social selling is a modern prospecting methodology that can help fill the funnel with opportunities, the ebook counsels.”


Certainly some concerns about LinkedIn are legitimate—such as assurances that sales professionals can filter out useless connection requests, to be available only to ideal prospects and customers. To avoid this problem, SBI recommends using the LinkedIn Connection Request Builder. With this tool a salesperson can ask an established customer for a proper introduction to a newly identified prospect. Once that happens, the salesperson can send a customized “request to connect” that details the sales team’s relevance to the prospect, together with sample best practices the prospect can actually use.


But, first, sales teams have to get accustomed to social selling. “Less than 20 percent of companies have the skill,” Sharrers says. “Lots of people are on LinkedIn and consider themselves as using social selling because they have a profile. But putting a picture of yourself up there, redoing your bio, is not social selling. That’s about 20 percent of what you need to do.”


Rather, LinkedIn should be used to get appointments with decision-makers, Sharrers notes. “If I know 15 CEOs and I am weekly reaching out to those CEOs and expanding my network, I can see whom they know. Once I generate enough social depth, social capital with people, I earn the right to ask CEO No. 1 for an introduction to CEO No. 5. If he knows him, he’ll probably make the introduction.”


Beyond introductions, modern prospecting demands that sales professionals regularly check into and update their LinkedIn profiles—plus follow target decision-makers using Twitter.


Such are the hallmarks of social selling, which SBI recently recommended in its customized “reach program” for a sample client. Earlier, the client had set a goal of generating one new referral per representa- tive per year—or 170 new prospects. Its salespeople hoped to attain a 55 percent close rate, generating $85 million more in sales and an extra 20 percent in top-line revenue growth.


Could such goals be met? SBI’s recommended strategies leveraged social-graph analysis and content marketing to enable the client to achieve connec- tions, via a social channel, to target accounts and decision-makers. SBI also established a “referral program,” enabling the client to “earn the right” to ask for prospect referrals by working outward from first- and second-degree connections on LinkedIn.


In the end, the client company attained 30% of its goal. Sounds modest, but in fact that result was pretty spectacular: The company’s 51 new opportunities, half of which were closed, generated $24 million in new revenue and 5 percent of revenue growth for the client’s top line—far outweighing costs for the program, of just under $2 million.


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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.


Matt Sharrers

Leads the firm's focus on the CEO’s role in accelerating revenue growth by embracing emerging best practices to grow revenue faster than the industry and competitors. 

Matt Sharrers is the CEO of SBI, a management consulting firm specialized in sales and marketing that is dedicated to helping you Make Your Number. Forbes recognizes SBI as one of The Best Management Consulting Firms in 2017.


Over the course of nearly a decade at SBI, Matt Sharrers was an instrumental early partner guiding SBI as the Senior Partner. Matt’s functional responsibilities included acting as the head of sales where he led SBI’s double-digit revenue growth, and was responsible for the hiring function to build SBI’s team of revenue generation experts.


Prior to joining SBI in 2009, Matt spent eleven years leading sales and marketing teams as a Vice President of Sales. Matt has “lived in the field.” As a result, he is the foremost expert in the art of separating fact from fiction as it relates to revenue growth best practices. CEOs and Private equity investors turn to Matt’s team at SBI when they need to unlock trapped growth inside of their companies.



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