Public Sector Selling – Part 2 |Winning

Winning RFPs with Teamwork

In the second post on Public Sector Sales, Oren and I continue our conversation, discussing his amazing record on blind RFPs and the shift in perspective that has made all the difference in his approach to selling software.

Prospecting is a little different in the public sector because the opportunities are public and you effectively decide which ones are the best fit for your product and company. It shifts the focus from cold-calling to winning deals. As we all know winning RFPs is no easy thing. So how does Oren win blind RFPs? “When you find an RFP it is sometimes biased towards the incumbent. It sounds like a simple concept—just get ahead of the competition and influence the RFP. The problem is that you could spend three years working with the customer to shape the RFP before it comes out (if it ever does), but I’d rather spend my time winning the business rather than getting into the account.”

I like the public sector, there’s so much oversight in the buying process. Even if you have a vendor mucking around, there’s only a limited amount of influence a vendor can have over a deal.

He continues, “I like the public sector, there’s so much oversight in the buying process. Even if you have a vendor mucking around, there’s only a limited amount of influence a vendor can have over a deal. The real challenge is to standout. In an RFP where 10-15 proposals are submitted, you must personalize your communications and overload it with value to overcome what other vendors are trying to do to upset the deal. I work the deal.”

“You have to personalize and tailor every piece of communication that goes out to the customer. You have to add value to every element of communication. Sharing an article on LinkedIn is not adding value. You have to tell the customer they’re wrong when they are. You need to show the customer a different way of doing things. Tell them about what they should’ve asked. Talk to them about risk. Show them ‘you get them’, and show them ‘the future state’. That’s how you add value,” he says.

“RFP deals are commoditized—most people could care less who the vendor is. Pundits will tell you to walk away from an RFP that you didn’t help the customer write. But, the reality is I’m seeing very little vendor bias in blind RFPs, and in fact, I’m winning blind RFPs all the time,” he says. Oren’s approach definitely turns conventional wisdom on RFPs on its head.

My win rate on blind RFPs is closer to 30% and the best part is the deals are coming to me!

He continues, “when I talk to the people in procurement, and I ask them if they talked to a vendor before putting out an RFP, they usually say ‘no.’ In fact, they usually say ‘we just put it out.’ They don’t have time to talk to people. Most companies walk away from the public sector and RFPs because the close rate is so bad. Sure, if you have a bad process you are looking at a 5% win probability. My win rate on blind RFPs is closer to 30% and the best part is the deals are coming to me!”

So how does Oren win one out of every three RFPs he responds to? “The way to win deals is to take everything you know about the customer and work it into the RFP, but you also need to add a lot more info than what they’ve asked for in the RFP. The customer won’t know to ask about everything, so you need to guide them to your way of thinking. I add a section called: ‘Here’s What You Need to Know’, and it covers off what they didn’t ask but really should have. It all goes back to communication. Being a good listener is critical but you need to apply what you have heard in your RFP response.”

He continues, “For a recent RFP submission we created a section called ‘Your Success Criteria’. In it, we showed the customer what they are currently doing, and showed them a vision of where they could be. The customer didn’t ask for this, so we had to make it up, but the information we included was based on our company’s experience with similar customers. We had the confidence to say, ‘you’re trying to do this and you’re struggling because of this, this and that,’ and everything tied back to strong product proof points.”

I’m in the replacement business—my prospects already have a product in place—just not mine!

When responding to RFPs you have to put your thinking cap on and find a way to differentiate yourself from your competitor’s product. Oren says, “you have to stand out. You have to deliver something they didn’t ask for. You have to play to your strengths. You need to shape the conversation. Ask yourself, ‘how I can bring insight to the customer?’ When I write an RFP response I’m imaging the purchasing committee nodding their heads when they read my proposal. Even if the customer disagrees, if they nod then they’ll remember me.”

Oren discovered a truth that I believe applies to any type of selling, and like most truths, it’s brilliantly simple. So what is it? He explains, “I’m in the replacement business—my prospects already have a product in place—just not mine! When I realized this it was transformational. There are very few instances where what you’re selling to someone is a new product that addresses a previously unknown challenge. Nine times out of ten the customer already has something that solves the problem. My job as a sales rep is to convince customers that it’s worth replacing their current tool with mine.”

He continues, “that’s a major hassle for any organization. In order for me to win a new customer, that customer has to stop using my competitor’s product. To overcome replacement inertia I need to be able to stand out; I have to connect. I’m always thinking, ‘what can I say that will make them remember me?’ Ten other people are going to come in and try to win the deal but how will they stand out enough for the customer to start thinking about a new possibility? People tend to ignore that.

When startups try to hire sales superstars they need to think about what makes that person a superstar.

“Startups think they’re going to win customers by their ‘innovation’ but from the buyer’s perspective, it’s an incremental gain, because of the costs of switching to a new solution, and the risk involved in switching. In the public sector, it’s painful to make a change. You see startups advertising for sales reps with skills in finding or developing new markets, or introducing new products to the market etc., but the reality is that their product isn’t new in the way they think it is. It may be better but it’s not necessarily new. You deploy a different strategy when you realize you’re in the replacement business.”

“Being so focused on innovation and product, startups don’t do well in my environment, because they are too focused on the deal, and they’re blindsided by the post-deal stuff that more established companies bring to the table to make that transition more pleasant and much less risky: account management, support structures, customer success, etc. This something that is very hard to do when you’re a cash-strapped startup or are focused on rapid growth. From a buyer’s perspective, you may have a great looking solution, but if you don’t have customer service, account management, and established risk mitigation processes, why would I bet my career on your company?”

When it comes to startups, a lot of founders will rely on their advisors and network to find a superstar sales rep. Oren asks a good question that every founder should think about. “When startups try to hire sales superstars they need to think about what makes that person a superstar. Are they an A-Type personality or are they successful because they’re great communicators?”

I use the Challenger sales methodology. Once you get it, it revolutionizes your thought process.

Challenger Sales ModelOren offers some advice that could benefit startup sales teams and it’s again quite simple. Be confident in how you handle the customer. It requires great communication skills. “I use the Challenger sales methodology. Once you get it, it revolutionizes your thought process.” He recalls a recent customer interaction that demonstrates how the model can work to your advantage.

“A prospect we’re working on an RFP with reached out with a request for us to present a deep-dive product demo. They gave us three hours to do the demo and answer questions. When I reviewed the two-page request of use cases to demo I quickly realized that there was no way we could get through all the use cases in just three hours. We would run out of time.”

He continues, “So now I have a problem. The customer is asking for something, but they’re not giving me enough time. If I just show up and do what the customer wants we would fail. We’d have to skip over things but what if the one thing we end up not showing them is the thing they really wanted to see? I told the customer that they didn’t allocate enough time for our demo and offered a solution: either we spend two days to conduct a deep-dive demo (at no cost to them) or we have to edit the list of requests.”

Think about the messaging you get from most sales experts. You get lots of advice on the mechanics of the sales process, but you what you rarely get is training in the skills you need as an individual in order to follow through on those strategies.

What Oren did next is a perfect application of the Challenge model, “I reached out to one of our customers who had requested a similar deep-dive demo in the past, and with their permission sent our prospect their contact info. The idea is to have one customer educate the other about the best way to buy. The result? Our prospect is now reworking the agenda for us to give us the time to address all their requirements.“

Oren could have said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the customer, but instead he took the opportunity to teach his customer something new (that the request was impossible to achieve given their experience); added value to the process by offering to do a two-day workshop at no cost, and he injected a reference into the process. He took control of the conversation and guided the customer to a mutually beneficial outcome.

He concludes, “I happen to know that our prospect sent the original demo invite out to four other vendors. If the other folks didn’t push back then they’re going to fail. This is an example of communications skills that can be taught, but it’s completely ignored in most sales organizations. Think about the messaging you get from most sales experts. You get lots of advice on the mechanics of the sales process, but you what you rarely get is training in the skills you need as an individual in order to follow through on those strategies.”

There’s a lot to unpack in Oren’s take on selling to the public sector. His understanding that you need to stand out in your customer’s mind is key, as is his point about easing a prospect’s solution replacement anxiety. Working together as a team and great inter-team and vendor-customer communication is also an important point that sometimes gets missed in the hustle to get a deal done.

Let me know what you think about this post. Did you find it interesting? Did it make you reconsider RFPs? I’m interested to hear about your public sector sales experience.





Selling to the Public Sector – Part 1

Winning RFPs in the Public Sector Requires Teamwork

I enjoy a good story as much as the next person, and people that work in sales generally have a lot of interesting stories to tell, perhaps only rivaled by sports-fishing tales about the one that got away.

Asking salespeople to talk about their process is a fascinating way to spend an hour or three. That may come as a surprise, especially if you haven’t had the opportunity to speak with a sales professional outside of a sales transaction.

In this post, I delve into public sector sales with my guest and former Hootsuite colleague Oren Friedman. Oren is a Public Sector Sales Leader at SumTotal, a Skillsoft Company. I first met Oren at Hootsuite. Not long after joining the startup I became a member of Hootsuite’s partner team. I quickly discovered Oren’s wicked sense of humour and sharp mind, and we quickly hit it off. We’ve both since gone on to new challenges, but we’ve been scheming ever since about ways that we can work together again.

I’ve lived through and survived the Dotcom bust, and the 2008 mini-bust as a sales guy. I think I get it.

Trained as a lawyer, Oren has been a sales rep since the late 90s. “I’ve lived through and survived the Dotcom bust and the 2008 mini-bust as a sales guy. I think I get it. If you’re a small company, I’ve been there. If you’re a Vancouver mid-size company of 100 people, I’ve been there. If you work for a large company, I’ve been there. I’ve worked for large stratified companies like TELUS and SAP and where I work now there are 2,500 people,” he says.

Oren currently sells to public sector customers, with a focus on education at the State and local government level, selling SaaS solutions valued from $100K into the millions. “I’m in field sales or outside sales. That’s a critical distinction,” says Oren. He continues: ”a lot of startups only do inside sales—the entire sales process: prospecting, demos, contracting—is done over the phone. In my case, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t think you can sell any product in the public sector that way. I need to have face-to-face time with the customer.”

Today, selling and buying is definitely a team effort.

For someone who’s sold for the past twenty years, Oren has seen a lot of change. “It’s tempting to talk about trends, but when I look back at my career the one thing that stands out is that as sellers we have way more information than we ever had in the past. Today we can use LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc.; and customers have much more info too. But, the biggest change that I’ve understood is that today, today, selling and buying is definitely a team effort,” he said.

He continues, “from a sellers perspective, the sales process is a team exercise. For every active deal I have at least one sales engineer/solutions architect; a contracts/legal person; I usually have value engineers involved as well that help build the business case; I have proposal writers; I have marketing; I have professional services—it’s a team. It’s my deal, but if they fail then I fail. You never see these people mentioned as part of the sales process, but they’re critical to it.”


Oren is talking about an incredibly complex sales process, with a cycle that can stretch over 12-18 months, so how does this compare to the startup? “It’s the same for startups, but it’s not seen as the same thing. If I’m selling for a startup I can’t close a big deal without a team effort. I need the CEO or founders to get involved. I need marketing on board. I need engineering on-side,” he says.

We focus on the sales person as a hero. We forget that sales reps require different skills to be successful today.

What’s interesting about his perspective is that some sales managers and company executives don’t necessarily see sales as a team effort. “We focus on the salesperson as a hero,” he says. “We forget that sales reps require different skills to be successful today. How do I get visibility to what my other team members are doing? They’re busy so how do I get them interested in helping me?”

“If you have terrible interpersonal communications skills; if you don’t have strong leadership skills; if you’re not trained in team management—guess what? You’re going to have problems,” he says. “This speaks to a fundamental issue with sales training and sales methodologies—communication skills. When you’re inside sales rep you get a script. Fine. In my business it’s useless. When I’m meeting with a customer I have to be in the moment. I have to connect and make a real connection at that point in time. I then need to relate the customer’s requirements back to my team. It requires great communication skills. Nobody is teaching communications skills.”

Communication skills is a huge gap.

Thinking about hiring practices Oren believes that, “communication skills is a huge gap. From a founders’ perspective, they read a book on how to set up a sales org; they bring in consultants to set up the methodology; and marketing pushes out the messaging; but, when the sales rep connects with the customer, it all fails if the rep can’t connect with the customer.”

He continues, “you end up with salespeople that know a product’s features but don’t necessarily know how to communicate value to the customer. They are taught what to communicate, but often times, they’re not capable of executing because they’ve not been shown how to do that. The people doing the hiring aren’t necessarily screening for communication ability.”

It used to be that having good communication skills meant being comfortable speaking in front of people, but listening is an equally important part of communication. Processing, analyzing and learning from what you’ve heard enables you to provide value to your customers.

It was in the early days of Hootsuite, when the company was still based in Vancouver’s Railtown, that Oren spoke to the sales team about his technique for using LinkedIn to build relationships with prospects and customers. His talk lasted about 20 minutes, and by the end of it, he had demonstrated how to weaponize the business-oriented social network.

1024px-LinkedIn_Logo.svgHis LinkedIn techniques weren’t magical, but by sharing his process, which is methodic and disciplined, he showed how real connections could be made with customers. Much of what he talked about that day was is what you’ll discover when reading about social selling from so-called “experts”, but he presented it without all the hype and distraction of self-promotion.

At a recent SumTotal internal sales team conference, Oren again presented a talk about his methodology for winning Public Sector deals with personalized RFPs. He’s had great success in winning RFPs, killing his quota in the process, so naturally, sales management is interested to know what the secret is to his success.

Nobody talks about the need to personalize an RFP response.

“Buyers, especially in the public sector, make all decisions by committee and those decisions are driven by consensus. It’s also similar for large enterprise. You need to influence a team of people with divergent interests. You have to have the patience to differentiate every conversation and every element of an RFP response to address the individual, personalizing it for that member of the team. If I’m speaking with a technical person or if I’m talking to a CFO I can’t have the same conversation but a lot of reps do, and they take a similar approach when writing an RFP response.”

Sales Management wants to understand why Oren is successful when other’s are struggling. He says, “If I look at my colleagues, the ones that are struggling for success, and I take out of consideration the level of effort they’re putting into their activity, it all comes down to their ability to communicate. The ones that struggle the most can’t get meetings. Or, if they do get a meeting they can’t get close to closing the deal because they can’t connect with the customer. They don’t stand out, they don’t connect emotionally with the buying team, and they don’t adapt their message. In most cases, it’s not even ‘their’ message that they’re delivering, buyers can tell when it’s not authentic.”

“Likewise, it has huge implications on how you design communication systems in a company. If your sales team doesn’t know how to communicate you’re going to lose deals.” He continues, “internal communication issues can cost you deals–especially if you need to make changes in product and your product team doesn’t understand what it is you are asking of them.”

Next week will feature Part 2 of our interview, where Oren and I discuss his amazing track record on blind RFPs and an interesting shift in perspective that changed how he sells software.

Startup Selling – Part 4 | Social Selling

Social Selling, Storytelling, CRMs and Tools

In this final post with Ethan, we continue the conversation about his approach to social selling, his take on CRMs and wraps things up with a review of some of the tools he uses to do his job.

With all the talk about social selling, it’s easy for a sales rep to get caught up in the feeling that you have to get on board or miss out on hitting your targets. However, the worst thing a sales rep can do when attempting to sell socially is to push out sales offers through Twitter or LinkedIn and call it ‘social selling’—that’s called Spam.

It’s 100% not going to work and is in fact just lazy. Take the time to think about your prospect. What makes them tick? What is going to get them excited about your product? Now find a way to build a story about your product and the solution you’re offering that your prospect will find absolutely irresistible. Next, find a way to authentically connect with your prospect. Social Selling is all about communication, and that involves both talking and listening.

Storytelling is a great tool but it’s hard for me. I have to work at it because it doesn’t come naturally.​

Ethan continues, “a lot of good storytelling comes from experience and good sales reps will find a way to adapt their experience with other customers, whether that’s objections or challenges that the product has helped the customer overcome, and make that relevant for the prospective customer. I’ve been selling software for more than ten years now so I have a good repertoire of experience that I can draw on, but it still works.”

The good news for today’s sales reps is that the number of tools at their disposable is virtually endless. Much to the chagrin of the IT department, we live in the age of Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD). As discussed earlier, this has shifted how tools and software are purchased and deployed and it’s no different for sales reps, as they determine what works best for them in their process.

My company uses Salesforce as a CRM, but I use it as infrequently as possible. It just gets in the way of my process.

There’s no doubt that Salesforce is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools. Salesforce changed the game when Marc Benioff launched his CRM as a SaaS software product in 1999. It took little time for the platform to become the default sales tool for sales teams. If you’ve sold anything in the past five or ten years then you’ve likely used Salesforce. As the platform has matured its complexity has increased exponentially. For sales managers, it’s a very powerful tool. For sales reps, it’s a nightmare.

“My company gave me a PC laptop but I use my own MacBook instead so I use iCloud Notes to keep track of my prospects, customers, and deals. Every customer gets their own note that includes a summary of their LinkedIn profile, primary contact info, contract, and procurement info. As I work an opp, I add relevant information to the Note, such as objections, POC requirements, anything tangible that will have an impact on the deal.”

Most sales managers will insist that their reps document everything in the company CRM so that the company has a record of what’s gone on in the deal and where the deal is at for forecasting purposes. Unfortunately, documenting a deal in a CRM like Salesforce can take away from the time a rep has to work opportunities. The intention of the mandate is good, but the execution exposes a flaw in CRM software design—most applications are built with reporting in mind and this is often at odds with the tools available to the rep.

Most CRMs are terrible products for tracking data. ​​Pulling basic info out of the data, such as the deal stage or the deal size isn’t that hard but that only tells you the basics.

“Most deals don’t follow a clean process. The customer changes his mind, dates get pushed, requirements change, contacts move on and new decision makers enter the picture. How do you track all of this in a CRM?”

What’s more, when a deal does eventually close and the customer relationship shifts from sales to Account Management or Customer Success, the details of the customer engagement captured in the sales process get lost in the CRM. Customers get frustrated at having to provide answers again to questions that they’ve already addressed with the sales rep.

When a deal closes, I hand over my Notes file to the Customer Success team so they know everything they need to know about the customer. When they engage the customer with a post-sale kick-off call they don’t have to ask them all the same questions over again that already came out in the sales process.

Selling SaaS is as much about offering a compelling solution as it is about instilling confidence in the customer that your product or service is going to deliver. There’s nothing as off-putting to a customer as feeling that the company they’ve just invested five or six figures with on software license is going to let them down because the sales and customer success teams don’t know how to talk to each other. The customer wants to know that they’ve been heard and the best way to build confidence and trust post-sale is to demonstrate that your company understands its customers.

Thanks to Ethan for his candour. Opening up about one’s individual process isn’t easy, but I believe the most successful reps are the ones that share. Why? Because for every opportunity for a rep to shares his or her experience there will be ten more opportunities to learn from someone else. Sharing ideas and discussing challenges builds a sales team’s capacity and resilience—and it’s something I believe every sales manager should encourage.

This concludes our session with Ethan. Next week the Startup Thinking blog examines Public Sector sales with an interview with Oren Friedman.





Startup Selling – Part 3 | Managing Pipeline

Managing Pipeline in a Shifting World

In the second Startup Selling post, we talked about pipeline and discussed the best course of action to avoid pressuring the customer as a sales rep works a deal through its various stages. But, in an ever-shifting world of startup software sales how does a sales rep manage pipeline to keep her customers and her manager happy? Ethan tells us how he approaches this challenge.

“I’m conservative with pipeline, but I’m comfortable with reporting up my numbers and standing behind the progress of those deals. My approach is to go into a quarter knowing that I’m likely to only close 2-3 deals. I look at what’s in the pipeline and what has a legitimate chance of closing. Once I’ve identified those deals I take half of the deal value and set that as my initial commit.”

So, how does this work with KPIs that sales managers rely on? Salesforce has gathered a lot of data, producing a corresponding set of metrics that many sales managers follow. Common wisdom suggests that more revenue in the pipeline results in more closed deals.

When you think about it, a rep can probably work a maximum of 10-15 opportunities at any one time—and a more realistic number is probably five.

“As I work through end-of-quarter I update my commit forecast as Stage 1 deals gets closer to close, or I move them out of quarter completely. Everything else gets moved out to pipeline, so it’s out of visibility in the quarter. It’s better than lowering your forecast and it works better for SaaS sales.”

Thinking more about sales metrics, another KPI that sales managers rely on is the number of touches a rep has with a prospect. The rule of thumb suggests that 10-12 touches are required to close a deal. Think about that for a moment—10-12 touches!

If we’re talking about total customer interactions that number might be reasonable, but if we’re talking about the number of touches applied to a prospect to qualify or engage them then that’s bordering on harassment. The sad reality is that many sales managers expect a prospect to get that many touches before there’s an opportunity attached to their name.

I believe the first touch should always be email. The customer doesn’t want a call out of the blue from someone they don’t know.

“I don’t even like it when my wife calls me out of the blue. I prefer it that she text me—otherwise, I think the house is on fire. Selling today requires a sales rep to be patient and wait for a response from the prospect. One thing I do that seems to work is to schedule an email that sends out at specific times in local timezones. Thinking like a customer, if they’re commuting into work why not hit them with a message on the way to work so they have time to digest it before they get in the office.”

Sales Metrics

Metric_Speed_ballonicon2.svgThis turns conventional sales wisdom on its head. Salesforce will tell you that 48% of sales reps don’t reach out a second time to prospective leads. I definitely do not recommend tossing out 50% of your leads, however thinking about how you would want to be engaged as a prospect is a good place to start developing sales management KPIs that reflect today’s busy and distracted buyer.

“Everyone today is so busy, so as a sales rep you need to understand that your sale is never going to be the highest priority for your customer. You cannot harass people with multiple calls a week or even a day to get them to close. Sales managers ask you to do this but it’s the completely wrong approach. Sales reps have better success to sit back and wait and let the customer come to you.”

You cannot force someone to buy something if they don’t want to buy it. You can try, you can call them, and email them and hit them up on Twitter or LinkedIn, but if they’re not ready to buy they’re not going to buy no matter what you do. If a customer is nervous, and not getting back to you or telling you putting off setting a close date, stop haranguing them and start thinking about the possible reasons why.

“You may not like what you’re hearing as a rep, but you need to think about the person on the other end of the relationship—the purchaser. They could be delaying a close for the simple reason that they’re nervous about making a decision because their job is potentially on the line. If a customer ever asks you why she should spend money on your product, I usually answer with the following ‘because it’s my job to make you look good and get you promoted.’”

If sales reps start thinking this way, you shift the conversation from something transactional to something personal. It’s a solid strategy to help your customer manage up. If you sincerely believe that by buying your product you will improve your customer’s chance of moving up the corporate ladder and you work to provide them with the tools to make the argument internally to their manager, and their manager’s manager, then you set yourself apart from the competition because you’re demonstrating that you care about the individual on the other end of the deal and not just the deal.

Social Selling 2

There’s a lot of noise about social selling. Like any other trend, social selling has lost its meaning as more so-called experts jump on the bandwagon, offering their personal take on how to sell with social media. It’s sadly become just another buzzword championed by sales gurus and positioned as an opportunity to get ahead of the competition. Really, what these ‘experts’ are doing is taking advantage of our collective propensity for laziness. Sales reps are always looking for an edge, and if possible an easier way to do things and social selling is often positioned as alchemists’ gold.

At the end of the day, social selling is about building relationships. Remembering that you’re dealing with human beings can be tough when it’s your job on the line, but if sales reps build relationships with people, real relationships, then their chances of success will increase exponentially. Understanding the person behind the lead starts before your first outreach.

I spend time to learn three to five things about the customer before I get on a call with them. LinkedIn is a go-to resource.

“I pay particular attention to how the customer describes themselves. Check out their role in the company, how has it evolved over time, what’s their background and alma mater? Also, make sure you visit the company website because there may be more intel there. Basically, do your homework. Try to understand what kind of person you’re interacting with before you call or email them, because it’s not hard, and it sets you apart from 95% of other sales reps.”