A to Z of Product Management

A to Z Product Management

Product management can be a complex and often misunderstood discipline in business. In reality Product Management in its broadest sense, touches every part of an organisation that sells products and services, and everyone has their part to play in the product life-cycle to ensure that customers get the best possible experience and your organisation benefits from growth and profitability.

In this A to Z I’ll be covering some key processes, tools and terminology to help you understand the world of Product Management.

A – Ansoff Matrix

Ansoff’s matrix is a useful 2 x 2 grid to help you determine your product and service strategies. Within each segment there is a differing level of risk. The four elements are:

Market penetration – This involves increasing market share within existing market segments. This can be achieved by selling more products/services to established customers or by finding new customers within existing markets.

Product development – This involves developing new products and services for existing markets. Product development involves thinking about how new products can meet customer needs more closely and outperform those of your competitors.

Market development – Finding new markets for existing products. Market research and further segmentation of markets helps to identify new groups of customers.

Diversification – Moving new products into new markets at the same time. It is the most risky strategy. The more an organisation moves away from what it has done in the past the more uncertainties are created. However, if existing activities are threatened, diversification helps to spread risk.

ansoff

B – Business Case

A key part of product management is development of compelling business cases. Without buy-in from senior management to engage resource, money and time, your product is not likely to become anything other than an idea. You need to convince decision makers in your organisation that your product has a market, that people will buy it, that you can sell it and that the return on investment will be more than if the money, time and resources were used elsewhere. Compelling business cases have the following ingredients:

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Strategic Fit
  3. Marketplace Analysis
  4. Product Description
  5. Go To Market plan
  6. Financial Analysis
  7. Operational Impacts
  8. Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies
  9. Project Plan

C – Customer Needs Analysis

Before any product is designed, developed and launched, it is crucial that you know what customer needs will be fulfilled by your product.

Understanding customer needs is not necessarily an easy task however. Unfortunately, determining the real needs of a potential customer is not as simple as asking them what they want. Many people are unable to clearly articulate their most pressing and compelling product or service requirements because determining how products could or should be improved is not forefront in their mind.

To learn what your customer really needs, you must watch them and talk with them. You must be sure you understand their concerns and overall business issues. Only by thoroughly understanding the broad environment your customer lives in on a day-to-day basis, as well as their specific and detailed issues and concerns, can you apply the creative efforts necessary to design a compelling solution that will be successful.

An approach starting to become more widespread in industry is to conduct in-depth customer research throughout product development and to treat potential customers as participants in the new product development process.

D – Definition Document

In order to develop the right product, everyone involved has to know what you’re developing.  The initial document that spells this out, or is at least supposed to, is a Proposition Definition document, or one with a similar name.  The intent of such a document is to define the features and functions of the product to be built.  At the early stage of a project, this is generally a fairly high-level definition, specifying in fairly broad terms what the product is and does, the types of customers that will use it and potential market size.  Its intent is to provide sufficient information for the requirements to be taken to the next level of specification.  When not done at all, a project will proceed with no real sense of direction.  When done poorly (which happens all too often), it gives only a vague sense of definition and/or direction, leaving what the product really is open to individual interpretation, which is dangerous when working in larger multifunctional teams.  When done reasonably, this document gives a clear definition to all of what the product is.  When done really well, it not only defines what the product is, but also what it isn’t.  By defining what a product isn’t as well as what it is, it prevents people from heading off-track in directions that were not intended.  All efforts should be made to provide a really excellent product definition document, clearly defining what the product is, and what the product is not.

This proposition definition document sets the foundation upon which the product will be based.  A firm foundation provides a stable platform to build upon; a flimsy foundation leads to a platform that can later collapse.  All key departments – Marketing, Product Management, Sales, engineering (including development, test/quality assurance, usability, performance, technical documentation, etc.), customer support, field engineering, business development, manufacturing, finance, and others should be involved to ensure their unique viewpoints are properly represented.

E – Evaluation Gates

During the product development process there should always be some evaluation gates where stakeholders are involved in evaluating progress and permission to proceed:

1. Idea screening

2. Concept screening

3. Business analysis

4. Product testing

5. Analysing test market result

6. After-launch assessment (Short term)

7. After-launch assessment (Long term)

Using these evaluation gates help product developments conform to strategic intent, stay on track and realise the intended customer, operational and financial benefits.

F – Forecasting

Forecasting sales of your new product is not an exact science, but I’ve highlighted below the methodology I’ve used in my career to build up a view before submitting a business case.

  1. Determine the total size of a desired market, which is called the total addressable market
  2. Decide what portion of that market the product can penetrate, or the attainable market share
  3. Work out the number of units or the volume that the sales team can commit to sell
  4. Calculate the number of units that can be produced / delivered
  5. Determine realistic pricing for the product and how that pricing will vary over time
  6. Translate the sales and demand forecast into a realistic budget for the product

G – Governance & Getting things done!

Aside from the New Product Introduction Process (See ‘N’) which will help in stage gating new products, it is hugely important that the senior management team are behind your product development and it’s priority in the organisation. Without this backing, you will spend a huge amount of time fighting for resource, agreeing priorities and re-agreeing them, and slowing your overall project down.

All product developments should also have a senior management sponsor and ideally a project manager (or at least someone on the team with that role) and regular project board meetings to keep the development on track and to expedite any issues. Ideally your key suppliers should be represented on the board.

Your key stakeholders need to be communicated to regularly with project updates, deviations to plan and escalations in order to keep momentum and deliver your new product on time, to quality and to budget.

H – Help Sales to Help You

Sales people are a great source of feedback during all stages of the product life-cycle. They’ll give you feedback on what customers are asking for, the barriers to them selling a particular product or service and also views on how they would like to be remunerated! Building strong relationships with sales people is always a good idea, but by involving them early in a new product development will get them on board and excited about your product way before you launch it. If they’re good, they’ll start talking to customers early and start building pipeline.

A note of caution: Don’t let your sales people start selling your new product until you are very clear and confident with your launch date! Customers get very annoyed when they’ve committed to buying something and the launch is delayed 6 months or longer.

I – Innovation

Innovation is rarely about solving an entirely new problem. More often it is solving an existing problem in a new way. Neither is innovation the sole domain of a product manager or senior management. Ideas can come from anywhere inside or outside of your organisation. The trick is to spot a good idea when it comes.

Many organisations have mechanisms for capturing, filtering and taking the best ideas to a ‘concept’ stage. Once an idea has been registered as having merit, resources are assigned to investigate the marketplace, the opportunity, the business and customer benefits, the likely costs, timeframes and resources required to develop the product.

J – Just In Time

In the 1970s, when Japanese manufacturing companies were trying to perfect their systems, Taiichi Ohno of Toyota developed a guiding philosophy for manufacturing that minimized waste and improved quality. Called Just In Time (JIT), this philosophy advocates a lean approach to production, and uses many tools to achieve this overall goal.

When items are ready just in time, they aren’t sitting idle and taking up space. This means that they aren’t costing you anything to hold onto them, and they’re not becoming obsolete or deteriorating. However, without the buffer of having items in stock, you must tightly control your manufacturing /logistics processes so that parts are ready when you need them.

When you do (and JIT helps you do this) you can be very responsive to customer orders – after all, you have no stake in “forcing” customers to have one particular product, just because you have a warehouse full of parts that need to be used up. And you have no stake in trying to persuade customers to take an obsolete model just because it’s sitting in stock.

The key benefits of JIT are:

• Low inventory

• Low wastage

• High quality production

• High customer responsiveness

K – Kaizen

Kaizen , or ‘Continuous Improvement’ is a policy of constantly introducing small incremental changes in a business in order to improve quality and/or efficiency. This approach assumes that employees are the best people to identify room for improvement, since they see the processes in action all the time. An organisation that uses this approach therefore has to have a culture that encourages and rewards employees for their contribution to the process.

Kaizen can operate at the level of an individual, or through Kaizen Groups or Quality Circles which are groups specifically brought together to identify potential improvements.

Key features of Kaizen:

• Improvements are based on many, small changes rather than the radical changes that might arise from Research and Development

• As the ideas come from the employees themselves, they are less likely to be radically different, and therefore easier to implement

• Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes

• The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using R&D, consultants or equipment – any of which could be very expensive

• All employees should continually be seeking ways to improve their own performance

• It helps encourage workers to take ownership for their work, and can help reinforce team working, thereby improving worker motivation

L – Launch

The launch of a product or service needs a GREAT PLAN:-

G – Go To Market Plan

R – Reference Customers

E – End to End testing

A – Advertising Materials

T – Trained Employees

P – Processes Documented

L – Legal Documentation

A – Approval from Stakeholders

N – No Go / Go Decision

M – Marketing Plan

See previous post on A to Z of Marketing

N – New Product Introduction Process

Key to development, launch, management and retiring of products is the New Product Introduction Process. There are many variations of this process, most centre around the following core steps:

NPI

O – Operational Processes

A key part of any product development is the creation of, or enhancement to, operational processes. It is crucial that and End to End process review is carried out for the new product or service and the department owners document, sign-off on and embed any changes to their ways of working.

In addition it is important to understand any changes to departmental KPI’s and headcount before launch and that everyone impacted by the product launch is trained to a sufficient level prior to launch.

Post launch, it is also important to invest some time in ensuring that any teething troubles are ironed out quickly and any tweaks to process are documented and people retrained where appropriate.

P – Proposition

The traditional marketing mix consists of four major elements, the “4-Ps of marketing”. As defined by Philip Kotler et al. (1999):

  1. Product: “Anything that can be offered to a market for attention, acquisition, use or consumption that might satisfy a want or need. In includes physical objects, services, persons, places, organisations and ideas.”
  2. Price: “The amount of money charged for a product or service, or the sum of the values that consumers exchange for the benefits of having or using the product or service.”
  3. Promotion: “Activities that communicate the product or service and its merits to target customers and persuade them to buy.”
  4. Place: “All the company activities that make the product or service available to target customers.”

All of these elements have their specific place in any company’s marketing strategy.

The 7-Ps of Services Marketing

In the context of services marketing, Booms and Bitner (1981) have therefore suggested an extended “7-Ps” approach that contains the following additional “Ps”:

  1. People: All people directly or indirectly involved in the consumption of a service, e.g. employees or customers.
  2. Process: Procedure, mechanisms and flow of activities by which services are consumed.
  3. Physical Environment: The environment in which the service is delivered. It also includes tangible goods that help to communicate and perform the service.

I would argue that all of these combine to become 1P, namely Proposition:

Proposition

Q – Qualitative and Quantitative Research

See previous A to Z of Marketing

R – Return on Investment and other measures

Knowing your numbers following the launch of a new product or service is crucial. I have listed some of the more common Key Performance indicators below, but you may have others:

Marketing Performance:

Number of leads generated via channel vs target

Cost per lead vs target

Leads converted to sales vs target

Cost per sale

Sales Performance:

Number of sales per channel

Number of sales cancellations per channel

Number of disconnections / leaving the service

% of pipeline converted to sales

Order Intake vs forecast and target

Operational Performance

Net Promoter Score

Number of Complaints

% of orders complete with SLA

Number of customer service / technical support calls vs forecast

Financial Performance

Monthly revenue vs forecast and budget

Monthly Gross Margin vs forecast and budget

Average Revenue Per User or Customer

Total Operating Costs

Return on Investment

S – SWOT

Before any product goes on the market, it’s advisable to carry out an effective market analysis known by the acronym SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Questions you should keep at the front of mind as you consider the SWOT for your new product:

  • What product/s are we selling?
  • What is the process we have in place to sell the product?
  • Who are the customers, who are the people interested in our product?
  • What ways can we deliver the product to the customers?
  • What are the finances needed to create and sell this product?
  • Who will oversee all the stages from having an idea, to having enough finance to complete the task?

Using a 2×2 grid and a selection of people from your organisation, really analyse where your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats are for your market and in particular for your new product or service.

Prioritise them and ensure that any mitigations / activities are built into your plan. Ensure your strengths are clearly articulated in the proposition and opportunities acted upon.

T – Third Party Relationships

In most product developments, you will need to work with third parties to supply goods or services.

The process begins by selecting the right vendor for the right reasons. The vendor selection process can be a very complicated and emotional undertaking if you don’t know how to approach it from the very start. You will need to analyse your business requirements, search for prospective vendors, lead the team in selecting the winning vendor and successfully negotiate a contract while avoiding contract negotiation mistakes.

The most important success factor of managing 3rd party relationships is to share information and priorities with your vendors. That does not mean that you throw open the accounting books and give them access to your systems. Appropriate vendor management practices provide only the necessary information at the right time that will allow a vendor to better service your needs. This may include limited forecast information, new product launches, changes in design and expansion or relocation changes, to name a few.

Another important factor in building relationships with third parties is trust. Be as open as you can with them and if at all possible incorporate the third-party in you new product development team.

U – User Acceptance Testing

In an ideal world, all projects would allow adequate time for testing. Project teams would plan exhaustive testing for each piece of system functionality and if they ran out of time then they would drop functionality from a release rather than compromise on quality.

With business systems, it’s virtually impossible to test for every possible eventuality. We must therefore ask ourselves what is the most important functionality that must be tested within the available timeframe. The obvious answer is – the business functions that the system will deliver and on which the project justification is based.

User acceptance testing should be performed by business users to prove that a new system delivers what they are paying for. Business users have the knowledge and understanding of business requirements that IT testers do not have. They are uniquely placed to accept or reject the new system – after all they have to live with the consequences.

I would also argue that customer testing is also useful during stages of some product development so that areas such as usability and ease of purchase process as well as FAQ’s are meaningful and so on.

V – Value Chain Analysis

The term ‘Value Chain’ was used by Michael Porter in his book “Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance” (1985). The value chain analysis describes the activities the organisation performs and links them to the organisations competitive position.

Value chain analysis describes the activities within and around an organisation, and relates them to an analysis of the competitive strength of the organisation. Therefore, it evaluates which value each particular activity adds to the organisation’s products or services. This idea was built upon the insight that an organisation is more than a random compilation of machinery, equipment, people and money. Only if these things are arranged into systems and systematic activates it will become possible to produce something for which customers are willing to pay a price. Porter argues that the ability to perform particular activities and to manage the linkages between these activities is a source of competitive advantage.

Value chain

In most industries, it is rather unusual that a single company performs all activities from product design, production of components, and final assembly to delivery to the final user by itself. Most often, organisations are elements of a value system or supply chain. Hence, value chain analysis should cover the whole value system in which the organisation operates.

A typical value chain analysis can be performed with the following steps:

  • Analysis of own value chain – which costs are related to every single activity
  • Analysis of customers value chains – how does our product fit into their value chain
  • Identification of potential cost advantages in comparison with competitors
  • Identification of potential value added for the customer – how can our product add value to the customers value chain (e.g. lower costs or higher performance) – where does the customer see such potential

W – Warranties, Service Levels, Terms and Conditions and Contracts

Whilst legal support should be always be sought when pulling together product conditions of service, it is essential that as the person leading a product development you have a clear view as to what the key conditions of service should be for your product or service. This area, depending on your industry, can be hugely complex and may end up being a critical path activity in your project plan, so it is key that you initiate this activity as soon as your proposition is fully defined.

X – X Functional Teams

Ok, I cheated. Cross-functional teams are key to the success of product management, probably more so than for any other business activity. Products cannot be developed successfully in isolation.

A highly effective cross-functional team includes representatives from across your organisation. Obviously, some people will be busier than others at certain stages in the process, but it’s important that you enrol the cross-functional team from the outset and keep them in the loop. Examples of represented areas in your organisation or even outside may be:

  • Project Management
  • Product Developers
  • Customer Service
  • Technical Support
  • Logistics
  • Information Technology
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Pre-Sales
  • Legal
  • Finance
  • Suppliers
  • And you should consider having a customer or two on your team!

They will be the champion for their department, bringing information from their function to the product team. They’ll also serve as a product champion, communicating back to their department on the product development and what impacts there’ll be back in the department.

Y – Yield Management

Yield management is the process of understanding, anticipating and influencing customer behaviour in order to maximise yield or profits from a fixed and/or perishable resource. Examples of industries where this needs to be thought about as part of product management are:

Airlines, Hotels, Rentals, Insurance, IT and Telecoms

The core concept of yield management is to provide the right service to the right customer at the right time for the right price. That concept involves careful definition of service, customer, time, and price.

Z – Zappos’ Values

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll have heard of Zappos. Zappos.com is an online shoe and apparel shop based in Henderson, Nevada. In July 2009, the company announced it would be acquired by Amazon.com in an all-stock deal worth about $1.2 billion. Since its founding in 1999, Zappos has grown to be the largest online shoe store in the world generating $2.1bn in sales in 2011

Zappos employees live by the following values, ones that the best product managers I’ve come across in my career live by too:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

I hope you enjoyed this A to Z and would love to hear your Product Management stories and successes.

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A to Z of Direct Selling

Direct Sales, Direct Selling

Selling is at the heart of business, even if you’re not in ‘Sales’.

Think about the following scenarios:

  •        You’re trying to convince your manager to develop a new product, but can’t get him or her to take things further
  •        You’d like to introduce a new system into your team but can’t get people’s support
  •        You’re trying to convince a new person to join your organisation
  •        You need to get a business case written and signed-off but need help from a number of people as well as sign-off by your boss

Are all of these not selling something?

Whether you’re in a traditional sales role or not, it’s good to know some sales techniques. Knowing how to sell is a great ability to have, and it’s one that’s sure to be respected strongly within your organisation. And if you’re not in a ‘selling’ role, having some knowledge of the challenges faced in sales, may help you to build stronger relationships with people who are! Whilst this post will focus on selling in the field, many of these methods can be used to ‘sell’ internally within your organisation too.

A – Ask the Right Questions

Throughout a sales relationship with a customer and even before engaging with a prospective customer you need to ask yourself and the customer the right questions.

Too many people assume that they fully understand their prospects’ problems. You need to ask questions at the right time about the right things in order to get the information you need to make the sale, or else you might lose credibility and lose the sale forever.

B – Benefit Selling

Having spent my career in technology companies, I know from personal experience that technologists, including technology sales and marketing people, love to talk about features and the latest advancement in a particular product area. That’s great if your customer loves technology and knows what all the features can do for them, but very often you’re not selling to these kind of customers.

What tangible benefits does your product or service bring to the customer and her business? Will it make them more productive, and if so, how? Will it save them money over their current product or service, and if so, how much? Will it give them a competitive advantage over their competitors, and if so, why? Will your product or service de-risk their business in some way or help them sell more, make more, or use less? If so, why and by how much? The more specific and tailored you can be in your answers to these questions with the customer, the better chance you have of getting a sale.

C – Closing the Sale

Closing the sale is obviously one of the most important parts of selling. Without going into every technique on how to close, I would say that you should think about the following:

You do need to ask for the sale! I’m amazed at the number of sales people I’ve interviewed that haven’t asked me for the job – the sale. They didn’t get a second interview.

Always have your closing materials with you – not having the relevant ‘paperwork’ ready does two things; it tells the customer you’re not prepared and it gives them an opportunity to change her mind.

Be prepared to counter objections with reasoned and tailored responses

If you’ve ‘opened’ the sale well, spent a lot of time, energy and mental agility on learning the precise nature of the customer’s needs and their ability to pay for it, and if you’ve crafted a proposal that matched those precisely, then the close will be much easier.

D – Demonstrations

When done well, demonstrations of your product and service to customers can be extremely effective in moving them to a different stage of the sales cycle and ultimately a sale. Demonstrations act as an explanation of what your product is or does, proof that it works and is effective and relevant to your customer and can motivate them to want it after seeing it in action or using it. They can take many forms depending on what you’re actually selling.

Examples might be:

A case study or white paper on the use of your product or service

A face to face, online or video demonstration of your product in action

Try before you buy experiences – in the home, at a supermarket or a car showroom

A simulator or virtual walk-through

Two top tips:

  1. Test everything at least twice on your demonstration before you’re in front of the customer
  2. Have a back-up plan in case it doesn’t work!

E – Expert Advice

Customers want to feel that they’re buying from someone who knows what they’re talking about or at least that you can bring in the right subject matter experts if the solution you’re selling is a complex one.

F – Forecasting

A key part of a sales person’s role is the ability to forecast their sales regularly so that the business supporting them can plan in advance for:

Stock / resource availability

Gearing up production – placing demand on suppliers/production to ensure supply

Allows marketing to ramp up or down marketing activity, or shift their messaging

Gives management a view on whether budgeted growth is being met and whether further remedial action will be required to meet any under / over-performance

G – Getting Your Foot in the Door

You can’t make a sale until you at least get ‘your foot in the door’. How do you get noticed in a positive way by a potential customer so that you don’t get your metaphorical or actual foot crushed by the door closing firmly on it?

Knocking down doors is a hard business, especially in a difficult marketplace.  If your company’s marketing department isn’t driving leads for you then you have to do it yourself. Here’s some tips:

Who are your target customers and why?

Research the customers you’re targeting – Who are the decision makers? Have they been in the business news? How are they doing financially? Have they had any recent successes?

Build and use your business network to drive introductions to the right decision makers.

Have a strategy as to what will grab the interest of these customers and tailor your approach accordingly.

Don’t give up. Even if you get knock-backs, be persistent, be professional and focussed.

H – Help the Customer

Often-times the customer doesn’t actually know what the best product or service is to suit their needs. They know they have a problem that needs a solution and maybe an understanding of the direction they need to take, but not a thorough worked through list of detailed requirements, especially for a complex problem or solution. Through a process of listening, asking the right questions and collective knowledge you can point the customer in the right direction.

I – Investigate Thoroughly

Whether it’s prior to engaging a new customer or during the sales cycle, it’s important to know as much as you can about a sale, a prospective customer, an existing customer, your competitors and innovations in your marketplace. Being armed with all of this information will put you on the front in conversations both with your customers and internally when you need to fight for resource or help.

J – Juggling Balls

Sales professionals, especially successful ones, need to be extremely organised and have the ability to juggle a number of balls at any one time. They need to be managing their pipeline of sales (more on that later), writing proposals, building target lists of prospects, re-signing existing customers, and often dealing with customer queries and pricing requests. They also need to be on top of their marketplace, maintain their knowledge on new products and services as well as keeping an eye on the competition.

K – Knowledgeable

Great sales people are sponges for knowledge. Constantly looking for opportunities, they keep an eye on their market, the latest trends and build up enough knowledge about key vertical sectors and their customers so that they can converse knowledgeably on a range of topics.

L – Listening

Listening is a core competency for anyone wanting to get ahead in business, but no more so than sales. Great sales people listen intently for buying signals, doubt, time-wasting and potential barriers to a sale. By listening for the said and the unsaid, a  great sales person uses their two ears and one mouth in the right proportions.

M – Motivation

Self-motivation is a crucial skill in sales. When the going gets tough a sales person needs to dig deep and find the energy to keep motivated and keep focussed on their target. In sales you often get more knock backs than sales and it’s important that you find ways to be able to bounce back and keep going.

N – Networking

Networking is massively important for a sales person – offline and online. If you want to be really successful in sales, you have to make time, often out of normal working hours to build your network. If you want further information on see a previous post – Business Networking – It’s not ‘what’ you know…

O – Objection Handling

In sales you will always have to handle objections throughout the sales cycle. One very effective way to deal with objections is to pre-empt them as part of your discussions. If you have done your homework, you will be aware of the four or five concerns that your prospect may have so you can incorporate them into your presentations and discussions. This can be effective at promoting you and your organisation in a professional manner. Rather than operate a head in the sand approach, you tackle these reasonable concerns as part of your pitch coming from a position of strength and demonstrating that you do not run from the hard questions.

Here’s a four step approach in dealing with objections:

  1. Ensure that you make the prospect aware that you understand where they are coming from and their concern is not unreasonable
  2. Qualify the objection, so that you understand exactly what the objections is
  3. Sell the business benefits again, taking into account their objection. Be aware that your approach first time round didn’t quite work so you will at least have to expand and take different angles to re-enforce the point
  4. Ask them if they are happy and understand what you said and that you have been able to relieve their concern

P – Pipeline

Managing your pipeline effectively is hugely important, not only for you, the sales person, but for your management team and the wider business.

A sales pipeline works by placing all leads or prospects at the different stages of the sales cycle, and then measuring their progress through the pipeline, from unqualified lead to satisfied repeat customer. If you use a tool such as Salesforce.com or Goldmine, you can manipulate and analyse your pipeline quickly and easily, if you’ve kept it up-to-date, to report upwards and help you plan your activity for the days, weeks and months ahead.

Q – Qualifying

Qualifying is the art of determining what the customer needs and therefore wants, when they want it, whether they can afford to buy it and whether they’re holding the purse strings. A simple 5 step process should give you some of that key guidance – PACTS:

  1. Product Need – What need is the customer trying to fulfil and will your product or service meet that need? It pays for both sides to be honest at this stage, so neither of you are wasting your time.
  2. Authority – The decision maker is ideally who you have to qualify. If you are not talking to that person,you can capture the rest of the information and get in front of the decision maker as soon as possible.
  3. Cash – Can the prospect afford to buy your product or service? If there are no major issues they will gladly answer and back it all up, easing any worries that may be present.
  4. Timing – When does the customer require your service or product? Business situations can change quickly and your prospect may be interested to get an offer in now, but be straight with them and ask if the timing is right and ask them the likely hood of requirements changing. Looking out for the customer is important to build a good relationship, getting all of the possible time constraints out in the open will help with the final decision.
  5. Stakeholders – Who are the key stakeholders you need to influence to get the sale? It may be that there are a number of people you will need to influence before you will get a decision.

R – Relationships

Having strong relationships with customers is really important for a number of reasons, and yes one of them is to sell more. But having a good relationship also reduces a customer’s tendency to move somewhere else, allows you to learn more about their business and their marketplace, open up their network to yours through introductions and recommendation, and in one or two cases you may build up strong and lasting personal relationships which is always a great thing!

S – Solution Selling

Solution selling has been a buzz term for a couple of decades now, if not longer. It is predicated on discovering customer needs and aligning your solution to those needs. Sales people show customers how their solution better meets their needs than any competitor solution through a process of questioning and exploration. However, I think there is a shift happening in certain segments of the market, as customers become more informed via the web and their social networks. Customers are more aware of their needs and the kinds of solutions available probably more than at any other time. Selling a solution is still important, but it has to be outcome focussed, and potentially you may need to put some ‘skin in the game’ to close the sale. How confident are you in your service levels? How confident are you in the savings you’ve promised? Are you willing to put that to the test with Service Level Guarantees or revenue share on savings?

T – Trust

The number one attribute of a great sales person is trust. If you cannot be trusted within your organisation you’re not likely to last long.

What do I mean by this?  – If you continually over-promise customers things as part of your solution in order to close the deal, you’re going to disappoint or lose the customer when your internal teams can’t meet those requirements either to time, or to budget, or at all. You’re going also going to upset the customer, possibly enough for them to go elsewhere or at best not want to buy anything from you for a while, if at all.

U – Understand Who are the Influencers and Decision Makers

When you’re selling into larger organisations you really need to invest time and energy in finding out who all the key influencers and decision makers are for that prospect. You need to be aware that some of those influencers may not even work in that organisation. Who does your decision maker play golf with – do you know her? Do you know any of the senior people in the organisation through people in your business or social network? Getting the inside track on the people you need to meet and influence, could save you months in a long sales cycle.

V – Value from the Customer Perspective

I have mentioned this indirectly a couple of times within this post and it’s not by accident. Throughout the whole sales cycle from lead to close you need to be thinking about and talking about what value you’re bringing to the customer. If there are multiple influencers and decision makers in the loop, you’ll need to think about their individual ‘hot buttons’ and press them. The Finance Director will be wanting the best deal, for the lowest price with the best payment terms. The Marketing Director will be wondering how this will help her drive more leads of her own. The Managing Director will want both of those things, but also peace of mind that once the deal is done, the solution will go in smoothly, that her business won’t be affected in any way to the negative and that she has the phone number of your bosses boss, should anything go wrong.

W – Wining & Dining

Hospitality is still a big part of sales, but you need to ensure that you are mindful of the relevant bribery acts in your country and the bribery and hospitality policies of your prospective and existing clients. That said, spending quality time with customers, new and old, in an informal setting over dinner, watching the big game or race is a great way to strengthen relationships, build new relationships and have some fun.

X – X Marks the Spot – Getting the Contracts Signed

The deal is NEVER done until you have the proverbial signature next to the ‘X’ on the contract. Many times in my career have I been told that the deal was done, only to find that the contract was sitting with lawyers for 6 months, or the customer changed their mind, or they actually awarded the contract to someone else. You haven’t closed, until the contract is signed (plus any cooling off period if that applies).

Y – You are a Differentiator

As a sales person, you are representing your organisation’s brand probably more often more than anyone else. You can be THE differentiator between a win and a loss, a loyal customer and an angry customer, success or failure. Something to think about!

You need to come across as being confident in yourself and your abilities. To be truly successful in sales, it’s also really important that you have a firm belief in the products and services you’re selling as well as the brand you’re representing. A customer can see right through a sales person that doesn’t!

Z – Zone of Influence

As a sales person, the more you interact within your customers, the more time that you invest in  your business and social media networks, assuming you’re doing all the right things, the more your zone of influence will increase. I’ll leave you with a personal story that I hope will resonate with you. I remember attending a networking event, when I was new into a role, and looked out upon a sea of unfamiliar faces, except that of a competitor. That competitor knew everyone in the room by their first name. Let’s just say that since that time, I’ve made it my business to  network and build my zone of influence!

I hope you enjoyed this A-Z and as ever, would love to hear your views and feedback.

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