Account-based selling (ABS) has become very popular since it maximizes the revenue potential across target accounts. This initiative requires a personalized strategy to address specific pain points of key contacts at each account. After talking with dozens of sales leaders at big, traditional and fast-growing companies, I’ve identified the three biggest reasons ABS fails:
1. Plate Spinning
2. Sine Wave of Sales
3. Black Box
Let’s review these three reasons and how you can address them so your ABS initiative won’t fail.
I first saw the connection between a performer spinning plates and sales when I was at Knoebels Amusement Resort in central Pennsylvania last summer with my family. It’s a special place because my wife’s family has been going there for generations and now we’re taking our kids. While watching a magic show at the park, part of the act struck me as relating to my sales career. It was his plate spinning. The magician got one plate spinning, and a second one and a third. Then he goes back to the first and to give it a push, does the fourth, then the fifth, goes back to the second and third. He is trapped in the situation he has created, and it is just too much. Literally, all he’s doing is keeping existing plates spinning, unable to get any more started. That’s when it struck me. This is prospecting!
Sales reps “spin” up 10 prospects on Monday, then do it again on Tuesday because their manager tells them they need to prospect every day so they can get more meetings. They do it again on Wednesday, but on Wednesday they actually have to go back to retouch the people from Monday in order to be effective. We’ve all heard the statistics that the typical salesperson needs to reach out five times in order to get a response. What you end up with is somebody who is always running back and forth between the “plates” that they’re spinning, unable to spin any new ones without letting the plates that are already in the air crash to the ground.
I’ve watched countless sales reps working hard only to see them stuck with too few plates spinning or too many plates shattered on the floor. Let me quantify this Plate Spinning Phenomenon:
Let’s assume you bring on 20 new prospects per day for two weeks and you touch each prospect twice, e.g. you call them and you send an email. Each day that you do this you’re going to create 40 new net activities. Assuming a connect rate of four percent, by the end of the second week, you end up with 180 tasks the salesperson has to do. I’ve done the math. If your average call time is three minutes and your average email takes five minutes to compose, you’re looking at about 720 minutes per day that you’re just keeping plates spinning. You’re asking a person to do 12 hours of work in eight hours! This estimate ignores lunch, breaks, internal meetings, research, etc.
What we’re asking people to do is impossible. When management comes up with an account-based sales approach, they haven’t done the math, and they don’t realize that what they’re asking their salespeople to do can’t be done.
Plate spinning will derail any ABS initiative because a high volume of contacts needs to be started and managed within a single account. You have to solve this blocker with automation.
Imagine the stick that each plate is on has an engine at its base. That engine keeps the plate spinning. You can spin up as many plates as you need, but the only time you have to revisit a plate is if the engine starts running out of gas. Net net: you can spin more plates. You can spin them faster. Less of them drop. Automation is like a little engine attached to every contact you engage in at an account. It keeps you at the top of the inbox, front of mind, and in the game in a way no human could do on their own.
Right now, each person on my team averages about 600 contacts that they are able to stay in touch with at once because of the automation that we do – we use our own product (Outreach) for this. We define automation as the ability to leverage customized, personalized communication at scale. Some of our competitors want to cast us as a machine that loses the personalized touch. That’s just not true. We actually send thousands of manual, personalized emails, and we very much believe in the personal touch. As a matter of fact, personalization is at the core of our sales philosophy, and our customers’, like Lars Nilsson, the grandfather of the ABS sales stack; and Jerry Emmert, a huge contributor to CenturyLink’s new account “hunter” mentality.
For example, we have a methodology called “3-for-1”:
I recently read a blog post by a well-known and respected sales guru disparaging these “bumper” messages, but we’ve found, across hundreds of thousands of emails, bumps get higher reply rates than the original message! This shows the effectiveness of automation leveraging customization. The Rule of 3-for-1 says you can get 3 touches for the price of 1. Each subsequent touch will be more effective than the previous. We did find that if you get lazy and bump too much, you get a reduced response. Your fourth email needs to be another handwritten, manual email, which, of course, can be bumped in an automated way, too.
Secondly, automation allows you to group like tasks together. Grouping tasks (batching) and executing them in short blocks of time (time blocking) greatly increases productivity. We know when, how many, and which phone calls need to be made, creating a phone-call block. We also have a LinkedIn block and an email block. When you do an activity over and over again and that’s all you do for that block, you become better because you’re more focused on it and you get into a rhythm. It also allows you to practice whatever you’re doing so you continually improve. See my LinkedIn post about the Pomodoro Method.
As sales leaders, we must do better. We can’t launch our teams into initiatives doomed to failure, leaving our teammates to pick up the pieces inside their territories. Are you more worried about your job or the futures of your reps? Are you too into your own “tinkering” to see the affect you have on the income of the people you are supposed to set up for success? Fundamentally, plate spinning comes down to quantifying what you are asking people to do, and making sure they have the tools and skills to succeed at that ask. This is my plea to you, as a once-abused sales rep, think about what ABS really means for your reps and don’t wear them out spinning plates and not making money.
I remember the sine wave from high school trigonometry. I don’t remember what it means. I only remember the undulations, the up and down. Sales is like that. It’s filled with peaks and valleys, ebbs and flows. I think most people have come to accept this ridiculousness, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
The Sine Wave of Sales is one reason why many ABS initiatives fail over time. It’s just not a healthy way to live, and it’s not an effective pattern for a sales team to follow, especially when success in a targeted account takes so much perseverance and resilience to attain. I think a lot of people are going to have some initial success with ABS efforts. The Sine Wave of Sales dictates you’ll have initial success, then that success will wane. It may pick back up when someone’s job is threatened, but at some point all of the ABS naysayers will come out and jump on the next “hot” sales bandwagon.
There are five distinct periods in the Sine Wave of Sales:
1. Dawn of the Hunter
2. Agrarian Period
3. PETA Predicament
4. Extinction Event
5. Age of Enlightenment
The Dawn of the Hunter occurs when you launch an initiative. Eyes are on the “new sales thing”: people will get pumped and activity is high. There’s no resolve, but every sales guy is out there with his spear, bloodthirsty for more prey, ready to hunt. Meetings start to roll in (duh – sales activity is high). After you get meetings, there’s a little delay, then a few deals close. Toward the end of this period, as you start to get more and more meetings, activity starts to wane a little because your calendar is full and there are deals that need to be tended.
Then, you enter what I call the the Agrarian Period. Reps begin paying attention to the farm/pipeline rather than being out there with their spears trying to kill more prey/prospects. You still have to go out and hunt a little because everything isn’t growing yet. You don’t have to hunt quite as much as you used to because you’re feeding yourself with what’s growing on the farm. Because the payoff of sales activity is always delayed, the meetings keep going up and the deals keep going up despite a drop-off in prospecting.
Enter The PETA Predicament. This is the very top of the Sine Wave of Sales. That’s when you say, “You know, maybe I’m doing too much prospecting” or “ I have too many deals, I just can’t prospect anymore” or “I’m being too aggressive with my messaging.” You talk yourself out of hunting because you’re getting so many deals and you have so many meetings on the books that you start to feel sorry for your prospects (the animals). During the PETA Predicament, activity falls off the cliff. But, often, meetings will continue to rise for a while before eventually declining. Still, the salesperson is working a lot of deals and has a lot of meetings, so the urgency to prospect is non-existent. You have full-fledged farmers tending the pipeline and nobody out there bringing in the protein that makes a sales team strong and lean.
An Extinction Event begins when your sales activity starts to get to a point where it’s too low to drive the meetings but your meetings are still high. And your deals are still high enough that you don’t care about fixing the activity problem. During that time, activity falls below an acceptable level. Meetings eventually follow. Deals eventually follow. People lose their jobs. Knee-jerk decisions are made. Managers crack the whip out of fear for their jobs. If you were to be honest, you’d admit this initiative is over and you’ll never get reps to believe in it again. ABS is dead.
Then comes the Age of Enlightenment. You say, “Oh crap, I need to go back out and prospect again.” So reps start prospecting again. And it starts over and over again. This is a brief respite before you enter into another Dawn of the Hunter. Only this time, it’s not as effective as the first. The cycle continues until reps just go off and do their own thing; or, you come up with another initiative (yahoo) that will end up the same as the one that just died. Your reps know it, too.
The thing about the Sine Wave of Sales is it diminishes until it eventually becomes a line. The reason is the psychological reinforcement that happens with salespeople (yes, I took one psych class in college and got a B+ so I know all about psychology). Even though their sales activity decreases during the Agrarian Period and falls off during the PETA Predicament, meetings and deals still continue to rise. They’re reinforced psychologically that they can still be successful without activity. They always want to return to a state where they’re doing less prospecting activity, because prospecting stinks.
They still have a high number of meetings and deals. When they go back on the upswing in the Age of Enlightenment, it doesn’t go quite as high because they’re in a rush to get back to that place where they’re not prospecting. They have a decent number of deals and meetings, but it falls off again and again.
Nothing lasts forever. You can start with great activity. Even great activity is not going to last forever. It’s going to wane. The idea is to get it to a predictable and sustainable state and for it to always be above an acceptable level. Then you want new initiatives, like ABS, to reach a new level of activity so you can ride the Sine Wave of Sales rather than just always be subject to it.
You solve the Sine Wave of Sales with process and workflow.
Process is the series or timeline of tasks you need to achieve a result: prospect in LinkedIn, send an email, leave a voicemail, three days later send a follow-up email and make another call. It’s that process, that series of tasks you need to achieve something, which defines a baseline of activities that reps can grab onto rather than always having to figure out “what to do next.” In my experience, eliminating the uncertainty around what to do next empowers reps and unlocks creativity to better execute the tasks in front of them.
Workflow is the series of clicks, button pushes, webpages, and motions a rep has to take in order to accomplish the tasks of the process. Breaking down a complicated process into the individual tasks and motions it takes to complete those tasks was pioneered by Frederick Winslow Tayler in his book The Principles of Scientific Management. Workflow allows you to determine and improve the maximum number of tasks a rep can complete in one period of time. When you maximize workflow, you optimize process. With those two things in place, you beat the Sine Wave of Sales because you have a consistent level of activity which evens out the curve.
Consistent activity is the key. If I say, “Hey, you have to do 200 prospecting activities,” you’re going to get great results. Your meetings and deals are going to go up. You’re going to get so packed that you can’t do all that prospecting and you’re not going to want to because that much prospecting sucks. You go into the Sine Wave of Sales. Instead, optimize people’s workflow so it’s easy and fun to complete tasks.
Good solutions build on each other. They create a force multiplier. Adding automation to your workflow and having a great process should lead to something greater than just having one of them in place. You know, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Process allows you to normalize activity around these practiced streamlined series of tasks that are leveraged by the system. Automation can take care of the mundane, repeatable tasks that don't require human intervention. The busy work is automated so you can get other stuff done. That's the idea.
Anticipate the phases of the Sine Wave of Sales’ ups and downs and fix them for your reps prior to launching an ABS initiative. After launch, your people will get more meetings and deals. These “priorities” will take away from prospecting efforts. If you don’t solve that dilemma prior to kicking off your next sales initiative, you are dooming it to a torturous ride of failure. As a sales leader, it is your job to see above the waves. (No pun intended. Okay, maybe a little.) The Sine Wave of Sales is a truth; start steering your ship in a different direction. Sales leaders, let’s commit to confronting an age-old cycle in sales rather than ignoring it.
The Black Box of Sales is where salespeople work after you give them a lead and before it becomes a closed-won deal. It is experienced by 90% of salespeople. The Black Box is characterized by answering these questions incorrectly.
How many times does your rep touch a lead?
Do you know if your process is being followed?
Can reps keep up with your process without drowning in incomplete tasks?
Is anyone regularly reviewing sales communication?
Can you replicate your best rep’s performance?
How you answer these questions determines whether you have a Black Box or not. A black box is like a traditional geared clock. Open it up, see the gears and how they move. That's what you want. You want to open up the Black Box so you can see all the gears of your sales team and process. You want to know if given X inputs, you’ll get Y outputs.
The Black Box doesn't let you know what is happening inside of it. You just get whatever output you get versus opening up the Black Box. This is akin to saying a prayer and hoping for the best.
Once you see all of the gears, you can tweak a gear that’s misaligned. Maybe the gear cog is worn down and you need to replace it. Maybe it's broken and you need to replace it. The beauty is you can see all of the gears and know what you need to do in order to change the outputs. If you have a Black Box, you have no idea what you need to do to change the output.
The Black Box swallows up resources. You can't see where there's waste. You can't see where there's efficiency. You can't see where force is being applied. The Black Box hides massive increases in rep effectiveness that could be possible.
The matrix of Consciousness vs. Competence explains this further.
The Black Box speaks to your consciousness. How conscious are you of the competence that your sales team has? When you’re talking about account-based sales, it’s really important. You only have a limited number of accounts to get results. And you have to make sure that you do things the right way. If you don’t know why you’re doing stuff wrong, or why you’re doing stuff right, then there’s no way that you’re going to be successful with account-based sales.
The Black Box is solved with visibility. There are two types of visibility: activity loads and quality of activity. Most people have visibility of activity loads. They can see how much activity is being done. Quality of activity is what most people don’t measure in a reliable way. That’s like saying, “Okay, if I make phone calls, how many lead to connections? How many lead to meetings? If I send emails, how many get replies? How many get bounced? If I do LinkedIn connection requests, how many get accepted and how many don’t?”
For example, if I notice an email is getting a lower percentage of replies than most of my others, I open up the Black Box to see the quality of activity, as well as adherence to process and messaging guidelines. I can actually see how the email is written. I can see that everyone is using the same email and all 3,000 deliveries. This gives me a statistical sample so that I can make a very educated decision based on what’s going on with that email messaging. Now I don’t have a Black Box. I have a broken email. I just fix the email. With a Black Box, my reps are doing all their own best guesses as to what is effective. They’re using all their own emails. There’s no way to tell what’s broken because everything is all over the place. Visibility solves that.
The worst thing is when the cogs aren’t aligned. When the gears aren’t tuned in, the engine isn’t running at peak performance. Horsepower is being wasted. Gas and other inputs are being wasted.
Inputs are so important to account-based sales because they're scarce and precious. Nobody wants to talk about the resource costs that ABS actually requires. It is a big investment; there’s no going in only up to your thighs. If you don’t just dive in, you will never start swimming. There’s only so many accounts you can work at a time. Only so many contacts that you can prospect. If you don’t really have reps locked in, then what you’re going to do is burn through accounts and burn through contacts. The outputs won’t be good enough for you to sustain your business. Inputs are precious and you have to make sure they're valued. Only way to really know is to see what’s going on inside your Black Box.
Sales leaders, do not allow your team to run in stealth mode. Don’t allow questions you are accountable to answer go unanswered. It’s not fair to your reps. If you can’t show them what you want and how you want the pieces to work together, you have no business launching an initiative.
Account-based sales requires complete transparency and visibility, without it you leave your reps guessing at what is best to do with the limited resources available to them. Be better than that.
When we connect these three solutions together, we get a powerful engine pushing perfect machinery with predictable output. You can crank up the engine, optimize the gears and manufacture a reliable revenue stream. You can and must, for the sake of your team and reputation as a sales leader, navigate past the challenges of Plate Spinning, the Sine Wave, and the Black Box using automation, process and workflow with Conscious Competence to make your account-based sales initiative succeed.