Challenger Sale: Moving Beyond Rational Drowning

Rational Drowning to Emotional Impact

Growing up on the coast of Southern California, I was no stranger to the rip currents we would often see. For those unfamiliar, a rip current (a.k.a. ‘Riptide’) is when the wind and waves push water toward the shore, which then causes the water to travel sideways along the shoreline from oncoming waves until it finds an exit back out to the sea. Some rip currents can move as fast as 8 feet/second.

On one particular day at the beach, I remember seeing a grown man get caught in the rip current. Most of us have been caught in a number of them, and the solution was easy if you knew what to do. We knew to relax and ride the current until it equalized with the rest of the shoreline. It just meant a longer swim and a walk from where you were, that’s all. But for this gentleman, he chose a different course of action.

He began by waving off the lifeguard who was warning him of the strong current. With a wave, in pride he yelled back, “I’m fine.” His plan was to swim against it. Bad call!

It didn’t take long for him to be completely exhausted whereby holding his head above water became difficult. He began swallowing and choking on seawater. In a flash, his once prideful face that rejected help, now showed desperation for anybody to save him. The lifeguard made his way to him in no time as the current led him right to the victim.

I will never forget the look in the man’s eyes – The first look was the look of pride in the face of a dangerous situation. The second look was when he realized he was in over his head.

Temptation to ‘Keep it Above the Surface’

Prospects can have similar expressions, when they have that defining moment. For some, it’s an “Ah Ha!” moment, and for others, an “Oh no!” moment where they realize for the first time how severe the implications are of remaining in their circumstances.

In conversations where one seeks to change the behaviors of another, whether as parents or in sales, there is that point where the person first acknowledges the risks or consequences you are speaking about. When speaking with children, their response may sound like, “I know, I know.” For the business person, this sounds much more rational as they confidently proclaim, “Yes, I am aware of the risks and am taking precautions.” This is code for Status Quo.

This happened recently when I was speaking with the President of an organization about consequences he didn’t realize, and he would be facing in the upcoming months. At one point in the conversation, this President jokingly commented that he needed to do something different or the board would come after him.

He began to move on, but I stopped him dead in his tracks and asked, “Before we move on, in all seriousness, what will happen if we don’t solve this?” At first he chided me for taking things so seriously when he was simply making a joke, but I held out for the answer. I told him, “I’m the serious type, so seriously, what will happen?” He looked down at the table soberly, then slowly back up to me and stated, “I’d probably be fired.”

Within 30 days, he was fired. He had acted too late. His eyes told me a lot, much like the man’s eyes in the rip current. In an instant, pride turned to fear and desperation, and then he was gone.

Rational Drowning vs. Emotional Impact

When working through the Challenger Sale choreography, the third and fourth steps, Rational Drowning and Emotional Impact, are tightly intertwined. I describe these two stages as follows:

If a person fell overboard in the middle of the ocean, Rational Drowning looks like treading water. The victim initially says, “I’m alright,” which ‘feels’ true at that particular point in time. Not until they realize they can’t continue this way for long, will they pass from Rational Drowning to Emotional Impact.

This is not a place most prospects will go willingly. They would rather stand outside of the story…their story…like a casual observer, who can see things factually…logically, and yet remain unmoved, while mired in their own status quo.

Our role as professionals, is to care enough about them to be willing to expose them to the truth about their circumstances.

Tips to Lead to the Center of Their Story

In the aforementioned story of this President who was subsequently fired, I recognized that he was intentionally seeking to avoid getting deeper. I have seen his situation hundreds of times before, but simply telling him so would merely serve to keep him on the outside of his own story.

I could have told him, “You need to change or you’ll be fired” and would have been accurate. But his response would more likely be defensive than if he recognized aloud, as he did, when he said, “I’d probably be fired.” Asking intentional, targeted questions allowed him to begin narrating his own story as his pronouncement of the consequences carried more weight than mine would have. I just had to lead him to recognizing this reality.

Following are a few tips to remember when leading a prospect through these critical stages:

  • Prospects aim for the surface. Like a balloon filled with helium, so it is with prospects. There is a tendency to want to rise back to the surface as going deeper into the center of their own story is never comfortable.
  • ‘Comfort’ is not the aim. If you are not prepared [and skilled] to respectfully lead prospects to uncomfortable places…such as the center of their own story, you will continue to struggle with selling.
  • Don’t tell the prospect’s story for them. According to a study done by the University of Texas (Metzger, 1997), a person will remember approximately 20% of what they hear, but remember up to 80% of what they do and say. In aiming for the uncomfortable center of their own story, ask questions that lead them to tell their own story.
  • Ask targeted questions. Nothing is more maddening and exhausting to a prospect than questions that appear exploratory and aimless. Know where you are leading the prospect in your questioning.
  • Lead TO your solution, not WITH. Your questions, when asked appropriately, should ripen the prospect to a New Way. Don’t jump to your solution yet, as they need to be prepped with what will resolve their issue. This ‘new way’ should aim squarely at what your product or solution can uniquely solve. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR PRODUCT/SOLUTION YET.

One final note about these two very important areas of the Challenger Sale choreography – Because these two areas are so tightly connected, there can be a tendency to confuse one for the other. Over the years, I have seen countless reps struggle to even get into uncomfortable places with a prospect. When they do, the most common tendency is to resurface and provide ‘relief’ to their uncomfortable prospect.

Doing this will likely result in the loss of the sale as the prospect merely learned that you make them uncomfortable, but offer nothing but a product solution. They will avoid you going forward. Therefore, remain disciplined and stick to the choreography.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.
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Constructive Tension through Insights

Constructive TensionIf you are anything like me, I learn best from real life examples. This morning, I was reflecting on a conversation I had with a major retailer a number of years ago, that not only got them to think differently, but caused them to adjust their whole strategy. Below is an abbreviated transcript of that conversation.

Background:

A major retailer saw themselves as ‘The Headquarters’ for our type of products and as such, having a broad assortment was a key part of their strategy. Regardless of how they perceived themselves, their sales in the category continued to decline. They had the wrong strategy, and it was costing them sales and market share.

Following is an excerpt of my conversation with them:

Me: As I understand it, your corporate strategy for [X] category is to provide a broad assortment of brands and give a fair representation of each brand’s line. Is this still a key part of your strategy?

Buyer: Absolutely. Customers have depended upon us as their HQ for years.

Me: I would imagine carrying the top 3 brands in this category is important too…

Buyer: Definitely, it’s critical.

Me: Do you know who is #1 in market share for this category?

Buyer: If you are asking, I am sure it is you.

Me: You caught me, how about #2?

Buyer: (The buyer and Division leader make 3 incorrect guesses, naming our competitors)

Me: I’m afraid not. The three you just named only make up 8% of the market combined. #2 on the list is X [private] and they only sell through their own stores, so as you know, you aren’t able to carry their products. Any guesses on who #3 is in market share?

Buyer: Not if it is someone different from who we already mentioned.

Me: It is. The 3rd largest segment in the market is WYO (an industry-specific term), which rules you out altogether of carrying two of the top three that you said was critical to your strategy.

Buyer: Hmmm.

Me: Do you know what your $/Kit sold is for the other product lines?

Buyer: Do you mean how much in kits we sold?

Me: No. I mean how much ancillary product you sell for every kit sold.

Buyer: No, we don’t track that.

Me: Hmmm. That’s important to know. The reason is that with each of the other lines you carry, the purchase of the kit is all you will make of that sale since they don’t offer ancillaries. Were you aware that for every one of our kits sold, the typical sales on ancillaries are 9 times greater than the kit alone? In fact, that’s what is lost every time you sell another brand. Let’s multiply that by # of kits sold per store times number of stores.

[Figure calculated and presented]

Buyer: Wow! I had no idea. We hadn’t looked at it that way before.

Me: Can you name another category in your stores that achieves this same level of revenue and profitability during this same season?

Buyer: Nothing comes close. The other categories are down when you guys hit your peak.

[Light-bulb moment for the customer with new insights and discovery]

Me: Exactly right.

[The President enters the conversation]

President: What should we do?

Me: You currently have a strategy focused on promoting breadth and fairness to ALL brands. Research shows that 54% of consumers have predetermined the brand they will use before purchasing…

President: Is that your brand?

Me: …It is, and another 34% will compare with only 1 to 2 other brands. You carry 16. In just 2 months time, your strategy of ‘brand breadth and fairness’ cost your stores $xM in sales & $xM in profit. Even worse is that you have lost 7 points of market share. So, in answer to your question, I recommend a strategy change if you want to remain in this category, or otherwise allow us to help you successfully exit the business altogether.

[President pauses and is now at the crossroads with the Status Quo]

The President, after dismissing the buyer and division leader, asked how quickly we could reset the category and serve as category captains.

Doing so would require concessions, if they were serious. He assured me he was. We ended up getting key placement and dedicated signage in the stores, along with many other things that they offered to help them earn back market share and profitability. That following year, they had grown their business with us nearly 30%.

On a related note, we took this same approach with two other major players in the market who achieved even better results that year – One achieving 71% category growth, and the other in triple digits. They remain the market leaders today in their categories.

Summary

The questions I asked revealed that they did not know the answers to key questions. They were looking at things the wrong way. The questions helped to prepare them for a series of commercial insights that created a rich environment to hear a hard truth…that their key strategy was amiss, costing them market share, sales and profitability.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Reorganization or Turnaround? (Part 2): Top-Line Temptation

Top Line TemptationLast week, I wrote about common mistakes made with an underperforming Division or Business Unit in my post titled Reorganization or Turnaround? (Part 1). Most notably, I spoke of the tendency to prescribe a reorganization to situations when a turnaround was really needed, by failing to recognize issues that are below the “waterline.”

If you are the leader of a struggling division, business unit or team that has solid sales, but have continued to underperform the profitability expectations for multiple periods, this post is for you.

The Top-Line Temptation
There is no doubt that top-line revenue covers a multitude of sins. The problem is that too often this is seen as a good thing…or at least acceptable. These ‘sins’ in business, so to speak, that detract from profitability are analogous to the roots of a young tree that later grows to disrupt the foundation. The foundation, in this case, represents the whole organization. Addressing the root of these problems is always better done earlier, for obvious reasons, as the picture of the tree below perfectly illustrates the implications of letting problems persist.

Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that with solid revenue comes the belief that things will correct themselves over time. That increasing the sales will begin to create economies of scale, eventually leading to profitability. Question – When was the last time you saw a profitability issue like this work itself out over time?

Getting at the Root of the Problem
There are a variety of reasons why a leader may be experiencing solid sales with poor profitability, but I want to address one of the more common reasons I see. This is the ‘sales at any cost’ approach. When this is the case, the inappropriate pursuit of revenue tends to come in one of two forms.

Root Cause

The Root of the Problem

The first way revenue is inappropriately pursued comes in the form of aggressive discounts, incentives, and promotions. Unprofitable discounting creates an inflated sense of demand, which bursts the minute the discounts stop. The more inherent problems with this approach, other than increased costs and false demand, is the longer term impact of discounts and incentives lowering the perceived value in your customer’s eyes.

The second way that revenue is inappropriately pursued is through disproportionate costs of acquisition and retention, beyond that which is profitable. In these situations, typical strategies include increased marketing campaigns, sales blitzes, additional staff or even the introduction of new products or services on top of an overly burdened cost structure.

In some cases, a division may inappropriately pursue both, discount strategies and increased activities. The compounded effect of having lower revenue at higher costs puts the business area on a fast track to what I call ‘divisional bankruptcy.’ Not only is this unsustainable, it is a terrible strategy in general for leading a division to profitability.

5 Questions to Determine if You Have a Profitability Problem
Now that we have a good handle on some of the problems and why they occur, it is important to determine whether these are your problems are somebody else’s problems. Also important to note is that the conditions described above are not the sole list, but rather representative of the type of conditions that lead to solid sales with poor profitability. Therefore, the following questions will help in determining if you are in a situation requiring a reorganization or turnaround.

  1. Were your most recent profit results intended? Comparing performance to plan (PTP) is an important measure. There are times when losses are planned. If so, did you meet the plan? If not, proceed to #2.
  2. If your PTP was not intended, do you know specifically what contributed to this? If you answered “no,” stop reading now. Enlist all necessary resources to figure this out. Without this, remediation is impossible.
  3. What specific steps do you have in place, to correct the problems? Assuming you answered ‘yes’ for #2, specific SMART goals should be in place with key staff that will correct the profitability shortfalls.
  4. How long will the plan take to restore profitability? Remediation should occur within 6 months or less. Be very careful about setting anything longer as too often you are delaying the inevitable. The time to act is now.
  5. What is your track record for accurately forecasting corrections? This is an important gut-check. Be honest. If you tend to be overly optimistic, best to confront that now as people are depending on you.

Reorganize or Turnaround?
After having assessed the cause of the problems and determined next steps, you should have a sense of clarity on whether or not you have a ‘waterline‘ issue or not. If you have diagnosed your problem to be below the waterline, this is a turnaround. You are now in a dead sprint to correct the problem before your CEO steps in on your behalf to correct the problem simultaneous with your exit.

Time to A.C.T.
Now that you have properly diagnosed your predicament and are committed to an expedient correction, it is time to act. I have put the steps in the form of an acronym to serve as a virtuous, or repeatable, cycle to follow throughout the recovery.

  • Assess. Pull out the financials along with your sales and marketing metrics to assess where the key profit detractors lie. Don’t fall for only cutting easy, non-essential areas. The allure is that it looks like you took action without disrupting anything too significantly. The problem is that it won’t disrupt anything too significantly. Cut the small stuff, but cut the big stuff first. Remember the tree picture above…address the root issues!
  • Correct. Having identified where to cut, commit to correction through decisive action. These times aren’t easy, so best to communicate lavishly before, during and after the turnaround. Before lets people know what to expect. During to give updates and demonstrate it’s working. After confirms that your actions were worth it.
  • Target. Cuts are important and necessary, but are not the entirety of your action. Time to target key start and stop activities that contribute more quickly to your division’s profitability. Examples include not pursuing unprofitable customers, or to stopping marketing activity that aims to discount its way to profitable growth.

As described above, this process is intended to be followed and repeated, assessing and adjusting as you go. If you are entering this process of a turnaround, I would like to offer encouragement as you have demonstrated the two characteristics I described last week – Humility in acknowledging your situation and Courage to address the problems head on. Once you successfully turnaround your division or business area, not only will you have the respect and admiration of your staff and CEO, but this will likely serve as one of the largest confidence booster’s in your career that will serve you well in years to come.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Reorganization or Turnaround? (Part 1)

Business TurnaroundsAs the end of the year approaches, CEOs all over the country have a laser-like focus on performance to ensure a strong year-end finish. While many organizations will achieve their financial objectives, many others will come up short of the results they expected.

There is yet a third group in which will not only fall short of expectations, but will turn in another consecutive period of underperformance, with no recovery in sight. While this isn’t indicative of the overall organization, but rather a division or business unit struggling to correct performance issues, this still remains problematic for the organization.

For those falling in the unenviable position of this latter group, the CEO’s focus will narrow in on changes that will restore overall organizational health in order to start the New Year off right.

If this describes you, you are likely evaluating your next moves. Assuming this is the case, let’s take a closer look at what to do when you have experienced continued declines and are not seeing a recovery in the results. Is a reorganization of your division needed, or is an all out turnaround in order?

Reorganization or Turnaround?
How you diagnose the problem, and the remedy you prescribe, can either set you on the road to recovery, or lead to further entrenchment in missed results, often worse than before the correction.

Without oversimplifying an otherwise complex problem, there are three general conditions that lead an organization, division or business unit to consider a reorganization or turnaround plan. In the ensuing weeks, I will break down the three scenarios more thoroughly, but my primary aim is to provide an overview of the problem. Following are the three general scenarios most commonly experienced by business areas with ongoing, lackluster results.

The Three Business Performance Conditions:

1. Solid sales, but poor profitability

2. Solid profitability, but poor sales

3. Poor sales and poor profitability

A Common Mistake
When one of the aforementioned scenarios is experienced, the mistake most commonly made is to misdiagnose the problem and subsequently prescribe a reorganization to a turnaround situation. This usually has disastrous consequences as the characteristics of a turnaround differ significantly from that of a reorganization. In other words, a division in turnaround mode that has poor top and bottom line performance, operates much differently…much more expediently…than one that has been reorganized to bring greater efficiency and effectiveness to the division. When a leader of a failing business area makes a recommendation to reorganize the division/business unit/department to improve the underperformance, failure to meet expectations is nearly inevitable.

A reorganization done under the pretense described above just doesn’t work, but you already know this. How? Imagine that you came to me and shared that one of your divisions has a consistent history of declining business performance. Now imagine I say to you, “No problem, simply restructure your division, and this will enable greater growth and profitability.” You would be quick to tell me that 1.) It isn’t that simple, and 2.) You may even tell me that you have already tried this approach, and it didn’t work. Of course, you would be right for both reasons.

A Better Approach
When dealing with prolonged performance issues in a business area, two leadership qualities are highly beneficial: Courage and Humility. Courage will be needed to make a decision that inevitably will depart from the status quo that you have grown comfortable with. This isn’t to say that you were comfortable with underperformance. Far from it, in fact. The comfort came more in the activity of feeling that you were doing something about the problems, and the ‘activity’ itself served as justification for not having to make the more difficult decisions you feared would be necessary.

Humility will also be needed, since the potential is high for you as the business area leader, to feel as if you are conceding defeat to the previous failed approach to correct the problems. This is often linked with a belief that your leadership may be questioned if you change directions. The reality is that your staff already knows something different is needed. Your leadership is already in question until you are willing to break from the status quo and make meaningful change.

A Tip from CEOs
Savvy CEOs that have been through this before will be quick to point out that if their division leader approached them with a plan to reorganize in order to solve business performance issues, their confidence in the leader would diminish significantly and likely result in their departure. Why? No matter how reasonable the cost efficiencies and productivity gains may be, this fails to address the root issues of why the division or unit was failing. Therefore, if they cannot accurately assess the root problems, then they are ill-suited to correct them.

When this goes unchallenged by the CEO, the result is that poor performance is excused for a period of time while people settle into the newly structured organization. This is short-lived, however as soon comes the day of reckoning where all patience has run out and results are expected. Most CEOs state that they don’t have the luxury of that kind of time and money to wait for better performance. Additionally, they know that this kind of decision puts other areas of the organization at risk, thus putting undue pressures on the stronger performing divisions.

Therefore, rather than looking to reorganize to address organizational performance deficiencies, look instead at using reorganizations to address better efficiencies. In other words, a reorganization should not be used to address performance problems, but rather to take good performance and make it great through better alignment.

Reorganizations when used appropriately are liberating to the business area as it allows them to achieve their goals more efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, reorgs have been used irresponsibly over the years for many organizations as cover for reducing headcount and other operating costs. No wonder why staff hate reorganizations.

General Rule of Thumb: The Waterline Principle
I have a general rule of thumb for whether a reorganization or a turnaround is Waterline Principlethe best approach. Every organization has a specific profitability level they need to maintain organizational health. Think of this as the waterline on a cargo ship. The waterline, or the red paint at the bottom of an otherwise black cargo ship, does two things:

  1. It provides a visual indication of the ship’s relative safety in that is not overly loaded down
  2. It also serves as a clear indicator that any damage below the waterline would be perilous to the ship

In either case, whether too much cargo is loaded on the ship, or damage happens below the waterline, the whole ship is put in jeopardy. No matter how healthy other areas of the ship may be, damage below the line risks the whole. For example, the ship can have state of the art electronics and navigational equipment in other parts of the ship, but all will be lost when the threat below the waterline isn’t properly handled. The same is true in business.

Therefore, when determining how to address a situation in a business area and the choice is between a reorganization or a turnaround, consider where the risks are happening – Are they above or below the waterline? This will bring clarity to your thinking in an instant.

Next Week…
Look for Part 2 of the Reorganization or Turnaround series as I address the approach for when a division, business unit or product has solid sales, but poor profitability.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.