Episode #11: "How to Stop Selling to Leads Like You’re Stuck in the 1970s," with Colleen Francis

Hosts: Tim Clarke & Lynne Zaledonis

Marketing brings high-quality leads and new insights on buyer behaviors, but many in sales aren't taking advantage of this power. It's time to change the approach to selling. Join Colleen Francis, Owner at Engage Selling and author of Nonstop Sales Boom, as she shares the best ways to close more.  

Read the article that inspired the conversation: “How to Stop Selling to Leads Like You’re Stuck in the 1970s


Episode Transcript

Tim Clarke: Thank you for joining the Quotable Podcast. Today we’re speaking with Colleen Francis, owner at Engage Selling Solutions, consultant speaker, and bestselling author including her recent Nonstop Sales Boom. Welcome Colleen.


Colleen Francis: Hey, it’s my great pleasure to be here. Thank you.


Clarke: Thank you. Perhaps if people aren’t familiar with you or some of the great work that you’ve done, if you can give us a bit more information on your background and some of the areas that you’ve really been focusing on.


Francis: Sure. We’ve had Engage Selling now for 15 years. My real area of focus is working with industries that are highly competitive and are looking to differentiate through sales acceleration.

I define sales acceleration as both looking at the number of opportunities a sales team can manage and how to organize that and structure it, but also how we can move more through the pipeline more quickly, so pipeline velocity. How do we improve closing ratios? How do we sell more time? How do we be more effective and efficient both in the sales process, but also in the entire organization?

So when I look at concepts such as nonstop sales boom or acceleration, I’m really looking at engaging not just the sales teams and the marketing teams, but all people in the organization to create really profitable, sustainable sales growth.


Clarke: Thank you. Before we get started, for people who aren’t familiar, I’m Tim Clarke. I’m the Product Marketing Director at Salesforce. And today I’m joined by our guest host Lynne Zaledonis, VP of Product Marketing with Salesforce. Welcome Lynne.


Lynne Zaledonis: Thank you so much, Tim. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Clarke: Thank you. Let’s jump straight in. Colleen, you wrote this great piece on Quotable.com recently called “How to Stop Selling to Leads Like You’re Stuck in the 1970’s.” Within this article you lead with a pretty shocking statistic that sales closing ratios are stagnating at 33%. That’s pretty crazy. What are some of the things that you’re seeing out there?


Francis: Yeah, it is pretty crazy when you think about it. Because I started my technology sales career, not in the ’70s, but in the early ’90s, and we always managed our quotas to be 33% closing ratios. And today I’m seeing anywhere from recently a worst of about 10% to a best, and when I say “best” I mean an honest best, of about 42 to 45. I can always see closing ratios that are much higher, but usually it’s a sign that something is going wrong in the sales cycle.


Clarke: Right.


Francis: Or as I say, “Legally, morally, and ethically we can only do a certain amount.” But 45%, maybe 50% at the very, very best in the smallest niche businesses. But shockingly, there are a lot of business out there who are hovering in and around the 10 to 15% even.


Zaledonis: One of the things you talk about in your article, Colleen, is an age-old problem: marketing and sales alignment. You identify this mistrust salespeople inherently have of marketing as one of these causes of the problems. What have you seen with your own clients when there’s a push to accept those marketing generated leads?


Francis: The only time I’ve seen it works really well is when sales and marketing are in alignment. They actually sit around the table, God forbid, and talk about what’s required. There’s an understanding from sales and marketing of not just what the quantity of leads required is, but also the quality. And they have a common definition of what a quality or a qualified or a pre-qualified lead is.

Because if the sales team doesn’t think that they’re getting the right quality but marketing does, then you create a little bit of incendiary warfare. But also if marketing thinks that they’re giving sales enough leads and sales doesn’t have enough leads, then you also create this infighting, so that’s really important.

It’s also really critical that they come to terms with some kind of service level agreement about what sales is going to do with those leads when. Because there is no point in marketing producing great quality, great quantity of leads, and having sales sit on them, which we see happen a lot. Now why do we see that? We see that because the sales team doesn’t trust that their marketing leads and their sales leads have actually talked about what’s required.

Salespeople like to hide behind the conversation of, “You’ve never been in sales so you don’t know what it’s like.” They sit on those leads as either a protest, which is really terrible, or sometimes they sit on them as a security blanket. And they say to themselves, “You know what, I’ve got enough leads right now, so I’ll just wait on these marketing leads because they don’t need them right now, but I know they’re always there if I need them in the future,” and that’s just as damaging.

Since you mentioned quality lead there, and I know this will vary by organization, but are there any tips that you could share in terms of how you should really set those definitions as to what a quality lead is?

Yes. First of all, you’re right, Tim. It’s going to vary on all industries. The one common element here is you’ve got to get sales and marketing together to decide what does an ideal lead look like. And it could be that it varies from department to department or even geography to geography, because I do have customers who an ideal lead in one territory where it’s a greenfield sales operation is very different than an ideal lead in a market where carrying 85% market share.

So we want to make sure that sales and marketing agree on what those definitions are. I believe some common elements and some basic elements should be around the size of the opportunity. If you’re going to invest marketing and sales resources to close a piece of business, the lead has to generate enough profit to make those resources effective. You don’t want to say, “Hey, just throw me anything,” because if the sale closes for a hundred dollars and you’ve invested a thousand dollars worth of people and infrastructure to nurture and find that lead it’s not worth it.

So we should be setting a minimum size or a minimum employee number or a minimum profit target. We should be setting also at least a minimum type of buyer. You might want to say we only consider it a lead if we’re talking to someone who can make a decision. Or maybe you decide you want a lead as long as it’s someone from a certain department, anyone but purchasing or only people from purchasing. But you’ve got at least a divisional title or a buyer title that’s important.

So those two things I think would be critical. And then you should decide how far you want marketing to actually nurture that lead. I have a couple of clients who, for example, marketing produces the leads through some online nurturing campaigns. It gets sent through to a pre-qualification team who then nurtures it to a certain point on the phone who is part of the sales team, and then it gets passed out to the field. So they have a three-step process. And that, again, will depend on the complexity of your sale and the number of leads that you’re generating, but you need to have those kinds of agreements in place at all of those different steps.


Clarke: Perfect. I love one of the points that you talked about there, the examples that you gave, someone in sales saying to marketing, “You haven’t sat in this position. How would you really know?” I was just thinking about obviously Lynne our guest host here. Lynne, you’ve been on both the sales and marketing side of things in a whole variety of roles. What are your views, Lynne, in terms of the importance of someone in marketing really investing that time with sales and understanding what’s important to them?

Absolutely. The age-old adage of “you haven’t walked in my shoes” applies both ways. For people who are in marketing and don’t have any experience at sales, it’s really important for them to get closer to the sales process and cycle to truly understand what’s important to their constituents, the sales reps. But it’s also really great to open up that transparency and visibility to allow the sales leaders and reps to help guide you and be a part of your marketing programs to make sure you’re targeting the right things.

I think if you can go in and shadow some sales reps in the beginning, that would be really important. Even though I’ve worked in our sales organizations, I continue to open up the lines of communication with surveys, with account executive focus groups, and also collaboration tools. Like Salesforce we use Chatter where we can get the input from the sales reps and make sure we’re aligned to what they want.

And finally visibility. Here at Salesforce we use our own dashboards to be able to measure all the different metrics that are important to both sales and marketing, so we both have clear visibility as to what happens to a lead once we create it and pass it over to the other side.


Clarke: Perfect. Colleen, anything that you would add to that from your experience? I know it’s very easy to say someone in sales then goes into a marketing role or you switch roles the other way, but that isn’t really realistic. So what have you seen with some of the customers that you’ve really worked with?



Francis: I think it’s really critical, building on what Lynne said, for sales to be feeding back information to marketing as well. One of the reasons why I like to insist on some kind of service level agreement where we say sales have to action this lead within so many hours, 24 or 48, is because we need to get instant feedback to marketing to say is this working or not.

Marketing needs the information quickly to course correct. Nothing is worse than a sales team calling a bunch of leads, finding out they’re dud leads, not telling anybody about it, and then letting marketing continue down a path that’s not going to produce any wins. The salesperson is completely complicit in that and they need to take responsibility.

So the feedback mechanism is critical, because I think marketing has the ability, especially these days with much more modern marketing techniques, to quickly change course. So we want that feedback. The best customers that I’m working with, many of them are also using Salesforce.

You mentioned Chatter. They’re doing the same thing. They’ll have groups set up between inside sales marketing and sales when they’re working on new campaigns and they use Chatter to talk through the quality of the leads and what’s happening and the feedback they’re getting from their customers so that marketing and inside sales gets real time results that they can use to either stay the course or turn the ship, so to speak.


Zaledonis: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s not only great for getting feedback but building that rapport, becoming that trusted advisor to your sales rep constituency so that you’re able to be there for them and listen and learn. So these are ideal situations, but what about the situations where there isn’t a close relationship? Are there any other tips that you would recommend that sales leaders and marketing leaders take?


Francis: If they don’t have a close relationship? They need to work on that relationship first. I don’t think that these days we can afford to sell in silos or create marketing programs or lead programs in silos. Our buyers are sophisticated, and they respond to very sophisticated marketing campaigns.

Nothing is more client repellant than a customer who gets nurtured through a marketing campaign, has gone online, has downloaded, has listened to podcasts, read white papers, has given information, and then gets a sales rep on the phone who either ignores that or pretends he doesn’t know.

I say to sales audiences all the time, how do you feel when you call the utility company and you have to give the person on the phone your account number, and then you’re passed to someone else and you’re asked to punch in your account number all over again, and then you’re given to someone else and they ask you for your security code, your mother’s maiden name, and your dog’s birthday, and you think, “Come on. You have all this information.”

It’s no different in sales. When a buyer has been to your site and given you a whole bunch of information about who they are and what they’re looking for and the salesperson starts from scratch, “How did you find us?” It really is repellant behavior and buyers think, “Come on. Don’t you know this? I gave it to you already.” Sellers have to make sure that they’re using that information correctly to build rapport right from the beginning of the relationship.

And I know five years ago even, people were scared to say that. People were scared to say, “Hey, I saw you were on our site looking at ABC,” because they felt that was kind of stalker-ish. But now the new age of buyers expects that. They know we’re watching them, and they want to deal with people who have sophisticated data capture and information that they can use to tailor the solutions for them.

Think about it. It’s no different than customization on websites, when you go back to the site where you were shopping for jeans and they bring up the favorite pair of jeans that you didn’t buy. We like that, and so buyers like that in the business space as well.


Clarke: Clearly there’s so many conversations going on around intelligence and using data to really drive some of those intelligent conversations. I think a lot of times some salespeople can just give up way too easily. They may drop an email and they don’t get a response or they can drop a few phone calls, they don’t get a response. Sometimes they can assume that a non-responsive prospect is an uninterested one. Why are salespeople giving up too early?


Francis: Yeah, this is really fascinating conversation to me around mindset. Because sales reps need to have a very resilient mindset. We know that the best ones are very persistent but in a very professional way. Yet when I look at sales teams and I do an analysis of seller behavior, we still see that 80% of salespeople give up way to early. And they’re doing this for a few reasons.

The number one reason why they give up too early is they’re worried about being a stalker. And so they take that defeat. They think, “I can’t call this guy again. I’ve already called him three or four times.” That is part of the problem. They’re only using a single source of media.

So they’re forgetting in many cases, especially in traditional industries, that they should be reaching out in LinkedIn or they should send an email. That they have access to other sources of contacts that they should be using. And if they’re increasing the media, they can increase the frequency which will then encourage people to call back. I think the latest statistic I saw was we’re getting close to 10 attempts before somebody returns your call. And these are people who have shown interest in your product.


Zaledonis: That’s great tips, to not give up and to keep pursuing that. I think that it doesn’t stop once you get them on the phone, because then there’s this next level you talk about is treating them as peers. Talk a little bit about how we do that. How do we include them in this sales process once we get them across the line?


Francis: This is such a great point. Because in the last few years, we, being the collective sales expertise in worldwide, I’ve really talked about how you have to be a partner and an expert. People talk about content marketing and expertise selling and all things like that. What I’ve come to realize is that salespeople need to really become peers of the buyer.

The buyer, definitely they’re looking for an expert. Just call it the small e expert. They want to deal with someone who knows their stuff. But they also want to deal with someone who knows their stuff inside the buyer’s industry. So a peer of the buyer means I see you s an equal. The downside to salespeople as experts is let’s face it, salespeople have big, healthy egos. We have to in order to succeed.

And so an expert mindset sometimes inside that big, healthy ego comes across as a little bit of condescending to a buyer. We start to feel like we know more than them. We stop listening to the buyer because we think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You think your business is different, but I’ve been selling to this industry for 25 years.” And so we stop listening. We start pitching. We start to pay one-upmanship or a bit of a know-it-all attitude comes out. Buyers get turned off because what they’re looking for is someone that they regard as an equal or a business equal and a peer.

So what we want to do is to be asking questions, as always. That’s an age-old sales conversation. But get the buyer to also tell us what they know so we’re having an equal conversation. We’re drawing out from the buyer what they know. We’re sharing that information. We’re sharing success stories with them freely about other people who are peers in the industry that they can relate to, and we’re getting them to talk personally and professionally about the challenges that they’re facing.


Clarke: We’ve talked a lot around social media and doing research. You gave a couple of examples previously around really knowing that. One example [in a] B2C environment, the amount of times I call my bank and I give them all the automated information. I go through that process and then I get through to a real life person and then I have to start all over again, and that’s just me accessing a service. So if we then flip it over and say, “Actually I’m the buyer.” And if the seller is ignoring that information that’s already out there about me, it’s going to make me extremely frustrated.

So any tips there other than the obvious one of doing your research? Any tips for actually utilizing that research without sounding creepy? Sometimes someone could be tweeting about their baseball games. What’s the right balance there to ensure that you’ve done your research?


Francis: I believe that the balance is to keep it professional. I would never suggest that you bring up a, “Hey, I see your son hit a homerun last night,” because that’s a little creepy.

But if they have retweeted a press release from their company, or if they’ve published something about their company, or even if it was a personal page or their LinkedIn page they’ve retweeted an article from another business, to bring that up and say, “I really enjoyed the article that you posted on LinkedIn. What did you think of AB and C?” Or “Congratulations on the new building you guys are putting out. I saw online that you guys announced a new building in LA,” or whatever it happens to be.

Or if the company is using social media to promote a charity. I think a charity event is an okay thing. I would just stay away from the personal stuff. “Hey, I saw you were at so-and-so restaurant last night. How’d it go? Delicious steak you were having.” Yeah, I think that’s crossing the line.

But people who use social media professionally expect others to be looking at it. Isn’t that the whole point? I always say to my sellers, “Look, use Twitter as a listening device. Don’t use it as a broadcast device. Use it as a listening device.” Follow all of your customers and all of your best prospects. And when they post things, press releases or announcements, comment on it.

Send them a direct message on Twitter, or send them an email if you’re in a conversation or pick up the phone and call them if you have that relationship and say, “I just saw that” or “I really enjoyed that article you posted.” Or if you didn’t, “I’m curious about that article you posted. What in it resonated with you?” What you’re doing is you’re telling them in that case, “I’m listening to you.” And people wouldn’t be posting that information on their social sites if they didn’t want to be listened to.


Zaledonis: I love that analogy when we’re talking about moving out of the 1970s because one of the age-old tricks is to listen. A curious mind is one of the best traits of a sales rep. Now in an era of social media, listening can be listening to Twitter or listening to their social, so that’s great advice. I love that.

But that’s also a great way to get to know them a little bit better. It’s really tempting as a sales rep to not just want to jump right into their product. We’re having a conversation. The customer tells me their problem. And I immediately think in the back of my mind, “I could solve that problem with this product that I have.” It’s so tempting to do that.

But you talk about needing to guide the prospect through the funnel, taking them through this journey and together rather than jumping straight into the product. What tips do you have or how do I recognize where they are to align to that particular need in conversation?


Francis: Yeah, it is interesting because I do believe that the fastest way to get to the sale is to do two things incredibly well: not rush the relationship, because if you rush the relationship building portion of it then the buyer doesn’t trust you and you’re going to stall out at the end of the sales process. But also to make sure that your selling process and their buying process are aligned. This is where I do differ in opinion from a lot of other traditional sales trainers out there.

I will agree that there is a standard process that everyone goes through when buying and selling. There has to be some prequalification. You have to ask some questions. You have to make some kind of proposal, and you have to close the deal, so that’s natural. But the buyer may have additional steps or be moving at a different pace than you’re used to. And if you’re out of alignment with the buyer, then that’s what can create some friction.

So this is where being very in the moment. Although we’ve done some research and although we feel like we’ve got a good profile of the buyer that we’re sitting in front of, when you get in front of that buyer, you really have to empty your mind of everything else. You cannot go in with preconceived notions that, “Aha, because they are this type of person I’m going to sell this widget or this service, or because they are a bank I’m going to steer them in this direction.”

What we need to do is ask the sales type questions right up front to try to understand is there a compelling reason for them to switch. Is certainly of changing vendors really a possibility or are they just fishing for information? How much research have they done?

And if you feel like they’re a very well educated buyer, you need to tell them about that. “Hey you guys, you’ve done a ton of research on this. What directions are you leaning, or how long have you been looking at this, or how long has this been a problem for you?” But it’s those kinds of soft questions that are the questions that make you appear like a peer and help you build the relationship.

Most sales reps that I meet are very good at I’ll call it the technical questions of their business. A Salesforce sales rep cannot produce a quote without knowing how many users there’s going to be, what kind of infrastructure they’re running. Are they going to be on a mobile device as well as a laptop and a tablet? Who’s the administrator? Those kind of questions are the technical questions. What functionality, what add-ons do they need, all those kinds of things. Do they need a quote tool and a coaching tool? And my clients are very good at that.

I do a ton of work in the commodities industries and the oil guys all know “How big is your fleet?” But what they can’t ask is the monetary value of the problem that they’re facing. Or even questions like, “What’s the criteria for making a decision?” You’re looking at two very good suppliers. How are you going to know which one is the right one for you?

Those questions take time and they’re uncomfortable for sales reps because they’re where we might face rejection. They’re all in a sense trial close questions, yet they’re the ones that help to enhance the relationship and make sure that you and the buyer are in sync with the process.


Clarke: Perfect. I know we’re [almost] come up on time. We’ve got a quick couple of other questions. I know in the article you really talk about building a buying vision. And then from my experience as well, it’s really almost telling other customer stories and using these case studies and other testimonials to really help that buyer to see what is the potential and to see that vision. Do you want to just expand a little bit on that in terms of what salespeople should be doing in order to really build this buying vision?


Francis: Yeah, buying visions I think are the number one sales tool. It’s fascinating to me, Tim, how whenever I get sales teams together who are maybe national or international, they get together and they start talking and they say things to each other like, “Wow, I didn’t know they were a customer,” or “Wow, you sold that deal?” or “Really? We could do that?” It’s amazing how little information gets shared inside the organization.

A buying vision is helping the customer see themselves using your product. It’s about first of all truly understanding where it is they’re having problems that you’re trying to solve or where it is that they’re trying to improve, so if they’re already good how to get them to exceptional. Then rather than pitching products and services, sharing examples from other people like them.

Salespeople need to become really good storytellers. I don’t believe that we can anymore get away with just slapping down some paper case studies or putting video testimonials on our website.

Those things are still okay. But what a salesperson needs to get very good at doing is saying, “I understand what you’re saying. It’s like this. For example, at ABC Corporation,” or if they can use their name, “or at another insurance company last week, the owner told me, and what we did was, and the result ended up as. Does that sound like something that would work for you?”

Then the buyers start to create that vision and they’ll either add to it or they’ll accept it. They’ll say, “Yes, but we want to do that nationally. Has that ever been done before?” And you can then use another example. “Absolutely. Let me use an example from the paper industry, if you don’t mind.”

And so as the buyer starts to see other people using the product successfully, they create a vision of what it looks like for them. Once they’ve created and articulated that vision to you, then all you have to do is put it on paper so that they can sign the contract. It’s their vision.


Zaledonis: All right Colleen, so give me the bottom line. What do sales reps need to do about their selling methods in order to bring them into this decade?


Francis: You know what, it’s not just sales reps if I could be fair. I’m not trying to skirt your question. I will get to that in a second.


Zaledonis: All right.


Francis: But frankly the problem of closing ratios exists because despite kabillions of dollars being spent on the issue, sales managers have been trying to solve the problem using decades old techniques. So sales managers have been very, very slow to adopt new selling models, new selling strategies, new commission models. Sales managers have often stood in the way of getting sales and marketing together to create a common language around leads.

I’ve been telling audiences recently, “The reason why your sales are not improving is because it’s you as managers. You’re the ones responsible.” Sales managers have to start changing the way they’re managing their teams absolutely. I think they need to be looking at new compensation models that really reward acceleration. I think they need to be looking at all of the different levers in their organization and turning every division into a profit center starting with marketing, making sure marketing and sales are aligned.

And I think they need to be demanding performance. Nothing is worse to me than a sales manager who says, “Yeah, I know Colleen is not hitting her target but she’s not hurting anyone. It’s better than an empty desk,” but I’m actually dragging the whole team down.

One of the reasons why if you look at overall sales closing ratios don’t increase in organizations, it’s because the number one A player who might have a very, very strong closing ratio gets sick and tired of working with B players and leaves. And so rather than leveraging what that A player is doing and having him coach the rest of the team to great performance, he leaves and now we’re stuck with a bunch of B players.

One of the things that I think sales reps really need to do is this. I’ve decided that I’m going to go on record as a sales trainer who’s telling organizations, “You do not need more outside help with sales training.” What you need to do is take a look at your number one top performer in the business who’s probably closing 40% and doing in a way that’s resonating with your market today. And you need to capture that information. What is he or she doing?

Once you’ve internalized it into your organization, you’ve made it conscious in your organization, then it can be leveraged to every single other person. I call this concept “use your best to coach the rest.” Every single player on that sales team needs to look at what is actually working in the market today and do that in the market.

That will include things like how to be peers with your customer. It will include making sure that you’re getting rid of the poorest leads, not wasting time on bad leads. It will include partnering with marketing to make sure you’re being fed the right number and right quality of leads as well. And it will insure that you’re asking those tough questions.



Clarke: Great, thanks so much, Colleen, for sharing some of your insights there. Hopefully for any salespeople listening, they’ll really start to think about some of the ways they can improve following up on those leads. So thanks, Colleen, for sharing all of your insights.


Francis: It was my great pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me.


Clarke: Thank you, and thanks also to Lynne for being our guest host today.


Zaledonis: It was a lot of fun. Great insights from Colleen and appreciate you having me on, Tim.


Clarke: Perfect, thank you.

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