Bringing in more revenue isn’t just about getting people to sell – it’s about a process and formula, reveals Entrepreneurs Panel member Titus Sharpe.
The biggest strategic shift I made in my business was sparked by a single light bulb moment. A chance meeting that transformed how we approach sales, led to us going from being a £25 million revenue business to a £100 million revenue business in four years.
Here’s how it all happened – and how you can do it too.
Learning from the best
At a conference six years ago, I got chatting to Måns Hultman, one of Europe’s most successful business leaders. If you haven’t heard of Måns, he was the CEO and chairman of data analytics firm QlikTech throughout most of the 2000s. During Måns’ time as CEO, QlikTech was the fastest growing software company in the world that led to a highly successful IPO in 2010.
What stunned me most about Måns was his attitude to sales. I used to think sales was just something you did. Our strategy was, essentially, hire a good sales person, and let them get on with it. If you see results, you keep them on and encourage them. If they don’t deliver, then you manage them out of the business.
But what I learnt from Måns was that there is a total science to sales. This needs to be developed, taught and embedded within your team. Måns’ whole outlook was around curating all the stages you need to go through to turn an interest into a sale. Then, creating an amazing onboarding and training programme.
This was incredibly precise. For example, he said you should never have sales people working with more than 25 clients or prospects. Then he had set goals for what everyone should be delivering each month. His belief was, if the sales team aren’t performing to that, they aren’t good enough. It’s about giving sales people everything they need and telling them exactly what steps to take in what order to achieve an outcome, so they can’t fail.
So I took five of my most senior commercial people to meet Måns and his team. We learnt about his experience of taking a business from $1 million revenue to $500 million revenue over three years, and how they thought about the structure of the sales team, the onboarding process and their KPIs.
Here are the crucial steps we took.
Developing a formula
Måns saw sales as a complete formula built around a brilliant process to create a great sale. You put in a lead, then you generate these five chemical reactions, and at the end – you get a sale. You measure every single component of that process. This could involve talking to a lead, establishing their needs, and following up with the relevant materials.
You might not necessarily follow every single step in each sale. It might also be different for different businesses.
But what’s most important is to set out your stall, so all sales people can learn that process, and succeed.
Rethinking the onboarding process
Previously, our thinking was very much, “they’ve done sales before, so they know how to sell”. It was a day of orientation to learn the business and our key terms and topics. Then we literally let them get on with it and find their own clients.
Now, we have a seven-step sales process. We dedicate almost a week of training per step, fully drilling down into each one. For example, there’s a whole week dedicated to how to have a great sales call, on which people are taught and evaluated. Then you go onto face to face meetings and so on.
Our sales training has gone from eight hours to 90 days. Its depth is profound in comparison to what it was previously.
Identifying solid KPIs
Måns had a graph which showed the trajectories of the sales team and what they should be delivering after six months. This has a huge impact on your organisation, if you think about 10 new sales people starting and working to this timeline.
This then became our most strategic sales KPI: the average sales revenues a new salesperson was doing after six months. This was more sophisticated than our previous thinking of “let’s make our revenue bigger”, which just wasn’t scientific enough.
There were, of course, lots of other KPIs we created around how we industrially scale our sales process. But that became our central one, which was a seismic shift for the business to focus on.
Making the necessary team changes
We took a huge leap of faith and actually took our best sales person off sales. This seems completely counter-intuitive, but we wouldn’t be where we are today otherwise.
This particular director was brilliant. So to actually move him away to focus on engineering the sales process and training people in it was heart-wrenching.
It was one of the hardest things we had to do. As a small business, you’re desperate for sales, and taking a step like that will naturally affect results in the short term. And for the sales director, it was a challenging cultural change, as he had been selling for the last five years. Now he wasn’t being commercial any more. He was a sales trainer and sales process engineer, so that was tough for him.
But we needed someone senior enough and with good enough general business skills that they had the ability to push the project through. We needed to make this investment into our future, and sure enough, it paid off.
Turning recruitment on its head
In the past, we’d just hired sales people. But we realised these people need to be intelligent enough to have serious conversations with CEOs, CMOs and sales directors. Because essentially, we’re selling a growth product.
So we started hiring smart graduates, and people who had enough gravitas to sit in a room with a CEO. That was fundamental.
Then we noticed the best salespeople we were hiring had done something entrepreneurial themselves. They’d set up a business while at university, or worked on a startup.
That kind of entrepreneurial spirit was indicative of a good commercial mind. Someone who was commercially curious, with a desire to be in business and keen to get ahead.
Before that, we’d hired people like secondhand car salespeople. They hadn’t been very good, and we’d try and work out why. It became clear they weren’t communicating effectively with senior business leaders about growth and their challenges. That ability to learn about these issues, and talk meaningfully about them, was critical.
Then of course, if you hire secondhand car salespeople, you’ll get secondhand car sales account management. The quality of our service is now 10 times better because of the quality of the conversation and trust clients can build with us.
Our clients now have highly intelligent, emotionally sensitive, switched on proactive people working with them. Having them on the frontline listening to customers means we’ve also been able to evolve our products more intuitively in line with their needs.
Where we are now
Today, MVF has got a phenomenal sales organisation of 80 people with a brilliant onboarding process, some incredible sales executives, managers and leaders – all down to that decision we made in 2015.
The people we hired in our first sales academy cohort are now the heart and soul of MVF’s management. If we hadn’t changed our outlook on recruitment, we wouldn’t have anywhere near the management capability we do now.
Thanks to Måns, I realised the organic strategy works well if you have enough senior people in your team to show junior people what to do. But to create an industrial scale sales organisation, you need to create an industrial formula. He made me understand why we had to engineer this kind of sales factory.
What we did five years ago still resonates across the business today. We’d probably be half the size we are today, or maybe even smaller. It was the biggest strategic shift we’ve ever made – and we’ve never looked back.