“As Sales leaders it is up to us to chart a new course for revenue growth”. – Lauren Kelly, Chief Marketing Officer, Former PepsiCo & Dell Executive, ThoughtExchange
It’s no secret that the sales division has had to adapt quickly to rapidly changing social, financial, and logistical pressures since the start of 2020. Components that were previously considered immutable in the sales strategy plan have shifted overnight and, with them, revenue generation standards have been permanently altered. Sales under stress isn’t new, but by all accounts, 2020 was the year in which businesses either sank or swam financially speaking.
Catering to shifting revenue generation requirements will define the immediate future of your sales strategy plan and for senior sales leaders like Lauren Kelly of ThoughtExchange and Rainer Stern of SAP, it’s fast become a business critical objective. With this in mind, here are 5 of the most senior leaders in the sales industry on how they’re pivoting and altering their approach, driving lead and revenue generation opportunities, and navigating the potential threats that sales teams could face in the near future to ultimately meet the needs of the more informed contemporary buyer.
1. Leadership and the CSO
Disruption waits for no organization. Accelerating growth in unpredictable times such as these is vital and in that, today’s sales leaders need to be able to adapt to major shifts in working conditions overnight. More than this though, executives must situate themselves as figureheads within their organization, to take advantage of their leadership capital and use it to inspire success within the sales division. It’s a trait that Lauren Kelly reflected on during March’s RevGen summit.
Lauren Kelly works as the Chief Marketing Officer for ThoughtExchange and previously worked as a sales executive for PepsiCo & Dell. Appointed during February 2021, Lauren has been focused on growing the market opportunity for the organization through an extensive rebranding campaign and ongoing innovations. She previously oversaw the global strategy for Dell’s 25,000+ person go-to-market organization and was responsible for commercializing a $57B technology solutions portfolio.
In her keynote discussion focused on plotting a new course for revenue growth, Kelly began by defining the atmosphere of sobering change present at the beginning of the 20’s, stating “2020 was really a year of unimagined disruption, it didn’t just disrupt where we worked, it upended the way that leaders and their organizations created value”. This notion of leadership was central to Lauren’s discussion in that ultimately, only leaders can unlock the potential and grapple with the complex decisions needed to allow everyone on the team to move forward, faster.
In recent memory we’ve seen the sales strategy plan and business priorities shift like never before thanks to ongoing technological innovation, in line with this, Kelly suggested that our “solutions need to be able to match the pace of market disruption”. To this end, leaders need their employees to be adaptable and reactive; it’s up to leadership to inspire staff to excel in this way, pivotally as she suggests, “your ability to drive growth and success for your business relies on your leadership capital.”
Leadership capital is the most valuable commodity to executives and particularly CSOs at this time. Change isn’t just driven by the c-suite, it’s driven by staff members in the day-to-day and with that said, leaders need to utilize their position as trusted advisors to encourage employees to aim higher. As Kelly suggested herself, 2020 was a trying year but, there were significant benefits, “what we’ve all realized as leaders is that it was up to us to chart a new course for revenue growth”, it’s time now to deliver. Once leaders have taken advantage of this capital though, how can they take steps to simplify operations further within their respective organizations?
2. VUCA and the CSO
We live in uncertain times subject to certain change and, with that in mind, the VUCA model of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity has become a common means of tackling business challenges in the day-to-day. First used in 1987 and drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, VUCA was adopted to help define global uncertainty following the Cold War. Given the tumultuous events in recent business history though, many sales teams are now looking to VUCA to address change, this formed the basis of Rainer Stern’s keynote at the RevGen EU summit.
Working as Global Vice President for Sales Acceleration & Leadership at SAP, Rainer is currently responsible for the delivery of high impact enablement programs for Sales and Leadership. He has helped to design and deliver programs that radically increase sales efficiency, effectiveness and success to give SAP added external recognition in the market. VUCA Prime, the behavioural leadership model established by Robert Johansen in 2007, has been key to realizing these projects.
Where the VUCA model looks to define our nebulous and shifting socio-economic landscape, VUCA Prime looks to provide strategic advice on how leaders can pivot to ease the influence of unpredictable, external factors. Rainer walked us through each to help provide a quick guide for sales executives to help them to deliver results and realize quicker wins.
- VOLATILITY < VISION: To combat the aforementioned uncertainty in your industry or sales division it is crucial that we, “counter Volatility with Vision”. To do so you must “create a compelling vision and values for your people. Give them clear focus as a leader and help them to react quickly to change.” Reactivity is invaluable at this time; it’s time to ensure it.
- UNCERTAINTY < UNDERSTANDING: To challenge a lack of comprehension across the business Rainer suggests we “meet Uncertainty with Understanding, what are your competitors doing? What’s new in your industry? When you are in the know, you’ll be able to anticipate threats and take advantage of new opportunities”, tangible goals are essential.
- COMPLEXITY < CLARITY: Simplifying your processes should be paramount at this time, to this end, Rainer states, “react to Complexity with Clarity. This means giving up traditional concepts of strategy and leadership. Be crystal clear when you communicate, promote teamwork and collaboration”. In short, Executives must be leaders and human connectors.
- AMBIGUITY < AGILITY: Finally, leaders must combat the obscure, or as Rainer suggests, “fight Ambiguity with Agility. As a leader you need to be open to more than just one interpretation, you need to stay adaptable even during uncertain times, to see connections and gain different perspectives”. By doing so, sales staff will see what is required of them.
In Rainer’s words, “human interaction remains the key component for change in business, both now and in the future”; by adopting the qualities outlined by the VUCA Prime approach we can better prepare & converse with sales staff to combat the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous to drive success and simplify. Once we’ve streamlined operations though, how can executive leaders continue to prepare for unforeseen threats?
3. Threats, Training and the CSO
2021 has – in many ways – been the year to stop and take stock of the challenges ahead. After having emerged from the uncertainty of 2020, sales leaders have used this time to take stock of any and all potential threats to revenue generation that could pose risks not just in 2021 but beyond. In particular, leaders are struggling to redefine prioritization strategies and effectively forecast & cater to the digital customer, overcoming these issues formed the focus of Kelly Riggs’ keynote speech.
As author of Counter Mentor Leadership and President, Founder and Chief Sales Officer for The Business LockerRoom, Kelly Riggs is a senior sales executive who specialises in sales training, management leadership coaching, and strategic planning. He has helped many companies to build effective strategic policy whilst supporting and developing high-performance salespeople and impact-driven management leaders. In short, Kerry is passionate about sales training and excellence.
Though the aforementioned sales issues may seem insurmountable, they all share one common thread, “when we talk about the threat landscape in 2021, I think the largest issue is still the most obvious one and that’s the inability for companies to pivot based on current circumstances”. Few organizations prepared for a pandemic as there no perceived reason to do so, the need to quickly spin up a response has meant that, “suddenly we were having to deal with a moving target”.
Hitting that moving target has fast become the aim of CSOs everywhere but as Riggs inferred, there needs to be a sales step change, “as the buying process itself changes, we need to change the way we look at what we do as salespeople”. There is no better means of altering operational protocol than by training, it’s something that no CSO can avoid, “as sales leaders, we need to look carefully at how we’re training all of our sales people at every connection level, whether internal or external”.
The ‘New Normal’ of selling has altered the role of sales staff; digital over physical has become the reality for many and as Riggs suggests, “people buy from people that they trust, and building trust is that much more difficult when you’re talking about using technology”. As Riggs added, “as someone who trains sales people for a living, sales training is not very effective. It’s not because we’re not teaching the right things, it’s because the system is broken”.
We need to train our sales staff for the new reality and help them to “develop the emotional intelligence to interact with people in this kind of scenario”, this is how the modern seller must work, developing a personal, human connection with those that they sell to. As Riggs concluded, “it’s critically important that we humanize ourselves as salespeople and humanize our customer or prospect so that we are building that relationship”. Clearly then, training is critical, but what qualities should we look for in salespeople and what does the ideal salesperson look like?
4. The Salesperson and the CSO
As 2021 has progressed, it’s been vital for sales leaders to clarify not just the key learnings of 2020, but where they’re situated within the status quo of their vertical market. Within most businesses, sales functions have seen, and continue to witness massive change. From increased automation, virtual selling practices and ensuring that sales has a seat at the table, its essential that people don’t become a weak link in the chain, a point Anita Nielsen focused on during her keynote discussion.
Sitting as President for LDK Advisory Services, Anita Nielsen is a sales performance coach and consultant with over twenty years of experience in B2B sales and support, she works to help organizations to develop a customized sales strategy plan based on their particular cultural requirements, business needs, tactical challenges, and professional objectives. Additionally, she is also the author of Beat the Bots, her guide to prevailing out over technology in the digital-first world.
Many sales professionals think of 2020 as the sea-change for revenue generation opportunities, but as Anita suggests, “over the past decade we’ve seen a lot of change in terms of the relationship between buyer and seller”, it’s this mutable quality that helped executives and organizations to pivot so ably to the realities of remote selling. As outlined above, this flexibility has come to define modern salespeople and as Anita adds, “the people that are adapting and growing, they’re the ones that are going to continue to be successful and that’s what the modern sales professional is like”.
But what does the salesperson of the future look like and what qualities must we encourage and discourage in order to foster them? According to Anita, “the salesperson of the future has got to be able to look at data and say this is what my sales strategy plan needs to look like because of this data”. Essentially, future salespeople need to look at industry specific data on a page, draw the requisite insight(s) from that data and then apply that back to the strategy, as Anita posited, “one of the biggest things that salespeople are going to need to be able to do is get good at contextualizing”.
This is a quality that CSOs must foster and cater to within their own organization but pivotally, it’s something that we must also be target during the recruitment process, a point that Anita concurred with: “we need to revamp the entire process from recruting to interviewing and do it through the lens of, what knowledge am I looking for? What skills do I need?”. CSOs must go after the skills they require, and as Anita adds, “we need to exercise our curiosity as much as possible in the interview”. Once we’ve built a team of innovative salespeople though, how do we keep them ahead of change?
5. Change and the CSO
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as business-as-usual. Covid-19 was arguably the most significant black swan event for this generation of business and with that in mind, future-proofing the organization for change and protecting revenue generation opportunities has become the new global gold standard for CSOs. Sales staff sit at the frontline of all current change and have to be more versatile than ever, a matter that Larry Long Jr was keen to address.
Larry Long Jr is the Founder and CEO of Larry Long Jr LLC, an organization focused on sales motivation, inspiration, training and coaching. He is also Co-Founder and Lead Instructor of The Sales Allies, an online sales training course and supportive community designed to uplift those in sales. With a demonstrated history of success in SaaS sales, Larry brings a unique perspective to the table and understands many of the challenges faced by sales professionals today.
One of the most significant of these challenges is that many sales leaders don’t prioritize what really matters, as Larry puts it, “we all know that we’ve got to care for our clients, care for our customers, care for our prospects but are you caring for your employees?” The expectations made of sales staff have never been greater, and as such, there needs to be greater provision paid to their mental and physical health as salespeople aren’t obliged to you. As Larry inferred “the race for talent is heating up, what are you doing to ensure that you keep your top sellers and that they don’t look elsewhere?”
CSOs have to embrace their people like never done before and in this way, they’ve had to adopt the leadership skills that we’d more typically associate with those in HR, as Larry suggested, “I don’t care if you’re in B2B, I don’t care if you’re in B2C, we’re all in person-to-person business and keeping that in mind, you’ve got to make sure that you care for your employees.” For too long sales – and the wider business – has focused on the wrong things, now is the time to embrace a better model for sales, one that looks to serve salespeople rather that supersede them, in Larry’s words, “I think that empathy was the word of 2020, but we should always have been empathetic”.
Times have changed and the sales strategy plan must change with them, it isn’t enough to aim for pre-pandemic standards as, “what got us here and allowed us to have success before, that’s not going to allow us to have success in the future”. Sales leaders will always be driven by the value that they create for their respective organizations and it’s a point that Larry acquiesces to but this does not mean that reacting to change isn’t possible, “I’m a sales leader, I know that we’ve got to hit numbers, but in addition to it we’ve got to help our people learn and grow.”
By incorporating each of the strategies outlined by the executives above, sales leaders of every kind can put themselves on track to delivering a sales strategy plan that works not just for the company but for sales staff as well, in this way, any organization can align themselves to the future of sales and the modern sales strategy plan requirements.
Post-Summit Reporting –
GDS’ CMO Brand summits bring renowned senior marketing executives together to connect and provide insights. If you are a leader in this space, don’t miss out on the opportunity to engage with other Chief Executive, VP and Director Level Leaders who are driving change both now and into the future.
Not simply comprised of the keynotes we host, summits also provide interactive Q&A and polls as well as breakout sessions, roundtables and 1-1 business meetings with executives. Across each of these, we asked leading sales executives about their top spending focuses and at what stage in the process they were in implementing these transformation initiatives, the results of which can be seen below.
As CSOs continue to broaden their departmental scope, it’s essential that their division generates the data and insights necessary to amend and support the wider businesses’ sales strategy plan. This, as Anita Nielsen suggested, will be key to the development of the sales leader of the future. With this in mind it’s not surprising that many organizations have invested in the software that helps them to better track calls and log sales activity. With an average spend of $10million this forms one of the principle concerns of the moment for CSOs
As Kelly Riggs suggested above, “people by from people” and this could account for the relative lack of investment being seen in AI sales systems at this time. After a year of lockdowns, remote work and social distancing, it’s likely that many people prefer to engage on a more human level, this is likely why it fell so far down the list of executive priority. In fact, according to a February 2021 report from McKinsey, 64% of B2B organizations intend to increase the number of hybrid sellers in their employ; it seems then that the priority for the immediate future at least, is to upskill employees to sell to customers across a range of touchpoints, for now, machines are playing second fiddle.
RevGen May & March 2021 – In Review
Sales has changed. Touchpoints have changed. The customer has changed. It’s all amounted to a perfect storm of disruption for the sales division at the start of the 20’s and although we’ve managed to adapt ably to the new challenges put before us, there is still a great deal of work to do. Candidly, CSOs will bear the brunt of responsibility in helping us to realize revenue generation opportunities for the future, but equally, the blueprint to success is already within reach.
We’ve already discussed the expectations being made of the salesperson of the future; it’s time now for our industries to assess what they need from the Chief Sales Officer in the future. As the industry experts have suggested, CSOs must be more compassionate, forward-thinking and threat-aware than ever before, in doing so, they can help to bring about a future of sales that works not just for the bottom-line but for employees and customers too. To this end, sales may have changed, but there can be no doubt that it was a change that the sales strategy plan urgently needed.
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