Rivers of Revenue: Thought Leadership with Kristin Zhivago

Sales Marketing Alignment


Kristin Zhivago The next interview in our B2B Marketing thought leader interview series is with Kristin Zhivago. She is a “revenue coach” and a proponent of uncovering and meeting customer expectations to increase sales. Kristen is the author of “Rivers of Revenue: What to do when the money stops flowing” as well as the Revenue Journal blog, and is founder of Zhivago Management Partners, Inc.

1. Tell us a little bit about how you got into sales and what you like most about it.

I started out selling machine shop tools for a Pratt & Whitney distributor when I was 17. My boss told me I was the first woman to sell machine shop tools in the US, gave me a catalog, and sent me out to sell. My first lesson: You’d better know your products — and how they compare to competitive products — before you can call yourself a salesperson. That first experience made me decide to learn everything I could about technology (which I am still doing), and to get smarter about selling (ditto).

After several years of selling all types of products, it was obvious to me that salespeople were often sent into the field under-equipped. I decided to focus on marketing, to see what I could do about that. Literally thousands of consulting assignments later, I am still devoting myself to improving both selling and marketing.

I focus on bringing the company’s selling process into alignment with the customer’s buying process. Doing this, I have been able to unite selling and marketing people — and company management — in a way that they have never been united before. Without this customer-centric focus, marketing and selling efforts are always at political loggerheads. On top of being out of touch with what the customer is looking for, marketing and selling are fighting with each other instead of complementing each other. In companies where we have made these changes, the former enemies are working in concert, revenue is up, and everyone is happy to come to work in the morning.

What I like most about selling is how, if you’re doing it right, it forces you to see the world from the customer’s perspective — a lesson in humility — and to constantly challenge yourself to do better. You can only succeed at selling if you are always learning.

2. Your recent post, Marketing VP: Role and responsibilities, recommends companies combine the roles of sales and marketing VP, thereby, putting the same person in charge of lead acquisition and lead conversion. In your experience, have you seen companies implement this strategy for better sales and marketing alignment, and what type of success has it produced?

I have helped companies implement this strategy. The success of the effort can be seen and measured in the precise coordination between marketing and sales, and a rigorous attention to sales follow up. Leads don’t “fall through the cracks” when an operations type is in charge of lead acquisition and conversion. And, as you would expect, when the person who brings in the lead is also held responsible for the conversion of the lead, the entire process is managed with an unprecedented diligence.

The “perfect” person to be in charge of both lead acquisition and lead conversion would be someone who is more operations-oriented than marketing or sales-oriented. The right title for this position would be VP, Buying Process Support. The person’s assignment would be to make sure the customer’s buying process was supported every step of the way, and that all sales would be tracked from initial contact to post-sales satisfaction.

The current traditional division between “marketing” and “selling” no longer matches the customer’s buying process. Unfortunately, the talent pool in sales and marketing has not caught up with the market’s need. It is very difficult to find operations types who have sales and marketing experience.

Of course, this post generated quite a bit of controversy, mostly from salespeople who were (naturally) miffed that I would suggest they be managed by a marketing person. I frankly agree with their concerns. Marketing people with no sales experience can be clueless about the harsh realities of selling, and can make some inappropriate decisions as a result. However, the old-school “push ’em until they cave” methods of selling don’t work anymore, which means that the sales manager who espouses these methods is no longer effective either. I could easily argue that these methods never did work that people bought products and services in spite of irritating sales techniques — but now it’s more obvious than ever that customers are not “caving.”

The customers’ buying process is completely different than it used to be, and companies of all sizes are still trying to catch up with this shift.

Before, when a customer called a salesperson, he had about 20% of his questions answered, and needed a salesperson to answer the other 80%. Now, in our Google-dominated world, by the time the customer contacts a salesperson, he has 80% of his questions answered and he is looking for answers to the remaining 20% — and those questions are very specific to his situation. This means that the marketing people must be answering as many questions as possible on the website, and that the salespeople need to be more knowledgeable than ever about the finer details of their products. Both groups need to do a much better job of answering customer questions.

Today, revenue comes from constant attention to follow up, thorough training of salespeople (both product education and customer needs education), and solid search engine, website, and conversion strategies. In the article, I say that an operations-oriented marketing person should be in charge overall, and a sales coach should work for that marketing person. I suggested this because it’s as close as one can expect to get to the ideal, given the current talent pool. And, it assumes that the marketing person has in-the-field sales experience (rare) and is doing a good job of tracking leads to sales made. You can’t manage the sales process without this information.

The success produced by putting one person in charge of lead acquisition and lead conversion is completely dependent on two things: tracking the conversion process, as I’ve mentioned, and daily followup with salespeople, to make sure they are pursuing all leads in a timely manner.

Followup is the most important, and most often overlooked, aspect of sales management. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You can have a 15-minute daily meeting, where the only topic of conversation is, “What are you working on, and what’s the status?” Anything acting as a barrier to the sale should be identified and eliminated, as quickly as possible. For example, customers tend to ask the same questions of salespeople. Unmanaged salespeople might answer a question in different ways — or even give different answers. Instead, they should have a repository of answers at their fingertips, so they can answer these questions — immediately, honestly, intelligently, and thoroughly. This daily meeting is also a way to uncover any leads that have not been pursued.

In the Google-dominated buying process, by the time a customer has identified herself to you, she has pre-qualified herself, and it’s your sale to lose. Salespeople either lose the sale because they don’t get back to the customer, or because when they do, they say things that drive the customer away. Both of these issues must be addressed by a sales coach.

A buyer will always try to give her business to the company that is most helpful. Answering her questions, in a timely manner and to her satisfaction, will put you at the top of the “preferred” list. You will be the company most likely to make the sale.

3. In just the past year, what are the most effective lead management strategies you’ve seen implemented by a company.

The most effective lead management technique I’ve seen — not just this last year, but at any time — was one where the salespeople called the prospect 15 minutes after that person downloaded a white paper from the site. The person actually appreciated the call, was able to ask additional questions, and was impressed with the company’s efficiency. The company used this method to become the vendor of choice early in the customer’s buying process. The time to talk to a buyer about their interest in your product is when that buyer is thinking about your product. If they are downloading a white paper, they’re (obviously) thinking about your product, and will be open to further discussion.

4. Conversely, in just the past year, what do you see as the biggest lead management mistake implemented, and how could it have been avoided?

One of my clients had a bully of a sales manager who was constantly pushing the salespeople to do things that made them — and their customers — uncomfortable. Meanwhile, perfectly good leads were going unaddressed. After they finally dismissed this person, the typical response, from customers and employees, was, “What took you so long?” Their sales have been healthy since then — in spite of the economy — because they are focusing more on supporting the customer’s buying process.

In general, all companies could improve their lead followup systems. They simply aren’t paying enough attention to what is happening with leads. Salespeople are not being held accountable, which means they will pursue the leads they prefer and ignore the rest. I see so much energy expended on acquiring leads and very little energy expended on making sure they are serviced properly. It’s an age-old problem that can only be solved by putting one person in charge of both acquisition and conversion.

5. What are your top 3 tips to help sales teams identify and focus on the best sales leads?

  1. Nothing is as important as timely followup. In my experience, salespeople in all industries are under-performing by 60%. Either they don’t follow up soon enough, or when they do, they don’t “hear” what the customer is saying and they end up convincing the customer that he would be better off taking his business elsewhere. Customers expect an immediate response to an inquiry email. Not only does this seldom happen, but those “web form” inquiries are often ignored completely. Any CEO looking for higher revenue should look here first — and put people and systems in place to make sure that all leads are attended to, the minute they came into the company.
  2. Use data to make decisions, not superstition. Salespeople tend to take one situation and apply it to all. They may have called on one type of company once, and found it unsatisfying. From that point forward, they will probably avoid calling on that type of company. Proper data gathering and analysis — which should be the responsibility of a “data master” inside marketing – will put the superstitions to rest and make sure decisions are driven by reality. Everyone in marketing, sales, and management should know which customers are the “best” customers, but they should also assume that anyone who has contacted them is already a hot prospect — and should be treated as one.
  3. Without proper coaching, salespeople can easily and routinely chase customers away. An inside or outside coach should listen to recorded sales calls and discuss them with the salesperson who made those calls. Analysis and solutions should focus on lost opportunities – such as when a customer is providing a little information, but would be willing to give more if the salesperson would only ask for it.

6. Wild Card: What question or topic would you like to address?

Buyers will not tell you what they are really thinking during their buying process — none of us tell salespeople what we are really thinking while making a purchase — but after the sale is made, customers are happy to tell you what was going through their minds and what was driving their decisions.

This information can be used to reverse-engineer a successful sale, understand what must be done to make it easy for the customer to buy, then manufacture future sales. A skillful phone interview, during which open-ended questions are asked, will uncover the customer’s expectations and disappointments, and the ramifications of actions taken by salespeople. Using this data, changes can be made that will have a direct, positive impact on the company’s revenue.