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A Meticulous Pathway to Sales Growth: The Sales Operating Blueprint

Author: Mark Ward

Mark Ward has over 20 years of experience as a Management Consultant building organizational effectiveness. He has worked with many global brands to improve sales and leadership capability.

Integrate differentiated opportunity management processes into a system that produces operational rigour and discipline. Calibrate the system against how your buyers purchase your products and services. Enjoy the benefits of a Sales Operating Blueprint that drives uniformity and consistency, and above all, increases sales velocity – the speed at which opportunities are either qualified out, or progress through the sales cycle towards the win.

Consider the philharmonic orchestra at the apex of a masterpiece, where up to one hundred instruments from five different instrumental families come together to produce the symphony. In linking the many specialist and differentiated parts of the orchestra together the conductor opens the way for the emergence of something that classic music lovers might call mesmerising, profound even. Can you recall the ferocious screaming of the V12 engines powering the Formula 1 racing cars throughout the 1990’s and the early years of the new millennium? The integration of the specialist parts of the powertrain – the combustion chamber, cylinders, pistons, exhaust values – all combined to produce a power in performance that is both brutal and exquisite. Every horsepower and every decibel arrested our senses because they were the product of integration done well.

This attention to expert integration is the starting point. I define integration as the linkage of differentiated parts in a system that, by themselves, can be considered specialised in what they do, and when connected to each other move the whole to a harmonious and synergistic flow. When done expertly in a business system it can have transformative power and an impact on performance that leaves business leaders rejoicing the investments made (and often wondering what took them so long).

This article focuses on sales engine integration and on optimising the collaboration between its contributing functions by developing a Sales Operating Blueprint that brings excellence to opportunity management. If designed correctly, this is the output that makes the difference. I will outline five principles for successful design that experience has shown me works particularly well, before concluding with some barriers to undertaking this work.

The Benefits

Far-reaching benefits can be expected when a sales integration programme is executed well to produce an optimally defined blueprint. Crucially, these benefits tend to cascade. As mentioned above, one of the more immediate metrics to shift is pipeline velocity. Sales velocity is the measurement of how fast you are making money, so it really matters. When processes that produce critical outputs do so quicker and with greater accuracy, improved cohesion in the different collaborations produce more output with less physical and emotional cost. Winning faster and more often will transform morale across the company which in turn impacts engagement and productivity. A winning culture and efficient processes make attracting the best and brightest sales talent much easier, thus creating a positive impact across the business and increasing the probability of high sales growth. 

What is the Sales Operating Blueprint?

A Sales Operating Blueprint can be thought of as an operating system (OS) user guide for opportunity management. It isn’t a detailed manual, but a summarised schematic diagram with representation of the essential elements. Ideally, it should avoid unnecessary detail but possess an impeccable structure. Once created, it serves as a formidable sales tool that has utility for governance, structural and process integrity, as well as ancillary benefits like speeding up the onboarding process and enriching coaching conversations.  

The blueprint typically contains the revenue cycle map/model beginning with the front-of-funnel lead generation, progressing through the validation of value proposals, before contracting and ending at the point when revenue begins to flow. It shows the sales and marketing interdependencies and resource alignment. It shows procedural priorities and sequencing, and details both sales and productivity tools mapped against each sales/pipeline stage. A strong blueprint also defines key metrics, ratios & leading indicators. Sales strategy and execution frames are clearly demarcated within it, and it contains pipeline stage gating (exit criteria) and integrated account scoring/opportunity assessment and qualifier tools.  The blueprint does not encompass the full workings of the sales system. While the Blueprint is the cornerstone of the OS, it excludes elements like sales resourcing, compensation and so on.

What follows are 5 principles that should be adhered to when creating a blueprint on the back of an integration exercise. The complexity should not be underestimated, and neither should the effects of small errors and omissions compounding in effect over time.

Principles Integration and Blueprint Creation

Principle 1:        Always Test Your Assumptions

Faulty assumptions can kill the integration initiative before the get-go. Three assumptions are commonplace:

  1. That the customer’s buying processes are known to their fullest extent and can simply be plugged in to the blueprint;
  2. That the differentiated parts of the system are sufficiently developed and optimally effective; and
  3. That these moving parts are explicitly understood by the collective.

Let’s address each one in turn.

Firstly, getting the customer’s buying process wrong – even by few degrees – destabilises the entire blueprint as early as the first step. It is well worth the investment to conduct the requisite analysis and debate before finalising the buying stages, associated behaviours, and decision gates. Knowing how your customers are required to buy – the protocols, regulations, and procedures – must be understood and balanced to arrive at a concrete model of how they will buy; the cycles, rhythms and signals that you need to align to.

The second assumption can prove costly if an attempt is made to integrate a function or process that is not properly or effectively developed. For example, integrating the costing process when it is designed to protect margin at all cost (often at the expense of winning the business) and still needs to be optimised, would undermine the project. It would not be in anyone’s best interests for a flawed business process to be integrated into the operational blueprint.

The third assumption pertains to the requisite knowledge that each interdependent contributor is required to have in order to ensure the operational integrity of the blueprint. Sales, pre-sales and sales operations need an intimate understanding of each other along with the nuances of new business development and strategic account management. The inner workings of deal finance must be sufficiently understood by bid management, and vice versa. Marketing must understand the sales processes thoroughly, while Key Account Management and Operational Delivery must have a deep understanding of each other’s functions.

Why is mutual understanding so important? The blueprint’s design will typically be done by an SME on the back of discovery and diagnostics before many iterations occur after input from a wide range of contributors. When contributors don’t understand their roles, responsibilities, and tools used by their collaborators, their input lacks insight and they miss vital connections. The tactical alignment that is an end-product of the process will also likely fall short of the optimal.

Principle 2:       Look Through a Systems Lens

The Sales Engine is a complex system characterised by sub-systems and components cooperating with each other, and a network of roles and relationships interacting in processes and patterns that tend to repeat over time. These interactions and exchanges reveal permeable boundaries where things can get tricky. All complex systems are naturally pulled into disorder and dysfunction unless they are well integrated and continually improved. They move along a chaos-rigidity continuum where integration in the middle signals system health. If you have been around the world of enterprise sales long enough you will have seen sales engines run with an iron fist and unhealthy micromanagement (rigidity) or hardly managed at all, beset by an effective leadership vacuum and resulting in a disjointed muddle (chaos).

Systems thinking allows one to see the roles and patterns of behaviour and the functions they serve in keeping the system going and producing outcomes. Understanding the logic behind what could seem like dysfunctional behaviour helps mitigate the risks inherent in bringing disruptive change to the system as it inevitably kicks back in defence of its earlier stability. Without the systems lens, leaders move to corrective action and fail to recognise that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with by looking at relationships amongst variables. I have come to see linear thinking (i.e. simplistic ‘A causes B’ thinking), as a serious threat to any kind of process optimisation. Viewing cause and effect as one-directional and independent from the other causes is both rudimentary and dangerous. Systems thinking empowers leaders to comprehend the variables influencing each other in symbiotic ways, and it is this kind of thinking that is essential to the design of the blueprint.

Principle 3:        Calibrate the Blueprint to the Customer’s Buying Processes

Salesforce configuration, dashboards and sales tools, sales/pipeline stages, sales methodologies, meetings, and management disciplines – all of it needs to be exactly aligned to how the customer buys. Consider this ‘True North’ for your sales blueprint. Put aside how sales has traditionally worked or the team’s historical preferences and, after the necessary analysis, calibrate it against the customer’s processes and cycles.

Principle 4:        Enable Rigour Through Explicit Decision Gates

Salespeople are, in general, not widely known for their administrative diligence or procedural compliance – they are zeroed-in on moving the sales forward, often to the detriment of the ‘small stuff’. Couple this with the inherent procedural complexity in large-scale sales environments that require high degrees of cross-functional coordination, and you have a potential recipe for disruptive disorder that can breed resentment and cause conflict between collaborators. The blueprint must act as both an enabler and enforcer of tight governance, and a deterrent to laxity in operational rigour.

How to embed rigour is best illustrated through the following example. The sales/pipeline stages require a specific set of entry and exit criteria/gates, steps that must be completed before an opportunity is moved from one pipeline stage to another and resources are called on. Assume that the 2nd sales stage in Company X is called Value Validation and the third Proposal Creation, both of which align to the buyer stages Option Evaluation and Supplier Engagement respectively. For an opportunity to be moved from stage 1 to stage 2, it could be mandated that at least one buyers’ profile be loaded into the CRM, and a value hypothesis be uploaded. This cannot be done unless assumptions have been qualified so that the potential value of the transaction can be estimated.

After some progress the salesperson will want to move the opportunity to stage 3 but should be prevented from doing so unless best practices have been adhered to. For example, the completion and uploading of a tool like an Opportunity Assessment might be mandated. To complete it accurately the salesperson would be required to test the discovery learnings directly with the customer (owner of the opportunity) and conceptualise the ‘win criteria’. This would be synthesised into the 1st draft of the Value Proposition which too would need to be uploaded.

It is clear from the above example that specific gates requiring mandated process steps and customer engagements shape seller behaviour. Arriving at a sound value proposition can’t be done without doing the necessary work. The numbers cannot be assumed, and they must be tested with the customer. This kind of rigour has knock-on benefits; for example, it will protect a host of resources, including support resources. The procedural compliance will, in most cases, prevent a salesperson from engaging support services like solutions or deal financing prematurely, causing them to conduct work on speculative deals.

Principle 5:     Design for Efficient Collaborations

Each high performing sales engine has several successful collaborations, for example, Sales and Marketing, Bid Management and Sales Operations, or Key Account Management and Contracts Management. Collaboration is easy to wish for and much harder to realise. It differs from cooperation in that it is a collective process aimed at a shared pursuit (cooperation) facilitating a collective creativity with multiple/alternative processes and solutions. Differing agendas and conflicts still occur, but only at the margins, and within a larger framework of agreement and consensus. When done right, it produces synergy and novel ways of working and behaving. The blueprint facilitates this.

Enabling degrees of creativity might seem at odds with building rigour. While it is true that getting the balance right is challenging, it is entirely possible to enjoy both creative collaboration and process discipline. Great collaborations occur precisely because the reins are tight and the rules of engagement clear. Typical derailers like weak governance and/or administration or poorly understood interdependencies are well-mitigated by a blueprint designed to build rigour without sacrificing creative collaboration.

Conclusion

I was once asked the following question: “The typical sales engine has differentiated parts/roles, most of which can be considered specialised in what they do. They work together interdependently. Are they not thus already integrated?”

My answer was, “It depends.”

Each sales engine will have different degrees of integration, and each sales leader should take that process to completion after uncovering all the sub-processes and optimising the constituent parts. Only then can a Sales Operating Blueprint with structural and procedural integrity be forged, and the connected parts work together to move the whole into a harmonious and synergistic flow. The word ‘forged’ is apt – the blueprint is refined over time and with the input of many stakeholders. Completing it requires grit, and not every sales leader has this kind of finishing power or the laser-like focus on operational efficiency required.

There are other reasons why sales leaders might shy away from comprehensive integration. Strong Sales Operating Blueprints can only be designed after detailed analysis/diagnostics of the existing system. Many are afraid of the exposure such an exercise will bring and the weaknesses it might reveal. The anxiety of the unknown produces a combination of avoidance and denial. And of course, sales leaders don’t know what they don’t know, and are thus not managing for the unknowns. It is also entirely possible to have several decades of sales management under the belt and still not know how to integrate all the moving parts into an overall structure that both holds and liberates its differentiated parts. It is for that primary reason that integration programmes are either done by only the most courageous of sales leaders, or they are mandated from above.

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