Michael Mainelli, The Z/Yen Group
Robert Pay, Jaffe Associates
[A version of this article originally appeared as"Opinion: So What are You Going to do Next?" (structured sales and marketing), Managing Partners’ Forum Review, Number 18, Professional Connections International (May/June 1999) pages 2-3]
In recent years great strides have been made by UK professional firms to improve their management information systems. There cannot be a firm left in the country that does not have some form of computerised time recording, work-in-progress tracking or billing system in place. However, in our experience, there is one area on which the management and information technology revolutions have had very little impact - the order book.
The reality is that few managing partners are able to obtain an accurate estimate of the value or strength of their firm's order book. Few know what new business or new clients are really in the pipeline. At best some firms may have a targeting programme linked to the relationship database that provides some information: at worst, there is only the unrecorded anecdotal evidence of other partners to rely upon.
We believe that most firms are somewhere less than half way up this spectrum. We believe there is a link between lack of management attention to this area and the fact that few firms are good at systematically exploiting their markets. This article is about getting information for decision makers but also about using a system to create more focus on sales and the relationships which generate them.
It is a management issue. . .
This situation is compounded further by the fact that the strength or otherwise of the order book is seldom a topic on the agenda of management board meetings. Work in progress, debtors or billing will be discussed, but not the value or time-scale of future sales. How many professional services firms do you know that have a commercial partner or director with a remit over sales or key relationships sitting on the management board? The answer is very few because few business development partners have a firm wide responsibility for relationships and sales. In fact most sales and relationship management is completely devolved to departmental or partner level - after all that is where the business is won isn't it? So when it comes to sales and marketing the financial aspects are often divorced.
Why is this topic in the 'too difficult' tray? Firstly, there is the delegation of sales to partner/departmental level. Secondly the IT element of relationship management is unappetising to many firms. Many relationship databases are seen as having 'failed' because they are 'incomplete and not up-to-date'. Although these are the natural repositories of management information relating to future sales, there is scepticism that they could ever provide anything useful on a firm-wide basis. As we will explain the database problem need not be an issue if you define what information you want narrowly enough. Perhaps the benefits of a forward-looking report on your sales - linked to your client and prospect relationships - are not fully understood.
So what are the benefits?
There is competitive advantage in getting management more focused on business development activities. Focus normally results in greater success over shorter periods for less cost. It also enables them to choose relationship and sales that move the firm forward, not just generate billable hours. Using simple interrogation systems which produce management reports, it would be possible for the marketer to check the status of potential sales to clients of strategic importance. Or you might focus only those above a certain material financial value, or the activity relating to a particular business unit or proposals outstanding.
There are a number of ways that an effective system can add value to both management and the partners at the sharp end. For example:
You can see which business units are active in selling and which are not.
When the sales process is visible, there are fewer excuses for colleagues to avoid or delay their follow-up or targeting activities.
Senior management can systematically monitor the process of selling to key prospects of strategic importance.
Sharing information increases the likelihood that enquiries, leads and proposals will be dealt with on a timely basis. (We know of one firm where a letter that invited them to tender for a potential £300,000 assignment languished on the desk of a partner on holiday for two weeks.)
Unrealistic prospects can be identified early thereby minimising time wasting. There is no doubt that a sales monitoring system forces partners to estimate the likelihood of a 'buy'.
Teams can plan and prepare better for pitches.
The cost of sales can be measured.
Sales trends can be tracked and appropriate marketing or other action to capitalise upon them undertaken.
Assuming there is a management appetite to manage, how can these reports be generated? After all it depends on getting busy professionals to supply information. . .
Reduce effort. . . less is more
Cutting down the amount of effort at the sharp end increases the likelihood of compliance with a system. The aim should be to make the system something which partners want locally to manage and monitor their own or their team's prospects at their regular meetings - this will actively increase its use.
Step one is to reduce numbers of relationships addressed. If your relationship database has x thousand names, you need to be able to focus on the key prospects and major client relationships. . . and what is looking 'real'. You don't need and should not attempt to apply a monitoring system to all your contacts. Every practice area should be able to generate a manageable list if these do not exist in marketing plans. The second step is to get a consistent way of describing the stages through which a suspect becomes a sale. Mindset first. . . software second. . .
A major problem with the sales process was that the process itself can be very protracted. There was no consistent way of describing where a relationship was. Z/yen has designed a simple and consistent way of describing where in the process we were in which the steps are colour coded. . . it is a six stage model.
- suspect, 'green': market analysis and identification;
- prospect, 'yellow': early contact, expression of interest;
- lead, 'white': stated requirement;
- commitment, 'purple': organisational deployment - putting together a team;
- bid, 'blue': proposal or tender;
- agreement, 'red': negotiation and award.
If you say something is 'blue', everyone knows what it means. . . it helps give focus. It saves you having to supply your own description. Pulling off a blue report tells you how excited or worried you should be.
Because there is now some shape to the sales process it makes it an easier discipline to update our pipeline and to tell other professionals what is going on and who is responsible for it. The ability to call up personal reports also helps partners remember that they have actions - especially useful when they are busy.
If such a system is accessible from their desktops, you are more likely to use it to log the relationships and developments in the sales process as they arise. An open system, showing what is new business coming up, is a morale boost to those involved in business development and a comfort to those who are not!
The approach also requires less data input. Using the colour coding to indicate the stage in the sales process, and a one-line description of the nature of the work helps reduce the input burden. Normally you don't need to know more - so why enter more? As the person(s) responsible will be shown the output, it can encourage people to speak to each other. Too many systems get over specified - which is why they don't get used.
Reporting increases focus
A well used methodical approach and measuring personal or group selling and relationship activities can save time and effort and achieve results. The firm's management requiring relevant information on a timely basis is a key to accelerating a more disciplined approach to sales and relationship activities. If monitoring sales and relationships does not feature on your management board agenda, then you could be ignoring your lifeblood.
Robert Pay and Michael Mainelli are directors at business development consultancy Jaffe Associates. Michael is also a director at Z/Yen Limited, a risk/reward management firm, and non-executive director at Jaffe Associates.