Harness the Power of Your Virtual Sales Team

  • Written By: Dave Stein
  • Published: July 1 2005


Winning enterprise software sales deals is not an individual activity but a team pursuit.

The fact is that at this point in the history of the commercial application software industry most competing products do what they're intended to do. Few products fail to perform; few perform markedly better than the rest. And because so many products and services compete for a limited number of buyers, suppliers advertise that they can do everything their competitors can do, only faster, cheaper, more effectively. They're all singing that song from Annie Get Your Gun: "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better."

How do software companies differentiate themselves from all the others? Let me count the ways: by building in more and more functional capabilities; by backing what they're selling with top-notch customer service; by hosting them on the hottest technology platforms; by making their products and related services more comprehensive to handle more complex customer issues; by insisting that the total cost of ownership is less; by proving that the time to value is quicker; by giving their products a broader footprint to meet larger lists of customer requirements.

The bigger and more complex our application becomes, the less of it even the most articulate, intelligent salesperson can communicate. Explaining and managing that level of information and complexity to the different constituencies within the prospect's organization requires the assistance of application specialists, business consultants, product marketers, corporate executives, developers, and other experts. And that demands taking a team approach to selling. If your team sells by the seat of your pants, you aren't driving a sales campaign—you're driving bumper cars.

Team selling isn't new. Its growth has been spurred not only by the proliferation and complexity of goods and services but by many other trends over the years: multiple and diverse buying influences, user empowerment in organizations, globalization, commoditization, economic uncertainty, and companies springing up and crashing down almost randomly. It all adds up to a hard reality: we can't do all the selling alone.

This is Part One of a two-part note.

Part Two will discuss how to effectively use a virtual sales team.

The Company Team

The team we're going to talk about is not just the people who work directly for or with you. It's much broader than that. In effect, your sales team includes people inside and outside your organization, business partners, consultants, people in other organizations, even people in other industries. As a sales professional charged with harnessing the skills and energy of this diverse crew of workers—some of whom aren't even aware they're on your team—you are, in effect, the CEO of an outfit we'll call "Virtual Sales Team Inc." (VST) and VST's mission is to deliver to your real company the revenue it needs to achieve its business plan.

Who's on your virtual sales team? The roster can include (inside your real company) the CEO and other executives, customer support reps, on-site service personnel, engineers, user interface designers, developers, domain experts, cost accountants, marketing personnel, consultants, suppliers with complementary products, other sales representatives within your own company, attorneys, one or more current customers, and even sales consultants who can give you insight into how to win the business.

But Virtual Sales Team Inc. encompasses much more than just your inside team. There is competitive advantage in cultivating relationships and gaining knowledge inside the company you're selling to. Think of your virtual corporation as including the prospect's team—the evaluation committee, decision makers, steering committees, executives, users, middle management, technical approvers, purchasing and human resources personnel, finance and legal people, external consultants, administrative assistants, and of course, IT. Yes, that's right, they're on the other side of the bargaining table—but with knowledge, insight, organization, and political skills, you can enlist them in support of your cause—you can even get them to sell for you.

The Making of a Winning Team

As CEO of Virtual Sales Team Inc., you've got an awesome challenge ahead of you. First of all, most of your team members are not under your direct authority or supervision. You have to understand the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors of all the sales resources available to you, no matter what it says on their business card. You'll need well-honed relationship-building skills to get these team members lined up behind you and focused on your common purpose. If, for example, you need an expert to tell your prospect how your company provides tech support to its customers, but the person available for that task gets defensive and rude when questioned, you have some work to do. You'll need to coach that person before the meeting, or if that fails, bring in someone else. Don't leave it up to chance.

Like any good manager, you must learn to depend on other people to achieve your goals. With this challenge in mind, how can you better manage your virtual sales team? According to my friend, sales expert Steve Waterhouse, team selling will succeed if the following components are part of your sales process:

  • Effective communication. Make sure everybody is in on the plan—early. You can't imagine how often this doesn't happen. (Heading out the door on Friday afternoon, the sales representative says to an application consultant, "By the way, we've got a presentation in Duluth Monday morning. Have a nice weekend." What's his problem? Is he grossly incompetent, operating without a plan, or is he simply a poor communicator?)

  • Team understanding of the mission. Every member of the virtual sales team must be aware of exactly is what your sales objective: what you are committing to sell, when you are going to sell it, and for how much. Each team member should also understand that every tactic has an objective of its own and where and what they are contributing to the total plan.

  • A clear understanding of each member's role. The only thing more embarrassing than asking the prospect the same question twice because Smith didn't check with Jones, is a prospect asking two people in your company the same question and getting two different answers.

  • Planning. Selling enterprise software is a complex mission. You need to be recording your tactical plan somewhere—hopefully in a customer relationship management (CRM) application—so that it can be shared by your team. You might also find project management software useful if you're working a complex deal with a lot of resources, tasks, and critical deadlines. Whatever planning tools you use, be sure to keep your team members well informed.

  • Smart use of your team members' knowledge and skills. Know what all team members are capable of, and use these assets at appropriate times. Need to get one of your prospect's decision makers on your side? Bring in your company's cost accountant to help her with financial justification. Or perhaps a strategically timed phone call from your well-known, world-class customer would get the attention of one of your prospect's key executives.

  • Good leadership. When you earn the prospect's confidence by establishing your competence and credibility, you're well on your way to making the sale. In the same way, when you earn your team's trust with strong, fair leadership, they will buy into your plan and follow your vision to sales success.

  • Focus. If plan your sales campaigns and communicate the plan to all team members, focus will not become an issue. Your sales team will commit to a coordinated effort that makes winning the deal an achievable goal.

  • Support and motivation of team members. This one takes work, empathy, and an understanding of how your company's departments function. Except for your sales support staff, most of your team members have other responsibilities, of which helping to win sales is not high priority. In fact, some of the people who may be essential to your success may be reluctant to help you because they believe it will increase their risk or their workload.

  • Rewarding those who assist the selling effort. Some companies give sales award trips and other recognition to non-sales staff that have helped win business. My hat goes off to these firms. This is a great motivator, as well as a chance for engineering, delivery, finance, and other personnel to see where revenues that pay for their work come from. At presidents' clubs presentations, again and again I've seen sales professionals lavish more attention on those who helped them win than on other sales reps. That's smart selling.

  • Active participation and collaboration. Even though the responsibility for winning or losing the sale falls on you, all team members need to feel they are part of a continuing collaboration. Invite and encourage their participation in brainstorming sessions, information gathering, and meeting prospects' requirements. Actively solicit their opinions and guidance.

  • Integrity. Showing leadership, vision, and guts will gain you the trust and support of others. Make promises you can't keep or lie to your team or your prospect, and you'll go it alone.

  • Conflict resolution. Yes, you're the owner of that sales campaign, but this doesn't mean you can dictate. Be ready for the conflicts that are sure to arise with members of your team. How will you deal with them? One way to keep conflicts from derailing a sales campaign is to recruit an executive as a sponsor early in the game—one whose trust you will win with your leadership skills and competence, and who will back you in the end.

Conflicts between team members will arise from time to time. Personal and professional differences make them inevitable—differences in job descriptions, business knowledge, experience, incentive plans, geographic locations, schedules, personalities, outside commitments, and communications style, to name but a few.

The most common conflict is perhaps between those who sell and those who have to implement. I've seen this happen again and again. Sales complains that service managers are stalling, refusing to sign off on a deal that would put them over quota. Managers responsible for implementing the product complain that sales over-promises, leaving them to face angry customers. The lack of trust can bleed over into customer meetings and presentations, giving prospects the impression that the company can't get its act together and perhaps can't be relied on to meet its commitments.

What can you do about it? Building trust and support will take time, but it can be done. The best solution is to review and apply Waterhouse's critical components—the items you just read. And the best place to start applying them is in team meetings, where planning and communication take a front seat.

This concludes Part One of a two-part note on virtual sales teams.

Part Two will discuss how to effectively work with your virtual sales team.

About the Author

Dave Stein, an expert in selling and marketing enterprise software and services, has over 20 years executive management and consulting experience in technology. He provides vendors with insights and strategies around ethically positioning the business value that their offerings provide, especially in fiercely competitive situations.

On the user side, Stein guides buyers through the specific vendor-caused risks associated with the acquisition of enterprise software and services in today's environment of hypermarketing and hyperselling. He assists user companies in effectively mitigating those risks. Dave Stein has sold to and consulted with companies from $10 million in sales to the Fortune 100—in 48 of the 50 states as well as more than 20 countries.


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Phone: +1 (845) 621-4100
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e-mail: dave@thesteinadvantage.com

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