Few industries have been changed as profoundly by the advent of the Internet and its possibilities for online research, advertising and shopping as sales. Before the arrival of search engines, online stores, and social media, buyers’ information came contact with salespeople and from print and television advertisements prepared by sales and marketing departments. Those in sales got their information about buyers primarily from their own direct outreach and from market research, which took considerable time to conduct and therefore did not provide real-time data.
Investigate the purchasing process of buyers today, and it couldn’t be more different. Shoppers operate far more independently, using the Internet to find, choose and buy. And increasingly they use social media to crowd-source recommendations and cross-check information. With the recent success of online direct-to-consumer companies increasingly consumers first discover a product via social media.
The time frame is different too. Today’s buyers are in a hurry, often making decisions with the click of a mouse or touch of a phone. In fact, research shows that the chance of connecting with a lead is 100 times greater if contact is made within five minutes.
For sales teams, this requires a radically different mindset and a retooled organizational process that can cope with the need to turn on a dime. Applying Scrum and agile practices such as sprints, daily stand-ups, and constant iteration to sales helps managers and sales teams be more flexible, data-driven, and effective.
Is it any wonder that agile sales has become the industry’s newest buzzword, and agile sales management solutions are revolutionizing the field?
What sales needs from agile
“An agile sales team needs to have the ability to gather data and make hair-trigger determinations and adjustments every single day,” says Mark Valles, Vice President of Sales, Agile CRM. “A good sales management platform provides both the micro and macro perspectives needed to engage buyers at the right time, follow and interpret their behavior, and change the approach as needed. It also allows sales teams to organize and prioritize the steps of the process to result in a coherent strategy.”
Recent research from Gartner found that almost 90 percent of marketers are adopting agile methods, and sales isn’t far behind. Agile’s fast-growing adoption is a natural response to the growing responsibilities falling on sales teams and rapid market changes.
For managers, an agile approach means letting go of centralized decision-making, leaving sales teams free and flexible to make decisions based on incoming consumer knowledge.
"Sales managers too often focus on achieving quota instead of on what are the short cycle activities and wins that I as a salesperson have to do to progress clients around that buying journey,” says Richard Barkey, CEO and founder, Imparta Ltd, who gives frequent presentations on the benefits of agile in sales. “It’s a bit like somebody managing a team at the World Cup standing on the sidelines yelling `Score!’ It’s correct but not necessarily very helpful. You have to focus on what the teams actually doing in order to make progress."
A better approach, Barkey says, is to trust those closer to the sale and empower them to act boldly and decisively based on their up-to-the-minute understanding of the buyer’s progress. Or, as Barkley puts it: “We find that self-governing account teams and pitch teams actually make better decisions and make more progress, so you find good people, you motivate them, and you support them, and then you trust them to get on with it.”
That doesn’t mean there’s no role for sales managers. On the contrary, he says, it’s the leader’s job to guide and facilitate a sales team’s ability to increase responsiveness and hone their selling approach. “You have to review and help teams flex frequently and learn to evolve as the sale evolves and as new information comes to light. For these reasons, an agile approach to sales management is as important as it is to selling itself.”
Articulating priorities, guides, and benchmarks
One of the most popular slides in Barkey's presentations is a version of the Agile Manifesto, adapted for sales, thus:
Other books and presentations now popular in the world of sales include Jill Konrath’s book Agile Selling: Get Up to Speed Quickly in Today’s Ever-Changing Sales World and New Sales Simplified by Mike Weinberg.
Solution-based selling: The essence of agile
Modern approaches to sales and marketing are based on the idea of problem solving. The key is identifying specific groups of consumers and getting to know them intuitively, so that you can identify what issues they’re having and solutions they’re seeking. This approach holds true in both business-to-consumer selling and business-to-business selling; whether it’s expectant parents in search of a new crib, or an engineering company in search of a new filtration system, both have a need they’re looking to solve.
“When you have a product and you’re specifically targeting who needs it - that busy professional, that important executive - then you can specifically hone in on their needs and how to solve for those needs. And that’s when suddenly you’re not selling, you’re solving problems,” says agile marketing specialist and coach Maria Matarelli, co-founder of Agile Pro Sourcing and the Agile Marketing Academy.
Success in sales depends on absorbing information directly from the market and proactively updating messaging and strategy based on information received. Working in teams according to Scrum and agile principles and practices helps those in sales respond more rapidly to unpredictable events by monitoring inputs and making incremental adjustments.
“With agile, companies can do iterative testing, including split tests to compare different offers. We start with the user story, looking at key personas and what are their real needs. Then we use testing to refine what’s the right message to the right audience through the right channel. This allows us to do very targeted marketing. The more data you gather, the better, because this is valuable information to make decisions with.”
But in sales, agile is much more than an organizational and management methodology. Companies wishing to retool their sales strategies according to agile principles must also change the tools and processes they use to communicate with and track buyers; manage product, advertising and sales data, and make decisions about budgeting, fulfillment, and other factors.
“In sales and marketing, too many companies try to be everything to everybody, and when you do that chances are, you’re not really connecting with anyone. Yes, you get an initial surge of sales, but those often plateau over time,” says Matarelli. “You may have heard the saying that in sales, it takes this many 'NOs' to get to the 'YES.' So actually what you want is to hear a lot of NOs, because that’s how you know what doesn’t work. And that’s the key to getting us to the yes. If the answer is you don’t know, you can’t get to the next step.”
A world of agile enterprise solutions
One of the easiest ways to observe the widespread adoption of agile in sales is to look at the ever-growing number of enterprise products and platforms now available to facilitate and manage agile sales. These include Ambition, a sales performance management platform, Zendesk Sell (formerly Base), a salesforce automation tool, and LearnCore, a sales training platform. Other tools in the agile selling toolbox include Agile CRM, an integrated customer relationship management solution, Heresy, designed to help sales teams work more collaboratively, andLeadGenius, which combines modern data science technology with personal research to provide B2B clients with customized sales data points.
“A good automated CRM (customer relationship management) platform increases agility by allowing sales teams to assess a campaign's appeal and performance with A/B testing and increased ability to build and track campaigns,” says Valles, whose company, the aptly named Agile CRM, makes such a platform.
These new platforms sync data from key systems like Salesforce and Outreach into interactive user interfaces that sales teams can use to visualize operations and gain insights across the whole selling cycle. Features may include efficiency metrics and interactive tools for handling benchmarks, scores, and goals, allowing users to develop sales performance analytics targeted to the needs of their category and organization.
The founders of Ambition, LearnCore, LeadGenius and Zendesk Sell are such agile evangelists that in 2017 they authored a now out-of-print book, The Ultimate Guide to Agile Sales Management. And Dimitar Stanimiroff, founder of Heresy, has a podcast in which he interviews sales executives from around the world about their Agile journeys.
Explaining the importance of this kind of in-depth buyer understanding, Matarelli says: “When you have a product and you’re specifically targeting who needs it - that busy professional, that important executive - then you can specifically hone in on their needs and how to solve for those needs. And that’s when suddenly you’re not selling, you’re solving problems.”
Many of the key figures in agile sales believe it’s only a matter of time before agile methods become the management standard in sales, just as Scrum and agile became the methods of choice in software.
As Barkey explains it: "The Standish Group conducts an annual survey called the chaos survey and they found that if you use an agile approach to software development, you’re roughly twice as likely to succeed and half as likely to fail badly as with the old waterfall approach. We have reason to believe a similar statistic applies to selling.”