When was the last time you were on the receiving end of a sales surprise?  Let me guess, it was not of the pleasant sales surprise variety.  Our good friends at Merriam-Webster online capture it best by defining the word “surprise” as: “to attack unexpectedly” (source:http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/surprise).  When I think of sales surprises, I inevitably think of them all being unpleasant.  In fact, just thinking about some of the most unpleasant sales surprises that I’ve experienced in my career, I start to feel nauseous and a tad sweaty even though they transpired many years ago.

Suffice to say, all sales leaders hate surprises.  Going back to the definition of the word above, it really does feel like you are under attack when you receive a sales surprise.  One of the core qualities of top sales leaders is that they have good and accurate visibility into their sales pipeline and forecast. Their sales teams tend to consistently produce the revenues that they forecast on a quarterly and annual basis.  Top sales leaders pride themselves on accurate forecasting and refuse to accept sales reps on their team getting surprised.

When I assess the quality of a sales team or organization, some of the first things I want to know are:

  • How often do you experience sales surprises?
  • What % of those sales surprises are positive versus negative?
  • How do you reconcile the surprises?
  • What impact have these surprises had on your business over the past year?
  • How do you prevent the same negative surprise from happening again?
  • What have you learned from these surprises?
  • Is it the same sales rep(s) or different sales reps that the surprises happen with?
  • What was the cause of your negative sales surprises?

The answers to those questions really helps inform me of their sales culture and where there may be immediate opportunity for sales improvement. The most common cause underlying almost all negative sales surprises is a failure in the sales discovery process.  Here are some root cause examples of common “Sales Discovery Failures”:

  • Sales efforts were not aligned with the actual buyer’s journey (no inflection point hit)
  • Didn’t probe and discover deep enough (i.e., 2nd and 3rd level questions)
  • Didn’t engage wide enough with all the key stakeholders
  • Failed to confirm that there was both a Champion and an Economic Buyer
  • Failed to reconcile discovery findings contradictions
  • Selling the product too soon (i.e., bag diving)
  • Inability to really listen and discern (i.e., “happy ears”)

All of these symptoms above of sales discovery failure causes lead to what I often refer to as: “How to get blindsided in a sales opportunity”

The question then becomes how do you prevent sales surprises from happening. Here is a simple, prescriptive approach for how to prevent sales surprises from happening:

  • Have a well developed discovery framework and sales playbook
  • Identify all the key stakeholders that need to be engaged in selling your solution, what matters to them, how they are measured and what should specifically resonate about your solution to each stakeholder
  • Create a succinct list of “smart questions” tailored to each stakeholder
  • Get your best sales reps and video tape them conducting mock discovery calls with subject matter experts (SMEs) playing the various customer stakeholder roles
  • Create a discovery checklist tool that sales managers use with their teams and can provide weekly coaching and feedback through
  • Identify the evidence and facts necessary for sales managers to confirm and validate that their sales team members are executing effective sales discovery with every opportunity
  • Practice discovery role playing sessions and workshops with your sales team
  • Have real customers come in and share their perspective of what they liked and didn’t like about the way that your sales team engaged them and conducted discovery
  • Hold people accountable for negative and costly sales surprises that could have been avoided
  • Create a short list of what common sales surprises you’ve experienced, what the root causes were, and how they could have been prevented in the first place

So if you don’t want to be the red faced sales leader that has to explain to the C-level execs why you were blindsided on a key sales opportunity, incorporate some of these sales best practices into your sales culture and fabric. Doesn’t the picture of the cute little red headed girl really capture the essence of being surprised?