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Just The Facts, Ma’am

July 02, 2010 0 Comments Best Practices by Jack Dean

What do business executives and Sergeant Joe Friday of the classic crime drama Dragnet have in common?   Dum-de-dum-dum.  “All we want are the facts, just the facts.” Not assumptions, not hypotheses, not opinions … just the facts.  “Deal with the world the way it is, not the way you wish it was”, offers John Chambers, CEO of Cisco.

The story you are about to hear is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

As a Fortune500 corporate executive, I (unlike many of my peers) agreed to meet with many prospecting sales professionals who made a genuine effort to reach me by phone.  I figured it took a measure of confidence to dial the phone, initiate a dialogue, and ask for a meeting.  The only thing I couldn’t agree to was the length of the meeting.  I always reserved the right, at least in my mind, to terminate the discussion when the value I obtained began to decline.  In derivative trading lingo, I would buy a “call” and, at the same time, buy a “put”; a classic straddle hedge.

Most meetings didn’t last very long.  I found myself exercising the “put” option regularly.  (See the blog post “Where’s the beef?”)  But one meeting where the “put” option expired worthless stands out in my mind.

My company was evaluating business intelligence software to help us gain insights from existing disparate information databases.  One day, Jon Sales from Hypcogmicrosasobjects Systems Inc. called me and mentioned a recent news release announcing quarterly earnings.   He commented about our EBITDA margins and revenue growth.  I didn’t think sales people could spell EBITDA.  I agreed to the meeting.

Jon was superbly prepared.  He came armed with facts about me and my company — not to impress me, not to bore me, not to waste time.  Jon wanted me to validate his thinking as part of his effort to prescribe a solution.  I was curious what he knew so I agreed to inspect his logic.

Rather than ask an open-ended question like “what are the performance metrics that drive your business”, he listed them: organic revenue growth, EBITDA margin, free cash flow, and ROIC.  He told me that he wasn’t a financial expert, but he asked me to validate this information and help prioritize them.  Suddenly I was engaged and found my lips flapping.  Jon had his performance metric facts right.

Next, Jon sequenced his conversation into the business priorities of my company.  He listed the top five business initiatives that we had described in a recent analyst day presentation: new product development, organizational streamlining, international growth, cross selling, and balance sheet management.  He asked me to validate and comment.  By now, I was really impressed … and talking.  Jon was in control and operating with the right set of facts.  I didn’t need to spend time educating him, something I was not inclined to do anyway.

I never did exercise the “put” option with Jon.  I was intrigued as he went on to validate a few other facts such as competitive market forces and recent compelling events before segueing into a more narrowed discussion of our business intelligence project.  Several times later in our discussion, Jon tied his solution back to free cash flow and new product development – the performance metric and business initiative I had prioritized for him earlier in our conversation.  I was experiencing active listening at its best.  Jon was a sales professional who got it and I was now listening to how he might help me.

Business executives expect sales professionals to come bearing facts; nuggets of company-specific knowledge that forms the basis of their thinking; facts that anchor the mapping of their solution.  And facts that help them articulate the financial value of their solution in the specific performance metrics that the customer or prospect understand and target for improvement.

Just the facts — is that too much to ask of a sales professional?  No way, facts are the table stakes for selling financial value with business executives.