There are few subjects that generate as much enthusiasm and excitement amongst sales professionals as sales process. Well, maybe not... But that's about to change.
In this episode we're thrilled to have George Brontén CEO of Membrain on the show, and he's going to transform the way you think about sales process.
Gone are the days of clunky over engineered processes that nobody follows. Now, with the advent of technology like Membrain, companies are starting to realize just how much of an impact process can have on sales performance across a whole organization.
In this episode we cover
- What makes a high performance sales process
- How to avoid key pitfalls when creating and iterating on your own process
- How to get your team bought into your sales process
- The importance of having different processes for dynamic sales situations
- How technology can enhance and maximize the likelihood of a sales team following a process
And much more besides
The Checklist Manifesto on Amazon
Membrain's Sales Process Tool
Matt Hayman: George, welcome to the podcast. How are you?
George Brontén: I'm excellent. Thanks for having me.
Matt Hayman: Excellent. That's a nice enthusiastic start to the show. I like that. Great to have you on the show. People listening may or may not be aware of Membrain. How about we kick off with you just giving a bit of an introduction to Membrain and also to you and to how you've come to found Membrain.
George Brontén: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. We are a sales enablement CRM. That's what we call us. Basically what we are trying to do is to help sales organizations through selling in a B2B selling environment, longer sales cycles, more people, to really structure their work and focus a lot on workflows, playbooks, coaching, and the how-to sell. I usually describe Membrain as adding the how-to sell to the platform.
George Brontén: I founded the company based on my own ... What should I say? My own mistakes, I guess in a building a sales team in a previous company, where I sort of held a bunch of faulty assumptions. I thought that salespeople are born. You just have to go find the right salespeople and everything will work itself out. I thought also that somehow these people were disciplined by nature. So I would just be able to give them a target, a quota, and they will be like a heat seeking missile and go after that target. And then my third faulty assumption was that CRM systems were designed to help salespeople, which I don't think they were or are. Those sort of insights or realizations led me to design and create Membrain.
Matt Hayman: Excellent. So then the first question for me, fairly obvious question, but why do you think having a sales process is critical for businesses now?
George Brontén: Yeah, it goes back to my story I think. We can't assume that salespeople know what to do with whom and when and why, and all of those things. Because also how we sell or how we have to sell today has changed. Even though they might have known how to sell 10 years ago, the landscape has shifted. It may be very different now. It also, I think it depends on ... So you have to know what you're actually selling and how that affects or will affect the buyer. I think there isn't a confusion about selling in general because it's so different depending on the complexity of what it is you're offering. So if you have a good understanding of the perceived risk for the buyer when they're buying your stuff, and the complexity of that sort of selling motion, that's when you will find out how important process will be.
George Brontén: And process is one of those words, right? A lot of people hate it. When I talk about sales process, you can have a lot of crossed arms, like, "Yeah, well, sales is not something you can put into a process." Every customer is different. Every sales process is different. I think that word, we could probably talk about that word for a while, but basically to go back to your question, I think we need to be more structured in selling to achieve better results. Because if we're just winging it and assuming things, it's not going to work as effectively as it could.
Matt Hayman: Membrain works with businesses around the world. You guys have exposure to people starting to use your platform. Do you have any sense, ones that you can share, of the type of impact that having a process or using a product like Membrain can actually have in terms of revenue? Do you see any patterns in terms of when people really embrace process and perhaps embrace the CRM connected to that process, what sort of impact can that have on a typical business?
George Brontén: Yeah, and of course I could answer this with interesting numbers and point everything back to Membrain, but I think it has, there are a lot of different components into this, and the main driver I think to increase effectiveness is the level of growth mindset of the sales leader. The managers and the sales leadership is key. If they really buy into organizing and structuring their sales efforts and do coaching well, which of course is super duper important, and they create a framework around this that can be supported by Membrain, then the results can be massive.
George Brontén: I mean we're seeing customers who go from like a 50% quota attainment to going above 100% quota attainment. And then we have like revenue increases by 20%, 30% in sizable companies. So you can really move the needle if you take selling more professionally and seriously and build a structured framework around all this. And process is a part of it. But it's more than that of course.
Matt Hayman: Yeah. And I'm guessing in the businesses that you see that really excel, they aren't just doing the process. They're doing all of the other things and excelling at all of the other things you mentioned there around supporting staff, coaching stuff. The CRM or Membrain is just a function of a wider mindset, which is about growth and developing a sales team.
George Brontén: Yeah, exactly. And I think CRM, I often say, tell people that you could look at CRM, CRMs as being, as consisting of three components. The sort of foundation is the database. That's where unfortunately a lot of CRMs have gotten stuck. They only have the database, and that's the value that you store information about customers and you log what you've done. Then you have the tools on top of that database. And then you have a user interface that you need to access.
George Brontén: What I think is important is that you have the right, not just the right database, but the right tools and the right user interface to support your type of selling. And that this is where it's very different. If you're selling something transactionally where you just call people up and you close a deal in one call, then Membrain would be the completely wrong product because we're not focused on that type of selling.
George Brontén: But if you're in a B2B sales process, it usually takes longer. It takes weeks or months or sometimes even years. And making sure that you do the right things at the right time. All these things become very important. So you need a different tool set.
George Brontén: When you have the right tool set and you have a framework and have a process which is based on a strategy, then of course all these pieces come together and it becomes so much easier to coach because now you can actually see where you are in the process and what you haven't done and what you have done and the stakeholders you've involved and not involved. It's really like you say. These things all need to come together. It's not just about the process.
Matt Hayman: Let's talk about structure. Let's talk about process. I know that The Checklist Manifesto, the book, had a big impact on you when it came to starting Membrain.
George Brontén: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matt Hayman: Talk to me a little bit about what kind of an impact it had that first time you read the book. Give us a sense of what kind of an impact that book had on you starting this company.
George Brontén: Yeah, I love the book, and for those who haven't read it, it's about a surgeon who saves a lot of lives by introducing checklists so that the surgeons and the surgical teams wouldn't forget simple tasks like washing their hands. What really struck me was that when he ... So he described the process, what they did, how they got to that conclusion, that checklist would be a good idea that pilots use checklists and in construction you use checklists. But when he came to the conclusion or show the number of patients whom they saved, which was at 47%, that's where I almost fell off my chair. It's like super highly trained surgeons stopped killing 47% of patients that would otherwise die. I just found that super fascinating. And it got me thinking about my own mistakes that I did with when building my sales team in my former company and then how frustrated I was when they did these stupid simple mistakes.
George Brontén: We were selling, in that company we were selling IT automation tools so to IT managed service providers. And what they did usually, the salespeople, very well was to talk to the owners and the leadership of that company and said, "Do you want to go from 3% profit margins to 30% profit margins?" And they're like, "Yeah, sure. Of course. We all want that." And then they went straight to trying to close the deal.
George Brontén: Because it was a pretty big investment, it was pretty technical, they, these companies of course had to involve their technical people. So when I asked my salespeople, "So what did the tech people say? What did the technical leaders say about this idea?" And they're like, "Nah, I haven't really talked to them." Like, "What? You haven't talked to the technical people?" "No. They're really strange people. Can't talk to them. They're really, really all, they sit in a dark room there and they are patching servers and stuff. I don't want to disturb them." "But you're kidding. I mean, what do you think they're going to think about an automation tool?" They're probably going to believe that the company is investing in this so that they can fire them and save their ... the cost of their salaries.
George Brontén: And of course that's almost always what happened, is that when you didn't involve the technical people, they messed up the deal. They said to the leaders of the companies that we don't need this tool. We already have all the tools we need and they are just trying to fool you.
George Brontén: So that simple mistake was almost equivalent to the surgical team not washing their hands properly. After reading that book, I sort of went through my own mind and head and memories about, okay, what are the simple mistakes that we're doing in selling? And I figured out that, wow, there's a lot of them. There's so many mistakes that can be made in a three month or even one year long sales cycle where you're engaging with a lot of different people as well, a lot of different stakeholders. It's actually more complicated and more complex than surgery because the patient is lying still sleeping for an hour. But we have people running around thinking and having different beliefs and ideas about things all the time within the company that we're trying to sell to. So there's so many mistakes that can be made.
George Brontén: So that was really, yeah, you're right. It was a driver for me to say, "Okay, even with fairly simple guidance for the salespeople in a process, if you want to call it that, or a workflow, playbook, I mean we can call it different words, but making sure that we can do less of these mistakes will really make an impact on selling."
Matt Hayman: My question then off the back of that is I can hear people, when we talk about checklists, we talk about process, start to get palpitations and start to get a little bit concerned. So my pushback on that is things like surgery or space flights or flights, they do have limited variability. You mentioned about the patient being unconscious on the operating table. They try to control or mitigate for all these different variables. But in sales you've got, as you mentioned, external stakeholders, somebody leaves, somebody comes into role. How do you work a process when there are just bits, and especially on a long sales cycle when there are so many potentially dynamic variables that are taking place? Surely the idea of a process just starts to break down in those stages.
George Brontén: Yeah. And that's a very good reflection. And I think we need to look at it not so much as a recipe. It's not like we are trying to create a process that if it's followed A, B, C, D, et cetera, you're going to get the same outcome. That's never going to happen. But what we can do is to make sure that we do some things that are always important. Like we always need to know which stakeholders should be involved, right?
Matt Hayman: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.
George Brontén: That's always important. We always need to know the competitive landscape. We always need to know the industry, et cetera. So there are some things we always need to know in each deal. And that we can control. And I think that in itself, it really makes a big impact. And then if we want to go deeper, and this is actually a mistake we see customers doing. They try to design the perfect process, which is never going to work. So they overengineer it.
George Brontén: There needs to be a process that is dynamic. I think it's really key to have. For instance in this, to go back to the story of the automation tool, we had some competitors in that time and some were very, very cheap compared to our product. But that's because they didn't do all of the things we did, and you couldn't get as much value from it. But if the salesperson did not understand exactly what it was they didn't do and talked about the value of us doing that, they would almost always go by that competitor.
George Brontén: But that wasn't always the case. That was maybe in 10%, 15% of the cases. So if you have a smart process, a dynamic process, it should change when we learn things about the client and the deal. In Membrain for instance, if you capture that we're up against this particular competitor, we can add a playbook saying, "Okay, you know what? Now you need to do this as well before you move on."
Matt Hayman: Okay. So that then takes us towards how somebody can start to implement some of what we're talking about here today. There will be people listening to this, I'm absolutely certain, who have an ad hoc process, perhaps none at all. They know that it starts with a prospect and ends in a deal, but everything in between is kind of who knows what happens. How can people listening to this start to implement what you're suggesting? Let's start with the question then of what characteristics does a great sales process have?
George Brontén: First off, I would say that a sales process can be broken down into multiple processes as well. I mean, you represent a software company, as do I, and you have your ... When we're a new company it's going to be very much focused on prospecting. So you want to go out and find net new logos. So that's a process. Prospecting is a different process than if you are doing account planning or opportunity management.
George Brontén: I think first you need to figure out where is our focus, and if it's prospecting for instance, that's where you should place your focus and then you will be looking at things like segmentation. Okay, who are we going after? We can't target everyone. So you start to segment your market and you divide it up to territories perhaps and divide it up into different sales teams, and then you figure out what's the ... how do we define a perfect prospect?
George Brontén: And I think, and if you're in a complex B2B sale where each deal is important and is of value, then you need to become very good at qualifying, so you don't ... so that your salespeople don't spend too much time on crappy prospects or the wrong type of prospects. You need a qualification model in your prospecting efforts and you need a definition of when you put stuff into your pipeline.
George Brontén: I see a lot of companies doing a mistake here with marketing automation and inbound marketing where they put basically anything that has been defined as a marketing qualified lead by marketing. That's a good practice to have a definition of a marketing qualified lead. But it doesn't mean that it should go into the pipeline and get a weighted value. Because the timing may not be there. It hasn't been qualified by the salespeople. So there needs to be a qualification stage before the pipeline starts from my perspective.
George Brontén: Sorry, I'm not sure if I'm answering your question. Where do you start, you said, and this is a big topic so I could talk all day.
Matt Hayman: No, I appreciate it. It is absolutely huge. I guess the key thing is, what I'm hearing you say is break down the entire process into sub components. So prospecting, deal management, whatever it might be, and identifying where the quick wins are, maybe where the business or the organization isn't necessarily performing as well as it should, and maybe use that as a starting point, as a place to start to map out a process.
George Brontén: Yeah, because it's a daunting task to do it all at once. So I think you should start where you have the lowest hanging fruit, and then start simple I would say. The pushback you gave was good. It's like, okay, but you can't ... It's too dynamic. How can we create a checklist of something that's such a moving target?
George Brontén: Start with the things that are always there, like we talked about, the stakeholders. Do we know them? Do we know how to talk to them? Do everyone know that? Because I see a lot of sales managers today that are promoted to sales managers because they were really solid producers in sales. And I think for them it's a great opportunity to sort of multiply what they have inside of their heads by using a process like, "Okay, what do I do? What made me successful?" And then try to codify that as simple as possible.
George Brontén: I'll go back to what I said recently, just knowing who you need to talk to and knowing the competitive landscape and understanding sort of the why for the customer, I think people miss that a lot, that you're so eager to sell your product, that you're not doing a good enough job in really understanding why the customer should care and how you align with that buyer.
George Brontén: When you coach someone as a sales manager, you will be asking those type of questions, what is their initiative that we're trying to support with this effort and this product and solution? Have you asked, have you talked to this person? Have you done that? All of these questions that you would ask, that's what you should co-define systemize if that's a word in the process.
Matt Hayman: And how important are milestones within the process?
George Brontén: I think they're key because that's how you measure progress. I think currently in most CRMs you only have the stages. That's how people set up sort of their milestones. But that quickly becomes very dumbed down if you have a longer sales process. So if you can instead have fewer stages, but you have milestones within each stage, that will help you know that we are actually progressing in the right way and in the right pacing. And then you need to align those milestones with the buyer's milestones because that's another thing. We often get misaligned with a buyer. We've done our things on our checklist as a sales organization. But that doesn't really matter if the buyer hasn't done what they need to do to move along their sort of decision making journey or whatever we want to call it. So aligning those milestones with a buyer is key.
Matt Hayman: And if someone's listening to this who is perhaps starting from zero, I guess to try and synthesize what you're saying, it's looking at the characteristics that are ... that have to be present in almost every deal. And then identifying those characteristics. And then starting to break down the components that lead to those characteristics being achieved. Would that be fair?
George Brontén: Yeah, yeah, I think so. And then once you have that in place, then you can layer on top of that all the different support, enablement support that you need to provide your team with. Let's say you have a milestone that's called research. You want the salesperson to do their research on this particular client. What does that mean? It will have different meaning to different salespeople depending on their previous career.
George Brontén: Instead of that being the case, you would then define what it means and you would add a video perhaps explaining to the salespeople what you want them to be doing and why. And if there are certain data points that are key, and don't go ballistic on that. And because people hate filling out forms. But there will be things that you really need them to know and that they need to know to win the deal, like competition and industry for instance, two simple things.
George Brontén: So make sure that they understand what each step, why it's there, like how does it help them? Why is it there for them to succeed? Because I think otherwise what people can perceive a process to be is sort of a more big brother stuff, and that's not what we want them to feel. The process or the workflows should be helpful, should be guiding, should be ... I should be feeling that, wow, this is to make sure that I always have my ducks in a row and that I don't make simple mistakes, which I always tell sales managers to read the book we talked about, The Checklist Manifesto, and tell that story to their salespeople because I feel it really gets them to lower their guards.
George Brontén: Because otherwise if you just say, "Oh, we're going to introduce this sales process, is going to be fantastic," you're going to have a lot of crossed arms where people say, "Well, I don't believe in process," or, "I have my own process. I don't need your process. Why should I be using your process for this?" But if you get this idea of the checklist being very helpful and it could actually raise or increase their win rates with 47%, it puts it in another perspective that I think is good.
Matt Hayman: I think as well, you've got lots and lots of examples in the real world that often go unnoticed of where checklists, and I know we're not talking about checklists, but in terms of selling it to a team or trying to get buy-in. There are so many examples in the real world of people who do follow checklists, and if they didn't, we'd all be in big trouble. I'm thinking flights. I'm thinking doctors. My wife works in the medical field and checklists are absolutely paramount there.
Matt Hayman: I think I can understand the resistance amongst people who would say that it restricts them. They're not able to go off-piste. They're not able to freestyle. But I guess what you're saying is really, you're just providing some waypoints along the way, still giving the salesperson the freedom and flexibility to be themselves and use their own approach. But there are certain things that must be present in a good ... in a prospect or an opportunity or a deal that have to be drawn out through hitting some of these milestones in a process.
George Brontén: Yeah, absolutely. And I think just, I mean we're flawed creatures. Like human beings, we're not designed for discipline and structure, I think most of us at least. One story that I sometimes tell as well is just going grocery shopping. Do you write a shopping list? I certainly do-
Matt Hayman: I should.
George Brontén: Because-
Matt Hayman: I should.
George Brontén: You should do because you get home and you forgot or you bought the wrong brand of, I don't know, milk, and you have to go back to the store because your wife screams at you. So I certainly use checklists or shopping lists for such a simple thing like that.
Matt Hayman: You must've been listening in on a conversation I had literally yesterday. I bought everything except what I wanted to get from the shops. Yeah, very useful reminder for all of us.
Matt Hayman: In terms of that buy-in then, you're working, with Membrain you've got not just perhaps the shift towards more of a structured, more process-orientated approach, but you're also potentially bringing in software as well. What do you see in terms of what works in terms of getting that buy-in from a sales team?
George Brontén: Yeah, that's a great question. I think involving them in designing the process is always a good thing. So before you sort of ... You shouldn't just come in and say, "Hey, I've built this perfect process, and I've bought this tool and now you're going to use it, you're going to follow it, you're going to do as I tell you." That's never engaging.
George Brontén: If you can have your salespeople be engaged in the process, that's really good, especially the sort of the best salespeople to share what they use or you can extract some of the smartest things they do. I think that's good. Not over engineering is definitely a suggestion because I do see that mistake all the time, trying to create that perfect process that works all the time and it's very granular. Don't go there. Start very simple.
George Brontén: We have a sales process designer tool, which is sort of an Excel spreadsheet people can download from our website. So you can really design this in a format that you're used to. That's a good exercise to do with your people.
George Brontén: And then when you mentioned technology, and of course we sell technology, so I'm biased in this. But I see a lot of technologies, a lot of different SaaS solutions being pushed out to the market that solve one thing. So you have a send more emails faster, call faster, analyze data better. So you end up with having like five different tools for your salespeople to use to follow your sales process, and then it becomes like just more work. It has to be, the technology that you put in place needs to be perceived as helpful and not just more admin burden.
Matt Hayman: And we'll link to the process tool that you guys have developed in the show notes for the episode, definitely.
George Brontén: Oh thanks.
Matt Hayman: I think as well, but potentially then as well, it's also about having those conversations before that point as well. It's about taking soundings from the team about the level of structure that's already in place and sort of rather than sort of trying to design the process out of the blue, is actually start to seed those conversations, seed those ideas and people's thinking prior to even mapping out or trying to design a process.
George Brontén: Yeah. Another thing that people should be doing more often than they might be doing it is a proper win/loss analysis. When you win a deal or when you lose a deal that you really go through what happened, and if there were any mistakes that come up or if there was something that was really smart that you did that maybe was out of the ordinary, that's also a good starting point for such a conversation to have to because then you could say, "Okay, how could we ... If it was a mistake, how could we prevent that from ever happening again?" That raises the need for structure. Or how can we capture this thing that this person did that was amazing? Let's make sure that everyone does that.
Matt Hayman: What you're describing there is what I was thinking in terms of the perception of a checklist typically, and some of the examples we've given in this interview alone are the avoidance of a negative. I think where there's potential is in exactly what you've just described, is rather than this be an exercise to avoid a negative, especially for salespeople who are perhaps very focused, very driven, very personally ambitious, is actually, this isn't just about avoiding negatives. This is actually about improving the win rate for individuals both individually and across the scene.
George Brontén: Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely. And then using a tool like yours for instance is also a good starting point. If you're listening in, listening on a call and you find these golden nuggets like, "Wow, this was such a great way of responding to this particular question," you should take that nugget, you take that recording and share that with the team. And if you have a milestone based process, then you should also put that into the stage and the step and the milestone where it belongs. So as soon as I'm planning to do a call, a similar call, I will learn from those best practices.
Matt Hayman: Excellent. I always love a plug for Refract. Thank you very much. Much appreciated. Just with one on the time, last question from me then. In terms of the analysis, even if somebody's starting very, very low or maybe they have a complex process in place, give us some pointers on how best to analyze some of the data that's going to be thrown up from following that type of process? What can people start to extract? What are those key nuggets that are going to make the whole process that much better?
George Brontén: Yeah. I focus a lot on the win/loss. I think that's super important. You should analyze what the deals you're winning and the deals you're not winning. And of course the basic stuff, I mean stage progression and when you have fallouts or leakage of the funnel is interesting to look at, and compare that with high performance or low performance. You can see, "Okay, why? Were is it ... Where do we have friction within the low performers that we can maybe solve by improving the process?"
George Brontén: Things like industry and competition was two examples that I mentioned. How does that affect us? If you have a more granular process, you could see, you can analyze to see how does that affect our win rates, and if we figure out a way to ... And actually you can see if it's affecting some people and not others, and probably find what some are doing that could prevent the others from having a lower win/rate compared to ... against another competitor for instance.
George Brontén: But also I think we should be, we should allow or help salespeople to better understand how to reach their goals. I tend to talk a lot about trending reports and trendlines because it's really helpful for a sales manager to not only see a dashboard of pie charts and that stuff, which is sort of a snapshot in time, but you want to get a trendline on the win rate, deal size, sales cycle, all those KPIs that we can work on improving. And by seeing those trendlines you will also know, okay, how should I be coaching this person? So if you combine the win/loss analysis with the performance trendlines, you get a really good, I don't know, analytics or good baseline to coach from.
Matt Hayman: That's phenomenal advice. Really, really appreciate that George. Thank you very much for your time. It's been brilliant chatting with you. Before we go, how can people find out more about Membrain? We will link to the tool that you mentioned in the show notes, but yeah, tell people a little bit more about Membrain, how they can find you, and yeah, anything else we've missed?
George Brontén: Yeah, sure. Thanks. So membrain.com is our website. That's probably a good way, a good place to start. I'm very active on LinkedIn, so feel free to link up with me there and ask me any question you might have. I also have some recorded webinars on The Sales Experts Channel on BrightTALK. So if you want to sort of listen to my philosophy when it comes to CRM and technology and sales process, that's a good way, a good place to look.
Matt Hayman: Fantastic. Thank you very much for your time, George. Really appreciate it and enjoy the rest of your day.
George Brontén: Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.