The Sales Playbook of Successful B2B Teams

Despite companies spending billions annually on technology to try to systematize operations, business-to-business sales remains remarkably ad hoc and opaque.

Sales leaders routinely are surprised when they lose renewals from key accounts, or a product launch falls short of goals, or sales representatives miss cross-selling opportunities. Most sales organizations struggle to see what is coming through the pipeline for next quarter, or what their army of salespeople is actually working on.

Vendors of customer relationship management (CRM) technology have built a $60 billion global industry around such problems. Every major B2B company invests millions each year in sales technologies, yet 62% of 167 companies surveyed recently by Bain & Company said the return on their investment fell short of expectations. What companies hoped would be an intelligent CRM system ends up being used as a simple accounting and workflow management system. They’ve bought a high-octane car but lack driver training.

This is the situation that a global technology firm found itself in during 2015 after a large merger. It had lofty targets to expand revenues, and it had two salesforces, strong in their own ways yet different in culture and go-to-market approach. While the merger would take quarters, if not years, to complete, the salesforce was charged with moving faster, to create a new pipeline within weeks.

In stepped a small sales operations team. Tasked with combining all the separate customer data sets into one, the team could see where untapped opportunities existed. They proposed using data-informed sales plays — each one a coordinated set of actions to create and win an opportunity at a specific customer or prospect — in order to change how the sales system worked. The data included estimated spending by each individual customer and major prospect, which far exceeded the spending that the company already captured.

Sales plays had been kicking around the company for a while, mainly for high-stakes situations: in advance of a potentially tough quarter, to force reps to push a specific product line, or for a big product launch. The sales operations team had tracked plays, figured out which ones worked, and amplified those while sidelining dud plays.

Notably, the team saw how different corporate functions were forced to collaborate on devising and executing a play. The need for coordination meant that standing playbook teams met weekly, and the different functions rallied around one goal.

The team’s insights provided an edge in where, what, and how the company should sell. Sales plays replaced guesswork with reliable leading indicators and detailed guidance on the next best action. Senior sales leaders had confidence to make precise changes ahead of results, not afterward. The company soon began posting consistent gains in sales growth and market share that exceeded those of competitors and their own post-merger expectations.

Moneyball for Sales

A sales play system has begun to catch on among progressive companies worldwide, much as many sports organizations have applied data and analytics (with baseball’s Oakland Athletics pioneering the use of sabermetrics, as recounted in the book Moneyball). By using data to find undervalued athletes, determine the highest-impact plays to run, and replace gut coaching routines with statistically-informed routines, sports teams have improved their records.

In our work with hundreds of sales organizations, five themes related to sales plays stand out among companies that consistently excel in revenue growth and market share gain. Analysis of the B2B companies we surveyed found that high-performing sales organizations (with high performance defined in terms of revenue growth and market share gain over the past two years) are 2.7 times more likely than the laggards to outperform on all five dimensions described below.

Detailed, granular data for each situation. Aggregated estimates of spending for a product have little practical use. What matters is current and potential spending at the individual customer level. In the telecom system market, for instance, a supplier that aims to displace competitors needs to know the weaknesses of competitor A (poor ability to customize call flows) vs. competitor B (vulnerable on security) so that it can tailor marketing messages and sales scripts for potential customers.

One private equity fund that invests in the technology sector has made it standard operating procedure to build such a database for the companies in its portfolio. For companies selling educational software to U.S. school districts, the fund realizes the value of a database that would list every school district in the country and estimate the amount that district spends on educational software based on variables such as student population, number of unique schools, and the progressiveness of the district on other technology. That kind of detailed, specific data enables a sales rep to move from the overly broad “sell to this list of school districts in Colorado” to the more useful “here is a ranked list of the biggest opportunities in Colorado, and here’s what each one cares about.”

A sales play factory. It’s essential to get product, sales, and marketing staffs together in regular team meetings to plan a set of discrete sales and marketing actions. Yet many companies lack that orchestration. The sales leader at one software firm told us, I haven’t talked to the product team in years.”

Typically, the team’s factory builds a bill of materials for what goes into a play, details on what a strong finished play looks like, and mechanisms to get feedback for refining a play after it has been tested in the field. Each play comes with a library of scripts and collateral to accommodate different geographies or industries, deal with common responses from prospects, and recommend actions to take. The factory creates an inventory of a few dozen plays that can be deployed to win new accounts, cross-sell existing accounts, renew expiring accounts, and win back defectors.

Taking a factory production mentality to a sales playbook raises the level of consistency in execution.

A command center to track and manage sales plays. When companies match plays to known opportunities, the sales operations team has a testing and learning lab at their fingertips. Effective plays can be elevated, repeated, and pushed out to the rest of the sales team, while ineffective plays can be refined or retired.

In our experience, leading sales operations teams attribute 60% or more of their total pipeline in any quarter to actively designed and deployed sales plays. The playbook provides a reliable view of whether they are on track, and if not, recommends ways to deploy more targeted, alternative plays.

Consistent, intensive coaching. In a recent survey of sales reps, we found that more than half would not pay $1 for an hour of their manager’s time, but 10% would pay $150–$500 for that same hour. The difference? Effective coaching.

Clear sales plays resemble clear rules of the road in a dense city, helping managers to coach more effectively. Instead of a general directive to sell more, managers can discuss how a cross-sell play to a particular prospect should use certain scripts that have proven effective, and they can role-play on possible objections.

Rich, integrated technology. Having the right technology is necessary but far from sufficient for developing a successful sales playbook.

The winning companies in our analysis were 1.4 times more likely to fully deploy sales technology tools and 1.9 times more likely to fully integrate them. For instance, a marketing tool that serves up relevant content must be connected to the sales enablement system, so that sales reps can see which content gets high ratings for a given play.

One software-as-a-service (SaaS) company had invested in technologies for customer relationship management, marketing automation, sales enablement and cadence, and call recording, but it was barely using them. By taking the time to embed these technologies properly into its sales processes, the company was able to increase revenue growth by 200 basis points within a few weeks.

Respecting Customers’ Time

Bringing coherence and statistical intelligence to the sales system will be value enough for nearly every role in sales and marketing. Heads of sales have told us they appreciate how these systems target accounts based on known triggers and then send reps knocking in the right places, with the right materials. Reps who listen to a customer describe a problem like being able to quickly look up a play and start explaining the right solution.

But sales plays benefit customers, too, as each play tailors marketing content, sales conversations, pricing, and features to solve individual customers’ needs. Our recent survey of B2B buyers found that more than 80% show up at the first meeting with a sales rep with their selection criteria and a short list of vendors already set.

Sales plays enable reps to meet customers with the right information at the right time.