Episode 65: Aaron Evans on Leading Sales Transformation Initiatives

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I’m Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space, and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Aaron Evans from GlobalData join us. Aaron, I’d love for you to introduce yourself, your title, and your organization.

Aaron Evans: Sure. Well, my name is Aaron Evans. As you mentioned before, I worked for an organization called GlobalData, which is a business intelligence company, which is listed on the London stock exchange. and my role is fundamentally head of sales enablement. So, what does that mean? It means I head up the sales enablement globally for the whole organization when it comes to training, development, coaching, and bringing in best practices across the whole sales organization.

SS: Fantastic. Well, I’m very excited to have you join us today, Aaron. Now, one of your areas of expertise, and the reason we’re super excited to have you join us on this podcast, is around implementing sales transformation initiatives, which for a lot of organizations can be seen as a massive undertaking. What are some key things to consider as you build the strategy for a transformation initiative to ensure that it’s successful?

AE: That’s a really good question. I think for me, one of the key points that we’re always trying to get across is absolute clarity. Let me give you an example. Last year, one of the organizations I worked for was a global organization. And we had teams from the United States, Australia, and also in the UK. And our objective was to move the organization from a total contract business into an annualized contract business. So, that means with that came change of commission schemes, it changed the way that we present pricing, and various other different business initiatives.

One of the things that we found was really, really critical, particularly the fact that we were dealing with different countries and different cultures, was making sure that there was absolute clarity in everything that we were communicating with people. The other part there is, there’s also the why, right? I mean, I find in lots of organizations I’ve worked for, some of the mistakes they’ve made is not explaining the reason behind these big structural changes.

If you can make it very clear to the people who are going to be basically executing the change and it’s their jobs and their roles and often their commission schemes that are affecting it, if you make it absolutely crystal clear what it is that you’re trying to achieve and why you’re trying to achieve it, often that gets more buy-in versus the kind of dogmatic, autocratic, “you guys need to change.” Here’s how you do it and here’s why you need to do it. Telling them the why behind it is really crucial and important.

Again, I think another sort of really important part of this is, is the skill that comes with it as well. So often, one of the things that organizations neglect to do is actually to train their staff on how to make these changes. Even think about something really, really simple, like a change in pricing. This has a massive shockwave effect for an organization, and it’s really important that you’re giving the salespeople in that organization the disciplines, the hard skills, and also the coaching to make sure that they’re able to make that change and execute on those changes as well.

And then when you consider that different organizations have different layers of sales as well, you’ve got junior salespeople – they might be SDRs – and more senior account execs or even account managers. There’s going to be different tailored solutions for the way that we train them and the level of conversation they’re going to be having with something as simple as a price change.

SS: That’s fantastic. My next question for you, though, is how do you go about aligning stakeholders on the goals that are critical for transformation initiatives to take hold? From your perspective, what are some best practices for both securing stakeholder buy-in for your initiatives and having them help to execute the desired outcomes?

AE: That’s a good question. I think there are two parts to this, which are really important. First of all, it’s the planning of the change itself. By going through the planning and making people aware of the plans that you’re doing, you often get the buy-in through that process, and often you can make them feel a part of that plan as well by often canvassing their advice and their opinions.

Let me give you an example of a previous organization I’ve worked at, one of the changes we’ve brought in and also the magnitude of that change. So, we took an organization that didn’t have a pricing authority matrix. To sum it up in very simple terms, the salespeople were allowed to price the product however they wanted. We brought in some real stringent rules around how the salespeople are presenting the price and the level of discount they can give, and if they give up to a certain level, that then gets clicked for their manager to approve, and if they go to a higher level of discount, it gets kicked over to their manager’s manager.

Now, this has been a really interesting change because it does several things. It’s taken the power out of the salespeople’s hands, so they think that the organization is trying to control them, but it’s a really important and necessary trench. The way that we affected that change in the planning process was, first of all, asking the reps themselves what they thought would be a reasonable level of discount to offer a customer.

Second of all, we looked at historical data on what the typical level of discount is that we’ve given. Now, when we went through that process, we realized that those two weren’t so misaligned, so it felt like they’d come up with the answer for their managers and for the directors of the organization as to what that level of discount was.

Now, the second part of that is, again, explaining why this is so important and ultimately trying to demonstrate the benefits that this is going to have to the rep. When you bring in something like an authority matrix, ultimately, this means the rep can’t offer as big a discount as they were offering before. So, what this then means is that if we’re increasing their AOV through the fact that they’re not offering that discount. Ultimately, they’re going to make more money.

Now, that’s the initial point I made in the last answer, is that we then went for a rigorous process of supporting the rep through this change. So, we didn’t just say, “here’s the level of discount you can now give. Go and do it.” We gave them training on proper negotiation skills. We gave them training on how to position price. We gave them training on how you build value before you bring price into it. We also gave them training on things like finding deep metrics that are associated with a customer’s goal or what they’re trying to achieve for the implication of that. So, when it comes to presenting a higher price or a higher average order value, they were more equipped to do that.

The other part of this, which is really important, is that there was a huge influence that came through the managers of those salespeople. The objective of an authority matrix is really simple. It’s that the rep should feel uncomfortable about giving a larger discount, because they know it’s going to come through to their manager. But the other side of that is that it’s a fantastic coaching opportunity. If a rep is continually giving a larger discount, the manager could just pause with that rep for a while instead of accepting that. We can work on coaching and training techniques to get that rep to go back and retroactively build more value with the customer and ultimately justify a smaller discount.

So again, there was a combination of lots of different sales enablement disciplines. There was the clarity of what we were trying to achieve and why we were trying to achieve it in the first place. It provides support for the reps and the managers and how they can practically make these changes, but also explaining to the rep the importance of this and how ultimately, it’s going to help them achieve their goals, generate more revenue, have more successful months, and also really be more successful within their role.

SS: I think that’s fantastic. And you know, you’ve talked about this a lot along the way, but in order for transformation to happen, people also need to be motivated to change. How do you go about communicating initiatives and tailoring messages across the sales organization to kind of address that challenge?

AE: I am in a bit of a unique position because I train and coach almost every individual in the organization, and at most organizations that I’ve worked with. I also run the induction programs as well as coaching and training the managers. Now, this does take a long time to do, but what it gives you the unique vantage point of is understanding how people operate, understanding about their learning styles, and understanding about how you get those people to buy-in.

What we find is that we can group these into certain areas of people who are ultimately going to affect the change. So, you’ve got individuals out there who are very, very focused on change. They like change and they’re happy to make the change. And they very quickly see the realization of why that change can work. And when they start implementing that change, we celebrate their success. So, then they become almost a totem for the organization of, if you make these changes, you will succeed, you will do well.

Back to the example of changing from a total contract value to annualized contract value and how we report the figures within the organization, we had many reps turn around when we made this change, explaining that they were making less money and the opportunity to sell more was basically less. However, we found very, very quickly an individual who managed to break a record in the first month that we moved to ACV or annual contract value, and we held them up as an example of how this can be done right.

What we also did is that that rep was happy to talk about how they did it and give case studies. So again, we’re not just using this rep as a way of replicating the success. We’re also using that as real practical ways of actually sharing best practices and getting those results now as a trainer or a coach or anyone within sales enablement.

But what I find is that it’s always best to offer training for people who want it the most. Because what then happens is as you get that kind of twitchy curtain syndrome, where the reps who are less receptive or open to training will start seeing success and then asking that rep, or at least being inquisitive to how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it.

I’ve seen some really interesting trends in my career and how this has affected the organizations I’ve worked with. We’ve found some fascinating trends around spinning out reps from SDR to account managers. So, what we’d say is new business reps who are more junior, we put them on a more intensive program to leverage the expertise that they’ve built up over that short period of time. Now, what we found was is that those reps that had gone through an intense bootcamp training program to spin out to the next level or to progress or to get promoted into an account exec or a senior account, they started to outperform some of the more seasoned and mature salespeople on the sales floor.

This, for us, is a really good opportunity because all we were doing was coaching the disciplines and the fundamentals of what most salespeople should do and how to do it right. But as soon as we started seeing these more junior reps that were better trained, outperforming the more senior reps who are less receptive to training, we noticed that there was a sea change in it and certainly a shift in the mindsets of those more mature staff and reps who feel that they know more. And again, they became more receptive to training.

An element of it is going to be, you’re going to get a group of people who are very, very unreceptive to change. And it’s a trait that we see quite common in sales. If you think about the very notion of what a salesperson is, often it’s that kind of doing the same thing again and again and again, their number going back to zero every single month, and basically being judged from zero again, no matter how good your month was. Now, with that comes a certain mindset, which often isn’t receptive to change.

We see this for lots of different examples of reps being even receptive to new features or new products that we sell within an organization. They’re often less receptive to be the ones that actually move to selling those. Now again, I’m not saying that we ignore those reps, but we concentrate our efforts on the reps that are going to give us the best result when it comes to demonstrating that change and achieving the results we need with that change.

And then we hold them up as the success stories. Within time, we often see the more senior, more seasoned reps turn around and make changes, but it’s really hard. It’s really difficult. And there’s an education piece that comes with it as well. As I’ve said in my previous answers, forcing change on people is difficult, really, really difficult. You really need them to buy in and see the value of what they need to do.

SS: Absolutely. And I love how you keep returning to why. I think that’s essential when it comes to change initiatives beyond just the sales reps. So, what are some of the other challenges that you’ve experienced when managing change projects and how have you overcome some of those?

AE: Yeah. I’ve seen it in a weird sort of way. I mean, I think the most challenging one is when you have salespeople, managers, or even other business units where they’re very successful in what they do. And they have a formula that works really, really well. As a sales enablement person, or as a coach or a trainer, you’ve got to go in there and tell them to do things differently. It’s really challenging because you’re starting from a position where someone feels that they’re almost the best that they can be. That’s one challenge, which is really, really difficult.

Overcoming that is always really, really hard because often what comes with that are the rewards of being successful. These people often see that you’re taking money out of their pocket for a decision, which is actually a business decision versus a decision that’s going to help them directly. But again, I think there are lots of challenges that come with big transformational change.

I think it’s about having the operations, having the structure, having the personnel, having the clarity to be able to deliver on that. But the inverse of that, and I guess this is the really exciting part for anyone within sales enablement, is that in helping make these changes, there’s something really glorious about seeing other people’s behaviors change through really clean process, training, development, coaching, and operations. When you start seeing that change, whether that’s increasing the value of deals that people are doing, whether that’s closing ratios going up, whether that’s demonstrations being booked in the world of SaaS, when you start seeing these changes affecting behavior, it’s a huge payoff.

The thing is business changes. And business behavior changes from the processes, the systems that you put in place to do that. But from a challenge point of view, I think it’s the age-old problem that change is really, really hard. And changing something that is affecting someone who’s successful is very, very difficult. Very difficult indeed.

SS: That absolutely answers the question. That’s fantastic. Now, in closing, because you’ve mentioned quite a few things that change initiatives do help impact within the business. How do you go about measuring the business impact of a sales transformation initiative and how do you articulate what success looks like?

AE: Yeah, I mean, most of the enablement that we do is in sales. So, we do have a couple of key indicators there. If we look at it on a macro and a micro level, we’ll start with the macro. If we’re working with a particular team and we’re bringing in a particular level of training, first of all, we identify what that training’s objective is. So, if it was around negotiating as an example, or whether it was around new products that we’re training them on, or a new feature, then that’s really easy to translate what success looks like very quickly. You can see the effects that you’re having there. But I think often what happens is that we neglect one really important part of change, which is coaching.

What we find is that although you might start seeing change at a macro level, the part that really excites me is the change that we see on a micro level, or what I’d call an individual level. You might be working with a rep on a particular change that they’re making, and it takes time for them to truly grasp that concept.

And the coaching is where that pays off, one-on-one coaching with a rep where you see the improvements that they’re making, then the byproduct of that, the results that come in. So, in terms of measuring success, I mean, it’s around revenue that’s brought in. We look at conversions. So, from on opportunities open to when an opportunity closes. If we can affect those conversions in a pipeline, it’s really important. Activity is obviously a key measure as well.

But it depends on the change that you’re making. If you’re talking about big structural change in an organization, that’s affecting every area of the organization, you might have a little downturn because of the change that you’re making in the time that it takes for someone or an organization to change. But then you can start measuring those results.

So, if we look at the two examples I’ve given today around moving an organization from total contract business to annualized revenue, again, you’re kind of resetting what the formula is. You should start seeing the results and things like average order value, with fewer deals being done but those deals are bigger, how long it takes to get those opportunities in from open to when we closed them, the conversion of top of funnel to bottom of funnel. That’s where you start measuring stuff like that.

If we look at something like your authority matrix, which is the other example I gave, again, we’d be training the discipline and negotiating. We should start seeing people holding their ground and negotiating, getting more for deals, getting more variables in those negotiations, so giving away less, but asking for more when we do have to negotiate.

There are lots of different ways of doing it, but the part that always excites me is on the individual level, because you can see real, demonstrable change over a longer period of time as well. Coaching and working with an individual is so rewarding. And watching someone sort of go for that metamorphosis of a chrysalis to a butterfly – someone’s confidence, growing someone’s results, getting better, someone’s leadership skills coming through, someone’s ability improve the way we scorecard the reps on their calls, the way that you score, call listening – when you start seeing those changes in the individual, it’s really exciting. If you scale that across a thousand calls, those incremental changes will have a massive effect on the organization. But then if you scale it across four or 500 reps, you become an unstoppable machine, which is what we want.

SS: Fantastic. Aaron, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciated your insights on change management.

AE: No worries. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you guys.

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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