It was like the earth just stopped spinning.
Sales pipeline disappeared out of thin air, like it was never there to begin with.
COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
In a matter of days, hundreds of billions of dollars of our customers’ pipelines simply vanished across the globe.
All of a sudden, inside sales leaders were panicking, saying, “Hey, we need to rebuild pipeline and fast. How can we accelerate?”
Fortunately, we’re used to iterating and experimenting. So we had an answer for them.
With the majority of our customers and prospects, we see that AEs still rely on their SDR colleagues to generate around 80% of their outbound pipeline. And in normal years, that might work just fine.
But when a pandemic heaves your pipeline off a cliff, you’ve got to think outside the box.
Instead of pushing on SDRs to prospect harder, we planned a new approach: empowering AEs to get involved earlier.
Instead of waiting for meetings to roll in from their SDRs and marketing, have your AEs start helping with prospecting and outreach.
The results under our own roof have been outstanding:
- Our AEs started generating at least 30% of their own outbound pipeline.
- We were able to add multiple decision-makers, departments, and senior leaders to 48% more of our initial meetings.
- Our sales reps formed new habits and their best practices are still continuing to pay dividends.
This single-handedly supercharged our business and powered us through a tumultuous economic environment, allowing us to give timely guidance to our customers to do the same.
If you want to know how we do it…
Step 0: Nail your training
Before the pandemic, our SDRs spent close to 90% of their day in some portion of the outbound motion. They lived and breathed prospecting — building ICPs, doing research, working call lists, asking for referrals and intros.
What about our AEs? Not so much.
They were focused on down-funnel activities like preparing presentations, giving demos, and negotiating deals. AEs tend to think that prospecting is not the most efficient use of their time. So let’s just say they were a little rusty when it came to prospecting.
We knew we couldn’t throw them into the deep end and hope they remember a job they last did half a dozen years ago.
Before overhauling our prospecting process, we audited our AEs skills. Then we ran targeted training and coaching to get them up to speed.
The key areas we highlighted were:
- Segmentation and prioritization of accounts.
- Building a list of target contacts and org maps.
- Researching and understanding the customer’s business and problems.
- Crafting content that converts.
But rebuilding these habits is just the start. The sales career ladder is hierarchical. AEs often see prospecting as SDR work. We had to reframe how we thought about that work.
Here’s how we level set with the team:
Your pipeline is drying up and the leads you have are more distracted and resistant than ever. Succeeding in the post-pandemic world means using your time on your highest value activities.
Sure, you could work on a small account that’s been badly impacted by the pandemic just because it’s in your book of business and you haven’t touched it yet.
Or you could collaborate with your BDRs and SDRs to open up new opportunities at companies that are resistant to the turmoil — or better yet, the ones that are thriving in the new normal. Do you know which companies are which?
Our seasoned AEs knew that now more than ever it was imperative that they focused on the right accounts, came prepared, and acted as a trusted advisor.
Step 1: Build your account plans
Once AEs identify the handful of accounts that will make or break their year, they need a plan to penetrate those accounts. That’s your account plan.
An account plan hits on three key themes:
- What does the company do?
- How can you get in?
- Who do you need to get in touch with?
To answer those questions, our AEs follow the same methodology.
Account mapping methodology
At the end of the process, our AEs have an in-depth document, detailing each target account. They have:
- Many different value props,
- A considerable number of possible contacts, and
- A list of potential referrers.
Next, they piece it all together.
Step 2: Select your plays
With the research in place, our AEs work with their SDR to design an outreach strategy. In other words, who is contacting who and when?
It’s not always (or even usually) one prospect. Our data science team found that:
This dataset proves that it’s great to be multi-threaded in a deal cycle, but even more important to do the heavy lifting and nail it from the outset.
Before, AEs farmed this work out to SDRs. But now, the AEs are getting involved — and they’re bringing in colleagues and coworkers, too.
The outreach specifics vary between target accounts, but there are a couple of pieces of best practices.
Focus on title-to-title prospecting
At Outreach, we try to optimize for title-to-title prospecting because people tend to trust their peers more than a sales rep they’ve never heard of.
If an AE wants to reach out to a marketing persona in a target account, they’ll pull in a marketing colleague to tell the Outreach for Marketers story. If they want to reach a sales ops persona, they’ll tap a sales ops colleague to do the same.
Move on up
We also encourage all our sales reps to get as high in accounts as possible.
When SDRs are prospecting on their own, that’s tough. But with AEs involved earlier, you can access more senior personas.
If we’ve identified pre-existing connections between our managers, directors, or executive team and their peers in the target account, all the better. Having our CFO reach out to theirs gives us instant access to their C-suite and an open line of communication to the real budget holder, which will surely come up in the deal cycle down the line.
Adapt with context
Finally, our AEs personalize their outreach strategies depending on the context.
An SDR warming up a cold conversation, an AE contacting a former colleague, and a C-suite executive asking for a referral are different interactions. A one-size-fits-all play doesn’t work. Our AEs select sales plays that make the most sense to the persona and context.
We manage this whole step through Outreach’s Collections feature, our team’s well-organized library of templates, snippets, and sequences. When we discover something that works — say a new variation of our “Pick up the Conversation” play — we save it and make it easily accessible for everyone.
After all this, it’s tempting for the AE to step back and let everyone do their own thing. But that doesn’t work. Account-based sales needs accountability to drive performance.
Step 3: Assign accountability
B2B purchasing is complicated. The average number of stakeholders on a buying team is spiking, climbing from an average of 5.4 to 6.8 in just two years.
More stakeholders mean more people involved in the sales team — BDRs, SDRs, AEs, solutions architects, sales engineers, functional sponsors, executive sponsors… the list goes on.
Modern deals have a lot of separate conversations going on. While we could coordinate this on a spreadsheet or in a CRM, let’s be realistic… no one has time for that.
This is where Outreach’s Accounts View comes in.
Once an AE builds their account plan, they add a new tag called “Account Plan Complete” to their dashboard. Every week, during the rep’s one-on-one, their sales manager talks through each complete account plan to assess its progress.
Here’s what it looks like:
Outreach gives them visibility into each account. Both managers and reps have a single place to visually see account penetration and prioritize how to best spend their time. They see the prospects that AEs are trying to contact and the activity in each conversation.
We can check that our AEs are targeting all three of our target personas: marketing, sales, and sales ops. If they don’t have one of the personas identified, we can help them do more prospecting.
Alternatively, an AE might have identified all the right people but have pulled back on their communication. Since Outreach tracks activity in each conversation, we’re able to highlight that and say, “Hey, you’ve not been talking to this marketing persona. Let’s think about what plays are best and get something sequenced.”
It’s easy to get AEs to agree to prospect. It’s a whole other ball game to build new habits and hold them accountable to that process.
Step 4: Measure performance
With any sales strategy, our end goal is closed revenue. But that’s a lagging indicator. Because our average sales cycle for larger, more strategic deals can be anywhere from 12 weeks to 12 months, we can’t optimize for it. It’s too far out. By the time we know whether a deal is won or lost, it’s too late to course-correct.
Instead, we use leading indicator metrics to assess the performance of our campaigns. Specifically:
- Have we booked meetings?
- Have we opened an opportunity?
When we see lower numbers, we can drill down to work why we’re getting stuck. For example, if an AE isn’t opening opportunities and we see they’re not hitting our core personas, that’s the problem. If they’re not booking meetings and their activity rates are low, that’s the problem.
We use Outreach’s Team Performance Dashboard to see attribution tied to rep targeting and messaging.
Here’s what it looks like:
Selecting a closer goal allows our managers to catch issues early and course-correct before their direct reports have wasted too much time.
Build a resilient sales org
In the second quarter of 2020, the sales teams everywhere lost billions upon billions of dollars in pipeline. But that doesn’t mean you give up and wait for things to get better.
By focusing on upskilling our AEs and engaging them in prospecting, we’re getting higher and wider in our key accounts. Even though the market’s cooled for a few months in 2020, our numbers have not only picked up where they left off but have surpassed what we thought was possible.
Your sales org can do the same. Your AEs already have the skills. All they need is the guidance and resources provided by sales leadership.
An original version of this article appeared on Outreach.io.