Pleasure to post the Podcast Transcript from my interview with Cian McLoughlin, expert on win loss analysis. I have had a lot of discussions with people about this episode. Cian is founder of Trinity Perspective, a sales consulting firm specialising in win-loss analysis. He is also the author of Rebirth of a Salesman.
Listen to the full podcast here or enjoy the transcript below, and please leave me your comments!
Steven: Really pleased to welcome Cian to the program – hi Cian!
Cian: Hi! How are you?
Steven: Going great – really pleased to have you here today! You’ve recently written this book, Rebirth of the Salesman: The World of Sales is evolving. Are you?. I really enjoyed the book, and would love to dive straight into that. In the book, Cian, you sort of open up and you talk a lot about the importance of the customer’s perspective, and that we don’t pay enough attention to that. Could you explain a bit about that please?
Cian: Yeah, absolutely. I spent an inordinate amount of time in the business-to-business sales industry. I think there’s a lot to like about that industry – the people, the hard work, the dedication, the commitment – there’s a lot of positives, but one of the issues which I certainly observed in my own career, and have seen much more keenly now over the last seven or so years running this business, is that we often make assumptions about what our customers are thinking, what they want, what they care about, what’s important to them. We don’t bring them inside the tent to validate those assumptions, and test and improve them and poke holes in it, and I think that’s a mistake. Because by doing that, by giving them the opportunity to come in and actually improve the conversations that we have with them or to reorient where we’re focusing our efforts just means a far, far better outcome for both parties: quicker, faster sales cycles, more engaged conversations with our customers.
I think the customer needs to be at the heart of everything we do. There’s a great story about Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, that in every meeting that Jeff is in, he has a free chair sitting in the room, and that empty chair is supposed to represent the customer, and the intent that the customer needs to be at the heart of everything that Amazon does, because they aspire to be the most customer-centric company on the planet. I think we could all learn a lesson from that, about having customers at the heart of what we do.
So, going back seven, seven and a half years, I decided to start exploring whether we could put the customer at the heart of how we understand our wins and our losses, and tested that and built a process around that, and ultimately quit the corporate world and built a company around that.
Steven: I think a lot of sales organisations think they’re doing win/loss analysis or that they’re doing some sort of analysis, but it does tend to be quite internal, doesn’t it?
Cian: Unfortunately, it does. If I was to look at the hierarchy or the pecking order, I would say the worst case offenders are the ones who no level of analysis, whether they win or lose. But not too far away from those are the ones that have an internal debrief, where we all sit around a table and ask each other what we think happened, and then with a little bit of back and forth we come up with a narrative that we agree on. “Okay, so we all think it was a pricing issue. – Yep. – Okay, great, so pricing. We didn’t really have enough executive sponsorship, is that right? – Yep. – Yep. – Okay. And we just need one more…” and they come up with another one, and then that becomes literally the accepted understanding of what happened on that sales cycle, and then we put it into the CRM somewhere or we capture it some other way, and then we move on to the next one.
That does not constitute a proper win/loss analysis or a post-sales debrief. We need to be really striving to get to the heart of what actually happened, and the best mechanism that I’ve found to do that is to reach out to our customers and just ask them a question, ask them to share the good, the bad and the ugly. “Where did we do well? Where have we got some room for improvement? Did we really drop the ball in any areas? Help us understand that.” Because if we set out to find this information in a way that’s really honest and candid and forthright, then we can really learn from it, we can up our game, and we can extract some more value from our cost of sale.
Steven: Yeah. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? We want to learn about why we’re winning deals or losing deals: let’s go and ask the customer. But it doesn’t happen that often.
Cian: It doesn’t. Look, it was a bit of an Emperor’s New Clothes moment for me. Because I was in the corporate world, I had realised that we were putting a huge amount of blood, sweat and tears into these sales cycles, and had very little understanding as to why we were winning and losing. But I sort of thought to myself “It can’t be as easy as just reaching out to our customers and asking them, but let me kind of prove that it’s not that,” so I started reaching out to some customers, and saying, “Could I come up and spend an hour with you, and just kind of run through a review process, understanding what happened?” And for the most part they were very agreeable, and for most part they were incredibly forthright in the feedback they provided. So I came back with an incredibly different, more nuanced understanding of what had happened in those sales cycles than I had myself, and in many instances diametrically opposed feedback than what I actually thought!
There was a prime example, and I speak about it in the book, where I went to do a win review with a client, and when we sat down… We had a pretty good relationship, myself and the key internal sponsor, and I said, “Could you help me understand ~why we earned this~ transaction?” and his opening comment to me was “Well Cian you first lost this deal, and I was like “Hang on a second. ~We earned this deal!~” and he was like “Just bear with me. You first lost this deal based on the poor quality [~5], and then one of the other vendors we were looking at dropped out for their own reasons and so we had to take x number of people through. Then you lost based on how far above the other players you priced yourself, and then you lost because of this, this and this. But then another player dropped out…” So basically, it was a litany of failures on our behalf, and then other circumstances outside of our control, meaning that we ended up staying in the sales cycle for the next step and we ended up staying in the sales cycle for the next step, right up until the very end, where all the user community opted for the other solutions [~7, 06:52] another provider, and the CFO asked one question about the two providers they were looking at and we provided the feedback around here’s our three-four-five-year product roadmap, and the other vendor would only commit I think for two years, and the CFO felt that was too big of a risk, and as a result ~we ended up getting the deal~. But I didn’t know any of that before I went in and sat down! I thought we’d done a great job, that we drunk the Kool-Aid and we thought we were really, really successful. We are appalling virtually at every step of that sales cycle, and the only thing that got us over the line was sheer dumb luck.
That was a really eye-opening moment in terms of just how far off the mark we can be in terms of our understanding of what’s actually happening inside these sales cycles.
Steven: So that really brings home to me the value of reviewing your wins as well as your losses. You have 4 or 5 great pieces of insight by talking to the customer about win, if you hadn’t done that you might have thought you had a win. It’s important to do both; because if we’re going to do a win/loss, we’re probably going to focus on the losses.
Cian: I’ve played sport all my life, so I use this sporting analogy: whether you are a winning team or a losing team, you still do the game analysis: you still review the tape, you still look at your competition, you still look at ways to improve what you’re doing. I think that’s the same analogy. We call ourselves sales professionals, but, unfortunately, a lot of the time we haven’t earned the tag “professional”. Because if you’re professional, then you’re trying to find ways to get better at each step of the sales process, and that includes the step after the customer has made their buying decision, whatever that decision is. As an industry, we’re very, very poor at that step.
Look, I have some theories. I think one of the things is that it’s pretty awkward. It’s awkward to go and ask a customer to give this feedback, particularly in a losing situation: we don’t feel comfortable, the customer doesn’t feel comfortable. That’s one of the reasons that I have decided to step out of the corporate world and start to do this as an independent third party and build a business with people delivering this service. Because to create that separation, to give customers enough space to be really honest and transparent and just tell the truth about their experiences, but also to help vendors actually do something with that information.
Because one of the things that I discovered was if I get some intel from a customer, and some of that might relate to me and some of it might relate to my direct manager, some of it might relate to my colleagues… That puts me in an incredibly difficult position in terms of what do I actually do with that information? How do we go from insight to outcome within the business? Because do I have to now go back and tell my peers “Well, one of you was responsible for us losing that piece of business,” or do I have to go and speak to my boss and give him or her that feedback? That’s just not a very comfortable position for anyone to be in. So we’ve tried to create enough separation so that both the customer and the vendor in that situation have the ability to actually ~talk openly about the matter~, and then take action, without feeling uncomfortable or vilified internally.
Steven: So, what does a good win/loss process look like, and how do we get that cooperation from the customer?
Cian: It’s a great question. The first thing I would say is that in the majority of the sales cycles that we’ve been involved in on behalf of our vendors around the world, if the salesperson has done a good job, then they’ve earned the right for this feedback. And most customers are actually in agreement with that and they’re happy, and they even have built in time for a formal debrief in their buying process. So I think that’s a kind of critical thing to just keep in mind.
In our experience, we’ve been testing and improving our processes for seven years, the first thing is to ask early. So if the deal is done and we’ve lost, and then we go and ask for a post sales review, then it’s not impossible that the customer might think we have some ulterior motive, that we’re going to go in and try and cast doubt on how they’ve made their decision or something of that nature. In that scenario, we’re in a very difficult position. But if we ask the question earlier, so earlier on in the sales cycle, not only does it increase the likelihood that they’ll say yes, but it also actually gives a very positive uptick in terms of their perception of us. Because any vendor who is so proactive that they are going to run a review process – win, lose or draw – to find out how they can get better is a vendor that we want to be working with. So asking early if sales process makes a lot of sense, and the hit rate goes up.
Also explain to them what the process is going to look like, what you’re going to do with the data they give you, what you’re not going to do… “We’re not going to use it to beat up our salespeople, we’re not going use it to try and backend the sales cycle out the back door. We are going to use it to invest in our training [~3], we are going to use it to improve issues around quality of tender response or pricing or bid management or any of those other things,” just so they know, so they understand. And then you’d be amazed, not only at the hit rate of people who agree to participate, but at the level of detail, of honesty, of regularity that you can get to – it’s quite extraordinary.
…We leave the interview there for now. Follow the link below to listen to the full 35 minute podcast.
Listen to the complete Podcast with Cian McLoughlin.
Leave me your comments!