Ernest Hemingway is my favorite author. I’ve read all of his books multiple times. One of the best is “By-Line” which is a compilation of actual news reports he wrote from the front lines as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and then in World War II. Hemingway has the awe-inspiring ability to transport you to where he is and the lucky reader can see, hear, feel and smell the story around you in a way no other author can accomplish.
I’m no Hemingway, but I’ve been on the front lines of the LMS sales battle for almost 15 years and I too like to share stories. I’ve seen a lot of the LMS front – more than most. Educated as an economist and then an instructional technologist, I transitioned to LMS sales within the first few years of my career. I became an insane student of the LMS sales cycle and how to maximize effectiveness in each and every step to up my winning odds. My insanity led to one hundred new clients, a few hundred losses and over $50,000,000 of revenue.
Eighteen months ago I hung up my combat sales boots to become an independent learning technology analyst and I now help organizations buy LMSs smarter and better. In this new capacity, I have already formally reviewed 82 LMS solutions, led over a dozen full-service LMS selection projects and have interacted with scores of the LMS sales professionals who come in a variety of ranks including senior officers, account reps, solution architects and foot soldiers.
In addition to learning the functional capability of every LMS, my LMS mad scientist hobby has expanded to include studying, comparing and stack ranking the sales prowess of every LMS sales person and sales organization I meet. I’m more aware and amazed than ever about the difficulty of winning and the millions of self-inflicted and Murphy’s Law wounds that lead to losing.
I witness daily the LMS sales person’s pain. I’ve seen and felt the hopelessness of selling a lacking solution, the devastation of demo crashes, the calamity of competitive advances, the destruction of poor LMS RFP responses, the agony of rogue references, the dismay of defeat and worst of all the humiliation of winning a client that has no budget and never buys.
I’ve recently been brought to tears by the vacant thousand yard stare of an LMS sales veteran who thought she was going to win a $1,000,000 opportunity, hit her annual quota and attend the President’s Club celebration in Hawaii — only to get eliminated from the field of battle for product demonstration non-compliance.
I’ve hugged and consoled the family of a salesperson who was the leading contender in a large state police LMS opportunity, but was quickly evacuated out of the competition because he didn’t send in the mandatory, refundable $10,000 bond with the final RFP response. Last week, I saw a vendor sent packing for going AWOL and not returning prospect communication for over a week.
Other senseless losses are due to cursory understanding of the business need, boilerplate overuse, missing deadlines, non-tailored demos and proposals, constant pestering, used car like selling and responding late night to emails while intoxicated. However, the most common casualty in LMS sales is due to voluntary listening loss resulting in ineffective problem solving and untrusted advice.
It is also unfortunate to report that when returning from the front lines, many LMS salespeople suffer from acute PTLD – Post Traumatic Loss Disorder. For many decades, people did not believe this was a real illness but recent studies have shown that losing LMS deals can have profound and deteriorating effects to sales confidence, future ability to win and can lead to involuntary employment discharge.
On a positive note, with the proper help, guidance and training, salespeople can return to lead healthy and productive sales lives. Late at night however, the cursed thoughtful ones continually relive the nightmares of unanswerable buyer objections, fatal software crashes, canceled flights and visions of unspent commissions.
Top Lessons from Elite LMS Sales Fighters
But LMS sales stories from the front lines tell us that all is not all doom and gloom. Today’s elite LMS sales fighters, a combination of George Patten, Navy Seal, Shark Tank and Jimmy Fallon, have found a way to win their battles and get to Hawaii. Here are some best practices I’ve observed. Every little bit helps…
Do Plenty of Reconnaissance — You can’t do too much research on your prospect, their business and their industry before and while engaging in the sales cycle. The more you know, the better chance you differentiate from the competition. Every organization thinks their LMS requirements are special and you better learn why.
Use Strategic Retreats Often – There is no sense fighting a battle that can’t be won. Be quick to disqualify sales opportunities that are not a 100% fit before you sink valuable time and resources into them. It’s better to come back another day when victory is achievable then push to stay in a shaky deal because you have a thin pipeline.
Always Deliver Shock and Awe – Elite winners don’t take any step of the sales process lightly. They plan and deliver shock and awe at every step from the intro email to negotiating the contract. So, so many losses occur after a great start but end by underperforming at some perceived inconsequential step.
Know your Enemies and Know Yourself (Sun Tzu) – If you don’t know who you are competing against, it’s like fighting blind. With an abundance of competitive information on websites, case studies and social media, positioning yourself relative to the competition is mandatory and not that difficult. The strategy to win differs depending on the battle participants and how you match up. The end goal is to tilt the field in your favor and make your differentiators more important in the eyes of the customer.
Plant Competitive Land Mines – It’s poor form to criticize your competitors in front of buyers and is seldom beneficial. It’s very strategic and fun to plant landmines for your competition to unintentionally step into (think country road vs. explosives). For example, if know your competitor is tight on references, offer up a dozen and challenge the buyer to ask all vendors for the same.
Call in Strategic Strikes – You can’t and don’t want to win alone. You certainly don’t want to lose alone. You need to call in your best strategic resources at key times in the sales cycle. Have references proactively contact the buyer, have your CEO meet the client executive sponsor and also introduce your VP of Professional Services to talk through the implementation. Make sure you educate each resource on the opportunity, business case and their exact mission.
Chow Is Best Served Hot — Be super responsive. If you get a prospect email at 5 pm – respond right away, don’t wait until morning. When asked to pick a demo time do it immediately. Buyers need help buying and the logistics of herding cat-like vendors is substantial –if not you, it will be the next sales pro that is easy to work with. (Mr. Haythorn, it’s pizza of course)
Listen, Listen, Listen – Goodness, please listen and stop talking. Buyers will tell you what’s important and how to win. It’s your job to listen, understand, adapt and overcome your internal sales prevention team.
Follow Orders – So many salespeople take shortcuts and it costs them. Not following all instructions in an RFP or demo request, is taking a senseless risk. If you are asked to demo use case by use case – do it. If you are asked for references and financials – provide them. Don’t think your way is better. It isn’t. “Theirs not to question why…”
Life on the LMS front lines is grueling, harsh, competitive and unfair. LMS vendors win battles but never the war. Raging for over 30 years now, no LMS has ever won the war and the ferocious fighting continues. With 600 current 2015 LMS vendors, universal victory is not imminent but winning more than your fair share is possible especially if you avoid self-inflicted wounds. One must learn how to survive on the front. LMS war is hell.
Ernest Wanabe signing out from the LMS front lines.
Thanks for reading!
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