Labcast: Are Your CRM Milestones Customer-Centric?

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More than a few companies today struggle with CRM implementations, missing their CRM milestones. But as business author and speaker Mike Bosworth points out, when it comes to CRM, you get what you give.

“If we really get down to it, the pipeline milestones are the key to making it or breaking it with CRM,” he says. In this episode of Labcast, Mike discusses the problems many software companies have with CRM and how a shift toward customer-centric milestones can help rectify a flawed system and improve the sales process.

Labcast 42: A Customer-Centric Approach to Pipeline Goals

(Note: To view the sample correspondence between a salesperson and prospect referenced at the end of this podcast, click here.)

Mike is the author of Customer Centric Selling (2003) and Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets (1993). For more information, visit his website at


Brendan Cournoyer: Hello again everyone, and welcome to this episode of Labcast. Today we are joined by business leader, trainer, author, and venture capitalist Mike Bosworth. Mike spent 16 years as the founder of Solution Selling. He’s also written two books, “Solution Selling:  Creating Buyers in a Difficult Selling Market,” and more recently, “Customer Centric Selling,” which he co-authored in 2003. Mike, thanks for joining us today.

Mike Bosworth: I’m happy to be here, Brendan. We are working on a new book that should be out in 2012 early, my partner, Ben Zoldan, and I. It’s called “What Great Salespeople Do:  The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story.”

Brendan: Excellent. Cool. We’ll definitely keep an eye out for that. Before we get started today, we have a few questions for you, but I’d love to give you a chance to sort of fill folks in a little bit more on your background and some of the things you’re working on. I know you’re currently the co-founder for two companies, so I would be happy to hear about that as well.

Mike:  Okay. As most people know, I have been a sales productivity consultant and trainer on my own since 1983. One of the primary reasons I went into sales training was to help the bottom 80%. Corporations truly suffer from the 80/20 rule, where 20% of their salespeople are bringing in 80% of the business. So my mission was based on some behavioral research and stuff I learned at Xerox and the need development methodology I invented in Solution Selling. My mission was to help the bottom 80%. The top 20% did not need my help.

In 2008, I found out that yikes, the 80/20 rule over 32 years had gotten worse, and it is now 87/13 according to Sales Benchmark Index, and my partner and I realized that we’d actually been helping the best ones get better.

So now I think of the top salespeople, the 20%, the people that everybody wants to emulate and figure out what they do, they have three major skill areas, and most salespeople only have two of the three. The three major skill areas are (1) the ability to create a realistic vision in the mind of your buyer of how your buyer would use your product offering or your service in their world to solve a problem or achieve a goal. The second leg of the stool, and that comes into our discussion today, is the ability to manage a complex corporate buy process. The third skill of the top 20%, and we’re not going to be talking about this today unless we do a little at the end, is the ability to connect with strangers. That’s really the Holy Grail, and that’s what’s been missing.

Since 2008, I have been involved . . . one of my new companies is a company called Story Leaders, and we’re actually training salespeople and corporate marketing people on how to connect with strangers. I think we’ve done four or five big programs for Oracle so far and are truly rewiring their product managers. That could be a subject for another day.

One short note on the other business I’m co-founding these days, which is Weconcile, and my life partner, Jennifer Lear, is one of the world’s best couples counselors. We found that most couples need help, but most couples can’t afford the $200 an hour a good couples’ therapist gets. So Jennifer is building and we’re going to launch in early 2012 an intelligent called Weconcile that is going to help couples improve their intimacy and resolve their differences where they don’t have to incur the expense of a therapist. They can do it 24/7 in the privacy of their own homes. We’ve very excited about it. We have six beta couples going though it right now, and we’re getting amazing feedback. So that’s what’s going on in my world.

Brendan: That’s a bit of a change of pace on that one, huh?

Mike: Oh, yeah, but it’s fun. I’m just getting so excited about it I can hardly stand it because the feedback we’re getting is so good on it.

Brendan: Very cool. So, let’s talk a lit bit about, and you mentioned this briefly before, about the topic we’re going to talk about today where you’re talking about buyer experiences. Today we’re going to talk about a presentation that you actually put together called “Buyer Oriented Pipeline Milestones” as the foundation of a CRM implementation. I guess a great place to start is to talk about the genesis of where that presentation came from. I was perusing through it. You said a lot companies do have milestones, but they’re very company centric, and we’re talking about more of a buyer oriented approach. Is that correct?

Mike: That is correct. It’s interesting because the company that hired me to do this was an open source CRM system. They had all of their clients in, and their clients are struggling with trying to implement CRM. It was sponsored by a CRM software company, but the audience was CRM clients trying to implement CRM systems in their companies.

Brendan: So the first question I have for you is you point out some of the complaints a lot of people have about CRM. I thought that would be a good place to sort of get the ball rolling here. What are some of the most common complaints when it comes to CRM?

Mike: Well, from management’s point of view, they complain that there’s low compliance, and the salespeople complain that it’s really a waste of their time when they compare the amount of time and effort they have to put into it to be in compliance versus the benefit they get out of it. So neither side is happy.

Brendan: Well, that’s a problem.

Mike: Yeah.

Brendan: So in regards to finding the root of some of those complaints, really the crux of your presentation is about how many organizations have very company centric pipeline milestones. What you’re talking about is really sort of flipping that to a more customer centric approach. Can you explain a little bit more about exactly what that means?

Mike: Sure. Basically, every CRM system is built to allow the company, the user company, to put whatever pipeline milestones they want in that system. Typically, there certainly were no salespeople that ever raised their hand and said to management, “I think we need a CRM system around here.” With today’s technology, most salespeople can easily manage a contact database of their own or even the company can have a contact database. I think the number one reason management has wanted CRM is visibility into their revenue and into their forecasting accuracy. If you go around most companies, even today, a VP of sales will do a forecast, and when the CFO gets it, the CFO kind of glances it over and then goes into his drawer and pulls out his own trend analysis and his own numbers. We find a lot of CFOs are doing their own sales forecasts, which means all that time and effort put into CRM wasn’t taken seriously. The reason it isn’t being take seriously is it’s in the opinions of salespeople and most of the salespeople complying with these systems, they’re doing it just because they kind of have to, to keep their job. We’ve even had some companies tell them that they can’t get their expense checks until the CRM system is up to date. So if companies are having to lean on salespeople to get them to update the CRM system by threatening to delay their expense reimbursements, that’s saying that’s there is huge reluctance on the part of many, many salespeople to do it.

All I can tell you is that salespeople take the path of least resistance. If you could show a salesperson something that would help them sell more business, they would use it. So I guess, from my perspective, the vast majority of salespeople I know don’t think they’re getting value out of their company’s CRM system.

Brendan: So those are some problems.

Mike: Those are some complaints. If you look at the expectation, why did these companies implement CRM in the first place, probably the number one reason is forecasting accuracy, and then there are lots of logical things like we can access information from a single application, any of our people, any of our channels. We get a history of accounts and deal progress, and we can track the salesperson’s activity and provide coaching suggestions, etc., things like that. They all sound like pretty good reasons. But then if you look at those reasons, the forecasting accuracy and the history of account deal progress and tracking a rep’s activity and providing coaching suggestions, those are all highly contingent on the pipeline milestones. In other words, what are you tracking about your deals that is going to improve your forecasting accuracy and give you account and history, deal progress, and things like that? We find that management, the people who funded these systems are not happy with what they are getting out of it. I think, if we really get down to it, the pipeline milestones are really the key to making it or breaking it with CRM.

Brendan: What are the right milestones then? Is it an issue of them just having the wrong goals?

Mike: Well, the vast majority of pipeline milestones that we see companies using are milestones that reflect what the company did, which means that it is input by a salesperson and so its a salesperson’s opinion. A typical company centric milestone would be we engaged, we had a first appointment, we investigated their needs, we presented our offering, we did a demonstration, we presented our value proposition, we did a proposal, we’re in negotiations. We’re negotiating with purchasing. These are all steps that you would find in a lot of CRM systems pipeline. Then what they do is they have a linear, almost automated way of forecasting based on the percent of those steps completed. Engage, they give it a 20%, investigate needs 20%, present offering 30%, and they just have these forecasting systems that based on the number of vendor centric milestones that the salesperson says we have accomplished. They’re doing forecasts. It’s no wonder that the CFOs aren’t getting a forecast that means anything.

The questions I ask my clients over the years about their milestones, the first one, “Do they reflect what you have done, or do they reflect the buying process of your potential customer?” The vast majority of the time they admit that it is what they have done. The pipeline milestones have no reflections on the customer’s buying experience. Most of them aren’t institutionalizing best selling practices because they really don’t even know what their best selling practices are. Most of them rely on the opinions of salespeople.

Then the final question is I would say to a senior executive, “If there was a major opportunity on your sales forecast that was going to make or break the quarter, how would you audit the progress on that opportunity?” I haven’t had an executive yet say they would go into the CRM system. They’d pick up the phone and talk to the rep, and they would talk to the sales manager. In other words, when they really do have to audit an opportunity, they know that based on those milestones and the way that they are getting updated, it’s no place they can go for information.

Brendan:  What are some examples then of some customer centric milestones and how they differ from the more vendor eccentric approaches that we have been talking about so far?

Mike: We have been talking about the buy cycle since 1976 at Xerox. What are the steps that your customer goes through when they buy? I’m going to list off some steps in the buy cycle. Then, as you listen to these steps, ask yourself, “Is there some way that these could be our pipeline milestones rather than the typical ones of investigating needs, presenting offerings, demonstrating value propositions and proposals, and things like?”

The first step in most buy cycles is they are coming from not being a buyer, so we start with the step of not looking. One of the biggest challenges for marketing departments these days is to get people who are in the targeted market to go from not looking to looking. The way the buyer would let us do that is by saying, “Tell me more.” So the first buyer oriented pipeline milestone would be curious, where they demonstrated curiosity about our offering, about our company, about our customers.

The next step is the buyer is willing to open up and share with the salesperson a goal or even admit a problem. Now that is a pretty significant step, because it pretty much says that they have to trust the seller. The next step is, “Is the buyer willing to converse about both constraints and solutions? Can we get into a solutions discussion that we can document back with the buyer?” So you could call that step a solution discussion maybe.

The next step is, “Can the buyer visualize using your offering in his or her world to achieve a goal or solve a problem?” The next step is, “Will this buyer give you, the seller, access to all the key players necessary to get the decision made? Will they give you access to purchasing or procurement? Will they give you access to the CFO? Will they give you access to the IT department if they have to bless it, or the HR department?” That is a pretty easy step to audit, wouldn’t you say?

Brendan: Yeah.

Mike: It has to do with the prospect being willing. The next step is the buyer has had satisfactory proof that your offering will meet their vision. That’s pretty binary. The next step is the buyer now understands the value of buying your product. They know that they are going to spend X and they’re going to save Y, and they see the value. That’s pretty easy to document back in writing. Next step, the buyer understands implementation responsibilities. Next step, verbal approval. Last step, they signed a contract. Now if I had a pipeline full of those steps being accurately updated, if I’m a senior executive and I’m in the last few days of the quarter and there is a big, giant deal out there that I want to audit, I can go into the correspondence for that client, between my salesperson and that client, into my CRM system, and I can say, “Oh, yeah, there’s the problem he admitted. There are some of the constraints he’s worried about. There’s the solution he visualized. On this date, he actually got specific. He needs A, B, and C to do D. On this date, he gave us access to the HR department. On this date, there’s the confirmation that he says yes, he believes our product will meet his need.” So, all of these things are in the correspondence. You don’t have to call the salesperson and say, “So what do you think is going on here? Are they going to close?”

You actually have customer or prospect correspondence where you can audit these steps. It makes a huge difference.

Brendan: So just by changing the focus of those milestones, suddenly you have access to this information. It just adds value to your CRM system overall and the value that you are getting out of it just by kind of tweaking the way that you are looking at things.

Mike: Exactly. Right. It’s basically just breaking down those steps and confirming them all in some kind of correspondence. Most clients these days are using email. The sales executives can go in there and see, What’s the customer’s goal? What their vision of a solution? What’s the payback that they are signing up for? Oh yes, they’ve had proof.

So it’s built around what the customer needs to do to buy versus what the salesperson said he did, like investigating needs, presenting offerings, doing demonstrations, and stuff like that.

Brendan: So is this a good time then, I guess, to look at what is the ideal B2B customer experience that  people should be looking at?

Mike: Well, this comes from the top. The publisher of Selling Power magazine, Gerhard Gschwandtner, a number of years ago said that the CEO’s definition of sales ends up being the DNA of the customer’s experience.

So these are kind of leadership principles that I’ve seen the best companies do. I just read some off to you. These are statements about our potential customers. In other words, these are statements, a stake in the ground, that a company is saying, “Here’s how we are going to treat our customers.”

First one, “Our potential customers will be allowed to be curious about how we have helped similar job titles with similar issues (before we give this 200 deck slide PowerPoint presentation). Our potential customers will be given an example of a success story only when they ask us to tell them more.” In other words, we are going to tell them based on their agenda, not our agenda. “Our potential customers will be asked questions about their current situation only after they have admitted a problem or shared a goal with our salesperson. Until they have admitted a problem, we’re not going to start taking them through some questioning model.”

“Our potential customers will only be offered potential solutions that empower them to retain control of their problem or goal that we offer.” No more pay per wear, and no more, “Oh, I think we can take care of that for you.” We’re really going to have a product that we believe will empower them to meet their needs. They are still going to have to confirm that they have proof. That was one of the steps.

“Our potential customers will only hear facts about our company’s credibility, rather than marketing hyperbole.” In other words, we’re not going to tell them we’re the leading provider of ABC. If the Wall Street Journal said we’re the leading provider of ABC, then it’s a fact that we will tell them.

“Our potential customer should experience our salespeople as individuals with the desire to help them achieve their goals and solve their problems by using our products.”

Brendan: Simple.

Mike: I think sometimes the best things are simple. The way a process like this gets audited is basically between the normal correspondence between the seller and the buyer. One thing we do know about top 20% salespeople is they are good letter writers. If you can’t audit it, you really can’t automate. That’s the big problem with most CRM systems is there is no real good way to audit.

Brendan: Okay, Mike. My last question, I’d love to get some insight from you per your presentation, once you have articulated what the ideal B2B customer experience should be, you can then go through the process of documenting your buyer’s story via your CRM system.

Mike: Correct. It has been my take for years that the best salespeople write good letters, and they are basically reflections of the calls of the discussions that they have had with their buyers. If those letters are built around the buyer’s buying process, then anytime senior management wants to audit a particular deal at forecast time, all they really have to do is go in and audit the actual correspondence between their salespersons and the prospect.

We have an example of what that might look like, and this one is from a Story Leaders’ workshop. So if you have any way to post this one up where people can actually go look at it, Brendan, I’m not sure. We have a card system in Story Leaders where we teach salespeople how to build stories and then how to tend their buyers’ stories. They are done by colors. The yellow card is the point of the story. The green card is the setting. The white card is the complications. The blue card is the turning point, and then the red card is the resolution of the customer’s issue with whatever you’re selling. So we have this example letter that if you can post for people, I think they will get a real good idea of how we can tend the buyer’s story and then document it back to the buyer and get the buyer’s confirmation that yes you understand my needs, and yes, I believe that what you are offering me so far might help me achieve my needs,

Brendan: Absolutely. We can post that. Those who are listening to this podcast right now will be able to find a link right below the player. They can click on that and check that slide out for themselves.

Mike: Fantastic.

Brendan: Mike, that is all the questions that I have for you today. I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it, and hopefully we get to do this again sometime soon.

Mike: All right, Brendan. Thank you.

Brendan: Thank you.

  • Michael


  • Craig Lincoln

    Much more than interesting- brilliant.It’s great to hear these fundamental principlesin such a new context.    It’s like getting a refreshercourse in what sales is really all about.Congratulations, Mike, and thank you, Brendan!     – Craig Lincoln

  • Jonathan

    Keeps crashing and restarting at 7:30ish as he starts talking about the milestones 🙁 tried 4 times. Any knowledge of getting this on a download or another channel would be awesome

    • jcrowe_openview

      Hi Jonathan,

      Apologies for the technical issue. The podcast is working here on our end, but since it keeps restarting on you why don’t you email me and I’ll send you the full audio file: [email protected].