In 2007, Ed Conaway, senior vice president of sales for transportation and logistics services company Con-way Freight, launched an overhaul of the company’s sales structure and process. The existing sales structure was flawed, with account executives using a variety of approaches or none at all to plan sales calls and negotiations. It was not keeping up with the true needs of the business or the company’s customers, and it was generating insufficient results for the time and efforts invested. Only 40 percent of sales calls were resulting in forward progress or a positive customer outcome.
The goal of the overhaul was to build a world-class sales team by developing better selling skills in account executives, providing customer-needs assessments and negotiation training, and technologically bringing Con-way’s sales processes, tools and data information platform into the 21st century. Conaway wanted to transform the sales force from a group of transactional, relationship-oriented order takers into a trained and strategic consultative asset with the tools and skills to drive customer buying behavior based on identified need and problem solving.
Becoming Better Negotiators
To begin to build capacity in account executives and directors of sales, Conaway introduced SPIN selling techniques, based on the book SPIN Selling by Neil Rackman, through face-to-face training sessions in 2007-2008. This allowed his team to dig for more information on customer needs and run more effective plays appropriate for where the customer was in the buying cycle.
With SPIN, the account executive uses a series of questions under categories including situation, problem, implication and needs payoff to uncover more about the customer’s specific needs. Conaway realized the SPIN questions enhanced the sales representatives’ ability to better understand customers and sharpen their capacity to discover which customers were ripe for further discussions on Con-way services. This saved time and allowed Con-way account executives to focus on customers who were ready to buy.
Despite this approach making improvements to Con-way deals, there was something missing within the sales team’s overall process, and Conaway assessed that his team needed a more strategic sales structure and plan. He liked Harvard’s Interactive Case-based Online Network (ICON — interests, criteria, options and no-agreement alternatives) approach for its credibility, and the 4D strategy for call planning offered the wrapping he wanted for the entire sales process.
ICON represents four building blocks to prepare for negotiation. Interests are the key needs, wants, motivators and concerns a party brings to a negotiation. They are not the demand or position that often arises in negotiations but rather the specific needs underneath that demand about what is most important to them and what it is they are trying to satisfy in the negotiation.
Each party in a negotiation has its own interests and sometimes they are similar, sometimes different and occasionally they conflict.
Criteria are the standards, benchmarks, policies and objective measures by which the options in a negotiation are deemed fair and persuasive. Options are all of the possible solutions or things one can agree to in negotiations. They represent all the ways one’s interests can be met. They help remove any solutions from being solely based on the will of either party.
No-agreement alternatives are the ways one side can meet its interests without the other side’s agreement. They are what a party will do if it walks away from a negotiation.
Using the 4D strategy — design, dig, develop and decide — negotiators prepare and conduct negotiations using an efficient design. Together, the parties dig for interests and develop options, using efficient communication to build trust and working relationships, on their way to decide on the best agreement for themselves.
In 2009, Conaway invited negotiation training company Accordence Inc. to present an overview of the Just Negotiate ICON Approach and 4D strategy to his executive team (Editor’s note: The author works for Accordence Inc.). The idea was to spend two days learning a negotiation approach and practicing the tools on Con-way examples and situations. Adding negotiation skills to the account executives’ repertoire meant account executives would not give away discounts as often nor in the large sizes they previously did. Instead they would add more sales through new and retained customers and improved customer satisfaction.
New Training for All
Once Con-way leadership adopted the initiative, Mike Lockman, a consultant to Con-way, customized all training content to the company’s needs and provided coaching on strategy and implementation. Con-way began to roll out the two-day skills training to national account executives in March 2010, the national account sales support team in May 2010 and directors of sales in January 2011.
During summer 2011, 400 account executives in 30 regions across the United States brought upcoming negotiation situations to two-day negotiation training sessions to work with the ICON and 4D tools and plan a strategy for working with their customers. They bonded with their teams within sessions, during meals and team evening events, learning a common language and negotiation approach, and sharing experiences and ideas to enhance outcomes regardless of the number of years they held at the company. Further, the new structure helped experienced salespeople understand what they do well and why, and informed them where they could improve on the margins.
“Our people now do a better job at getting options on the table and understanding if the customer really is serious or just leading the account executive on,” said Don Fegtly, director of sales strategy. “For real opportunities, I believe we’ve shortened the cycle by at least a sales call.
“When I use [ICON and 4D tools] for my own negotiations, the approach allows me to first and foremost understand what opportunities exist, the key players that can impact the decision, and by knowing their interests, I can tie that in with our abilities. I gained the ability to know that we can also walk away versus dragging out the cycle that will eventually lead to nowhere.”
The skill enhancement helped the sales force become more effective at developing mutually satisfying, profitable relationships and stronger deals for themselves and their 400,000 customers. The Just Negotiate method from Accordence encouraged the company’s sales force to develop a trusted-adviser relationship with its customers based on satisfying the needs and interests of both parties while increasing the value of the national trucking company for better, longer-term agreements.
“Based on a statistically significant sample of 10 percent of the sales force, their use of the negotiation approach conservatively improved price by as much as 1 percent in over half of the negotiations,” Conaway said. “However, the bigger value of the negotiation approach has been to change customer negotiations from an adversarial to a collaborative experience.”
To enhance effectiveness with customers and improve sales results, Conaway also converted older, traditional business practices into smarter, more streamlined work systems. The company implemented Salesforce.com as its base customer relationship management system to track and catalog attributes and customer behavior. Further, it implemented software to mine customer information and develop statistical shipment, pricing and costing data.
Initially employees put all data on BlackBerrys, but it quickly became evident that this was not going to work because after sales calls it was too laborious to key all the data in. As a final technological innovation in 2011, Con-way equipped all account executives with iPads, which enabled seamless access to customer attributes and data on customer business characteristics and trends in real time. Con-way was the first company to approach Apple about the use of iPads for business-to-business selling. Now planning, information and communication tools are always at the sales professionals’ fingertips.
Within the last year, paper collateral has been eliminated in favor of video collateral presented on the iPad. The technology allows the account executives to be more up-to-date with company information, to provide more sophisticated presentations to customers and to be more efficient with customers’ time.
A Selling Impact
A post-session survey last fall of 500 sales employees allowed Con-way to gauge the most effective parts of the training initiative, uncover any obstacles to implementing the tools still at hand and measure quantitative outcomes from recent deals.
Results indicated the Con-way sales force can now:
•Cultivate account and customer meeting strategies which reflect the interests of all parties.
•Prepare for and obtain meeting advances that move the opportunity forward, or decide to walk away, instead of wasting a customer’s time.
•Embrace productive tension within the customer relationship to promote honesty and interactions that demonstrate the company is a trusted adviser with mutual respect between all parties.
•Develop mutually agreeable options and solutions that optimize the value of using Con-way as a trucking company.
Quantitatively, a reduced sales force by more than 25 percent — 391 from 537 originally — now touches 45 percent more customers. Further, 80 percent of sales calls are made at the correct time for the buyer with the correct strategy and questions for the customer. In February, the company received a silver award in the 2012 Stevie Awards for Sales Department of the Year — Distribution & Transportation.
By transforming the way it conducted sales negotiations with its customers, Con-way Freight met its objectives: it enhanced customer retention, protected revenue in successfully negotiated and executed contracts and increased profit margins in the deals. Further, the company effectively retrained, re-equipped and differentiated its sales force to elevate it to a higher level of performance and reinforced its reputation as a valuable resource for customers.
Heather Meeker Green is managing director for negotiation training provider Accordence Inc. She can be reached at email@example.com.