An Interview With John Barrows: The Value of Having a Framework for Sales

By: Teresa Weirich

August 13, 2018

The sales leadership world is full of knowledgeable pros, but few are as experienced as John Barrows, owner of JBarrows LLC. He’s held every position in sales, including inside, field, channel, executive management, and ownership. John continues to sell every day using the techniques he teaches to some of the world’s leading tech companies—he counts Google, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Zendesk, and Box among his clients. And in every role, he’s established a framework for sales calls to ensure a successful buyer-seller relationship.

In this conversation with John, we focused on the value of sales call frameworks. He defines a sales framework, explains the differences between a framework and a script, and guides sales leaders on how they can help their teams develop frameworks of their own. John also offers advice on how to stay both flexible and consistent on sales calls.

Structure vs. Scripts

In defining a sales framework, John begins by pointing out the difference between a structure and script. “Too many people are trying to script out the perfect sales call,” he said. He added that when most organizations onboard sales professionals, they train them to memorize word-for-word an introduction, questions, and a presentation.

What’s missing in the training conversation, John believes, is context. Too often, salespeople armed with scripts aren’t taught to value flexibility. A low-performing rep might say that they were trained on memorization and repetition.

Sales and marketing expert Gary Vaynerchuck is credited with saying, “If content is king, then context is God.” For John, that means sales provides context for marketing’s content.

The right framework helps sales professionals provide the right context for their content. John suggests starting simple, setting structure for calls at the various stages of the sales process. For example, a cold call should be broken down into the 3 main sections

  • Introduction: How a rep introduces themselves matters.
  • Intention: What’s the reason for the call?
  • Next steps: What’s the call to action?

Within that structure, a sales professional can build her own powerful introduction from provided examples, and make the framework her own.

The pitfalls of a script aren’t limited to stifling a salesperson’s flexibility. Because customers rarely go through a linear buying process, a sales rep using a script could end up trying to force the customer through an unnatural process, “The customer has the gas and the brakes, the rep has the steering wheel,” John said, quoting his old boss Jeff Hoffman. It’s the salesperson’s job to guide the conversation.

Balance consistency and flexibility

John’s philosophy toward a flexible framework shows through in the way that he trains. When he hired Morgan Ingram, Director of Sales Execution and Evolution, John listened to a lot of his calls. Morgan’s calls felt robotic at first, with Morgan intent on getting through all the questions on his list. He eventually learned, however, that when the client gives an answer to a certain question (read: a clue), he should stop asking any other question and dive into that answer to get more—you guessed it—context.

“That’s the reason the client’s going to buy,” John said. “Listening to the customer is how you get the sale”. John advises starting with a simple questioning framework:

  • Ask the question. Be direct and allow the customer to ask their own questions in return.
  • Genuinely listen to the answer. A customer’s answer will help guide you where you need to go with the conversation.
  • Ask a layering question. Dig into a customer’s reason for talking to you by learning more about what they want. They want you to help them solve a problem.

A framework like this allows flexibility and creativity—but it’s also important for sales leaders to teach consistency as well. A company with a personalized product and a small sales team might not need so much structure, but a brand looking to scale has to depend on consistency to achieve success.

“If everybody’s doing their own thing, there is no way to scale an organization, period,” John said. “But if you can make an objective process and put some framework around it, you can pinpoint areas for improvements.”

To keep track of forecast consistency, John’s team uses a scorecard. It outlines the different things that their clients ask from them throughout the sales process (Gives) with the different things his team needs from the client (Gets). It’s about keeping the deals equal throughout the process. If expectations aren’t being met, John and the sales rep can easily look at the scorecard to objectively assess the deal and find out what is needed to ensure the deal is still moving in the right direction. If the sales rep is having challenges closing deals, then the scorecard is a great way to objectively look at the opportunities and find a common denominator that can be coached and improved upon. For instance, if “meeting with power” is missing on most of the deals on the list, John can spend time with his reps to determine how to get to power earlier in the sales process.

“The beauty of that is now the information is objective. If the employee doesn’t meet with power, I don’t want that deal on my forecast,” John said. “The data shows that is a leading indicator as to whether a deal will work or not. Without a framework, I would be individually analyzing every deal and trying to pull it apart, which is extremely difficult.”

Any process is better than no process. Thinking strategically about a sales process framework can help a team win more deals by:

  • Outlining a process
  • Analyzing the steps of that process
  • Identifying the weakest link
  • Brainstorming a solution
  • Observing how the process improves
  • Finding the next weakest link

Sales Framework Resources

Although John believes sales professionals (with guidance from management) should learn to balance structure and flexibility in each prospective customer conversation, he also believes sales leaders must provide their teams with as many high-quality resources as possible. The best way to find those resources is for leaders and company founders to create their own.

“I wrote a post a long time ago called The Founder’s Dilemma with Sales,” John said. Founders of companies, who are often engineers, create a product or service. If a founder is passionate about what they’ve developed and they go out and talk to friends and family, that enthusiasm transfers and they get some sales. They hire some reps and think that’s it.”

But those founders often fail to provide their teams with a process to help convey that original enthusiasm and value. And too often, a founder assumes it’s the sales team’s fault and goes all in on marketing.

“My recommendation for a founder or a sales leader is this: you better go out and sell,” John said. “Before you can manage, you need to know how to sell this product, you need to know every nuance, and you need to document every single thing that happens so you can find out where your inconsistencies and real challenges lie.”

How to A/B Test the Sales Process and Improve Results

Maintaining motivation can be a challenge in sales. But learning from a lost deal offers a silver lining. A successful framework is one that’s gone through several iterations. John advises sales professionals to test two messages: call 25 people who have a similar persona with one message and then 25 other people who have the same persona with a different message and then measure which one yields the higher response.

“Same with emails: send 25 with one approach, send 25 with another,” he said. “Change the subject line. See which approach gets a higher open rate.” Split testing across the sales process—asking one set of questions one week, and a second set another week—will help identify what works and what doesn’t. And that leads to continuous learning and improvement.

Sales leaders are responsible for training, but the other central part of their job is coaching. But many sales leaders don’t coach; instead, they deal chase. John’s advice is to leave the deal-chasing to the team and focus instead on making each sales professional as successful as possible. And that, as well as every other lesson John has learned in his career, goes back to process and framework.

“I don’t want the A+ rep to be a manager, I want them to be an A+ rep,” he said. “For my managers, I want the B+ rep. I want the consciously competent rep to be the manager because they know exactly why they are as good or not as good as they need to be. They have a process that they can replicate.”

John’s first major in college was art and, despite not sticking with it, he still learned a valuable sales lesson. “I got out quickly, realizing I wouldn’t make any money, but Picasso’s my favorite artist. I’ll never be Picasso. But if you give me a paint by numbers and tell me where to put the colors and let me mix them, I can come pretty close.”

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    Teresa Weirich

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