Bob Apollo | The Art, Science, and Engineering of Sales Management

Where do many organizations plateau – or even see a decline – in sales? Bob Apollo, of Inflexion Point, says scalability can’t happen when sales are based on individual efforts rather than a structured approach.

But that doesn’t mean Bob is a huge fan of process in sales… at least the rigid way many organizations approach it. He favors more of a flexible approach, where salespeople can react to conditions on the ground.

He explains how that works in practical terms, as well as…

  • The spaghetti bowl that is the customer’s decision journey
  • Why individual strategies like training, comp, CRM, etc. don’t work
  • Creating value versus adding value
  • Making the best use of intelligent analytics
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in This Episode:

Episode Transcript:

Michael Webb: This is Michael Webb, and this is the Sales Process Excellence Podcast. Some people focus on data and applying statistics to solve business problems. Other people focus on reaching senior level decision makers, and making the best value propositions.

Here we bring both together to create wealth for everyone. I’m really excited today to introduce you to my guest, Bob Apollo of Inflexion Point. Bob, welcome here.

Bob Apollo: Very pleased to be here, thanks.

Michael Webb: So for those in the audience who might not be familiar with you, could you give us a couple of minutes of your background, where you came from, and what you’re doing now, and why?

Bob Apollo: Sure. Well, I started my career, and this is maybe something we’ll come back to at Hewlett Packard in the days when it was an exemplary company. Since then without really planning it, my career ended up in joining a succession of relatively younger companies in relatively less well-developed markets and helping them to navigate. That all-important scale-up phase.

The end of the corporate career, I had been through at least three IPO’s a similar number of acquisitions, and candidly I decided it was time to get off the hamster wheel. That was the point at which I launched my consultancy, Inflexion Point.

Michael Webb: So that is a big career transition for lots of people who do it. I did the same one, and I’ve talked to a lot of executives who wanted to make that or are considering making that transition to going independent and hanging out your own shingle.

I know I’ve found it as a challenge. It was more challenging than I thought it would be. A lot of the executives that I’ve talked to have also found that. It’s a hamster wheel, but it’s another kind of a hamster wheel. What’re your observations about transitioning from working in a corporation to being an independent consultant?

Bob Apollo: It isn’t anything like as easy or as straight forward as I think some people might assume or hope, looking from the outside in. I also think you learn certain things about yourself that you weren’t aware of maybe when you were working in a corporate environment.

This really wasn’t explicitly planned that I transitioned in a progressive way through a number of interim management roles. I think that transition allowed me then to progressively build up what is now more of a pure consulting, and sales effectiveness business. By pivoting through the intermanagement stage, and by and large with organizations that I had known in corporate life.

So I think you have to manage the transition. And candidly sometimes you just need to get lucky.

Michael Webb: Yes, and sometimes you just need to work really hard.

Bob Apollo: Well, that I think goes without saying.

Michael Webb: So what is it that these corporations, we’re missing that led you to want to launch a business to supply it?

Bob Apollo: It’s probably worth just reflecting briefly on what I’d characterize as my ideal client. And they tend to be business to business focused. Often complex sale, often in an innovative market where it’s sort of a discretionary or strategic purchase. And they’re post startup, but not yet at a corporate level.

So those characteristics often mean that their sales processes have been based probably a little bit more on heroics than on structure. Maybe on the individual efforts of the founders. They very often hit a bit of a wall. Sort of solid wall that might be more of an incline, or what have you where the scalability isn’t quite what they hoped and expected it to be. This is a big gap between the lowest and highest performing salespeople. There’s maybe an inconsistency or an unpredictability about revenue deliverability. There’s a sort of lack of revenue confidence.

Of course, that isn’t the sort of conversation that CEO’s enjoy having with their board, or with their investors. So it’s this moment when they’re doing well, they have done well, but they’re realizing maybe they need to apply a different mindset in order to take the company up to the next level of revenue performance.

Michael Webb: What is that mindset that … how do they experience it? What are they shifting from and to? How do they characterize that mindset that they need?

Bob Apollo: It’s very often historically been an era of heroics and selling to early adopters. I was much influenced in my early corporate career by the thinking of people like Jefferey Moore, crossing the chasm, and of the idea that a different sales approach is needed to approach and successfully deal with the different sorts of buyers that characterize the largest potential markets.

Michael Webb: So I talked with another business owner also to be in the United Kingdom. He was saying that he was a distribution firm. He would have some of his salespeople … excuse me, let me back up a second. He’s not a … he sells through distribution and he has salespeople who handle some of those channels.

Some of the sales people in some of the distributors and some of his own people who handle the distributors would somehow figure out how to sell the more strategic, more high value, complex sale types of items.

But then life would happen, and that person would need to leave the company and move on to something else in their career. They would be faced with, “Okay, now how do we replace that business?” That sounds like a different problem though. That company was wondering how do we design a process? And how do we make it so it’s repeatable so that we can bring somebody in to sell this high-value stuff?

What you’re saying … they wanted to keep it in the company where you’re saying that it was already in the company, but they don’t exactly know how to do it.

Bob Apollo: Well, there’s often wide variation in performance. There’s very often a lack of institutional learning within the organization. Assessment of patents of success and failure. It’s sometimes a little difficult to make that assessment when you’re very close to it.

One of the great benefits of engaging somebody with both an outside perspective and an experience of many other similar organizations going on a similar journey. Is you can look for those patterns. You can extract that sort of undocumented often institutional experience. And turn it into something that creates the foundation of scalability. Of being able to induct new people, quickly and effectively in how to be successful salespeople.

Michael Webb: Is part of that … is the part that makes salespeople successful, is that strictly between the salespeople’s ears, or is there something, like you said a moment ago, this institutional learning. Is there something inherent in the business itself that enables salespeople to be successful?

Bob Apollo: I think if you only think of it as attempting to improve individual skills, you’re missing tremendous driver of performance. By the way, if you end up hiring and running a bunch of lone wolf salespeople, soon or later you suffer from it. Because they’re very often in it for themselves, rather than see themselves as part of a collective.

Companies can create an environment where that sort of collective group learning happens where everybody learns from each other. Or they can create this sort of adversarial environment where it’s every salesperson out for themselves. I know which of the two structures I believe will drive future performance. Actually, I think you can see it in the marketplace as well.

Michael Webb: So how would you see it in the marketplace?

Bob Apollo: Well I think they’re a dying breed, but organizations that are characterized by extremely aggressive self-centered selling tactics. Customers start to lose patience with them. They can be very clever about how they attempt to lock their customers in. Soon or later it creates resentment.

Michael Webb: Okay. So the old fashioned salesperson who just … he’s not operating as part of the team, he is one who’s responsible for everything and-

Bob Apollo: I don’t want to characterize this as old versus new. Old days, new days, and so on. But I do think that this sort of archetypal traditional view of the highly driven salesperson is being replaced by a more thoughtful model. And is proving to be more effective.

Michael Webb: I had a client tell me one time, also complex sales environment. This was capital equipment. Half a million dollar, million-dollar pieces of equipment. A lot of them were … the complexity of the configurations with such that there was engineering involved. To set up the quotations and things. And set up the deals.

It would take six months or a year to manufacture it, and ship it. He said an interesting thing. He said, “You know with our sales team, it’s kind of hard to tell when somebody’s doing a good job. Have you seen that sort of thing before?

Bob Apollo: I think it depends on what you’re looking for. Because I think if you’re properly characterizing your sales process … and by the way, I’m not a huge fan of using process partly because of its connotations with manufacturing approach. Which I think doesn’t completely reflect the complexities of nonlinear complex sales.

But I do think you look for leading indicators, and I think you can see predictors of future success in that. Certainly, I’ve worked with clients where they can form a judgment about who’s likely to be successful, and when they’re likely to be successful, and so on.

It’s really looking at-

Michael Webb: How do they-

Bob Apollo: … oh, go on.

Michael Webb: I’m sorry, go ahead.

Bob Apollo: No, please.

Michael Webb: Well I didn’t mean to interrupt you. It’s an important point you said, two pieces there that I’d like to dissect if we could. One of them was the comment about processes not applying so much in sales, which we’ll come back to. But the one most recent one about … you can make judgements about which salespeople would be successful and perhaps with deals, would be most likely to close.

So that’s precisely the kind of thing that’s difficult to know if you’re not measuring things in a process sort of a fashion, isn’t it?

Bob Apollo: Again, there are aspects of this where the conventional definition of process fits very well. I think the reason I made the observation is because I think there’s a growing recognition that the customer’s decision journey isn’t actually … that’s the most important thing from my perspective. It’s the customer’s journey and not the sales activities. Is very rarely, unless you’re in let’s say a quasi-governmental procurement of the well-understood solution.

It isn’t linear, despite the protestations to the contrary. It moves forwards and backwards, new stakeholders come into play. Gardner characterized itI think very well earlier this year is it’s not so much a linear series of extremely well-defined steps, which never get reversed. It’s a bit more like a spaghetti bowl.

That’s my observation on the over-rigid application of the conventional definition of process. I am a great believer in process, I have been since HP. I think one of HP’s great under-recognized strengths in those days, when the state of the art about the debate about selling is it in an art or a science, or both. HP recognized it to be a triumvirate actually of art, science, and engineering. The three could be combined and blended in a way that was likely to drive much better outcomes.

Michael Webb: So what’s your conventional definition of process?

Bob Apollo: A series of well-defined steps, which can be measured, and which lead to some predictable outcomes. That’s off the top of my head. I’m sure that’s not a very good textbook definition. But that’s my working definition.

Michael Webb: And so what’s the problem with that? I like that definition, very simple. What’s the problem with that definition in a sales environment?

Bob Apollo: In fact, I was just participating in another discussion today about this. If that is then translated into a belief that there is in any sales environment, let alone universally a single methodology that if implemented will drive success.

I think the reason for that is even in fairly well-defined markets, there’s a very wide variation in buying behavior and the buying dynamics. It’s extremely important therefore that salespeople behave in a situational way.

So that means they might pick up one element of one methodology, or an approach in a certain situation. They might intelligently adopt a different approach based on their diagnosis of the situation they’re facing in another opportunity. It’s more of a blended thing.

I don’t want to get into an overly semantic discussion about it, because I think process is incredibly powerful. But I’ve tended to prefer to think in terms of frameworks, flexible frameworks rather than extremely prescriptive processes. So maybe that’s just sort of a semantic thing.

Michael Webb: Well, this is a great point in the discussion because I would differ with you about it. I think what you’re coming to is something that I’ve come to also from a different angle. It is that in the sales profession in B2B, their conception of process is this sort of rigid procedure that must be followed. I remember many many years ago, I was a business forms salesmen and a sales manager. And they gave us this rigid script we had to memorize to make these big presentations to our customers, and all the salespeople just resisted it. Man, if your boss was there, you had to follow it exactly the way that they told you to do it, and this is what is immortalized in concrete computer code.

It’s like pouring concrete you can’t change it once it’s in the software of your CRM system, and there’s this sort of rigid approach that the salesperson must take, but that ignores the changing environment around the salesperson. I mean, for example, more and more people today are searching on the internet for information, and avoiding talking to B2B salespeople-

Bob Apollo: Well they are partly avoiding-

Michael Webb: Because there’s a problem-

Bob Apollo: … talking to salespeople because many of them, not all of them. But unfortunately, still a significant number of them have developed a well-deserved reputation for what I’d characterize as boorish behavior. Concerned about telling the customer about their company or their product. So their so-called solutions. And not investing anything like enough time on truly understanding the customers situation and environment.

Or even better actually, helping the customer understand their environment maybe better than they themselves can, and thereby drawing their attention to unrecognized opportunities or unrecognized needs or implications. That the customer with perhaps a rather narrow internal focus, could not easily recognize for themselves.

I would run a mile from any client who was of the mindset that what they needed to do to improve sales performance was to have better scripts. I think it’s an absolute nonsense in any complex environment.

Michael Webb: I would totally agree, and I would extend that into in a lot of cases, unfortunately, the way that they are using software to offer “sales enablement” where the salesperson is expected to follow this little script at this little branch, or step of the process, or that one at that little branch.

Because it sort of presumes that the overmeister who designed this system really knows what’s going on in all these potential variations.

Bob Apollo: Who’s actually talking to the customer? Who’s actually in the best position to make a judgment? It’s not some sales process architect sitting remotely. So my definition of a process, and that’s why I think of a flexible framework rather than a rigid process, is to equip the salesperson with options. Options that enable them to diagnose and react accordingly. To what they determine about the customer’s situation.

And you can’t predefine that route from the start. The great military planners, whether it was Eisenhower, Churchill, what have you. Said something like planning is nothing. So the plan is nothing, but planning is everything. I think it was Van Moltke who said, “No plan of action survives first contact with the enemy.” Well, I think it’s equally true that no rigid process in today’s world survives first contact with the customer. You’ve got to be adaptable, empathetic, flexible. You’ve got to be curious.

Those aren’t the qualities that many people would have associated with the sort of archetypal salesperson of a generation ago. But the customers demand more now. Their expectations are higher. They’ve been burnt too often by inwardly set focused salespeople.

Michael Webb: So the framework that you’re describing, this sort of traditional, and I agree, incorrect view of what a process is, is missing a key factor from what a process really is.

The purpose of the process is to create value. Either for the customer, ultimately has to be for the customer, or for the people inside the company, for the salesperson. That’s the North Star by which the salesperson … if he’s going to react to the facts on the ground, or she’s going to react to the facts on the ground in any given situation, they have to be able to identify the customer’s context and their own company’s context.

This is why sales is a more, it’s a complex kind of a task, and you need to put very skilled and knowledgeable people in those roles. Especially where the role of the salesperson is very prominent in the customer’s impressions-

Bob Apollo: Yeah, I would say also if, and I wrote about this the other day, in environments where the customer is in unfamiliar territory. If they’re buying something they’ve bought repeatedly before, they’re probably mastered the art of buying it. If this is the first time that they’ve tried to buy a category of thing, there may be completely unused or unfamiliar or just unaware of the important considerations.

Make an observation about value, and this is something I’m sure I said to my colleagues at HP. This is a long time ago. I sort of looked around in the market, and I looked at a bunch of sales organizations who were trying to talk about added value. I just rail away from that combination of words, adding value. Because what I observed what they’ve really meant was justifying the extra features they were trying to promote to the customer, and thereby justifying the extra price, despite the fact that the customer didn’t need or want that extra functionality and would have been much happier with simpler.

I absolutely … I like the idea of creating value, but that value creation has some … you can do it by creating a certain amount of an archetype. We can create an archetype of how we create value for this or that type of business, or role, or problem. But at the end of the day, value has to be somewhat unique to the organization, or the customer, or the stakeholder you’re selling to.

I think there’s a real skill in, a necessary skill in salespeople who have this ability to genuinely create value. Not spouting a generic universal value proposition. But having a conversation, and seeing that conversation reflected in the proposal they subsequently make to the customer, which is very much tuned to that particular customer’s environment.

It’s got certain resonances with a proposal they might make to the next customer, but they’re not cookie cutting it. One of the things that maddens me is people thinking that in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of proposals, you need to have a whole range of cookie-cutter components. At a supporting level, at an appendix level, I think that’s right.

But if you try and take a cookie-cutter approach to the executive summary, if you say the same words very often about how great you are as a company, in those executive summaries, the impact is profoundly less powerful than if the exec summaries reads as if it has genuinely been written uniquely based on a deep understanding of what’s valuable to the customer.

By the way, not just the positive value, but it’s said, and I believe it that one of the commonest reasons for complex buying cycles not resulting a purchase of anything is because the customer cannot come to a decision, they decide to do nothing. Not that you lose to the competition, you lose to a no-decision. I think the executive summary really needs to include a rationale for why the customer needs to change. Never mind buy your product, but why the status quo is uncomfortable and unsafe. I don’t see enough of that in proposals either. That’s almost contrasting negative value of staying as they are, with the positive value associated with change. And some unique incremental value created by this particular vendor’s unique understanding of the circumstances.

Michael Webb: So let me see if you share this observation. I have seen a lot of senior executives who are very very interested in what our short term sales forecast looks like, and how much money the sales team is bringing into our company.

Then they have very little interest or even recognition. Don’t even pay any attention to how much value, or profit we are adding to customers today. Because of our offers and our interactions with them. Nobody really studies the value that customers get from our products and services.

Have you seen that?

Bob Apollo: I think historically that has been a problem and I know the software business probably better than any other, and in the old days when you were selling large license fees up front, there was relative indifference I think to whether or not the system actually delivered value to the customer. I do think the transition to software as a service has changed that. Because your ability to renew the relationship with the customer is absolutely dependent on the customer’s perception in their initial experience of you. You’ve genuinely created value.

So I think it’s changing there was a-

Michael Webb: There was a, go ahead.

Bob Apollo: … it was a structural problem, I think with classic large upfront software purchases. I think the move to repeatable revenue, renewable revenue, it has forced a change in mindset, and not before time.

Michael Webb: Although it seems counterintuitive to me if you have to put a lot of money up front to buy software like you used to. That they didn’t care so much about the return on investment. I guess they were just hanging on faith or-

Bob Apollo: No, I think the customers did. I think they created financial justifications whether or not that financial justification was achieved in practices and other matter. But I think unless you wanted to write a case study up, right? In which case you might be interested in the value.

So there’s a role, customer success, which has become increasingly recognized as a key component in repeatable revenue businesses. Whether it’s software or others. I think even within that, there’s quite an interesting variation in appreciation of the role of customer success.

At one end they’re really seen as being somewhat reactive. If the customer’s got an issue, we’ll deal with where we’ll try and keep them happy. But I think the leading edge companies who were implementing customer success are actually chartering those people with making visible the value that’s being created. Because they started to recognize that if they don’t do that, questions may be asked at renewal time about do we really need this stuff?

But that’s unfortunately still a minority, but a growing minority. So this isn’t just about satisfying the customers functional requirements, or support needs. It’s actually about helping the customer to recognize the value that’s being created. Making it tangible.

Michael Webb: So I’ve recommended to people, and I put it in my book that the senior executives of the company, if they want to make a change in this part of their business, make it easier for customers to buy, then they need to elevate the customer’s financial performance. Customers benefit, and what the customer gets out of their products and services. Need to elevate that to the same level as they elevate their own financial performance.

If senior executives are looking for, has this customer benefited? How much has this customer benefited? In what ways has this customer benefited? It provides the air cover for the employees to spend time looking for that information and constructing ways to get it so that it can be understood.

Bob Apollo: Sure.

Michael Webb: So that’s something that I guess easy to say, not so easy to do. So let’s transition. When you’re working with clients, what’s the model of what you do? Do you primarily sort of a sales training kind of a model? Or what sort of interactions do you have with your customers and clients?

Bob Apollo: For a number of reasons, not least of which, it’s fairly widely acknowledged now that training by itself might give a momentary lift, but tends not to drive long term performance change. If a potential client thinks all they need is training, I’m inclined to point them in the direction of their hundreds, literally, of competent sales training companies. I’m much more focused, and there’s part of my qualification in terms of is this the right client to work with? To find organizations who recognize that training is just one component.

That as well as training the salespeople, of course that needs to be reinforced. That the training needs to be delivered in the context of clarity about which opportunities they should be pursuing in the first place. What approach they should be using for diagnosing and discovering, and making these informed situational selling judgments. Creating tools, making sure that the CRM is actually something that helps and guides the salespeople, rather than as seen as an administrative burden that frankly, they’d prefer to avoid at all costs.

So I’d say to you that what I really look for is a recognition that what’s the big picture sales effectiveness program? Which is really partly about developing skills, but about developing skills in a context where those skills can be fully applied. And where there is a continuous learning opportunity.

Now you talked about data I think, prior in our conversation earlier in this session. I think one of the tremendous advantages that has happened in the past few years is the application of a generic analytics framework into a very specific framework for assessing sales performance in an informed way. Allowing not only a more rational assessment of which opportunities will close, and when, and what’s the probability, but actually looking at patterns of performance and behavior between salespeople. Understanding what is it that makes certain people good at the top of the funnel, and struggle at the bottom, and vice versa.

So I think there’s a, fortunately, growing appreciation amongst enlightened sales organizations of the power of intelligent analytics in here.

Michael Webb: What do you mean intelligent analytics? So can you concretize that for me?

Bob Apollo: Yeah, so what I mean by intelligent analytics is firstly this isn’t a … you don’t achieve it in my view by taking one of the many general-purpose business intelligence platforms, and spending years trying to customize it to your companies environment.

You do it by instead buying into effectively becoming a part of a community. And this is what the specialist sales analytics tools are doing. Whereby you not only learn from what works, and what doesn’t work in your environment, but you can establish a benchmarks between your operation and other similar organizations, and look for where your over or underperforming. Really in part, intelligent analytics is also about presenting the information in a way that’s actionable. That allows you to understand the context. Seeing analytics not as a mechanical thing, but as something that is designed to illuminate patterns of performance, and allow you to benchmark against best practice. So either inside your industry, or outside.

And that’s a very very different approach to analytics from the conventional let IT implement it. The sort of modern wave of analytics, at least in my experience is actually being bought, implemented, and run by data-driven, inside driven sales leaders. Rather than traditional being an IT function.

Michael Webb: Interesting. So we’ve opened up. I want to ask you questions in two different areas, but we’ve been on the phone here for a long time. Maybe we should save it for a follow-up, if that works for you.

One of them is this whole issue of sales methodologies. There are a half of dozen well-known methodologies out there, and being in this profession, I’m sure you have opinions and observations about it.

But then there’s also the issue of a CRM, and data, and using it to help make sales easier, and help make salespeople sell. There’s a whole constellation of issues around that. It sounds like when you’re working with an ideal client, you’re operating in both of those spheres with the client, helping them set up a system for managing sales.

Bob Apollo: Yeah. As a first observation, I think any sales company that’s developed a methodology, and there’s a bunch of them, don’t need to quote them now. Has a vested interest in promoting that methodology as being the one to use.

None of them are complete. In fact, each of them has virtues, or many of them have virtues. So I think what intelligent salespeople do, and intelligent sales organizations do is to use a blend of methodologies. Certain questioning techniques. Certain approaches to how to constructively provoke the customer, relationship building, and so on. That’s the sort of first thing. There is no single best way, there is no universally best sales methodology. If you slavishly follow one, I think you get blindsided to some of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.

Now the CRM one is a really interesting one, because I think the history of CRM regrettably really has its roots in more of an administration system than a sales enablement system. Some of the larger CRM’s have made, I think, honorable attempts to become more of the proper sales effectiveness, sales enablement platform. Based around the salespeople wants to use it, because it helps them make smart decisions. Rather than they’re forced to use it because that’s what their managers told them to do.

I think there is a new wave, I will use the word process in this case. Because I think it applies pretty well of CRM’s, which are not based around data architectures, but they’re based around processes, or combination of processes that guide the salespeople in making intelligent choices and doing smart things.

So that’s a dramatic architectural change. Do I design CRM in a traditional way, seeing it as a repository for data, or do I see it as something which I want to use to drive behavior? I think you end up with pretty different designs, at least in terms of user experience between am I primarily data-driven, or am I primarily behavior driven?

By the way, I think it’s entirely possible to do both. It’s easier to start with a behavioral mindset and then look at the data you need in order to drive behavior, rather than the other way around.

Michael Webb: Very interesting. Well, let’s make that the topic of our next discussion. I think it would be a topic that a lot of people would be interested in your perspective on, and in your practical experience on. Would that be alright?

Bob Apollo: Sure, happy to.

Michael Webb: Super. Well Bob, thank you very much. You have a wonderful perspective based on a lot of years of experience in a number of different industries so that you can see the challenges, not just to B2B salespeople, but of their organizations. So I really look forward to our next conversation.

So how can someone get ahold of you if they want to learn more about what you do, and how you might be able to help?

Bob Apollo: Absolutely. Well, they can visit the website, which I hope contains a lot of these ideas in the form of blogs and other material. That’s at And that is spelled I-N-F-L-E-X-I-O-N dash P-O-I-N-T .com. There’s a resources section and a blog section on that site that I hope some of your listeners will find interesting and of potential value.

Michael Webb: Super. Well, thank you again. I really look forward to our next conversation. Until then, good selling.

Bob Apollo: Well, thank you, Michael. Equally, I very much appreciate and enjoyed the conversation, and I’d like to wish you, and everybody’s who’s listening, good selling.


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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