Sales Postmortems, Cats & Stove-Lids

A best practice in B2B sales is to hold postmortems; opportunities to find out what worked, what didn’t, and what could be better next time. And what sales team doesn’t want to get better?

However, sales postmortems can lead down the wrong path if too much is read into them. Consider this 125-year old observation:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

– Mark Twain, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” 1894
Hold sales postmortems - "cat sits on a hot stove-lid"

Hold sales postmortems – “cat sits on a hot stove-lid”

In postmortems, sales teams get customer insights directly from Procurement, RFP evaluators, and/or other decision-makers. So, hold sales postmortems, after wins as well as losses.

However, customers don’t always make themselves available to sales reps whose proposals weren’t chosen. In that case, postmortems can still be held but as internal meetings for the sales team alone. Either way, postmortems can provide actionable insights that increase wins.

Which Sales Size to Postmortem?

Which Sales Size to Postmortem?

One approach is to postmortem only medium-sized sales and larger. The smaller sized ones may be too numerous and therefore too time-consuming for sales teams as well as customers.

Alternatively, if you can do postmortems quickly for small deals, go for it: Do them for all deals. Who knows, you may uncover something beneficial from a small-deal postmortem that’ll help you in your larger deals too.

When to Ask for Postmortems?

When to Ask for Postmortems?

Sales teams can always ask customers for their feedback immediately after a contract award. But “when” that meeting happens or if it does at all depends on customers.

Instead of waiting to ask for a postmortem after the contract award, a proactive approach is to start long before the RFP is out (10-12 months before the contract term date?).

Sales reps can contact Procurement to learn about the upcoming RFP/bid process and get ahead of the curve. Consider asking (these aren’t in any order):

  • Will Procurement hold review meetings (postmortems) giving feedback to the unsuccessful bidders, and how long after contract award might that be?
  • Will there be bidder pre-qualifications, i.e., an RFI before the RFP?
  • What’s the timing of RFI & RFP (when will they be released to bidders)?
  • Are we on Procurement’s bidders’ list? If not, how can we get on?
  • Once the successful bidder has begun service, will Procurement take part in ongoing (quarterly) business reviews to determine the value received, and if so, what performance criteria will be used for that?

Getting time with Procurement may take several (many) attempts. This is best done long before the RFP is out so there’ll be no chance of bad optics.

In the likely event customers aren’t willing to give feedback, the postmortem will have to be an internal affair only. So, get the postmortems scheduled quickly after the contract decision is announced; while sales memories are sharp, and honesty is fresh.

Framing Customer Conversations in Sales Postmortems

Framing Customer Conversations in Sales Postmortems

It’s important to put customers at ease at the beginning of sales postmortems, especially if that’s the first request to have them.

Customers don’t want to feel they have to justify their selection decision. If they feel defensive, sales teams may not get a meeting in the first place. So, pay attention to both word and tone in phone calls and emails requesting postmortems.

Present the postmortem as your sales team’s Process Improvement (which it is); that you’re looking for ways to improve for next time.

And when your sales team questions customers, make sure there’s no pressure about the info they don’t feel comfortable sharing (pricing?).

Even when your postmortem is only with internal team members, set the tone by calling it what it is “Process Improvement.” This puts the focus on learning lessons that improve the odds of winning next time. It’s not a blame session so avoid making others feel defensive while still being clear and honest.

Get from a postmortem only the wisdom in it - "cat avoids cold stove-lids too"

Get from a postmortem only the wisdom in it – “cat avoids cold stove-lids too”

Asking for feedback on proposals customers didn’t select can be a tricky business. In a sales postmortem, sales teams may not get everything they’d hoped for.

In a perfect world, customers would tell sales reps something like “Your firm rated 3.9 out of 5 on Innovation because you hadn’t presented a regular and definitive process to bring new ideas to our firm, – Competitor Gargantuan @ 4.1 was the only bidder who scored higher than your firm.”

Unfortunately, this kind of feedback rarely if ever happens. What you’re more likely to get from customers are their opinions of a proposal’s overall clarity and persuasiveness, and a bidder’s overall strengths and weaknesses.

This is where sales teams must be careful with customers’ postmortem feedback because it’s all wrapped around organizational realities and human frailties. When thinking about what to do with customer feedback consider the following:

1) Time/Situation Specific Decision

1) Time/Situation Specific Decision

Will purchase reasons and rationales used for this decision be relevant in the future for this customer?

Are lessons learned from this customer valid for all other customers going forward?

There’s a danger for sales teams drawing on postmortems to extrapolate lessons learned here to all future customers and sales situations. It’s a delicate exercise to balance “what must be done” with “what could be done” going forward.

2) Who's POV in Postmortems?

2) Who’s POV in Postmortems?

Do insights shared by Procurement and/or decision-makers represent all evaluators, or are they just that one person’s perspective?

And to what degree is one person’s perspective influenced by their own confirmation bias?

Imagine if a customer-evaluator representing the Safety department talked passionately and at length in the postmortem. They’re there to express their safety view of bidders’ proposals and in the postmortem, they take up almost all the air in the room.

But in the RFP/bid decision, their input may have been weighted very lightly and, while important, it may not have been a deciding factor.

In that postmortem, that one evaluator’s feedback could make sales teams believe they lost because of their inferior safety response, which wasn’t the case.

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3) Communication Abilities in Postmortems

Are Procurement or evaluators good at accurately summarizing the RFP/bid complexities of an entire decision team?

Besides numeric decisions on pricing, evaluators make far more subjective, qualitative decisions to select winning bidders.

In the Technical Proposal section, think how evaluators must decide which bidder’s text response is better than another. That’s text to text comparisons (subjective to the max). And then do it again and again, in question after question, across 10-20 categories. That’s a lot of complexity.

Procurement typically manages that complexity in the RFP through category weighting and response rating. Then based on evaluators’ ratings, there’s a whole lot of averaging going on to come up with a nice and neat bidder score and rankings.

Now it’d be great if Procurement would share those RFP scores with sales reps in postmortems, but that’s highly unlikely.

So, what you get are Procurement and/or other evaluators attempting to verbally describe a tremendous degree of complexity. And how good are they really at that kind of distillation? How accurate? How biased?

Image by Valdas Miskinis from Pixabay

The Crux of the Matter with Postmortems

Sales teams crave customers’ postmortem insights so they can win that next RFP/bid opportunity.

But sales teams can’t take everything customers say as equally valid or 100% applicable to making improvements and winning.

And that’s the delicate balance for sales teams: What feedback to act on, what areas to improve, and to what degree?

A smart cat will check the temperature of the stove-lid, then decide whether to nap on it -or not.

Sales Postmortems, Cats & Stove-Lids first published on LinkedIn.

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