Mutual Success PlansIn the current noisy, competitive market environment with very busy buyers, sales teams need to shift from a focus on individual sales transactions to a focus on continuously deepening and expanding value across a series of connected conversations.  The best tool to balance urgency in landing an initial sale with keeping open later upsell opportunities is the Mutual Success Plan.  A good mutual success plan keeps three key parties – customers, sales and customer success teams – aligned on linking revenue to buyer value.

In any sales conversation that moves further than initial discovery, sales representatives should use the buyer’s engagement to surface fit between a buyer’s goals and a seller’s capabilities in a range of goal areas. A sales motion that focuses on going broad first then deep will accelerate the velocity to an initial sale while also building a direct connection between Sales and Customer Success around account expansion. The mutual success plan, in which the sales rep explicitly maps buyer goals and payoffs to a “phase 1” initial sale or to “phase 2” future expansion, builds the foundation for a partnership in which the buyer can clearly see both near-term and longer-term benefits and begins to invest in this vision.


Developing a Mutual Success Plan

The Mutual Success Plan starts with good discovery to ensure a focus on buyer value. Good discovery should be broad and deep.  The best discovery uncovers two, three, four, or five different goal areas where the buyer has a gap or pain that they may need help addressing.  I always encourage sales teams to use nested discovery questions that link goal and gap exploration across several different  value pathways to support broad goal exploration.

Broad goal exploration then needs to shift from to clear focus on the most immediate and pressing need to begin a new customer relationship.  Failing to narrow can lead to deal stalls as a buyer is overwhelmed in considering possibilities and options.  A Mutual Success Plan helps to balance narrowing to specific Phase I goals to start a relationship while also keeping open Phase II goals to support expanding that relationship.  There are three important parties for any Mutual Success Plan – the buyer, the Sales team and the Customer Success team.

Mapping Buyer Goals Into a Mutual Success Plan



Adopting a Mutual Success Plan Mindset: Lexmark

While working with a team at Lexmark Government Services, I heard Joe, an Account Manager selling to state and local governments, getting excited about a potential deal.  “This large county in Florida is going to make my year,” said Joe.

Joe was sharing his top deals for the sales quarter as part of a team call with Kevin Staniford, his District Manager, and five other account executives covering southeastern states.   

Joe continued, “The CIO is my buddy at this point. We talk every two weeks.  He has introduced me to the major revenue generating departments including the police, water & sewer and the tax collector, as well as the largest operating groups like the health, planning, and training departments.   We have already completed our Managed Print Services assessment in six departments and identified a bunch of potential process improvements.”

Lexmark Government Services offers print and content services to more than 1,500 government organizations. They provide printers, copiers, and software solutions to optimize and automate processes for document output and information management.

Kevin responded to Joe, “That’s excellent to hear you’ve gone so wide in the organization to set up a really big account over time.  I’m wondering if the CIO has shared his top priorities for automating document output?  If budgets end up being limited, where will he invest first?  Which of the departments is most motivated?”

Joe did not have an answer and, in fact, Kevin had hit exactly on the critical flaw in Joe’s deal.  Too often sales representatives listen to their buyers with “happy ears” and pursue every possible purchase to increase the dollar value of a sales deal rather than collaborate with the buyer to identify the strongest possibilities for an immediate purchase as well as those that might come in a Phase II or Phase III of a partnership.

Joe did close a deal with this large county in Florida, but it was a $75k starter deal rather than the $500k deal that Joe had hoped for that might bring in six major departments all at once.  In a later debrief with Kevin and the team, Joe recognized that his strategy of going wide to six departments at once probably cost him in two ways.  “Yea, I got the deal, but it could have been bigger if I’d really drilled down into priorities earlier,” said Joe. “On top of that, I don’t really have an agreed-upon road map for expansion, even though I know there’s a ton of opportunity. So I’m starting further behind than I’d like on that front too.”

If Joe had focused on just the two departments most likely to close and gone deep on the assessment, payoffs, and implementation plan, he probably could have had an initial deal of $150k to $200k rather than $75k.  In addition, if he had prioritized the CIO and department heads across all six departments to identify his most likely Phase I, Phase II, and Phase II movers, he could have set up a quick “land and expand” account deepening beyond the initial two departments. Developing a Mutual Success Plan as part of his sales process would have enabled him to see this earlier and built a foundation of trust and partnership with the client for the longer term.


The Value of Narrowing Focus

In a classic study on information and decision making called “On the pursuit and misuse of useless information,” Anthony Bastardi of Stanford and Eldar Shafir of Princeton presented research subjects with scenarios in which they needed to choose between two alternatives.  Sometimes all the relevant information was given upfront while other times a key detail was withheld until later.  That key detail might be which professor was teaching a course that students were thinking of taking or how much credit card debt an otherwise exceptional applicant for a loan had outstanding.

Both groups received the same information, but some participants simply had to wait a short time in uncertainty and then make a request to get that information.  The groups furnished with identical information made identical decisions.   However, the groups forced to wait for details said no to the course or the loan at much higher rates.  When individuals are made to wait for or have to proactively pursue information, they deem it to be more valuable, even if it isn’t particularly important.

For sales representatives and sales teams this research offers a big red flag for keeping too many different goals or buying options open into the later stages of a buyer conversation.   Having a broad and deep value discovery phase in early buyer conversation is important to identify the most important and highest payoff buyer goals as well as to identify a broad range of buyer goals that could be met.  However, as the conversation works toward evaluation and a financial proposal for a specific set of products or solutions, leaving too many possibilities open leads to worse sales outcomes.

When buyers have lots of options left open, they create their own decision-making complexity by latching onto unanswered questions as well as areas of ambiguity.  The alternative to leaving options open is to collaborate with buyers to target one or two specific goal areas to begin partnership and justify those targeted areas with a clear and meaningful payoff or ROI case.  This should include mapping service capabilities directly to achieving the buyer’s goals.  According to research by Corporate Executive Board’s sales practice called the The New Sales Imperative,  proactively narrowing the choices available to a B2B buyer can increase purchase ease by up 86% and reduce buying regret by up to 37%.



Narrowing to Land Faster

Mutual Success Plan Phase 1Broad goal exploration during buyer discovery has a number of important benefits.  It invites a variety of buyer personas and roles into the conversation.  It creates multiple paths to an initial sale and multiple potential sources of budget.  And, it creates a direct link between an initial opportunity led by Sales and upsell or account-deepening opportunities led by Customer Success.

To achieve this broad discovery while narrowing focus as the sales process progresses, each buyer conversation should be organized around the Three-Part Meeting with the last third of the meeting focused on qualifying the buyer around the commitments and actions they will take toward a purchase.  In our initial discovery meetings, this third part of the meeting focuses on building a basic decision roadmap.  We want to establish with our champion where they see goal and payoff fit, who else will need to be brought into the decision-making process and how they are thinking about funding and timeline possibilities.

As we get into stakeholder calls and product demonstrations with a group of decision-makers, our focus shifts from a basic decision roadmap to a Mutual Success Plan that can help prioritize across all the goals areas discussed.  The first goal of the Mutual Success Plan is to narrow focus on top-priority or “must have” goal areas to support an initial partnership.

A Mutual Success Plan helps the buyer and the sales team members agree on this top priority area for Phase I of partnership then fill in the decision roadmap steps toward getting to an agreement.  The Mutual Success Plan helps show all the key steps and prerequisites to starting a partnership, including:

  • Key decision makers who need to sign off
  • Any review process needed by the internal IT staff
  • Any reference of current customer relationships
  • Steps in the legal and procurement process
  • Process to establish a project manager or user group on the buyer’s side to support implementation.

In addition to itemizing all of the above, the Mutual Success Plan should specify concrete dates and owners for each item. This focus on a narrow set of priorities for Phase I that  translates directly into faster deal velocity for initial sales.


Creating a Phase II Road Map to Expand Faster

Mutual Success Plan Phase 2The other key part of a Mutual Success Plan is listing and identifying goal areas that will not be part of the Phase I relationship, but could be part of a Phase II relationship.  A good Mutual Success Plan is more than just about aligning the buyer and the seller, it actually should build alignment between three key parties – buyer, seller, and Customer Success.

There are three ways that a Mutual Success Plan helps to expand a customer relationship faster:

  • By identifying future goals and payoffs
  • By providing insight into the buyer’s decision-making stakeholders and processes
  • By positioning the Customer Success or Account Management team as a trusted advisor knowledgeable about the buyer’s goals and interested in advancing the buyer’s business.

Building a Mutual Success Plan with a customer helps us identify not just the immediate need and goal areas that will lead to a new relationship, but a range of key goals and payoffs that can follow.   We can use the buyer’s interest and attention as we close down the Phase I partnership to identify, prioritize and quantify specific payoffs.   These could be emotional payoffs related to buyers feeling of relief about a problem being solved or rational payoffs linked to a specific financial, revenue, or cost ROI case.  A Mutual Success Plan creates the expectation that the sales team will document a whole range of goal areas and payoffs that might be addressed in Phase II.

By developing a Mutual Success Plan, the seller also gains deeper visibility into the buyer’s decision-makers and decision-making processes.  In broadly exploring goals and payoffs, the sales team has the opportunity to understand better relative fit compared to other alternatives being considered in different goal areas.   It’s likely that there are areas where the product or service being offered are perceived as unique, other areas where it may benchmark other internal or external solutions, and still other areas where it is not differentiated enough.  Similarly, a broad goal exploration allows the sales team to understand more deeply decision-maker motivations.  We can begin to see who might act as a champion, who is a user, and who is an economic buyer or funder in a new goal area.

Finally, and most importantly, the Mutual Success Plan helps the customer success or account management team lead all upsell conversations as a trusted advisor interested in advancing the customer business.   Rather than starting with a new product or service that we want to sell to an existing customer, these teams can go back and revisit goal areas captured in the Mutual Success Plan.  Bringing the buyer back to previously discussed additional goals and target payoffs around additional goal areas is a great way to show the buyer their account manager or customer success manager is listening and interested in their business.  It is also a very soft and customer-centric way to tee up upsell opportunities.

Now let’s turn to an example of a company that offers a compelling example of how a Mutual Success Plan can be used to support the goals of landing faster as well as setting up account expansion.


Applying the Mutual Success Plan: Burning Glass Technologies

“You can’t eat an elephant in a whole bite,” said Ellen Mayes, a member of the Burning Glass Education sales team, in explaining the value of a Mutual Success Plan. “There are lots of things a buyer may want to do, but we have to help them identify and address  the most pressing thing now.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” I said. “What makes you say that?”

As I was speaking with Ellen, I was thinking of how many salespeople with the prospect of a big commission on the horizon will try to engineer a big sale right away.

“I have many buyer conversations where there are three or four different goal areas the customer wants to address, and they can get overwhelmed or freeze up in trying to figure out where to start,” Ellen said. “This is not good for getting an initial close. It can lead to stalls. I work with these buyers to use the first goal area to lay the foundation for the other areas.”

Burning Glass Technologies is the world’s leading labor market analytics company and provides real-time data on jobs and skills trends to companies, governments, and colleges tracking about 3.4 million unique, currently active openings.  This data and insight has broad application to colleges and universities, helping with undergraduate enrollments,  graduate enrollments, academic portfolio management, career skills, student success, and corporate partnerships.

The breadth of campus goal areas the platform can address is both a strength and a weakness.   There are lots of buyers from different parts of campus who can be engaged and multiple goal areas that might motivate a purchase.  However, the breadth of appeal can also lead the Burning Glass team to end up in product demonstrations with groups from four or five different areas of campus all with different goals.   Rather than leading to a tight product demonstration with momentum into a proposal and closed sales, the breadth of discussion can lead to a lively discussion that lacks actionable outcomes and causes drifting interest post demo with a lot of loose ends.

“Can you say more about how a Mutual Success Plan can help you avoid deal stalls and turn the breadth of the Burning Glass platform into a more consistent strength in positioning upsells?”  I said to Ellen.

“Good question. There are two things that are really important,”  Ellen said. “The first is creating an easy way to hand-off Phase I and Phase II goals to the Customer Success team.   We use a document on Phase I and Phase II goals, metrics, and key decision-makers to help Customer Success start and manage the relationship around key customer goals.   The second thing is to have agreed on check-in points for more strategic account manager reviews, as compared to account calls focused on implementation product training.  Having that Phase I and Phase II document makes it possible to use the more strategic calls as a ‘soft sell’ to come back to the Phase II goals and explore if and when an upsell makes sense.”

The shift to a Mutual Success Plan with a Phase I and Phase II has some immediate benefits for the Burning Glass team.   First, it leads to an increased number of sales that close within eight to twelve weeks, rather than the more typical 6+ month sales cycle.  Second, it helps to shift to a focus on continual value expansion. This, in turn, has increased by about 250% the number of upsell opportunities, raising upsell opportunities contribution to revenue generation from 9% to 23% in a 12-month period.


Mutual Success Plans and Revenue Velocity: A Simple Self-Diagnostic

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to assess the quality of your sales processes in supporting “land and expand” strategies that deliver revenue velocity and solid foundations for account expansion:  

  • Do you encourage your sales team members to use buyer discovery to identify three or more goal areas that might support a relationship?
  • Do you give your sales team tools and talk tracks to support a focus on Phase I for an immediate close and Phase II for upsells and account expansion?
  • Do you have a Sales to Customer Success hand off document that makes it easy to transition Phase I and Phase II goals? Does this include specific target improvements and decision-makers?
  • Do you have account review processes and tools that supports 3- and 6-month buyer check-ins around goal achievement and new potential goals areas?

Buyers are busier and busier.  When a sales team has a buyer’s attention they need to use the buyer’s engagement to surface fit between the buyer’s goals and the seller’s capabilities in a range of goal areas.   Deeper discovery helps both Sales and Customer Success teams shift from a focus on individual sales transactions to a focus on continuously deepening and expanding value across a series of connected conversations. By using a Mutual Success Plan, the teams can balance the urgency of an initial sale with a plan for addressing longer term goals that link revenue to buyer value and keep all parties aligned on a common road map.