How to Close Your Quarter and Hit Plan: Sales War Rooms

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I recently participated in establishing a Sales War Room at a portfolio company of ours, and it reminded me of how often it was a difference-maker in hitting Plan. We ran them back at Merced Systems, where we closed nearly 50% of our bookings in the last six weeks of the year, and a shockingly large amount in the final two weeks. It was a period of focus with little margin for error. We needed to ensure balls weren’t flying between racquets and everyone knew their role in key deals, and on their deal teams.

What we needed was a program of intense intel gathering, team communication, prioritization of actions, and sharing of what’s working and failing. Cycle times had to be short — nearly immediate. There’s no better system I know than getting all the key people in a room, every day, sharing learnings, debating options, and forcing decisions. This is a War Room.

When You Need a Sales War Room

If you’re considering establishing a war room, the first question to ask is whether you actually need one. War Rooms are not the same as ordinary deal reviews or weekly commit calls. You should be doing those, of course, and have a model, cadence and culture for how AEs present their opportunities, score them, forecast them, and ask for company resources to help close deals. The War Room is the venue for all of that, only magnified, and a lot more. Here are the telltale signs that you need one:

  1. Your normal process is failing to bring enough urgency or alignment to the task of making plan.
  2. You have a concern that your AEs and deal teams don’t have command of the most effective moves — this is useful for recently ramped teams, or in situations where you have performance issues but don’t have time to make bigger changes.
  3. You’re in a very competitive market where up-to-the-minute intelligence on tactics and competitor actions need to get shared in real-time so deal teams can respond quickly.

As an aside, should you even call it a War Room? Some people like the term because it invokes the urgency of battle with team members aligned in a vital, shared cause. Think the Churchill War Rooms underground in Westminster (go see them if you have the opportunity). Some people dislike the term. Business obviously isn’t war and you don’t want to trivialize the job of real soldiers. Also, military terminology can overdramatize work situations, or put some team members off. But the term is basically a convention to help people from different company backgrounds rally around a common challenge and contribute their ideas. So by no means do you need to call it a War Room. If “Deal Room” or some other terminology works better for you, go with that.

How to Structure For Success

Start by being crystal clear about your objectives. Maybe you want to prioritize the top three deals so they get disproportionate attention. Perhaps you prefer to begin each day by reviewing the most current intel on your top two competitors and their deal positioning. However you choose to proceed, avoid ambiguity at all cost. Start every session with a statement laying out the team’s objectives. Clarity will keep everyone on track so you don’t waste time.

Next, decide on structure of the war room. This will include:

  • Attendees— sales, product, marketing, CS, Execs. I recommend starting with a larger group for first few days to set process, and then decide on who needs to attend every session, and who should be on call. This will depend on your selling model, how many people are interacting with the prospect, and who will have daily responsibilities. There should be consistent attendance by the players.
  • Target deal list. Use your scoring method to rank the top deals to be discussed, their size, likelihood of close, current state, blockers/objections, proposed tactics and moves, and expected competitor activity. The more context, the better.
  • Resource list. Inventory what will be made available to the deal team to help advance and win deals. The list might include Exec meetings, technical team support, content and or analytical (e.g. ROI) support. You can always add new ideas and deliverables later on but start with a good menu.
  • Roles in the War Room. The VP of Sales should lead the discussion. The CEO (or other Senior Exec) might attend the session to add a sense of urgency but should play a secondary role unless called upon to break ties and untangle competing assignments.
  • Frequency of meetings. Decide how often to meet and when. Organizations commonly convene their war rooms daily during the final month of the year or particular weeks in a key quarter. Set aside 30–45 minutes if you’re meeting daily.
  • Location. Dedicate one room to serve as your headquarters. Preserve the whiteboards from getting erased. Keep the room available so that your team may use it any time of the day or night. This is going to be your command center for quarterly closings so enshrine it with near-sacred status.
  • The “Pull up”. At least once a week, the War Room team should hold a “pull up” discussion to step back and ensure the process is proving useful. Assess deal results (e.g. win rates, close rates, pricing), ask what people are learning and what tactics they find are proving effective. At the same time, encourage them to them to talk about what’s not working, and what needs to change. This could be the appropriate time for the CEO to step in and encourage frank, if not blunt, conversation.

Here’s a sample agenda for a daily session, led by the VP of Sales:

  1. Step 1 — quickly review new competitor and deal intel from the prior few days (Marketing, Product Marketing)
  2. Step 2 — review key deals on the list; review criteria for ranking, add new data from the prior day (VP Sales)
  3. Step 3 — prioritization and ranking of deals; move deals up or down; draw a line below the top deals that must be won at all cost; do not discuss lower priority deals until plans are agreed on actions for the top deals (VP Sales)
  4. Step 4 — situation analysis of the key deals, and “what’s needed” perspective from the front (AEs, Sales Consultants)
  5. Step 5 — review the list of resources and deal support activities that can meet the “what’s needed requests”; map resources to the top deals
  6. Step 6 — Ensure deal teams are clear on their actions and commitments; create checklists

It’s critical to prepare for these sessions. Sales should show up with their situation analysis and “what’s needed” lists with no more than 2–3 items; e.g. business case exercise (Mktg.), technical persuasion (SE), Executive approval from Champion (Exec Sponsor), competitive differentiation (Sales/Marketing). A common shortcoming will be showing up with a diagnosis, but not complete the plan with the top 2–3 actions needed.

Once the quarter is complete, hold a post-mortem session and ask whether the War Room helped or hindered. Did the close rate or the win rate improve because of the focus and alignment? Was it worth the investment in time, and should you do it again?”

In my years of participating in these sessions, I’ve seen value in War Rooms that extends beyond deal improvements. For example, the Management team can use this intensive review process to determine the legitimacy claims of Product/Marketing gaps made by Sales, or poor Sales effectiveness claims made by other functions. There’s often some truth in these allegations, but almost always there’s nuance. With War Rooms, everyone looks at Sales from the perspective of key deals and from the view of the buyer, which is valuable. And, for a moment, everyone gets to walk in Sales’ shoes, and the field team feels the love and support. If you’re paying attention, you’ll get useful input on Sales onboarding/enablement, and for Product roadmap prioritization as well.

Good luck, and good selling!

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