How to Choose Winning Sales Plays in Your Solutions Business

It’s that time again when marketing departments are being asked to quickly churn out Playbooks to increase sales productivity and focus the sales force on selling strategic solutions.

All too often, however, playbooks do not produce the outcomes desired by sales or marketing.  In our experience, that’s not because the marketing team is not creative or knowledgeable, but rather because the organization has failed to do the three pre-requisite activities that are essential for developing winning Plays:

  1. Agree on the definition of a Play.
  2. Use a standard process to determine which Plays should be developed and supported.
  3. Define each Play to the point that the “who, how, what and why” of a specific sales process is clear.

Every organization needs to do the hard work of defining what a Play means for them, but here are our working definitions:

A Sales Play is a repeatable offering and associated sales motion that helps specific sales teams (or channel partners) successfully sell a product, service or solution to a specific set of customers during a pre-determined time period.

A Sales Playbook is a concise set of directions, tools, content and resource links that will be used by the sales force to understand and execute the Play.

Once there is agreement on what a Play is -- and the difference between a Play and a Playbook -- the organization is ready to select a limited set of Plays (we suggest no more than 6 for a particular sales group) to invest in during the year.

The actual Play selection process includes both a data-gathering stage to ensure that all the viable candidates have been considered, and a final decision-making stage to choose and prioritize the Plays.

In our work with clients, we’ve seen three different approaches to choosing Plays.  Which approach, or combination of approaches, is used depends on the company culture and the maturity of its solutions.  All, however, can work if the process is sufficiently rigorous and decisions-making is unequivocal.

  • Top-down:  Executives from Sales, Marketing, Product Development and BUs determine a specific set of Plays based on market opportunity (e.g., competitive take-out) or a strategic imperative (e.g., a new solution launch).
  • Field-driven:  Sales reps and managers, field marketers and others who are close to the customer use a formal or informal process to “bubble up” key areas where there is significant market opportunity or a need for more sales support.
  • Market-based:  Marketing drives an “outside-in” analysis of market factors and customer trends and then creates Plays based on a mapping of key customer imperatives to the company’s products and solutions.

In the final decision-making stage, effective organizations often create weighted criteria to ensure that decisions are fact-based and not driven by personality or pre-conceived ideas.  The following is an example of selection criteria and weighting:

The actual way in which the final Plays are selected can range from a small group sitting in a conference room, to a cross-functional workshop with individuals representing all the appropriate constituencies – sales, marketing, alliances, product development, product marketing, professional services, etc.  If it is important to ensure diverse input and broad acceptance of the final selections, a workshop is the better choice, but in either case, the meeting should be facilitated by someone outside the organization to press for consensus, challenge group-think, and keep individual agendas in check.

cnnOnce the plays are chosen, a small team, usually led by marketing, must undertake one final task -- refining and defining the play.  Once a “Summary Play Description” is complete, it is then usually re-validated with some or all of the final decision-makers to make sure it still conform to their original vision and criteria.

Finally…at this point… marketing can create the Playbooks!

This may sound like a long process, but it doesn’t have to be.  If there is buy-in and commitment across the organization, it can be accomplished in 3-5 weeks.  Using this strategy, the total time-to-success may, in fact, be shortened.  As in many other activities, a few weeks spent up front defining and refining your thinking generally saves weeks or months of confusion or floundering on the other end.  To use a building analogy, if you create a good blueprint before construction starts, the final structure is much more likely to be inhabitable and inhabited.

As always, we’re interested in your feedback.  How do you define a Play and what process and criteria have you used to choose Plays?  Let’s start a catalog of best practices.

nikkifisherAuthor: Nikki Fisher, Senior Principal, Solutions Insights

Contact Nikki at


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