Q&A with Stephen Kelly

Q&A with Stephen Kelly

We sat down with Stephen Kelly, business expert and Chair at Tech Nation, the UK’s leading growth platform for tech companies and entrepreneurs, to discuss the state of sales and key challenges facing businesses in 2022.

Businesses of all sizes have had to adapt to huge change over the past two years, but what are the most common issues you hear about from the companies you work with? 

The perennial issue is creating sustainable growth. After a few years of strong growth, companies can struggle to maintain momentum and this is usually down to a number of key issues. The first is access to and attraction of leadership and talent. Businesses typically hit a wall if they don’t scale their leadership teams. We’re experiencing the Great Resignation, meaning talent is at a premium and it’s tougher than ever to hire brilliant people from entry level positions to C-Suite executives. 

International expansion can also present challenges for businesses, especially those attempting to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. A model that was effective in the UK is not guaranteed to translate internationally. While homogenous product launches might work for B2C companies, B2B businesses will need to have specific go-to-market strategies for different countries, and in some cases, even different regions or states, if they are to be successful. 

Finally, failing to effectively utilise data and business intelligence results in poor forecasting accuracy. Without accurate predictions, businesses risk over or under-hiring and overpromising to stakeholders – mistakes that could ultimately lead to lost revenue and falling share prices.

How has the nature of sales changed as a result of the pandemic?

The sales process has undergone seismic changes and sales teams are now more efficient than ever. Remote working means reps save hours of travel time each week, valuable time that can now be spent on relationship building and selling. The world has moved on from the old-style selling techniques and while pitching on a screen requires new skills, it also brings new opportunities to enhance the conversations, such as presentations and videos.

Prospecting via online platforms also enables more cohesion and provides greater insight to track performance and train staff. With more consistent techniques and messaging, businesses can ensure high quality engagement with prospects across the board. Selling was once considered an art form, based on face-to-face interaction and rapport building, but it is those who are utilising technology who are now topping the leaderboard. 

How has prospect interaction changed and what do you think this will look like in five to 10 years’ time?

One of the most noticeable changes across sectors is the way that people have become more relaxed about personal and professional boundaries. People previously delineated their work and home lives, but remote working has made pitching far more personal, allowing reps to get an intimate picture of prospects. They will now often see inside a prospect’s home, calls may be interrupted by pets or family members – seemingly small details which are important in enabling deeper relationships to be created. 

Plus, in a digital world, everyone is more accessible. At a senior level, people are more relaxed about access and the gatekeepers who may have prevented interactions in the past are no longer in place. I know this from personal experience. When I worked in government, staff would filter requests on my behalf. During the pandemic, I’ve received direct messages on social media, which have led to Zoom meetings with people across the world. As restrictions start to lift, it’s great to be able to resume face-to-face meetings but those tech-enabled relationships are here to stay.

Why have companies historically struggled with forecasting? 

Forecasting is a real challenge for companies who are not utilising platforms such as Cloudapps’ Sensai. It is incredibly important, predicating supply chain management, recruitment, and future business planning, but without this technology, many CEOs and CFOs lack confidence in their predictions. 

While CRM tools allow businesses to analyse their data through different lenses, the amount of insight generated is limited. CRM data is prone to inaccuracies, with reps notoriously reluctant to fill in timesheets, known to ‘play the game’ rather than input accurate information. 

Secondly, there is a whole additional layer of insight which CRM systems alone are not sophisticated enough to pick up on. Deep-learning AI has the potential to identify patterns that humans never could, unlocking valuable insights and providing a much greater level of accuracy. 

How important is accurate forecasting at board level? 

For public companies who need to give forward guidance to investors and analysts, accurate forecasting is imperative. It enables CEOs to under promise and over deliver, resulting in a strong reputation as a reliable leader, growing the business quarter after quarter, and satisfying investors’ expectations. Beating predictions also enables businesses to raise their guidance, something which has significant material implications on stock price. Conversely, missing earnings can seriously damage trust and have a detrimental impact on stock prices. 

C-Suite executives need to enter board meetings with confidence in their forward projections of sales and marketing activity. If forecasting is too high and numbers are not met, CEOs will spend the whole meeting explaining where things went wrong. If targets are exceeded, the focus of the meeting becomes future growth. We’ve all heard the saying ‘fake it until you make it’ but research shows that our whole persona changes when we’re lacking confidence. Put simply, if their forecast is rock solid, CEOs will have so much more confidence and gravitas, leading investors to buy more stocks – a much better place to be.

As well as being Chair at Tech Nation, Stephen is an angel investor in many high-growth companies including Cloudapps, and is currently Director of Locum’s Nest and Opsview. He is also the former CEO of leading firms SAGE, Micro Focus, and Nasdaq listed Chordiant. Previously, Stephen was appointed Business Ambassador to the British Prime Minister, and worked as Chief Operating Officer for the UK Government. He currently chairs the Science & Technology Honours Committee and is a member of the No 10 Innovation Fellows Advisory Board.