Often, when we look for improvements, we try to change everything. We look for new systems or new people – we go for the overhaul.
Dave Brailsford didn’t do that.
Instead, as Performance Director for Team Sky, Great Britain’s professional cycling team, he looked for what he called the 'aggregation of marginal gains'.
He believed that by looking for a 1% gain in every area, you could make significant gains across the board. And he wasn’t wrong. His five-year plan to create a British winner of the Tour de France resulted in a winner within 3 years, and a different winner the year after that.
I believe we can do the same. I don’t believe it’s difficult, and I know it will have an impact.
Finding The Areas You Can Improve Upon
Dave Brailsford knew that improvements could be made in the obvious things – nutrition, wheels, bike weight… but everyone else was looking there. Yes, there were improvements to be made, but they were based on common knowledge.
Everywhere you look, there is the opportunity for a small improvement in how you work – not a radical change, but an incremental, marginal gain.
Take for instance, the example of the Japanese hot dog eating champion. How did such a small man eat so many hot dogs? Marginal gains.
Look at your own sales processes – what would happen, for instance, if you made a rule of replying to every lead within 1 hour? Insidesales.com reported that 73% of leads are never followed up – so if you’re the person who’s made that marginal gain of always replying within 1 hour, you improve your chances drastically.
What would happen if you allocated 1 hour of your time to really understanding your prospect’s business before going to meet them? It’s just one hour, but it would make the world of difference. Personally, I check up on the company’s Glassdoor profile to see what people think of them internally. I understand their proposition inside-out by actually reading their website and not skimming it. I delve into the prospect’s LinkedIn profile to get a better understanding of where they’re coming from.
In that hour, you can find out so much – take whatever’s relevant to you and your meeting, and you can surprise the prospect with your in-depth knowledge.
So how do you find these marginal gains? The first step is to have a questioning mindset.
Asking The Right Questions
The way to find marginal gains is to never assume that you are right. Never assume that you’ve found the best way to do anything.
Brailsford called them latent assumptions – things that you don’t even consider, that you assume are natural or right. Which cycling team brought their own pillows to hotels night after night during the Tour de France before Brailsford? Nobody had ever thought about it.
The question isn’t 'which pillow should I use,' but 'how do I ensure that I’m more alert?'
If you hone in on the issue, I find that creating a mindmap (pen and paper do the job) is the best way of brainstorming the potential solutions. Coffee may be an answer (and in cycling, it certainly has its uses), but that’s just an assumption. What if I switched to decaf and enjoyed my coffee hit without the drug element? I’d become less dependent, for one thing.
Find The Metric & Measure It
Most of our latent assumptions are not measurable – you can’t really measure the direct impact of switching from caffeinated to decaffeinated. You can’t really measure the impact of a pillow. It’s a feeling.
What you can do is create a hierarchy of things you can measure.
The end result is better sales figures. But what does that hierarchy of measurement look like? Sales figures up at the top, but below that – more cold calls, more follow-up meetings, bigger value sales.
Below that, sketch out the sub-metrics: if you want more cold calls, you have to improve your data, you have to spend more time on the phone. Well, what if you woke up five minutes earlier every day? What if you asked someone to clean your data first?
If you want more follow-up meetings, how’s about finding some incremental marginal gains in how you conduct your first meeting, whether that's in-person, over email or on the phone. Strengthen your handshake, learn to look people in the eyes more, improve your supporting material… these are all 1% things. The trick is to be creative.
Cut Down On The Non-Essentials
Think about a cycling team in the Tour de France and look at how the whole team works towards one man winning. You won’t find Chris Froome going back through the peloton to get the water bottles, and you won’t find him leading the pack at the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez as they enter the climb.
Everything is geared around one objective – get this guy to win.
Think of yourself as Chris Froome, then. Cut down on the inefficiencies, and use your team around you to the best effect. An old colleague of mine wrote a post recently about finding an extra hour per week, resulting in an additional £31,000 of sales a year.
What could you do to find an extra hour each week? Automate the process of preparing quotes, or at least make it smoother… use a better project management system instead of firing off emails all the time. Implement a better email archiving system so that only essential emails get through to your main inbox… all of these 1% gains add up to an hour, and in that hour you can make an average of 10 ‘cold calls’ (disclaimer, I wrote this document in a previous life, and the numbers have stayed the same for the last 10 years, they’ll stay the same for the next ten – they work).
If those 10 cold calls result in 1 conversation, and you have a 20% conversion rate from conversation to meeting, then you would have one extra meeting booked every week simply because you found that extra hour.
And that extra hour came about because you filed your emails better, discovered an easier project management system and you can fire off quotes to existing clients more easily because you’ve got a system that produces them in just 5 minutes.
Improve The Details
Now we’ve saved time, we can focus on the very small details across our process and look for those small improvements.
Here are five that have worked for me:
- Systematically write down peoples’ names in meetings – I have a bad memory for names, so this ensures I always use the right name – no more mistakes like the time I called Brian 'Barry' several times over, losing credibility each time I got it wrong.
- I always check that I have enough business cards before I leave the office. If you’ve been caught short before, you’ll know that the fumbling around for a card is not a great way to end a meeting and leave an impression.
- I always check before the meeting that they’re ready for it. The impression is that you’re on the ball and that impression carries through from you to everyone else they deal with in the business.
- I always follow-up on leads within an hour of them arriving – immediately if I’m available. When an enquiry is fresh in someone’s mind, this is the time to strike. The same goes for telemarketing appointments – which are harder to convert. If you strike quickly – within a couple of hours of the appointment being made – then the reason for meeting is fresh in the mind. Call the next day, and it’s forgotten under the weight of a hundred emails and phone calls from other people.
- I started using an online to-do list, and keep it on a second screen at all times, so I never forget it, or forget to use it.
They’re small details, but a small detail like getting someone’s name right can make all the difference. It establishes a personal connection and makes meetings run better. Not having enough business cards makes you look unprofessional, so making sure it never happens is a 1% gain.
Cycling Is Tough, So Is Sales
Don’t think for a minute that just because you’ve made 1% gains here, there and everywhere that you don’t have to sweat. Look at the state of cyclists after 200km in the saddle in the blazing heat of the South of France.
The point is this – that you can put in the same level of effort as everyone else and come up with better results because you’ve been creative with where your marginal gains are coming from. You might be no better than the guy in the next cubicle, but you have an extra hour on him. You have slept better. You have perfected your body language in client meetings. You spent an extra ten minutes researching your prospects and you have that extra nugget of information that’s going to make your meeting all the more insightful.
Marginal gains is about reorienting your efforts in the right direction. No massive overhauls, just a little bit of improvement here, and a little bit of improvement there, and you’ve got a lot of improvement in your end result.
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