Choreographing enterprise sales: What sales leaders can learn from Hamilton

Kiva Kolstein


March 19, 2019

Hamilton sign on Broadway.
Hamilton sign on Broadway.

When sales professionals choreograph every aspect of their sales process – from initial research and prep to final negotiation and closing – they set the stage for success. Think about the last time you saw a ballet or Broadway show. Every dancer on the stage knew exactly where they needed to be during every moment. Hours and hours of practice went into preparing for that performance, and by the time you were watching from the audience, it looked utterly effortless. Likewise, the sales process should be choreographed and made to look completely effortless.

If you think that a highly choreographed sales process risks sacrificing authenticity, that’s not true. Highly structured planning and forethought free the sales professional to be truly creative and adaptive, present and in the moment.

For example, when many people think of memorization, they often fear that they’ll sound robotic. On the contrary, memorizing lines allows you to use your brainpower to hone your performance. When you don’t have to think about what to say, you can act at the moment. I like to train enterprise sellers to use forethought, rehearse and leave nothing to chance.

Let the details inform your process

Choreographing a dance, much like strategizing an enterprise sale, requires attention to many moving parts. However, the best choreographers employ the finer details as key performance components instead of becoming overwhelmed by minutiae.

Andy Blankenbuehler is a Tony Award-winning choreographer behind the mega-hit Hamilton, among other musicals. For him, the choreography process begins with the details. He explains, “Parameters are so good for me. So, if you know you have to wear boots, that informs the choreography. If you know that you’re supposed to be carrying a 30-pound rifle in your hand, and you have to load it a certain way, that informs choreography. So, in that way, Hamilton has been extraordinary to me in providing me with rules.”

Sales leaders can also use parameters, restrictions, and other details to inform their team’s process. For example, while your team may not be carrying rifles into the performance, they will be gathering ammunition at all stages of the process, gathering information for their prospects’ needs. Then, at the end of the sales cycle, this ammunition will be used to win the inevitable fight and help them close the deal.

During the initial stages, your sellers quickly research their prospect’s industry, company, and the person they’re meeting. Based on what they learn, sellers should be able to communicate exactly why a contact should meet with them at this time. Later, the seller will walk them through a lengthy and specific discovery process, including a deep dive on challenges, quantifiable impact, the ideal solution, impact of success, players experiencing the pain, and be involved in solving, priority, timeline, and budget. All the information they gather along the way becomes a stockpile of ammunition.

The best-sellers are always on the lookout for an edge and recognize that every interaction with a prospect may impact the outcome of a deal, leaving nothing to chance. For example, when they first enter the lobby and are waiting for the meeting to begin, they shouldn’t be checking email. Instead, they should pay attention to their surroundings and their resources. They can gather information from an annual report on the table, read the CEO’s letter to shareholders, or review the 10K. Then, they’ll be able to ask their prospect, “I understand you’re expanding your business into China,” or, “I understand you’re developing this specific new product. How does your work relate to that?”

There are many other resources available for pre-meeting research. The receptionist or assistant can answer questions if they’ve been at the company for a while. Many companies place a company history timeline on their walls. Sellers should look around. Simply being aware of their surroundings might earn them an edge that will be valuable later.

Through such attention to detail, sellers can replicate Blankenbuehler’s methods. Mediocre choreographers design their dances without paying particular heed to context. On the other hand, Winning choreographers reshape their dancers’ movements to be sensitive and complementary to their environment (e.g., the heavy boots on their feet).

Coordinate your ensemble’s vision to create flawless execution

Even the most brilliant choreographers are dependent on their dancers to carry out their artistic vision. Similarly, successful sales leaders require coordination among their many team members.

While most people are more familiar with Hamilton’s stars, Blankenbuehler believes that effective collaboration across the entire ensemble has been critical to the musical’s success. He says, “The biggest collaborative thing was figuring out the ensemble’s perspective, the ensemble’s point of view, because the strength of the ensemble’s point of view, I think, determines the strength of the musical. If their point of view isn’t clarified, the audience doesn’t invest in them as the lens for the piece. We had constant conversations with ourselves, but also with the cast, like ‘Right now you’re being Aaron Burr’s ego,’ ‘Right now you’re being a jury that doesn’t have an opinion yet.’”

In other words, Blankenbuehler provided the ensemble with a clear role to play in every scene. This enabled every cast member to carry out his vision to perfection. Sales leaders must do the same thing to ensure that all coordinated efforts are executed meaningfully and effectively.

If you’re trying to close an enterprise scale, you’re probably going into the later-stage meetings with a team. Even if only two team members are present, you need to have a clear plan for the choreography. Who’s taking which part of the deck? The demo? Who’s answering which questions? What if objections are raised they didn’t prepare for? Make sure only one person serves as the quarterback or chief choreographer for the meeting.

The chief choreographer should delegate tasks ahead of time, including planning all possible contingencies. For example, it would be best if you prepared for the possibility of a technology failure (projector doesn’t work or you have the wrong dongle). If that happens, who will assume responsibility for trying to fix the tech problem? Who will engage the prospect in conversation, so they do not disengage with dead air time?

Every team member should know their role during the meeting, including responsibilities during Q&A. Throughout the session, the chief choreographer should direct the team accordingly: “That’s a great question about our product roadmap. John can take that.”

This method is effective because it allows your team to establish themselves as trusted professionals who have done this a hundred times before. At the same time, you can give your team members opportunities to show off their expertise and shine as individuals. Sellers should also have a well-rehearsed personal thesis they can share during introductions, establishing themselves as thought leaders to earn the right to be a thought partner over time. Most enterprise sales involve “land and expand” opportunities, so earning the role of thought partner is essential for the longer term.

Acclaimed classical choreographer Graeme Murphy says of dance, “I’m not interested in a group of people with some incredible homogeny, a group that can do the movement I want. I’m interested in people who can take the movement somewhere.”

There’s a clear lesson for sales leaders. Choreograph the performance in detail, but collaborate with your team members. They need opportunities to prove their expertise if you want to establish your company as a thought partner.

Move with purpose

I’m a believer in choreographing all aspects of the sales process. Even seemingly innocuous details, such as where everyone will sit and the order in which they’ll give introductions, are critical. However, when choreographing your performance, you need to keep sight of the essential purpose of sales. Legendary modern dance choreographer Hanya Holm explains, “Dances without purpose have false starts and stops.”

So, what’s the purpose of the sales process? The seller’s goal should be to provide so much value to the prospect throughout the process that price becomes a non-issue. That’s what will generate sales.

Every move your seller makes throughout the sales process is oriented towards establishing your organization as a thought partner deserving of a place at the table. Once your seller has accomplished that, they’re in a position to articulate a strong value proposition so that prospects will prefer to work with your company vs. your competitors.

If you can’t reach a point where your seller can articulate value above price, you’ve failed somewhere along the way. By carefully choreographing your process, you position your team and company for success.

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Kiva Kolstein

Kiva Kolstein has spent the last 20+ years building high-growth companies and teams. He is currently President & Chief Revenue Officer of AlphaSense, an AI-powered market intelligence search engine.

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