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Across B2B sales organizations, it is no longer uncommon to see dismal statistics around the performance and productivity of the sales force. Many organizations are seeing their sales and margins erode as multiple forces drastically impact customer expectations, inflicting a major paradigm change on how companies go-to-market.

In the age of the customer, their needs are becoming more diverse and often changing from day to day.  A tremendous strain is being put on the capabilities of sales organizations as customers are expecting suppliers to bring full depth of expertise to every sale.

Armed with information, customers are better informed than ever and increasingly self-diagnose their needs, research potential solutions and seek input before ever contacting a supplier. According to research from the Corporate Executive Board, buyers surveyed have indicated that 57% of the decision is made prior to ever engaging a supplier. 

These shifts (and others) are putting traditional sales process that were designed around conventional solution selling methodologies (discover, hook, pitch) are coming up short as organizations struggle to add value in a world where customers are already armed with knowledge, data and opinions.  Many sales organizations are being led down the path to a transactional sales where the best value wins, or even worse, to a no-decision verdict by the buyer.

Let’s go “Back to Basics”

When sales results are less than stellar, sales leaders tend to defect to what they know best and typically attempt to tighten existing sales process by introducing more process discipline and a higher level of scrutiny and inspections.

These tactics, often referred to as “back to basics”, tend to cause additional woes as sales managers are forced to spend the majority of their time policing strict compliance with the sales process instead of spending time coaching their teams and working through creative ways to address new customer challenges.  More time gets spent updating CRM, filling out forms, and in sitting in account reviews instead of being out in the field with customers. While the "back to basics" tactics help in the short-term, the result in the long-term are  even lower margins, prolonged sales cycles, and less reliable forecasts.

Squeeze Productivity, Squish Creativity

What’s lies below the iceberg of process compliance has arguably even more adverse effects then where time is spent. As the organization creates and rewards a culture of process compliance to squeeze more productivity, it also squishes creativity and takes away sales rep autonomy.   

To realize efficiency, canned sales pitches and value propositions are often packaged and delivered in scale to multiple customers with a focus on repeatability and scale instead of impact and outcomes, diluting the focus on the individual customer.

From a talent management perspective, a culture of process compliance puts more strain on sales reps, generally lowering the morale of the entire sales organization, causing increased attrition.

In a November 2013 Harvard Business Review article called Dismantling the Sales Machine, the authors argue that process-driven sales machine approaches fall short, because they give sales reps no room to exercise judgment and creativity in dealing with highly knowledgeable customers.   In their studies of 2,500 sales professionals from more than 30 B2B companies representing every major industry, they have zeroed in on the managerial and organizational attributes most closely associated with star reps’ success.

It is clear that top-performing reps have long abandoned the traditional sales playbook and devised a novel sales approach based on the premise of creating early by provoking the customer’s thoughts and helping them identify needs they may not have recognized themselves. 

To successfully execute on this model, the authors describe an organizational climate that forms a judgment-based organization focused on creating demand early in the sales funnel rather than responding to it much later in the process.

The light at the end of the tunnel

While a sales process is only one of components needed to successfully transform a sales organization, it is still a must in order to run a scalable and predictable sales organization. However, to create a foundation for transformation, rather than putting all eggs in the process compliance basket, consider the following levers to transforming your organization’s sales culture to build a solid foundation and get the edge on your competitors:

1. Empower Sales Managers: Managers should be serving as coaches rather than process enforcers. Contrary to popular belief, front-line quota carriers are competitive people who approach change with a positive mindset and want to embrace it. Sales Coaching is a mindset, not a task. Managers must become facilitators and coaches instead of enforcers or “super-sales-reps”; because salespeople who are smart and adaptable will not submit to tight command and control.  Motivated people will always perform better, especially when their jobs require them to think and adapt to changing conditions.

2. Encourage Creativity and Risk Taking:  Leveraging new and creative approaches are essential to finding new opportunities and engaging with customers in new ways.   In empowering your team to unleash their creativity, nothing speaks louder than sharing real examples and rewarding those who show progress.   Communicate and celebrate individuals and teams who have shown creativity in their approach and have taken calculated risks to get the sale.   Don’t forget that creativity and risk don’t always equal success, so make sure to celebrate and recognize efforts and progress, not only wins.  Set time aside in your sales meetings to sharing ideas, new approaches and collaborate on current challenges.

3. Create a culture of learning and curiosity: In many organizations, learning is often seen as event, not an experience. We often teach and accredit based on knowledge and expect an outcome, except most often, the outcome never gets realized.  To create a culture of learning, we must focus on teaching people how to think rather than focusing on the knowledge itself.    There is a combination of two mindsets required for success in the new paradigm of selling:

  • Heads-down mindset: Focused on delivery and meeting deadlines
  • Heads-up mindset: Focused on possibilities, building on creativity and imagination

Encouraging and empowering both mindsets with clear recognition of the everyday reality of the learner will shape current culture, that drive (or fail to deliver) performance.

The new profile for sales: For decades, the typical sales hiring profile has been based on Emotional Intelligence, looking for extroverts who can better connect with customers and quickly establish rapport and relationships.  In the new paradigm of sales, customers expect a rep that is knowledgeable and well connected to their business. Sales research group RAIN recently surveyed over 700 major purchases to conclude what buyers say are the top 10 areas where sellers who win outperform those who come in second place.  Of all the attributes noted by customers, none of them were tied to classic sales skills. Rather, it more closely resembled a consultant’s profile. As buyer’s expectations change, it is time to tweak that hiring profile, looking to candidates with experiences outside of traditional sales roles.

Rethink Incentives: When incentives are aligned, customer relationships improve because employees are more perceived as being more genuine towards customers. The “hot potato” topic in sales is the common belief that sales people are “coin operated” is slowly fading away with some brave first-movers making drastic changes in their incentive plans to better align to the intrinsic motivations of autonomy and more meaningful purpose.   While short-term incentives are useful for driving simple, transactional sales, the effectiveness of these traditional pay structures diminishes as sales become more complex and cross-organizational collaboration and demonstrated expertise are required for success.  

Image credit: Steve Snodgrass/Flickr

Follow Me on Twitter @reuvengorsht


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