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Maintaining the Sales Machine


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In their November 2013 Harvard Business Review article Dismantling the Sales Machine Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman of the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) assert that “Leaders must abandon their fixation on (sales) process compliance.”

In place of “disciplined sales process they favor a flexible approach to sales in which salespeople rely on their own insight and judgment.  That they find sales process discipline and a sales force capable of insight and judgment incompatible seems untenable.

The CEB has long brought much to the sales space with its research.  They have been at the forefront of recognizing the new sales environment and helping define the new buyer.  In their article, they rightly point to many significant developments:

  • The new sales environment favors creative and adaptive salespeople.
  • Deals vary from one to the next.
  • Performance trumps protocol.
  • Salespeople must have latitude.
  • Managers’ roles are to guide, support, and serve as coaches rather than enforcers.
  • The new world of selling demands greater collaboration among team members.
They also acknowledge that many average performers benefit from clear direction regarding their activities and being held accountable for specific milestones, which are primary goals of sales process.

This is all true.  But contrary to the assumptions and conclusions the authors make, the sales machine/sales process discipline does not work against the above trends, but it enables them.  I believe far from dismantling the sales process, sales organizations need to embrace it and make it part of their sales DNA.

The predominance of research I have seen from firms such as Salesforce, Aberdeen, and CSO Insights  shows that there is a high correlation between best-in-class sales performance and the discipline of sales process.  This correlation is supported by everything I know from my client work and specific feedback from the managers at my sales management program at Wharton.  Rather than most sales organizations operating as well-oiled sales machines, we learn from Aberdeen that too many organizations lack a defined sales process, and according to McKinsey, many of those that do have adoption problems.

Having a defined sales process that spells out objectives, best practice activities, customer actions, sales tools, and models for each stage does not have to suppress creativity and flexibility.  Dashboards provide valuable information and don’t by nature dash creativity.  An effective sales process serves as a critical guidepost for salespeople to follow and managers to coach and track to.  The goal of a sales process is not only to be efficient but to be effective.

A good process replicates the best practice performance of star performers.  This eliminates the need for each salesperson to reinvent the wheel or operate without the knowledge the wheel exists.  One salesperson in a team I am working with shared a “secret” (best practice) to reengage with prospects who have gone dark.  Using this best practice, team members increased their ability to reengage by 50%.  This shared best practice did not strip away the use of judgment by members of the sales team, some who at first resisted it and others who use the tactic judiciously.

I have found over the past two years that when salespeople and sales managers are provided with a clear sales process that is linked with formal, but even more importantly informal, coaching, coaching conversations become easier and more productive.  I have gone so far as to align coaching questions to each phase of the sales process — not to confine but to support manager, peer, and self-coaching.  Having the right questions provokes judgment and creativity.  And while a lot of the coaching is around deal review, deal review is more than numbers and includes developing insights and judgment and the strategies and skills needed to execute.  Effective coaching is coaching by asking, not telling, and it is important not to conflate what to coach with how to coach:  one is knowledge and one is skill.  Both are needed for dialogue.

Maybe we are just speaking different languages.  If a sales machine/sales process operates as the authors describe it, “inflexible governance that works through formal rules,” meaning that salespeople are turned into robots, then the sales machine indeed is in destructive overdrive and should be turned off and repaired.  If this is the case, the problem is in the design.  But generalizing that the sales machine/all sales processes should be dismantled is a huge step backward for sales.  The key is to make sure that the sales process mirrors and influences today’s customer buying cycles and buying habits and is supported with a collaborative coaching methodology.

Provocative titles grab attention.  Just as the customer need dialogue (solution selling) is not dead, neither is sales process.  Both must evolve,and have but they shouldnot be abandoned.  An effective sales process does not prevent a salesperson from exercising judgment and being creative in dealing with highly knowledgeable customers.  Indeed, an effective sales process is an indispensable tool for sales force development and productivity.  The world in which salespeople operate with judgment and creativity that the authors describe is a world I subscribe to, butwith sales process in it.

Today, in the sales space, we have the advantage of technology and data not available to us just a short time ago, and we also have research into the new buyer and what it takes for a salesperson to succeed in the new world of selling.  Judgment, creativity, and expertise are essential to selling today.  If I had to choose between a sales force run by data and cognitive patterns or what I will call for shorthand “human talent,” the latter would win hands down.  But I don’t have to choose.  I can have both — and so can you.

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