Seven Best Practices for Communicating Change to Your Sales Force
The only certainty in life is change, and this is especially true in sales. Sales organizations are in a constant state of flux. By many estimates, the average tenure of a sales leader is somewhere between 19 and 24 months (which is comparable to CEO tenure).
This churn at the top brings with it new ideas and hopes and the need to do things differently to hit your numbers. Every year brings new quotas and comp plans, new goals and expectations, reassignment of accounts, new products and solutions, new technologies, new competitors, and any number of changes and complications. You sometimes wonder how an organization continues to function.
Change is painful. Frequent change can cause your sales team (those who need to carry out the change) to succumb to paralysis or apathy, “tuning out” the message in hope that the flavor of the month passes until the revolving door spins, once again showing the old regime out and the new regime in.
Here are seven best practices to communicate change to your sales team to prevent this death spiral.
- Remember that there's no one perfect way to communicate change. Change is uncomfortable, and adapting to change is messy, especially in a sales organization. The perfect PowerPoint deck won’t do anything if no one opens the e-mail in which it was sent. Why? Because big ideas, data, and tasks are easy to present, but behavior and long-held habits are not easy to change. Don’t forget that a message sent does not equal the message received. If you truly want to enact change, find ways to connect to your sales managers and leaders and help them to work with their salespeople down through the organization. Don’t just work in a vacuum — gather outside information, solicit perspectives, and adapt the approaches for your sales organization and group.
- Start by asking yourself what exactly is changing and why. Avoid the consultant speak and cut to the substance of what the change means in the day-to-day reality for your sales organization. You have to help them make that connection, or it could be lost or casually brushed off. What does it mean when you say, “We need to reduce sales cycle times or sell comprehensive solutions”? What do your reps need to do and say differently? Don’t assume anything. Your salespeople are busy and focused on their previously established targets and goals. If you expect them to change direction, get their attention and help them along.
- Know what results you want, ideally, from both the change initiative and the communication program or tactic. Knowing what you want to change for your sales organization, what’s the call to action for the communication program? What do your salespeople need to hear in order to understand what’s changing, why, and how it will impact them? What's the call to action for the specific communication tactic? What systemic or operations changes are under way that provide the framework for the desired results and behaviors? How will you monitor and measure the impact to ensure that it’s working?
- Share information with employees as soon as possible. People have a hard time keeping secrets — dripping out the message will only stir the rumor mill. Whether you’re mixing up sales territories or accounts or introducing a new incentive plan, news travels fast. Once fear and insecurity are heightened, you waste a lot of time getting back to a place of order, understanding, and productivity while many people head for their desks to update résumés and to call employment recruiters. Get ahead of the noise with real information as soon as it becomes available. Make sure your sales managers and leaders are informed and ready to handle questions from their team.
- Keep in mind that quantity is fine, but quality and consistency are crucial. There’s a saying, “You can't over-communicate,” but you can communicate too much insignificant or insensitive information. Focus on sharing significant, substantive details that are the most pertinent to your salespeople. Research shows that most people can only retain small amounts of new information once it has been heard. If they remember only one thing, what should it be? Make sure that your sales managers and leaders are prepared to reinforce the same message and help implement the change.
- Provide proper training to help your salespeople bring the change to life. A change effort starts with the announcement of a merger or change initiative. Then, the hard part begins. For many among your sales team, you’re essentially changing some very ingrained habits. Don’t assume that members of your sales team can translate your change message into actions. It is one thing to hear the message and even parrot back what they need to do differently, but it is another to actually have the capability to dowhat’s necessary.For example, you might be reorganizing your sales force from a geographic to an industry focus. Your reps get that part, but do they have the knowledge and skills to be successful in the new structure? It may seem obvious to you, but you’ve also been working on this change for some time. You need to communicate not only what will change on an organizational level and what the individual needs to do differently, but also that you will be taking measures to help the individual make the transition successfully. Furthermore, make sure to include a mechanism to receive feedback on the change — the sooner you know of problems or successes on the front lines, the sooner you can fine-tune your approach and help your change initiative to succeed.
- Operate with a sense of urgency. Many leaders and managers underestimate the length of time required by a change. Sales organizations have targets that are annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily. You can’t expect your salespeople to change overnight, but the more effective (and realistic) you can be in communicating the change, the more efficient the transition will be. Once you decide to make a change, the clock is ticking. How long can you afford to keep doing things the old way?
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