Transforming Your Sales through a Multi-Threaded Approach

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I was invited to take part in a recent panel discussion at the Sales Management Association’s Sales Productivity Conference in Atlanta. The session was focused on Sales Transformation, with the panelists providing their thoughts and insights on best practices and critical success factors.

One of the first discussion points attempted to define the term itself. What is sales transformation? Is it overused and possibly hyped? The general consensus was that, unlike sales effectiveness or enablement, which has incredibility broad definitions and interpretations, sales transformation infers material realignment of the sales organization vs. small incremental changes to improve performance.

Material in this context would typically affect multiple facets of the organization, including:

  • The go-to market strategy (channels, marketing, products, pricing, target audience)
  • The supporting infrastructure (sales ops, processes, technology)
  • People-related factors such as selling skills and hiring plans

In most cases, transformation projects extend to 1-2 year efforts and can expose an organization to a significant amount of risk in the process. For example, while an organization undergoes a transformation, they are still held to meeting quarterly objectives. Think of it as trying to change the tires on your car while you’re still driving. Another issue that many companies encounter with multi-year projects is the possibility for underlying business drivers behind the transformation to change, potentially making the outcomes irrelevant!

What actually drives transformation within a sales organization?

The panel broadly identified two primary factors behind transformation: external and internal. External factors include things like changes in buying, technology shifts and new competitive entrants. New products, mergers and acquisitions and a change of management represent internal factors. The panel agreed that changes in buyer behavior are one of the most common triggers for a transformation.

Change in buying behavior is a symptom of:

  • Buyers’ increased access to information
  • Greater involvement of stakeholders in business decisions (which is commonly by consensus)
  • Procurement groups being more active
  • Buyers increasing expectations of vendors in terms of leveraging their expertise and experience to accelerate business outcomes

For many sales organizations, undergoing a sales transformation is a big ask. After all, we’re talking about changing the way sales reps sell, which means changing deeply ingrained selling behaviors. This can be hard to initiate and even harder to sustain. If you consider previous attempts to instill change within the sales organization (perhaps through a training program or by introducing a new technology, one of the most common reasons they fail is because of poor sales rep adoption.

Why isn’t the sales force adopting technology?

Because few sales leaders put themselves in the sales rep’s shoes and answer the question What’s in it for me? If the sales rep does not see direct value in changing the way they do business, it is only a matter of time before they revert to old habits.

This goes hand-in-hand with another strong belief that is commonly overlooked: the sales manager is a critical part of the solution. The sales manager must be capable of and equipped to communicate and reinforce the changes being implemented. The why i.e. business motivation behind the change is a key component.

But here’s the rub. Even if the rep understands the motivation, if the behavioral shift is just too difficult to assimilate and consume – be it for filling out account plans, updating a CRM system or following a different process – it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and you’re back to square one before you know it. This is one of the reasons why it is reported that 87% of all knowledge imparted in a training program is forgotten or ignored after 30 days.

To compound this further, it is never a one-size fits all scenario. Application of any process, learning, or technology is completely situational. It’s complex. How do you engage each stakeholder in a meaningful way? The conversation is influenced by:

  • What you are selling
  • To whom you are selling
  • In what industry sector
  • To address what business requirement(s)
  • Against what competitor(s)

What’s a sales leader to do?

There is no silver-bullet. A multi-threaded approach is your best bet. You HAVE to educate, you HAVE to coach, you HAVE to implement new processes and deliver new content, you HAVE to provide new tools, adjust territories and comp plans, etc. But in isolation these investments run the risk of not delivering the expected ROI. They have to be conducted in concert. Training reinforced with effective coaching. Process supported by effective content and tools. And all adaptable to ensure reps customize their approach for each unique selling situation.

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