Silver Bullets Won’t Fix Your Sales Force

When it comes to enhancing sales force productivity and performance, it's tempting to look for silver bullets. Is customer retention declining? Okay, let's roll out a new sales training program that teaches salespeople how to be more customer-focused. Is sales growth lagging? Let's implement a more aggressive incentive plan to motivate the sales force. Is sales productivity decreasing? Let's build a Big Data solution that enables salespeople to glean insights so they can sell smarter.

One-dimensional solutions like these are rarely enough to create permanent improvements in sales force effectiveness. A sales force is complex, with many moving parts and interdependencies. Achieving sales force excellence, or addressing a sales opportunity or challenge (such as revitalizing growth or enhancing customer retention), typically requires improving upon a mixture of several sales force effectiveness drivers.

Instead of simplistic, one-note fixes, smart managers consider broader improvement plans, such as these:

  • Set a cohesive sales strategy that focuses sales effort on the right customer segments with a compelling value proposition.
  • Design a high-impact sales process for communicating and delivering value to customers.
  • Size the sales organization at a profitable investment level that provides ideal customer coverage.
  • Define a sales structure and sales roles that enable effectiveness (high sales for the effort) as well as efficiency (low cost for the effort).
  • Assign accounts to salespeople to enable good customer coverage and give all salespeople a fair chance to succeed.
  • Hire sales talent by identifying and attracting salespeople with the characteristics (innate capabilities and values) that drive success.
  • Train and coach that talent to continually develop the competencies (learned skills and knowledge) that salespeople need to add value for customers.
  • Provide data, tools and resources for enhancing sales force insight about customers and supporting the sales process.
  • Offer incentive compensation and recognition programs that encourage salespeople to work hard in pursuit of personal goals that align with company goals.
  • Set sales force goals that are challenging, fair, and well-understood by the sales force.
  • Manage performance by engaging a team of first line sales managers who can effectively direct sales activity and keep the sales force on course.
  • Create and sustain a sales culture of accountability, achievement and ethics.

These sales force effectiveness drivers are the spokes of a wheel that powers the sales force. Breakage in any single spoke creates weakness in the wheel, leading to suboptimal results. Excellent sales forces continuously improve capability around every sales force effectiveness driver through "kaizen." They devote organizational resources to making every sales force efficiency driver excellent — from formulating the right sales strategy, to hiring and developing talent, to providing the best tools, programs, and resources for motivating and enhancing sales team performance.

Excellent sales forces also ensure compatibility across these types of programs. For example, if sales strategy calls for penetrating a new market segment, they enable the strategy with the right sales process, an appropriate sales force size and structure, training and coaching programs, and data and tools that facilitate salespeople's success. If salespeople have unequal market potential, they design performance management and incentive programs that account for territory differences, or they realign territories to give all salespeople a fair opportunity to succeed.

As sales leaders face an ever-changing market, this laundry list of drivers of sales force efficiency — a list of activities that require constant attention and improvement — can look daunting. That's where a clear head and a purposeful prioritization process come in handy. We suggest that you rethink a few key of these drivers at any point in time.

Some drivers can be changed fairly easily without significant disruption to the sales force — for example, performance management, data and tools, training, and incentives. But if you are rethinking your sales model, you'll likely need to plan for some disruption to salespeople and customers as you redefine some of the more strategic drivers, such as sales strategy, sales process, structure, size and even the profile of people you need to hire.

There are no silver bullets in building and sustaining a high-performance sales force. Rather, it's a lot of blocking and tackling. Only by managing the entire portfolio of sales force efficiency drivers and building capability and compatibility throughout the system, can you drive sustained sales force effectiveness and top- and bottom-line performance.

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