A Daunting Array of Options for Sales Leaders
Is your company’s business goal to shrink… to achieve LESS business, to gain LESS revenue, or LESS market share? What company decides ‘contraction’ is their business goal? In all likelihood, the answer is simple. None. The challenge of sustained growth and profitability are constant and universal in every global company – and that pressure passes relentlessly through to every sales organization.
Recent research illustrates emphatically (see The Agile Sales Organization) that effective selling is being disrupted by more forces than ever before. Against the backdrop of increasing change, in the more than 150 global sales organizations we work with annually, the litany of sales problems has remained somewhat persistent:
- Low quota attainment
- Low competitive win rates
- Lengthy sales cycles
- High customer acquisition costs
- Failure to maximize revenue in strategic accounts
- Frequent discounting to win
- Difficulty cross-selling and up-selling
- Lengthy ramp-up times
- Highly informed buyers finding their own solutions
Not exhaustive, but you get the picture. On a (possibly) positive note, each of these challenges have potential antidotes – in fact maybe dozens of antidotes. For example, there are at least 200 identifiable companies today that prescribe solutions for some aspect of “sales enablement.” And that is only one subset of the “solution provider” marketplace for sales which can also include sales training providers, sales technology providers, sales method providers…. and so on and so on… all with their own ideas, processes, recomendations and best-practices. So which among these potential “antidotes” might actually solve the sales problem YOUR company is experiencing today?
Any number of ideas might be viable – there is no shortage of potential “solutions.” It might be sales analytics, it might be sales training, it might be technology enablement, it might be embracing a new type of seller profile, it might be improved talent acquisition, it might be improved messaging, it might be social media, it might be …
And every solution to the aforementioned problems has a beautifully documented case study (or three) that will instill confidence that the proposed offering will have an impact on your organization. And so, how does the rational sales leader proceed? Because the reality is that if every solution performed as well as case studies and value calculators would indicate – we would collectively be awash in a utopian paradise of sales excellence. In fact, let’s just intuitively pick a few reasonable sounding ideas and pre-order those President’s Club Lamborghini’s and 110% quota attainment cruises now – before supply runs short.
What Really Matters?
In seriousness, it would be unfair to say that companies make irrational decisions in terms of growing their businesses. In most cases there is a legitimate effort to think clearly about providing differentiated, valuable products and solutions to their customers. And organizations generally make a sincere effort to align their organizations and human capital around the goals of their business. But those best laid plans often have a complicating factor. Because for thousands of global companies, there’s also a universal reality.
Between their beautifully conceived offerings and the buyer exists that interesting collection of people known as “the sales force.” And in the majority of companies, the human capital costs of the sales organization comprises a significant share of corporate operating expenses. Investing in sales performance improvement solutions isn’t inherently a bad idea – some offerings might actually work well for your organization. For example, if your organization has no coherent “framework” for selling – by all means move from ad hoc behavior to some semblance of order and management science (we encounter and address this often). But conversely, many ideas might also not work well at all – even if they’ve benefitted other organizations that seem similar to yours.
So before we survey this daunting array of sales improvement alternatives and invest in one or more of them, it might be valuable to pose a simple question.
What do OUR sales people actually need to be good at?
Because until we’re able to answer this question with a high level of validity, most of the investments we make are at best, educated guesswork. There has been extensive research, data collection, and analysis of the innate traits and learnable competencies of “successful” sales professionals. Within this collective research and benchmarking there is some good news and some not so good news.
On the good news front, broad based and vertical industry research and benchmarks have helped to dispel many common misconceptions about “ideal” traits and competencies of sales people (e.g., extroversion is a predictor of sales success). In addition, talent assessment, analytics, and benchmarking have led the movement to a more rational thought process about what it may take to succeed in various types of sales roles. Some researchers have also gone as far as to posit an “ideal” profile for effective selling in today’s business climate (which we will discuss further in a future post).
While potentially better than intuition or opinion, these approaches provide us with a blunt instrument of sorts. Because even if a set of specific traits and capabilities correlate with 50% of high performers in companies somewhat like yours, that doesn’t remotely guarantee that the same outcomes will occur for your organization. Beyond that, the statistical methods applied in many of the case studies and broader research studies might not survive serious mathematical scrutiny.
A great number of case studies and even “formal” (appearing) research studies are little more than correlation-based analyses. In many cases these types of ostensibly “empirical” approaches don’t consider numerous factors that actually could (and do) have a cause and effect impact on outcomes. Some may utilize some form of regression analysis, but rarely do these types of initiatives apply causal analytics. As importantly, the current situation and environment of your business might entail variables and factors that are considerably different than the company or aggregate research sample a conclusion is based on.
So with hundreds of possible ideas and solutions that a sales leader could potentially apply to improve the abilities of sales people how do we better answer the question; what do our sales people actually need to be good at? And of equal importance - then how do we capitalize on that understanding to create impact on our business goals?
In the next post, we will begin to explore how to cut through the noise and get focused on human capital investments in sales that have the highest probability of impacting your company’s specific business goals. Stay tuned.
Robert Kear, Partner and CMO, Sales Performance International