A strategic sales force – one driven by a focused sales strategy and robust sales operation framework rather than a panel-beaten corporate / marketing strategy or territory plan for capturing incremental share of spend – is a highly treasured asset. A strategic sales force will deliver better results for the organisation’s customers and as a result, for the organisation itself.
A great case study for sales strategy and a strategic sales force
When we met mid last year, the relatively new sales director of the Australian Asia Pacific division of a major global equipment manufacturer was facing declining markets, loss of major accounts, margin erosion and a ‘race to the bottom’ market mentality. There was no previous investment in the sales team, no sales process or methodology, no sales tools, no sales strategy or value propositions, and no market segmentation. He had a blank canvas on which to build the foundations of what was to become a highly competitive and effective sales team.
They worked across several market sectors but mining had been by far their largest sector for years. However, the sector was in steep decline. This sales director was originally trained as a chartered accountant and had never lead a sales team before, but he was very smart and had all the hallmarks of a great leader – clear, accountable, fair, courageous, open-minded, transparent, strategic, could see the details and the big picture, confident but also able to admit what he didn’t know so very open to learning, coachable and ambitious, and driven for his team not just himself.
He wanted to help his people and the business sell better even in tough declining markets. He wasn’t afraid to invest in his people because he knew that they were the key to his and the region’s future.
He didn’t leave the selling to the account managers, he made sure that everyone who was in contact with clients, including technical managers, customer service reps and site supervisors, who all knew that they were part of the sales value chain and ‘how we sell around here’. Nothing was left to chance. He knew that a two-day sales workshop wouldn’t change anything.
Together we created a new sales strategy plan and a highly targeted market segmentation plan for each of his sectors that clearly guided and directed the efforts of the sales team to find profitable and sustainable business; we put in place clear levels of accountability and behaviours for all roles so everyone knew what good sales and client engagement performance looked like; and he made sure we ran regular training sessions on sales planning, new business development, solution selling, and key account management to ensure that his team knew how to sell better, all of which was underpinned by ongoing online education and sales coaching in the field.
And the results to date speak for themselves. Ten months in he now has:
- An united, aligned and competently performing Australian Asia Pacific sales team and leaders;
- They have common sales goals, sales messaging, sales process, framework and tools that can be easily learned and applied;
- They are currently 16% ahead of budget YTD even in declining, highly commoditised market segments, thus proving ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’;
- His team have found and are winning a number of large profitable sales even in a highly competitive, commoditised market place and are winning the ‘share of mind battle’ with their clients and prospects because they have done the strategy work and understand that they are business people who sell in real value not just technical products and services; and
- At the most recent global meeting of this organisation’s regional sales leaders, his is the only region worldwide that is ahead of budget and making profitable sales. His is the only region that has clear, accountable strategic go-to-market action plans. His is the only region that has account managers, technical managers, customer service reps and site managers all trained in ‘how we sell around here’. His is the only region that is well equipped to drive better sales outcomes with a conscious intent and clear purpose.
This Australian sales leader demonstrates that taking a strategic, no frills, practical, open-minded approach pays off. This is what we need in business and sales today. His ability to grasp the complex and lead his people to success is to be commended. It is very rewarding and very refreshing to work with him and others like him.
In contrast – without a sales strategy and strategic sales force you are doomed to fail
Too often too many businesses procrastinate when faced with heavy pressure from competitors – global or regional, many of whom compete solely on price. Competing on price is often a desperate way out.
We know that many sales leaders are burdened by the ever-present pressure to achieve short-to-medium term value / volume quotas, often complaining that there isn’t enough time to develop a sales strategy. The usual mantra from these groups is a cry for more productivity, more action, better selling techniques and less discounting. All admirable sentiments, but without a strategy, all a useless attempt to achieve a dream.
When challenged, some sales leaders readily admit that they need a sales strategy, but that the pressure to meet shorter-terms targets and their heavy involvement in day-to-day operational issues (even if these do relate to sales) means that sales strategy takes a back seat. This is a very dangerous attitude to take.
We understand that more and more, the high cost of selling, longer lead times, multiple choices, maturing markets, rampant competition and diminishing differentiation, is taking its toll on sales performance. We understand that salespeople are being squeezed to produce more sales revenue / volumes, at better margins, but corporate return on sales effort isn’t what it used to be.
In response to the pressures of a decline in demand and pressure to reduce selling prices (on the buying side), and a push for greater volume at better margin, in the face of increasing competition (on the supply side), companies have sought to cut costs. Organisations have looked for ways to be more efficient; production, logistics and operations all looked for ways to be more streamlined; and finance pulled back, cut credit lines and reined in spending. All credible actions but the one area that really needed an overhaul – sales – has allowed salespeople to continue to do the same things, with the same processes, in the same way as they always have. If anything, what sales did do was increase its resistance to change. Sales leadership seems to have forgotten that doing the same things, in the same way, even in the face of major disruptions is unlikely to get a different result.
The main reason for this lack of change on the sales front is a lack of exposure or understanding of sales strategy. This has resulted in many sales leaders floundering, uncertain of what approach to take. As a result marketing and corporate strategists became involved, taking the lead and, even though they had little understanding of the very specific focus of sales strategy, started driving the initiative. One of the worst manifestations of this was the erroneous impression that sales training was the solution to all sales problems.
Trying to fix a sales strategy problem with the wrong things
What these sales leaders and salespeople soon learned is that sales training alone didn’t encourage the changes needed to improve sales performance. Nor did increasing, expanding or contracting territories. Nor did changing sales incentive plans or reward schemes. Nor did reorganising the salesforce. The four most common approaches –sales training, incentives, territory planning and sales force restructures– taken by sales leaders to try to improve sales are not working.
The reason for these failures was not that the initiatives were wrong, but rather that they were driven more by panic, than by strategy. They were motivated by a need to try and get some incremental improvement in sales, rather than looking for a way to improve customer satisfaction, define and deliver real value to customers, and deliver more sustainable results.
Many sales leaders have failed to look at the bigger picture and the complex world in which they work. It is more common practice (and perhaps more comforting) to push for more sales productivity or to cut prices, than to step back and re-examine the entire sales strategy and sales processes that underpin sales success.
The message is clear. If sales leaders fail to have a clear picture of what they want to achieve supported by a sound sales strategy and operations plan, plus the courage and conviction to make their strategy real through real world application, they are doomed to fail.
Which path will you choose?
Remember everybody lives by selling something.
Sue Barrett is the founder and chief executive of the innovative and forward thinking sales advisory and education firm, Barrett and the online sales education & resource platform www.salesessentials.com.