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On Sales Process And Other Unnatural Acts!

by David Brock on February 10th, 2010

Last night I participated in a fascinating discussion on engaging sales people.  The conversation was one of our bimonthly Sales Smack’s.  If you are interested in vigorous discussion, you ought to join these, I always learn a lot, both from what’s said, and how the discussion stimulates my thinking.  All the information can be found at our LinkedIn Group.

The conversation started with the topic, how do we get sales people more engaged?  There was discussion about sales people being lazy, discussion about Sales Process and how it restricts creativity and innovation.  One of the most interesting parts of the conversation was a discussion of military strategy and how teams focused on a mission, but given the freedom to innovate and adapt to conditions on the ground create great results.

The example of high performance military teams adapting to conditions on the ground is a really interesting example–there are countless stories about how teams accomplish tremendous things, seemingly inventing what should be done on the fly .  What is overlooked, is how did they get to this level of performance?  It certainly isn’t random–in fact it’s the furthest thing from being random.

My experience in looking at the military, is a tremendous process focus.  There are defined methodologies (at times overy defined and rigid–but this is changing), there are ways to act, react, and perform.  They are carefully thought out, continuously revised and improved based on actual field performance and results.  But ask a soldier about their process, they might not be able to respond.  They are more likely to say, “We just do it!”  (Thank you Nike). 

“Just Doing It,” is the trick to process, and I think it’s what we miss in looking at selling processes.  What we forget about the military is they constantly train–rehearse, so as not to confuse this use of training with training classes.  They rehearse the process dozens to hundreds of times.  They rehearse variants of the process constantly.  They rehearse the process so much that it becomes a natural, unconscious act.  It becomes “just doing it.”  It is the framework for them to quickly analyze, assess, and act.

Internalizing the process so it becomes natural is critical to adapting and innovating in the field.  You adapt and innovate, based on a framework of success.  Adaptation and innovation in this context is more likely to achieve success than random creativity.  Whenever I interview high performing sales people, I see the same thing.  They have an internalized framework or process based on their past experience.  They apply that process, adapting and innovating within it, using the process as a foundation to improve their liklihood of success.

We see this in every area that demands “mastery.”  Whether it is the high performing athlete that spends days and months in practicing and drills, just for that hour performance in the Super Bowl.  It could be the jazz musician that spends hundreds of hours practicing in order to be free to improvise–making great music rather than just noise.

I have to admit I have little patience with the anti-process crowd  (I still get lot’s of comments in my blog posts on this).  I think it’s an excuse.  There is too much evidence that process drives performance.  Process, effectively internalized becomes natural.  Process, effectively internalized frees you up to innovate, create, and adapt.  Process, continually updated and revised based on actual results maximizes performance.

When will we start looking at high performers in other areas, and learn what drives mastery?  When will we stop finding excuses not to use process, but instead learn how to master process, tune it, adapt it, and free ourselves for responding to conditions in the field in a way that is likely to produce success rather than being random?  None of this is easy, initially, it seems unnatural and difficult.  With practice and experience it seems easier.  With practice and experience, it frees us up to be creative.

Sometimes, we make it too complicated, soemtimes we let our excuses deter us from execution.  I’ve written before, Sales Process:  Elegant In It’s Simplicity, Natural In It’s Execution.  Additionally, a must read on this topic is Geoff Colvin’s:  Talent Is Overrated!

Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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12 Comments
  1. David,

    I couldn’t agree more with you!

    As a facilitator, trainer and coach of many sales interventions, I constantly meet resistance when I suggest that salespeople should have clearer understanding of sales competences and many more opportunities of practicing those competences in ‘chunks’ of repetition with the appropriate feedback and coaching.

    In so many other fields professionals practice every day to get it right…to make it natural. In business we throw people on a three-day workshop, add the course to their c/v, and then tick the appropriate box!

    I was lucky enough to meet a professional golfer who told me just how much practice he does….and he was in the top 10 in the world!

    Why is that the disciplines of athletes, sportspeople, technicians, doctors, pilots are not transferred into the business world.

    Yes I believe some people are naturals….but maybe they just got to unconscious competence much quicker!

    Great post and thanks!

    Tony

    • Tony, sorry for being slow responding to your comments. They are great. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this is the “Naturals” are actually the one’s that invest the most in studying their sport/profession, seeking to improve their natural ability even further. They don’t take their natural ability for granted, but seek to refine and continually improve performance. Regards, Dave

  2. And let’s add to the military’s continuous training. The military also conducts a rigorous after-action review after each mission. They review what happened, what what right, what went wrong, and what they learned. They document and share their learning, and they modify future behaviors on future missions, building a foundation of learning that allows for a range of choices in achieving future outcomes.

    This is also true of sports teams who film every contest! They review their plan and performance, and they review how it worked when it rubbed up against competition.

    You are correct in that both the military and sports teams have and follow processes. Why then do we in sales mostly ignore these after action reviews and simply update a CRM and check the box? Would we not do perform better with some after-process process?

    • Anthony, thanks for the great comments. Yes, the “after action” reviews are too often ignored. It’s things as simple as a manager reviewing and coaching on a sales call, helping the sales person improve their execution. It’s those things we used to call win-loss reviews, that we no longer have time to do–so we repeat the same process again, with similar outcomes.

      Great comments, thanks for contributining, Regards, Dave

  3. Dave as always, excellent post. I could not agree more with you. Two little additions if you allow.

    To the folks still debating that sales is an art and therefore processes will not work. Do you know how artist painters get trained? By looking at old masters, copying their paintings to understand the processes they used to produce the visual effects we all admire.

    Your remark about the military being over prescriptive sometimes triggered another thought on how not to train sales people. If they are told word for word what to do in a particular situation, they will never be able to adapt and innovate in a particular situation. What sales people need is the bases of a sales process giving them situational fluency. But again this comes only from practicing. The military does not do this in combat situation (for sales people in front of the customers). They use exercises, meaning role plays in the sales world.

    • Christian, thanks for your comments, they are really on target. Your comments on situational fluency really resonate. The ability to adapt effectively, managing different situations that come up in any sales situation is critical. Until people have internalized the process, through practice and experience, they will not be as effective as they might.

      Your comments always add so much to the discussion. Thanks very much.

  4. David – what a great post! This could have been my own words. Even the phrase …’I have to admit I have little patience with the anti-process crowd’ sounds very familiar to me.
    My favorite saying is ‘The more I practise the luckier I get’

    Also good to read in the comments that there are some people around on the same mission. Also a great thanks to you guys!

  5. David,

    Very good points. I find that many of the things that needs to be done are actually “unnatural” (that what drew me to your post). A classic one is to qualify the question two or three times to get the real question. Naturally, when asked a question, one wants to answer. We’re trained to do this throughout schools! Unnaturally, we need to reverse and that is hard, unnatural. So only by drilling and drilling and drilling can one start to feel comfortable doing so. Hence why I quite like your analogy with military training.

    PS: can’t agree more about the process focus 🙂

  6. Dave one of your best posts EVER

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