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Sales Force Ineffectiveness, Conjecture On The Future Of The Profession, Part 1 of 3

by David Brock on May 8th, 2009
Let me start with an apology, I will probably gore everyone’s ox in this post. My intention is not to pick on any group of sales professionals, but to start a discussion about the state of the profession and to stimulate ideas on how each of use—as individuals, leaders, influencers might improve the practice of the profession. I’ve actually split this post into two, Part 1 addresses issues that are primarily driven by sales. Part 2 looks at systemic business issues, beyond sales, that impact how we perform. Part 3 focuses on what we can do about these issues, both as organizations and individuals.

I hope you take the time to read and comment on all three. I may just have gone off the deep end and be mumbling nonsense, I hope you correct me (I know you will 😉

Over the past week, there have been a number of blog posts, comments, and discussions by people like Dave Stein, Niall Devitt, Christian Maurer, Paul McCord and others touching on various aspects of professional selling and why we as a profession are not improving our effectiveness.

Dave Stein lays the groundwork, with a lot of great data on sales training programs, books, blogs, and surveys on sales effectiveness in his post How Do You Fix Sales Ineffectiveness? If you haven’t read it, you should.

Billions of dollars/euros/yuan/yen are spent by companies in sales training, tools, conferences, seminars and other things to improve the effectiveness of their sales people. As both Dave and Paul point out in their posts, everyday some new book, blog, podcast or other offering promises the “silver bullet” to improving sales performance and effectiveness.

Yet, on the other hand, several months ago, one of my posts, Why Do Sales People Have Such A Bad Reputation, stirred up a huge amount of controversy and discussion with some people claiming there was little future for sales people, that customers buying processes were changing and the need or contribution of sales people was being minimized.

So where are we, what does this mean, where are we (sales professionals going), where does “fault” lie—if you want to lay blame. Some thoughts, observations:

Sales people have been the butt of jokes, complaints, and stories since through history. (I think this is a vicious conspiracy fostered by lawyers to take the heat off them.) We always will be, so why waste time on this?

The buzz words for professional sales today is “consultative,” “customer focused,” “solutions focused,” “value-based.” If only we became more consultative and customer focused, we would make the buying/selling experience more acceptable and make customer enthusiastic to see us. When I first started selling, in the late 70’s, the buzz words were “consultative,” “customer focused,”……. Nothing’s changed, so clearly we aren’t executing the practices that enable us to be customer focused.

It always intrigues me that we have continued to have this discussion about the importance of being consultative, but we have made no substantive progress in this area. It is not for lack of training programs, books, articles, testimonials. On the one hand, if we are selling and producing results without it, why bother? To those that claim this, I tend to claim you are underperforming your potential. You can sell more—more effectively, increase customer retention and grow your share of customer with consultative approaches—there is plenty of data to support this.

Consultative selling is difficult—it is disciplined, process based, and requires commitment and follow through on a sustained basis. Our focus on now (at all levels) makes this difficult. I think the issue about consultative selling is more about committed leadership than about skills development. Getting sales management to commit to integrating this into their day to day leadership style is the only way we will make substantive progress. Without this, we are wasting time and money.

Sales, by its nature, is about change. We are trying, for good or bad reasons, to get people and organizations to change. Most people are resistant to, or at least uncomfortable with change—they will tend to be resistant to the agents of change, as well. We have to live with this—maybe even revel in it. As a profession, I don’t think we talk about change management or change leadership enough. If I had to make recommendations for skills development, I would recommend something around leading change initiatives.

For too long, we have treated sales as a “black art.” We have let others wrap sales in a “mystique.” Part of this is the act of selling is usually done at a distance from the rest of the organization—it is done at our customers (Duuuuhh!). So people in the organization don’t see what we are doing. With other functions, you see people every day. You see the factories and talk to manufacturing people, you see materials going in one end and products coming out the back. It may or may not be a good process, but at least you can see something going on. You can say this about most other functions.

We as sales people have reinforced this, keeping people out of our accounts (or shepherding them in carefully orchestrated visits). We have also reinforced mystique by being less accountable for forecast accuracy and other things. “Just trust me, we’ll get a purchase order.”

Related to the previous point, we resist treating sales as a disciplined process. Recently, I have been involved in coaching a new Business Development VP. He did not have a sales background, but he was the best candidate for the job. He had a very rich and successful project management background. As you might expect, he was very concerned with his success in this role. I counseled him to think of sales as a specialized application of project management: You establish goals and objectives, you identify the critical activities to meet the goals, you set milestones and schedules to make sure you are making progress. Five months into his new role, he is well on the way to creating one of the most effective sales organizations I have encountered—all because he is applying the discipline, focus, and process orientation from his project management background to the sales organization. He has had to pick up some new terminology, some new skills (prospecting was his biggest worry, but he is doing fantastic).

While this is not new, I think we need to upgrade our thinking and skills around basic project management, process design/management, and systems thinking. All of what we do is a specialized application of those disciplines.

On a related point, much of what has been done and many of the tools in the quality movement, whether it is TQM, Six Sigma, Kaizen, or something else. These offer tremendous capability to improve performance and put discipline to what we execute.

Customers can be more informed and less knowledgeable: The internet, Web 2.0, Sales 2.0 provide the potential for customers/prospects to do much more research and to be both more knowledgeable on your products, competition and alternatives. At the same time, these tools have eliminated market entry barriers for everyone so there is a lot of crap available as well. Immediately, anybody posting a comment, writing a blog, sending a tweet, knowing how to spell www, becomes an authority.

The noise level—the stuff everyone has to sift through is skyrocketing. Will your customers take the time to sift through the pages of garbage and find good information from credible sources? Are we providing good information that is easy for the customers to find and absorb? The answer to both questions is probably not. This creates great opportunity and challenge to all sales people. The bar for performance is being raised by the sheer availability of information. The challenge to correct mis- or bad impressions is even greater. Sales people are going to have to be much more nimble in understanding and leveraging these tools, as well as making sure customers are truly, accurately, and well informed.

We have done too good a job in training our customers to have a low expectation of sales. Over the years, through our performance—pitching products rather than solving problems, focusing on the deal rather than producing value, getting the transaction done rather than building relationships—our customers have become conditioned to a lower level of buying behavior. I’ve been involved in situations where the customer just doesn’t have the time for a “value based” buying/selling process. Combine this conditioning, their natural wariness of sales people, and the fact they are time poor and pressured themselves, it creates great challenges in responding to the customer needs in a value added manner.

Let me stop here. In the next section addresses systemic business issues that overlay these issues, making the job of a sales professional even more difficult.

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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One Comment
  1. Jacques Werth permalink

    Most sales managers and trainers agree on the basic skills of selling. With a few exceptions, they are training salespeople to sell almost exactly the same way they were trained to sell in the 1950s through the 1980s.

    Most of the currently popular sales brands, i.e. “Consultative Selling,” are derivatives of the “Needs Selling” paradigm. It originated in the 1920’s with NCR Corp, IBM and other large companies. Their mantra was “Find a need and fill it.”

    Eventually a scientific study identified the typical buying decision model: Attention, Interest, Desire, Conviction and Action (AIDCA). The manipulation of prospects’ minds through the five steps of the buying decision model became the basis of almost all sales methods to date. That worked quite well until circa1982.

    The world has changed exponentially in the last twenty-seven years. The advent of ubiquitous computers, cell phones, IPods,and the Internet has caused Information Overload. That changed the market for every product and service and everyone in the marketplace.

    Information Overload has made sixty percent of the AIDCA buying decision model obsolete and the other forty percent critically important. I believe a lack of understanding of these factors is the primary reason for the low or negative ROI of most sales training.

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