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What Happens When We “Fix” The Sales Problem?

by David Brock on June 6th, 2012

We have a revenue problem, we aren’t making the numbers, we aren’t growing, we rush to “fix the problem.”  The first and most natural place to look (and blame) is sales.  After all, sales is at the tip of the spear for generating revenue.  Conscientious sales executives may be seeing the revenue trend before anyone else (problem pipelines, deals languishing or disappearing).  They look at the performance of their teams, developing and executing strategies to improve results and performance.

Typically, somewhere in this process, I get called in–either by the CEO or the top sales executive.  The charter usually is, “Dave, help us fix our sales problem, we need to hit our numbers, we need to get growth going again.”  I get involved, there are always ways to improve the results sales produces.  It should be no surprise to anyone–if you believe in continuous improvement, there are always ways to improve the performance of sales teams–even top performing sales teams.

Some organizations have more to do than others.  Perhaps, they have gotten a little defocused, perhaps they have missed some shifts in the market, perhaps the competition has surpassed them, perhaps their past success caused them to become a little complacent. 

Sometimes the challenges are very complex and not trivial to solve.  Most of the companies and executives I work with are the top in their industries, so they are very good!  But sometimes the problems are very difficult and it requires the best thinking, difficult decisions and very sharp execution. 

But all sales performance problems are fixable.  In the general scheme of things, they can be “fixed” reasonably quickly.  Once we understand what the problems are, once we put corrective strategies in place and start executing, we can start to see the early signs that we are on target very quickly.  We can start to see “light at the end of the tunnel.”  For some, it’s a few month path, for others it can be more than a year, but the metrics all indicate the organization is on the path to success.

This, however, is where the dilemma is.  Revenue growth is not just a sales responsibility–and the absence revenue growth is seldom just a sales problem.  While companies that are struggling to grow their revenues may have some problems in sales, there is usually a deeper set of problems.  They may be product problems, customer service problems, competitiveness, or any number of other problems.  Often these take a very long time to identify and fix.

Our businesses are very complex.  Tough, systemic problems are very seldom the result of poor performance of one function.  They are usually the results of issues that spread across the organization.  “Fixing” the problem is never as simple as “fixing” one group or function.  We always need to look deeper and wider to understand the entire set of issues, how they interrelate, and develop corrective actions for sales.

Several years ago, I remember a dinner with a client.  He was the top sales executive.  He had been brought into a difficult challenge—he was chartered with the task of “Fixing Sales.”  We had been working for a few months, understanding the issues, developing our strategies to improve performance.  We were in the early stages of implementing the plan, but were seeing tremendously positive progress.  We should have been celebrating in our dinner, instead we were worried about the future.  I recall him saying, “Dave, the good news is we are fixing sales!  The bad news is we will fix sales!”  You see the real problems went much deeper.  We were eliminating the “sales excuse” but it uncovered deeper and more fundamental problems about the company’s product strategies and it’s competitiveness.  We could clearly see those, but we had a huge selling job to get the rest of the organization to understand those.

The world would be so much simpler for all of us if problems were simple and we could “fix” the problem.  Today’s problems are nasty, their tentacles reach many parts of the business.  “Fixing” them requires looking at each tentacle and the organization as a whole. 

Problems with revenue generation are never just a sales problem!

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4 Comments
  1. Great blog post, Dave!
    I believe, that we have to shift our thinking and acting from sales to selling, from a function to a system, a selling system.

    • Thanks for the comment Tamara, I think one of the biggest problems we have in looking at sales (or business in general) is we tend to treat things and solve problems in isolation, rather than looking at things as parts of systems. As an example, that’s why perfectly good sales training programs fail–we implement them as training, hope for great changes, but fail to integrate them into our coaching, sales tools, etc. (Likewise, the standard off the shelf programs have less impact because they don’t reflect the priorities, strategies, etc.).

      It’s much tougher to look at things as systems and treat them as components of systems, but this has a much more enduring impact on the performance of the organization.

  2. We would disagree with the general tenor of this post. It is a sales problem, and in our experience over the last couple of years, it’s a salesperson problem. They don’t hit the ‘numbers’ because management hasn’t given them a metric on how to achieve the topline revenue.
    Secondarily, some of the people won’t hit the metrics on the way to generating topline revenue, either, because they’re lazy, have reached their income goals, etc. and aren’t motivated to go further.
    Thirdly, there can be problems with what’s being sold…..it’s overpriced, underdelivered, etc. It’s a commodity, and no one has addressed what to do about making the product or service distinct again.

    • John: Thanks for your comment, you may have misunderstood the post. Clearly, there are sales problems (after all they keep people like you and I gainfully employed). There is always room for performance improvement in sales, even in the highest performing organizations. Many sales organizations are under performing and have much room for improvement.

      However, too often we see organizations failing to achieve their revenue goals thinking it is just a sales problem, and most often it is not. Your comment even highlights many of these issues–problems with what’s being sold, pricing, delivery, commoditization, value creation. These are issue that go far beyond sales.

      Your remaining points, while addressing the sales function, also tend to point out deeper issues of leadership, hiring, performance management, etc. Our experience is that when we find these issues in sales, they are seldom just isolated to sales, but may be systemic issues impacting the whole organization and it’s ability to grow. (This is particularly accentuated in small and medium sized organizations).

      Our organizations are increasingly complex and silo based approaches focus on optimizing the function but not the overall performance of the organization. If we want to optimize the performance of the overall organization, each silo has to perform at the highest level possible, but then the interrelationships and links across the organization become even more important to driving growth, revenue generation, and performance improvement.

      The article should, in no way, be interpreted as an excuse for sales performance. Sales leaders need to make sure their organizations are achieving the highest levels of performance. They need to make sure there are clear strategies, priorities, metrics, and processes in place. They need to drive performance to the highest levels possible, holding people accountable for performance, coaching them to improve performance, and eliminating those people who are too lazy, unable, or unwilling to perform. There are no excuses. But when those are fixed, there is more–and often it is not within sales.

      Thanks for helping me clarify the points I was hoping to make in the article. Regards, Dave

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