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Innovation And Improvement — Whose Job In Sales Is It?

by David Brock on October 4th, 2011

Before I jump ahead, let me first tackle the basic notions of innovation and improvement in sales.  Too many may look at this post thinking, “I’m struggling to make my numbers, don’t bother me with this talk about innovation and improvement.”

I can empathize with this feeling.  We are overworked, we have too much on our plates.  Research says fewer than 50% of sales people are making their numbers.  We’re so caught up in “fighting the alligators” that we forget the “swamp needs to be drained.”  But these are the very factors that mandate the need for innovation and improvement.  We can’t go on working harder, faster, longer.  We can’t go on doing the same things faster, cheaper, better.  No technology in the world will enable us to keep up.

Something has to change!  Sales people cannot survive working like this!

It’s worse, our customers are changing faster than sales.  How they are buying is changing faster than many organization’s abilities to respond–perhaps  that’s why so many are not making their numbers.  There are dire predictions that the number of jobs in sales will plummet in the coming decade.

Customers are driven to find the most effective paths to buying.  Some will purchase electronically, using the Internet for research, advice, learning, and purchasing.  Some will leverage electronic auctions more, others will reduce sales to responding to RFP’s they develop.  There will still be need for sales, but that need will be different.  Perhaps many field sales jobs will move to inside sales–and that is probably appropriate. 

Things are changing.  My friend, Dave Stein of ESResearch, says “More has changed in selling in the past three years, than in the entire history of selling.”  I’m in absolute agreement, and in the next three years, the rate of change probably needs to double.

So innovation and improvement are critical, not just for survival of the sales function (frankly that’s not important, customers will always find a way to buy), but for our own individual survival.

I don’t think it’s a matter of either innovate or improve.  Both are mandatory.  Improvements focus on what we do and get us to do them better.  Innovations have us do things differently.  Frankly, I think both work hand in hand.

Whose job is it–it’s everyone’s job.  Each sales person, each customer service person, each customer facing or customer engaged person needs to constantly look at improvements—how can they do their own jobs better?  Each needs to be creative, how can I do my job differently? 

Sales executive management (and corporate management) need to be the catalysts in driving this.  They need to create a culture of improvement and innovation, they need to stimulate everyone, they need to set examples for the rest of the organization.  We need to engage in thousands of little experiments–the majority may fail, but those that succeed can drive massive improvement.  We need to get away from the notion of “innovation as a big bang,”  focusing on “THE” initiative that will change everything.  We need to engage everyone in the organization.  We need to engage our customers in this.

Perhaps we can learn from history.  The Toyota Production System (TPS), is often cited as one of the biggest innovations in the way products are manufactured—driving much of manufacturing thought leadership in the 70’s, 80’s, even into the present.  However when you look at it, I think the real innovation in was the leadership and culture created by Toyota executives.  They created a culture that demanded and empowered everyone in manufacturing to think, improve, and change.  Anyone could stop the line, if something was wrong.  They stimulated employees to get together and think about better ways to do things. 

In reality, the Toyota Production System was not the result of massive change to the way vehicles were manufactured, but the results of hundreds of thousands of improvements, changes, innovations.  These were driven by each person on the factory floor, by people in support and logistic functions.  Collectively, each of these improvements, over many years, revolutionized contemporary manufacturing thinking.

Sales and corporate executives need to create cultures of innovation and improvement in their organizations.  They must make sure that everyone knows that innovation and improvement is part of their jobs.  They must recognize and reward these–both the successes and failures.  They must bake it into the business–what is expected and what is done every day. 

Innovation and improvement isn’t tough–we make it tough or we find excuses not to do it.  There are innovations and improvements all around us, we just need to open our eyes to the opportunity.

As you do your job today, think about:  What is the one thing I could do better?  Also think about:  What is the one thing I can do differently?  Then do it, master it, share it.  Then tomorrow, do the same thing again.


Special Announcements!

Tamara Schenk, one of the most thoughtful people on Sales Enablement, has just started a new blog.  In her opening article, she talks about improvement and innovation in the Sales Enablement Function.  It’s a provocative article, I encourage you to read it and to regularly read her blog.

Tomorrow, October 5, I’m hosting a discussion on Innovation and Improvement in Sales at It’s at Noon EDT.  If you miss this, or are reading this after October 5, click on the link anyway, a recorded version of the discussion and a transcript will be available.  I’m privileged to have  Tamara as be part of that discussion, as will Alex Shootmen, Chief Revenue Officer for Eloqua, and Robert Koehler, Business Analytics Sales Enablement for IBM, join me in the roundtable discussion.

  1. David, great post. One question: you mention that “Research says fewer than 50% of sales people are making their numbers.” Can you share where you sourced that? I want to share that with my boss…


    • Eric, there are several good market research reports that offer similar results. I was refering to a CSO Insights Report. Thanks for asking—hope you aren’t using it to argue for a quota decrease 😉

  2. David –

    Conceptually I agree that sales people need to innovate.

    I struggle with the notion that most sales people will not SHARE their innovations. With most sales people hoarding their ideas, the SHAREability of new ideas will struggle to grow momentum across an organization unless the leaders foster best practice and thought leadership within their ranks.

    • Andy: Great observation–I’ve seen it too, but generally this hoarding mentality is among mediocre to poor performers. I’ve seen more of an “abundance” mentality among high performers. I think high performers don’t see their peers in the organization as competitors, so they have an attitude that is more prone to sharing.

      However, management needs to set the tone/culture that stimulates openness, teamwork, collaboration and sharing. Thanks for the great observation.

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