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Sales People Are Not Automatons!

by David Brock on December 7th, 2014

Recently, I was doing pipeline, deal, and territory reviews with several sales teams.  In the reviews, they were clearly struggling–they had new sales processes, new tools to help them in executing their deal strategies, developing their accounts, and managing their pipelines.

All had been put in place to help improve their effectiveness and performance.

But they were struggling, performance wasn’t improving, they were spending a lot more time on the tools/processes than they were in actually engaging and executing with customers.

As we progressed in the reviews, it became clear they were getting caught up in the “form” of the processes and tools, not understanding the intent and “spirit” of why these were being put in place in the first place.  Management, through their own misunderstanding, was coaching rigid compliance–check every box, dot every “i,” cross every “t.”

They were struggling, they didn’t understand, they were trying but much of what they were trying to do didn’t make sense to them, or didn’t apply in every situation they were encountering.

As I was conducting one review, the sales person was trying very hard to follow the sales process steps—precisely, but he was stuck, he didn’t know what to do or how to make progress.  When I asked, “Why are you doing these things (part of the sales process), they don’t seem to make sense in this particular deal?”  He looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “But we have to execute every step of the process!”

In discussing the situation, we discovered some things very unique about this deal.  Some parts of the sales process didn’t apply.  The sales person could look at them and explain why he had to deviate from the process and what he needed to do to move the deal forward.  It made perfect sense, it was a great strategy, but he didn’t think he was “allowed’ to do this.  He thought he had to execute every step of the sales process, even if some of it didn’t make sense.

Likewise, he (and others) were struggling with the tools.  Again, they thought they had to fill in every detail, check every box—even if some were irrelevant to the deal/account/territory.

I see this too often.  In our attempts to improve performance, to drive the highest levels of execution, rigid processes, absolute compliance is demanded.  We script the conversations our people must have, we outline each step they must take.  Sales people struggle, but run into road blocks because we can’t design something that applies to each and every buying scenario.

In doing this, we are taking away our key advantage, the ability of the sales person to engage, listen, respond and adapt to the situation.  The ultimate differentiator is the ability of the sales person to think, analyze, challenge, probe, question, suggest, and guide the customer through their buying process.

Every customer is different, every individual involved in a buying decision is different.  Our ability to engage each person in ways appropriate to them is critical.

Recruiting sales people who have the ability and desire to do this, developing critical thinking, analytic and problem solving skills enables them to perform and differentiate themselves.  Providing processes, tools, playbooks are helpful, but letting them fill in the blanks and adapt the processes and tools to the  situation enables them to provide the leadership necessary to create value for the customer, support their buying process and win.

We and our customers are best served when our people think and adapt rather than respond as robots.

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  1. Rick Griggs permalink

    Your point is well-taken, but in my experience sometimes process compliance needs to be unreasonably enforced (i.e., they’re required to fill in every box) because it wasn’t achieved voluntarily. However, your solution of simply telling a salesperson to use their judgment as to whether a step in the process can be skipped is a prelude to process failure. Human nature (e.g., justifying everything they don’t like/want to do; it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission) will drive their behavior.

    I agree there needs to be an efficient process so both the company and salesperson get what they need. Making it as easy as possible to follow the process (e.g., mobile apps, sales admin staff, etc.), then capturing/evaluating/adjusting for the value each step in the process provides are the two key aspects of a successful sales process.

    For example, if it’s learned that parts of a sales process don’t apply to a majority of prospects, those parts should either be eliminated or business rules/decision trees established so everyone knows when those parts apply. However, unless that information/intelligence is captured, it can’t be evaluated and acted upon.

    • Rick: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It’s a fine line between compliance for compliance sake and being thoughtful about the process. Too often, managers aren’t engaged enough to help people understand the difference–as a result they focus on compliance for compliance sake. IF they are engaged in helping their people think about the process, what they are doing, why they are doing it, then compliance comes naturally, because people see the value of it. Stated differently, following the sales process thoughtfully/rigorously helps them win more, faster, at better margins.

      As to your last paragraph, I couldn’t agree more, if the process isn’t working, after trying to execute it consistently, then it’s a bad process.

      Great observations, thanks for taking the time to share them.

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