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Sales Role Specialization

by David Brock on December 21st, 2020

A couple of people I deeply respect have written outstanding pieces arguing that we have take sales role specialization too far. Amy Volas wrote, “Is Sales Over-segmented,” Bob Apollo wrote, “Has role specialisation in B2B selling gone too far?” (There Bob goes with his “English” spelling.) Both articles are outstanding.

I thought I’d pile on, perhaps reinforcing their points.

Much of their discussion has to do with the current mechanization of selling that’s become popular in the SDR/AE approach to selling. This assembly line process starts with a widget (let’s call them customers), being passed from person to person down the line until they come out closed or on the reject (loss) pile. The while point of this process has little to do with the customer, and more to do with maximizing the volume and velocity of moving customers through the assembly line. The thinking is, “We will get our fair share of deals through this process.” They look to make the process perfectly predictable, with all sorts of metrics. If we aren’t making the number we just crank up the volume, feeding more leads into the top of the pipeline.

The key design parameter around this approach is seller efficiency, not buyer experience. Ironically, customer buying journeys are designed around effectiveness–solving their problem, not necessarily efficiency.

As a side note, manufacturing experts would be appalled looking at the design of our sales assembly lines. Manufacturing experts set up their manufacturing lines to minimize waste and error (in sales speak–that’s maximizing our ability to connect effectively with the customer and win). Only after that, do they look at maximizing the assembly line speed. (I wrote an ebook on the manufacturer’s view of this, just ask for it, it’s free.)

As Bob, Amy, and the commenters on their post say, we are now starting to see huge problems with this process (where is a manufacturing engineer when you need one.)

Some of the counter arguments go back to the “craftsman” mode of selling. In the old days, even before I was born, craftsmen started building products would build the whole product. Often, they found a way to discreetly put their signature on the product. There is a lot to be said about a sales person prospecting, finding an opportunity, qualifying it, and staying with the customer buying process through their purchase, even making sure they are successful in their implementation.

But is that the answer? We have a long history of sales people working in this way, but how realistic is that today.

Today, in B2B buying/selling, so much of the challenge facing customers and sales people is complexity. Buying is no longer a “solo” experience–I don’t know that it ever has been, but for years we have seen the size of the buying group increase to over the 11.8 cited by Gartner.

Likewise, selling is more complex. Both in helping diverse buyers align around a buying process and a decision, in the complexity of our products, and in the process we go through to present a solution to the customer.

Today, in complex deals we see a variety of specialists–product/solution specialists, deal desks, implementation teams, and so forth. We’ve recognized the sales person can’t possibly have the depth of expertise to manage everything in the process.

Today, the sales person may play the role of “orchestrator.” The sales person helps the customer in orchestrating their complex buying process. They align the right resources at the right time to work with the right customer.

The sales person, as orchestrator, is focused on the effectiveness of the customer buying process (remember, the data also says 53% of buying processes end in no decision made). Their goal is to guide the customer to a decision–ideally for their solution. They want to make sure everyone on the selling team is aligned around the same goal, working effectively and efficiently in helping the customer achieve their goal.

In reality, there are many possible designs for effectively engaging the customer. There is no single answer, but we develop answers by looking at our Ideal Customer Profiles and designing our engagement processes to facilitate their buying process.

The SDR/AE model can work in many buying enviroments, but we need to learn from our peers in manufacturing. They design their assembly lines from the customer back. Maximizing the value created for the customer at every step of the process. Then they focus on maximizing the efficiency of their execution of that process.

The craftsman model can work very effectively and efficiently as well.

But as our customers problem solving and buying journey’s become more complex, we have to imagine new ways of engaging them. Sales people become orchestrators, teams supporting them become very agile and fluid–assembling for a short time, then disassembling and moving to the next projects.

And, we have to recognize, the customer buying processes change over time, meaning we have to be agile in our adaptation.

Afterword: I think there’s a lot of arrogance and blindness on the part of sellers. There is so much we can learn from other functions and disciplines. Manufacturing, engineering and product development have been solving these problems for decades. In the early 1900’s they started looking at how they might move from a craftsman mode to assembly lines. In the 50’s, primarily driven by the Toyota Production System, they recognized failures in effectiveness and efficiency, redesigning their processes with a focus on the customer.

In the decades since, they have looked at agile, lean, and other tools to improve their ability to deal with variation, change, adaptation.

Sales—-buying is and will be different. It’s about people solving problems, working together, and achieving results. It’s about how we work together most effectively in achieving our shared goals. It’s about how we identify with what we are doing, what our organization is doing and what our customer is trying to achieve. It’s about caring and having an impact to help our customers produce results. It’s about sensemaking–with the customers, and for ourselves.

After afterword: Again, this is not a new discussion. Several years ago, I looked at how we apply manufacturing engineering approaches to selling, and the limitations of those approaches. Just shoot me an email, glad to share it with you.

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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