Dismantling the sales machine

Brent Adamson
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Leaders must abandon their fixation on process compliance and embrace a flexible approach to selling driven by sales reps’ reliance on insight and judgment.

Selling today requires flexibility, judgment and a focus on results — not process.

Sales leaders have long fixated on process discipline. They have created opportunity scorecards, qualification criteria and activity metrics — all part of a formal sales process designed to help their team members replicate the approaches of star performers. This is the world of the sales machine, built to outsell less focused, less disciplined competitors through brute efficiency and world-class tools and training.

For years, tuning this machine has been the primary means of boosting sales productivity. But recently sales has been caught off guard by a dramatic shift in customers’ buying behaviour. The sales machine is stalling.

The good news is that the way forward is clear. In our research at CEB, we have found that the very approaches that made the sales machine so effective now make selling harder. We have also identified the keys to winning in this new environment: Leaders must abandon their fixation on process compliance and embrace a flexible approach to selling driven by sales reps’ reliance on insight and judgment.

The rise of insight selling

Until recently, customers seeking business solutions had to ask suppliers for guidance early in the purchasing process because crucial information wasn’t available anywhere else. But today customers are better-informed than ever before.

In this world, process-driven sales machine approaches fall short because they give sales reps no room to exercise judgment and creativity in dealing with highly knowledgeable customers. The new environment favours creative and adaptable sellers who challenge customers with disruptive insights into their business — and offer unexpected solutions.

Such “insight selling” is flexible, in recognition of the many possible routes to a sale. Delivering the right insight in the right way requires determining what the customer has already concluded about its needs and available solutions, who the decision-makers are and what it will take to change their minds.

How can sales leaders best support insight selling? To find out, CEB spent the past year surveying 2,500 sales professionals from more than 30 business-to-business companies representing every major industry, geography and go-to-market model in our client membership.

The study showed that most large B2B organisations are still designed to achieve peak efficiency by ensuring that reps abide by an established “optimal” behaviour. These organisations, all vivid examples of the sales machine, are marked by a strong process orientation, clear lines of authority and close governance through formal rules.

When we look at the organisational climate most consistently associated with insight-selling behaviours, however, we find a mirror image of the sales machine, with two principal features: an organisational emphasis on the judgment of individual reps rather than their compliance with protocols, and a managerial focus on providing guidance and support rather than inspection and direction. Transforming a sales organisation along those two dimensions is crucial for giving reps the support and latitude they need to win in the new environment.

Changing the organisational climate

In a judgment-oriented sales organisation, managers serve as coaches rather than as enforcers; the workforce self-manages to a large extent; the focus is on collaboration rather than competition; and the group is judged on long-term outcomes rather than short-term compliance with protocols.

To create this kind of environment, sales leaders must rethink how they manage and what they measure. Instead of demanding that a rep progress methodically through a checklist of sales activities, managers must focus on the customer’s behaviours. This shift in focus gives reps greater latitude to use their judgment about the most-effective ways to drive a sale. Our research points to a series of changes required to support a new organisational climate. First, our data reveal a strong emphasis in judgment-oriented sales organisations on creating demand early in the sales funnel rather than responding to it much later. Second, managers in these organisations are giving reps greater latitude in the qualification, prioritisation and pursuit of individual opportunities. Third, we observe a strong emphasis on encouraging innovation and a sense of business ownership among sales reps, with reps measured less on consistent execution of a one-size-fits-all approach and more on the overall profitable growth of their book of business.

These findings make many sales leaders nervous. It’s important to note that providing the support those reps need doesn’t mean returning to the sales machine approach. The key is to give them considerable discretion regarding their activities while guiding them through specific milestones on the way to a sale.

Changing what managers do

Despite the pressure to create a judgment-oriented sales climate, sales managers in most companies still seek compliance rather than judgment and creativity. Nonetheless, a subset of managers stand out for their ability to modify their local climates in order to encourage and support a new approach to selling. We found that three behaviours separate them from the rest.

Facilitation : Rather than telling their teams what to do, our exemplary sales managers serve as connectors within and beyond their teams, encouraging collaborative strategy development and problem solving.


communication : These managers regularly communicate up, down and laterally. As a result, they are intimately acquainted with their reps’ territories, beyond what they read on a spreadsheet.

Long-term focus : Rather than reward reps for short-term deal volume and velocity, these managers encourage them to cultivate business pipelines designed to generate substantial growth over the long term.

A new type of talent

A judgment-oriented sales climate will divide the sales force, awakening the latent potential in many salespeople and leaving those who find reassurance in the directive world of the sales machine to struggle. As sales leaders recruit reps, they’ll need to rethink their approach to ensure that the new hires will thrive in this climate.

To attract and retain non-traditional hires, leaders must overhaul their employment value proposition in two ways: First, they must emphasise the importance of collaboration and judgment. Second, they must shift the emphasis from extrinsic, short-term rewards to intrinsic, long-term motivators.

Our research shows that building a climate with the right incentives and rewards can boost the effort that salespeople make above and beyond their basic job requirements by 10 per cent and increase their intent to stay by more than 30 per cent.

As the basis of economic growth shifts from transactional to knowledge work, management follows suit, turning its focus from building zero-error-rate manufacturing processes to recruiting and engaging high performers to drive innovation.

In sales, this shift is playing out before our eyes. As knowledge-work leaders know, the key to success, in the simplest terms, is to hire the best employees, create an empowering environment, provide the necessary tools and guidance and then get out of the way.

Brent Adamson is a managing director, Matthew Dixon is an executive director, and

Nicholas Toman is a

research director at CEB.

From Harvard Business Review.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.




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