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Shifting from Sales Manager to Production Manager

by Michael Webb | Comments (0)
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The Sales Manager's Role

Sales managers are miraculous people. Give them a pile of half-baked customer deals, and in a flash they can work through them to find the ones that can be closed and to make irresistible-sounding offers with deadlines attached. They know the territories, and are taught to think ahead to next month's or next quarter’s quota. They know which of their people are too assertive, which ones too passive, and what to do to get them through it. Because their environment is filled with uncertainties, they are masters at reacting as best they can to any situation.

However, they may not be as good at planning to avoid dealing with the same kinds of problems over and over again.

The Production Manager's Role

Contrast this with the role of a production manager. Give them a load of work orders, and in a flash they can work through them to find the ones that can be completed with the current inventory stock. They're on the phone to suppliers getting fast delivery of exactly the items needed to complete the rest of the production schedule. They know which of their people can handle the load and which ones need support. They know what sequence to run the production orders to minimize conflicts of power load or floor space. They are good at reacting to situations too, such as when a machine breaks down or someone doesn’t show up for work. However, they usually know in advance when they cannot make the production schedule, and what should be changed about the production process to avoid having to solve the same problems over and over again.

Why Can't Sales Managers Predict Results?

Let’s examine the differences here. Obviously, things would be better if sales managers could predict their world, and know what changes would enable them to reach their targets more consistently. Yet, most people would agree that a production manager is far more able to predict the outcomes and to know for certain what actions will be necessary to achieve the desired results.

Why is this, the case? Is it really that production machines are more reliable than human beings?

Acting as a devil’s advocate, I would argue that humans run those production machines. And further, I would argue that production machines are maddeningly complex and prone to failure, while sales managers may only be trying to fill basic human needs. (You want those coils on Wednesday or Thursday? If I can get the price down by twenty-five cents, can you take delivery this month?)

The Production Mindset and the Difference it Makes

Both sales managers and production managers operate in extremely complex environments. Both have to deal with vagaries of people who work for them, people who don’t work for them (customers or suppliers), and machines of all kinds.

In the production manager’s world, things are defined rather clearly. They have bills of material, routings, shop schedules, engineering specifications, and quality tests. In most well-run plants, every aspect of the production process has been analyzed, tested, and refined by people whose job it is to make things work. As a result, when one part of the system fails, people have an idea of what the
ramifications will be, and can take corrective actions.

In the sales manager’s world, this is unfortunately often not the case. Records of revenue results seem to gyrate independent of the work going on to produce them. No one really knows how much lead generation will enable salespeople to make their numbers. When a big deal falls through, it can be a surprise. Sometimes people working on those big deals wonder what they should be doing to make
their customer move forward. People working on little deals may believe they are in a numbers game, in which there is not much they can do to increase their chances except to put out more proposals and more proposals again, hoping some of them will come through.

This does not happen because the sales world is some kind of magical place that cannot be understood by normal humans. It happens because:

  • The sales process is left up to the sales department (or the distributors), who do the best they can with what they have, and are not analytically inclined in any case.
  • Marketers and salespeople a like conduct “lead generation," with the difference being that a salesperson "knows a lead when they see one" (or not!).
  • Salespeople’s opinions of what constitutes a “qualified lead” can vary dramatically from one salesperson to another.
  • No one has studied the value propositions that motivate customers, so they seem dramatically different from one customer to the next.
  • No one has systematically pieced together the mosaic of what is really happening in the market as a whole because everyone is developing convictions about the market based on their own “soda-straw” viewpoint.

These are the result of a failure to take a more systematic approach to understanding and fixing the sales process. Until recently, they have been taken for granted.

Nowadays, people are starting to realize that the problems of the sales environment are, in large part, caused by the way we think about sales and marketing. There are effective techniques for defining the sales process, for measuring the quantity and quality of sales production, and for getting salespeople and marketers to work from the same playbook.

The Results of the Production Mindset

The best news is that these techniques get results. For example, I had a rewarding call last week from the president of a $90 million manufacturer of medical equipment. I had helped his sales organization to develop measurable qualification criteria (attributes) for their sales opportunities.

It turns out that measuring the qualification scores of sales opportunities across a sales force reveals enormously valuable information about the sales funnel. Among other things, it usually reveals a “tipping point,” a score below which there was almost no chance of closing the deals.

Of course, there is resistance in any organization when new work like this is initiated. Some people support it because it is the right thing to do, while others resist it for reasons of their own.

The president had called to tell me of a defining moment he had witnessed: the sales process analyst presented a report of all the opportunities the team had worked on since the beginning of the year, along with the qualification scores they had bellyached about.

The team had closed every opportunity with a score above 60.

This is major progress, because the qualification scoring approach earned the credibility necessary to become a sustained part of this company’s culture. It increases the predictability of the forecast. It is a milestone in this company’s battle to help sales managers transition into being more like production managers.

Michael J. Webb

July 18, 2007

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