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SPIF Tip #37: The Obstacle Even Great Salespeople Can't Overcome

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A fellow named Yves asked this great question:

In all your SPIF tips I have read, you haven’t written about selecting the right people in sales. Perhaps this is the sales manager’s responsibility. Yet, plenty of sales managers should not have been promoted to their positions. How can sales work if the wrong people are sales managers, or if technical experts are trying to develop new customers, or farmers are trying to hunt, etc.? In other words, how can sales work if HR doesn’t do its job?

Most businesses get this problem backwards. It is true that hiring the right people is important. However, if management doesn’t understand with data how their system (or process) works, they are running a crap shoot, not a business. Hiring the best people into that environment will eventually make them miserable.

To illustrate, I’ll describe a hypothetical situation where managers try to “hire a solution.” Then we’ll see how closely this hypothetical situation matches your average sales department:

You are asked to take over a department that is struggling to meet its production quota. The department has 10 people speaking five different languages. You start by asking them to increase their output, i.e., to work harder. Soon, conflicts arise. These conflicts reduce productivity. You decide to ask the HR department to replace your team with individuals who are more skilled at avoiding conflict.

How effective will changing out these people be?

I would argue it is likely to make matters worse, not better. Why? Because you’ve leapt to a conclusion - that the people are the problem. In fact, you haven’t identified the problem at all.

Consider the things you don’t know: How do people speaking five different languages work together in the first place? What factors determine their ability to produce? When you ask them to work harder, what exactly do they do differently? What is the source of the conflicts? Are the machines and materials they work with adequate for the needed output? How do you know?

This is the sort of situation Deming meant when he said:

  • A company could put a top man at every position and be swallowed by a competitor with people only half as good, but who are working together.

When a business system is not working, weak managers blame their people. To make that point, let’s consider whether that hypothetical situation I described above could be a sales department.

First, it is a department that is struggling to meet its production quota. Of course, that is very common in sales.

Next, “The department has 10 people speaking five different languages.”

While salespeople don’t usually speak different languages, it is common for sales and marketing people to not understand each other. It is also normal for salespeople to have a variety of backgrounds, with different knowledge and skill levels. Further, they are usually not in the habit of carefully defining the words they use.[1] To make matters worse, there are many different types and qualities of customers, and disagreement among salespeople for how they should be handled. If this isn’t a “tower of babble” yet just wait.

Why isn’t the sales forecast more reliable? Because most salespeople can’t predict. That’s why they feel the need to “pursue” every sales opportunity. Unwittingly, they prioritize prospects based on subjective decisions and biases (because they have no other way).

With no data available, how do you learn what factors limit the sales department’s output? Ask them to work harder, and they’ll comply. Marketers will do more “marketing” (perhaps producing more “leads”). Salespeople will do more “selling” (perhaps produce more “proposals”). However, unless waste is reduced, these may well produce less productivity rather than more. If technical support doesn’t provide quotes fast enough (or with low enough prices), or if salespeople are too busy to follow up on leads, the blame game will start. As pressure increases, you might see sales managers trying to close deals instead of coaching, and salespeople trying to discount instead of “selling value.”

You might then decide to ask the HR department to replace your team with sales managers who are better a coaching, and salespeople who can sell value.

Remember what we asked in the first hypothetical management situation? “How effective will changing out these people be?”

I would argue, again, that “It is likely to make matters worse, not better. Why? Because you’ve leapt to a conclusion - that the people are the problem. In fact, you haven’t identified the problem at all.

Defining problems means being able to use evidence and data to distinguish value from waste. Doing this enables marketing, sales and service departments to understand and improve how they work together. The team needs to engage in defining the causes and effects inherent in their system. They need to know which opportunities to walk away from, and which ones to prioritize. They need to know what work they should STOP doing, to make room for more productive work. If that doesn’t happen, any changes you make are not based on evidence. Without data, "attempts to improve" are a crap shoot.

That is more or less the state of most B2B sales organizations today, unfortunately. That’s why despite hiring the best people they can possibly find; sales turnover and productivity remain stubbornly high.

Please don’t get me wrong, high quality people are important to any organization. However, imagine the predicament of a high-quality person who joins an organization that prizes results and is unable to know whether you’ve done a good job. To quote Deming again:

  • The supposition is prevalent the world over that there would be no problems in production or service if only our production workers would do their jobs in the way they were taught. Pleasant dreams. The workers are handicapped by the system, and the system belongs to management.

I wish I knew who said, “A good process adds about 20 IQ points to everyone involved,” because they are entirely right. Processes – especially sales processes – are crucial to successful companies.  It is a mistake to depend on finding Supermen or Wonderwomen as salespeople. Better to create a great organization out of average people.

What could a few exceptional people do if the organization weren’t in the way? I’d love to learn what you’ve seen in the comments section below.


[1] As I’ve mentioned many times, just ask several salespeople, as well as individuals from marketing, customer service, or technical support to “Define who is the customer,” or, “What is a qualified prospect?” You are almost certain to get different, even contradictory responses.

3 Responses to “SPIF Tip #37: The Obstacle Even Great Salespeople Can't Overcome”

  1. Niaj says:

    Thanks for this valuable sharing.

  2. Jorge says:

    This is really good information. You run through a good number of options. I've got to really think about this.

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