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What is the most effective way to get sales leadership to buy into lean process excellence in sales?

by Michael Webb | Comments (0)
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A reader asked:

This is an important question,  and I’ve ansMichaelwered it before  (link1, link2, and link3).

An interesting experience with an editor recently relates directly to this issue. The fellow did not have much background in B2B selling much less lean or process excellence. His first comment on a piece I sent him was, “The text contains a lot of abstract nouns. Try to find ways to use figurative language to ‘concretize’ abstract concepts.”

I never thought of it that way before, but “lean process excellence” certainly is an abstract noun!

Now, such nouns serve a crucial purpose. They contain an enormous amount of knowledge. Unfortunately, that knowledge is only accessible to the individual people who have thought their way along the path required to develop it.  To everybody else, the words are gibberish.

There is so much profound knowledge in process excellence, it is hard to remember other people may not have thought along the same path. So when we try to tell them how process will make things get better, they can hear the equivalent of gibberish.

The danger is process excellence ends up being just as another version of the “usual fixes” which I have written about before. I have been in the room many times when marketers and sellers in a company delighted over the new process approach they themselves designed. They were sincere too. Then we all watched as things stayed basically the same for months and years afterward.

That happens because even when everyone works them out together, they are just a theory. Can you blame salespeople (or Sales VPs, or anybody else) for resisting abstract nouns?

The solution? Just what that editor suggested. You have to make it concrete. You have to return down the trail of abstraction until you are back where the sales leader is (or whoever you are trying to influence).

You have to find common ground, use shared knowledge to define a problem that needs to be solved. Then, one way or another, each individual must actually (not theoretically) take an action to solve their problem.  Learning only happens by doing.

  • One of a senior executive’s sales teams needed to improve. They didn’t know what a process was. Instead of telling them to define a process, he challenged them to define their customer’s problem, and why customers should want to solve it. This drove the conversation in a direction that revealed new possibilities they had not considered.
  • A sales VP was frustrated. “My sales team is spending too much time on the wrong accounts.” When we asked “How much time is too much?” and “What is a ‘wrong’ account?” he began to realize he hadn’t been saying what he meant. “What I think I meant was, my salespeople are not using the same standards to prioritize their accounts.” With that in mind, his team developed standards and became more productive.

There is an enormous amount of knowledge contained in “sales process excellence.” If you are going to earn people’s respect for helping them up the trail, you need not only to possess knowledge they need, you must also avoid using words they don’t understand. And this is no small task.  

And know this: If you haven’t been on the trail with them before, they likely possess some knowledge you need as well!

I bet you have seen this yourself. If so, let me know.

 Michael

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