Engaging Sales Managers in Process Improvement

Question: How can you best engage sales managers in process improvement when they face so many competing priorities, such as considering new market initiatives, overseeing changes in software systems, and, of course, reaching sales goals?

Process excellence leaders struggle with this question because they’ve been trained to start with “defining the problem” by gathering data and creating a SIPOC or a process map.  While this is logically (and usually) the right approach, it can lead sales managers to view process improvement as competing with their other priorities.   If your sales manager has customers awaiting answers and deals to close, process mapping will come in at a distant second place (if that).

It’s not just that sales managers don’t ordinarily think in process-oriented ways.  It goes deeper than that, as shown by the poor outcomes of most efforts to teach process thinking to salespeople.  The real problem is that most sales environments work against process-oriented thinking and behaviors.

Consider these questions:

  • Do your senior executives express interest only in whether sales achieved its goals, or are they also interested in how sales achieves its goals?  (Usually, it’s the former, not the latter.)
  • Are your salespeople’s commissions and bonuses weighted toward individual or team results?  (Individually weighted incentives encourage competition, instead of cooperation within a process.)
  • Is there clear, widespread agreement within your company on which specific sales activities do and don’t work, and which ones add value versus waste? (Such agreement is rare.)

While the sales environment may seem discouraging, in fact it presents a great opportunity.  But to successfully pursue this opportunity, you need to know where and how to start the discussion.

 Where to Start

As a process excellence leader, you know what a value stream is.  You appreciate the discipline of defining your terms around value streams, processes, inputs, and outputs.  But how do you most productively involve people the sales department in this discipline?

Without being able to say so, sales is trying to tell you that they haven’t defined their value stream.  This is not a criticism.  Rather, it is how most sales departments operate before they understand process excellence.  Few sales departments are able to track flow and quality through their production system.  Few have defined their operating variables, collected relevant data around those variables, and analyzed cause and effect.  Few can identify waste in their sales processes, and how to reduce it.

You can’t jump into this environment and expect people who do not yet understand the value of process thinking to enjoy developing SIPOCs and process maps.  You must first build a bridge from their view to your methods.   As one of my sales managers long ago taught me, you have to sell the problem before you can sell the solution.

Defining Undesirable Results

I have found defining Undesirable Results to be a great technique for engaging sales teams. 

An Undesirable Result (UDR) is a measurable effect, outcome, or condition that you do not like.  This term distinguishes the facts and evidence of results from interpretations of their potential causes.  Defining UDRs helps people to avoid mistaking symptoms for causes and posing solutions before they identify the problem.

Defining UDRs clarifies a team’s thinking about a situation.  It also engages sales managers in defining obstacles to reaching sales goals in terms of observable, measurable characteristics.  In a learn-by-doing manner, they discover that their language and definitions have been vague.  They see that making them more concrete leads them to potential improvements they never before considered.

Helping managers to convert their problem statements into precise UDRs takes work, but it positions you to get sales to start collecting data that can confirm or contradict the validity of the UDR and problem statements.  In one client company, people wasted enormous amounts of time looking for current information and communications around customers, their channel partners, and the products and services they needed. Many of the company’s executives thought a CRM database to house all this information was a crucial first step.

However, as we worked with them to define their UDRs some appeared more causal than others. One of these was “We have no means to determine what works and what doesn’t work for salespeople in the field.” As they applied the “Why? Why? Why?” technique, an interesting series of deeper causes emerged:

Why do we have no means to determine what works and what doesn’t work for salespeople in the field?

Because we never needed it in the past. We could always make our numbers by simply signing up a new distribution channel.


Because there were many places where our product was likely to be in demand. Unfortunately, that wasn’t working any more. The market had changed.

The company was no longer growing fast enough. They needed to learn what was blocking the growth. Clearly, until the senior executives recognized their need to think differently about field operations, their original idea for CRM software would have contributed to the company’s problems, rather than solved them. 

 How to Start   

If your executives feel that process improvement competes with reaching sales goals and other priorities, you have probably started in the wrong place.  Your questions should be things like: “What is making it difficult for you to reach your sales goals?  What undesirable results are prompting you to launch new market initiatives or to change your software systems? What evidence do you have for these? Which ones seem to be the root causes?”

The answers can quickly lead you to issues important enough to gain the attention of even the most harried vice president of sales or business unit leader.  Help them solve these problems, and you’ve gone a long way toward demonstrating the value of a process approach.  

Interestingly, this same technique works beautifully at the tactical level of the sales process itself. Is that something you’d be interested in discussing as well?

Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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