Five Assumptions that Prevent B2B Sales and Marketing Improvement – And How Process Excellence Avoids Them

by Michael Webb

Improving sales and marketing productivity can be maddeningly difficult. There are so many different points of view – so many competing theories and motives. And, how do you even measure it?   

Most executives struggle to improve sales and marketing, because of some pesky things called assumptions. Unfortunately, if you start with the wrong assumptions you can be defeated before you begin. 

Consider how a scientist thinks: find the data (avoid assumptions), use the data to develop your theory of root causes, and experiment with countermeasures. 

This article will help you avoid the five most common false assumptions businesspeople make in their sales and marketing.


False Assumption 1:  The Problem is in the Sales Department

This assumption is insidious because it blames the very people whose support is required to improve. Here’s what this mistake sounds like: 

  • President of a billion dollar publicly held company:
    “Our dealer channel cost us $10 million last year. Yet revenue growth is slower than our other channels. Something tells me we’re not getting our money’s worth.”
  • President of a $350 million privately held company:
    “The sales guys aren’t bringing in enough new accounts. They’re too comfortable calling on their current customers. They need to get out of their comfort zone.”
  • President of $120 million U.S. sales and service arm of a European parent:
    “The problem with our sales force is they need time and territory management training.” 
  • President of a local country club:
    “This eleven dollar an hour wage is causing our wait staff to get complacent. We need to switch to a traditional $2.14 hourly wage plus tips. They’re supposed to sell for a living, after all.”  

In each case the executive, trusting his gut instinct, was convinced of his statement. No systematic examination of the evidence was undertaken. Within eighteen months, either the executive – or the company he worked for – was no longer there.

I’m not saying sales or marketing people’s behaviors are never the problem. Far from it.

I’m saying that the cause system around salespeople is more complex than most people realize. Like everybody else, salespeople are creatures of their environment – they behave the way they do for a reason. If you have not developed an in-depth understanding of what you are dealing with, your likelihood of success is slimmer than you might realize.

Ever heard of MoneyBall?Baseball-stats-pic

Most professional baseball club managers thought they knew how to play the game around the year 2000, when Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane changed the game. Critical thinking and examining data was not their strong suit. They paid big money for players who looked good using traditional statistical measures – for example, a high batting average like .310. Beane dug into the data and realized batting averages didn’t tell the whole story. It might be better to have a guy with a .280 batting average, if that player’s on base percentage was a whopping .400. And, he could get such a player for peanuts! His data-driven methods enabled him to understand what really caused teams to win. If you don’t know how it turned out, you should! Moneyball is the unlikely story about the triumph of rationality over tradition, a string of unlikely championships, and has been called one of the best books ever written about business.

The same kinds of challenges – and opportunities – exist everywhere in sales and marketing today.


False Assumption 2: Installing a Process – By Itself – Will Improve Things

When any process anywhere makes the work easier than before, people have no trouble following it. However, processes often require people to work harder than they did before. This is the dreaded “process for process” sake, and salespeople are especially allergic.

Processes work if they create value for the right people. If a process actually creates real value (e.g., they can actually make more money), people can and will work harder. However, working harder also requires more management attention to sustain. If it doesn’t create value for the right people, and management pays no attention, the process won’t have a chance.

If sales are to improve, who must the process serve? Not your company’s management! A process that primarily provides information to management is generally a colossal mistake (especially with CRM systems). This is the key reason for resistance and low adoption rates. Turning salespeople into record keeping clerks never works.

The first secret to more profitable sales revenue is to be more valuable to your customers. This is simply good salesmanship. It is as old as the hills. Here are just a few examples: 

  • Headlines, articles, and blog posts placed where your prospects are looking, and that authentically help them do things they want and need to do
  • Never push customers do what they are not ready to do. Instead, help their decision makers prioritize their issues, crystalize value propositions, and build internal consensus.
  • Earn their trust, make it easy to do business (with you), reverse their risks with warranties and guarantees, bundled services, etc. 

If your process is about these sorts of things, you are on the right track. After all, if your customer’s won’t follow your sales process, why should your salespeople? 

Now, depending on your industry, being an effective salesperson is often a demanding job. How can you make your numbers if it requires finding and hiring only super humans? It is unfortunate, but salespeople are typically expected to succeed by learning to live within the environment the company gives them, not to change that environment. No wonder when the going gets tough, the tough get going … to find another job!

So, the second secret to more profitable sales revenue is to use the sales process to create value for salespeople themselves. Salespeople will stand at attention for the process when they realize management is using it to identify (and solve) the common high-impact problems they struggle with. There are usually lots of these problems. Here are but a few examples from our files: 

  • reducing the time required to generate customized proposals from several weeks to 24 hours
  • eliminating prospecting labor by developing a means to generate authentically qualified prospects
  • providing methods to prioritize salespeople’s time on the right accounts (the ones most likely to buy)
  • eliminating customer service labor by installing inside salespeople dedicated to strategic account 

Some of these examples fall into the category of “Poka-yoke” or making the best way to do the work also the path of least resistance. They make it easier for salespeople to follow the process, so super humans are not required. 

In short, most companies do process backwards. The purpose of the process is not to control the salespeople or the customers. The purposes of the salespeople and especially the customers are the only things that can control the process. 


False Assumption 3:  Others in the Company Understand and Agree on What the Problems Are

You must be doing something right in your sales process – and your business – or you would not be in business today. However, it is not easy for your employees to identify and agree on what creates value and what causes waste in their sales and marketing. Like the old story of the blind men and the elephant, each department in your company has a unique perspective that prevents them from seeing the whole picture. As systems thinking guru Russell Ackoff once said “It is very difficult for those inside a box to think outside of it.” That is why improving their productivity is so difficult.

The most critical problem for the leader of the business is to avoid debilitating assumptions made when there is no data. Businesses need a means for every functional department to gather needed data, identify root causes, and develop methods that will improve and sustain results.

This is why process excellence and lean are such a big deal. They are the means of deploying a rational mindset.

Typically, manufacturing departments commit many people to understanding causes of waste and variation. Rather than relying on unsupported opinions of interested departments, their rational methods have enabled them to achieve incredible advances around the world in safety, quality, cost, and schedule. 

It is just as possible in sales and marketing. Hopefully it is obvious the rewards are even greater.


False Assumption 4: Training (of Any Kind) Will Make a Difference, Especially at First

  • Yes, there is waste in sales and marketing.
  • Yes, rational methods can be applied there.
  • Yes, the performance of salespeople and marketing departments needs to improve and can improve.
  • And, yes there vendors of skills and knowledge in the market knocking at your door.

And none of these facts justifies the impulse to start with training.

Especially in the beginning of an improvement effort, training cannot improve the performance of a business, no matter what kind of training it is: Selling skills training. Lean training. Six sigma training. You name it.

Why, you ask?

Because, unfortunately, when you first try to improve you likely do not know what is impeding performance, much less how to sustain any improvements you might identify.  Until you know these things, like the old wisecrack about teaching pigs to sing, you do not yet have the kind of problem training can address.

Ergo, training is a complete waste.


False Assumption 5:  You Know the Solution (Without an Explicit Means of Learning the Problem)

The landscape is filled with companies whose executives confidently implemented solutions like branding, lead generation, or new product developments. The results? Six months later it is still difficult to tell what value the marketing budget produced, which customers their salespeople should call on, or why customers should buy their new products.

Of course, somebody has to make decisions about these kinds of things. The sad truth is most B2B executives have no idea how to understand the cause system in their business. In fact, the most common problem we see when we are hired to evaluate companies is their list of improvement projects is nothing but descriptions of solutions – with almost no understanding, measurements, or even clarity around the problem they are trying to solve. In this situation, there is no wonder why years go by without progress or results.

Executives often need help challenging their assumptions about the way their sales and marketing works. They have to study the data like Billy Beane did.  Otherwise are likely to fall prey to purveyors of what I’ve often called “The Usual Fixes,” (sales training, compensation programs, CRM software, personnel changes, territory realignment, etc.). 

Placing your bets and taking your chances without analyzing the data is gambling. This mentality is why the job of the Sales VP (and sometimes, the company president) becomes a revolving door in some companies.


How to Avoid Assumptions in Sales and Marketing

When is the last time someone in your organization systematically gathered the data necessary to understand the cause system in your sales and marketing? How might you conduct such an analysis?  Heck – what operating definitions exist in your business that would allow the collection of any data whatsoever, aside from a few sales orders and invoice records? And, who within your business actually has a clue how to go about doing such a thing?

For a lot of companies, collaborating with a lean business growth expert (one who is fluent in sales and marketing as well as lean process excellence) can provide invaluable assistance to help your people developing operating definitions, and understanding how to apply the methods of process improvement to their sales challenges.

However, you can make progress on your own. To do this, start with a blank sheet of paper, and a problem solving approach. Ask a group of your top-level managers to come together to identify these issues. (In some companies, this might be happening for the first time).

  •  What problems are we having? What data tells us this?

Data comes from two places – the perspectives of the people in your various departments, including your dealers and distributors. (What do they think the issues are? Where do they have energy for change?) A useful technique here is to define “undesirable results” (UDRs). An undesirable result is a measurable effect, outcome, or condition which you do not like. For example a statement like, “The problem with our sales force is they need time and territory management training” may be a heartfelt belief. But it confuses problems with a pet solution and offers no evidence.

Converting such statements into UDRs requires a bit of critical thinking.  Is this observable? Is it measureable? Do we have (or can we get) data to support this? Scrutinize each problem statement and throw them out if they cannot be converted into UDRs. This can produce quick breakthroughs and surprising new ways of looking at old problems. 

  • What causes these undesirable results? How do we know this? 

Once again, critical thinking is the key. Here are two hints that can help:   

The clear, crisp articulations you can achieve via the UDR exercise lend themselves to the five whys, fishbone diagrams, and other sorts of cause and effect thinking. Usually, the why-why-why trail tends to lead toward phrases like, “we don’t have a means of determining what is working and not working in the field,” or “we don’t have a data-driven means of determining what the customer wants.” When these start appearing repetitively, you know you are nearing a root cause. 

Lots and lots of good news comes from this exercise: First, these root causes tend to be something other than what people think they will be at the beginning – which means new and better solutions to old problems are emerging. Second, the root causes often are more a matter of how people in the company think and less a matter of spending money on this or that project.  

  •  What countermeasures might create the improvement we desire? 

Once you better understand the cause system, and can validate it with data, choosing countermeasures that actually work is much easier. You are able to spend more effort figuring out how to deploy the improvement in a way it can be sustained, which is key to improving productivity.  

If you are familiar with Lean, you may recognize the above three bullet points as Check, Act, Plan – part of the PDCA cycle. If you are familiar with Six Sigma, you may recognize them as Define/Measure, Analyze, Improve – part of the DMAIC cycle. The most important thing is the objective, rational, reality-oriented mind set.

The best news of all is this: Few of your competitors will have any idea what you are doing, and won’t be able to replicate it easily.  Take a moment and consider the immense value of this competitive advantage! 


Conclusion: It Might be Time to Change The Way You Think

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,
but the ones most responsive to change.” 

Charles Darwin

The shortest path to improving B2B sales and marketing is the scientist’s approach:

  • Avoid assumptions in order to gather data (instead of ignoring it)
  • Identifying better theories around your root causes (instead of relying on gut feel)
  • And, experiment with countermeasures (instead of betting like a gambler)

Billy Beane simply changed the way he thought about his business. It didn’t cost tons of money.

Yet it revealed unseen possibilities in his environment. And it enabled his team to emerge by surprise, upset the old baseball dynasties, and change the playing field forever.

Is it time for you to do the same?

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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