Generating Support For A Sales Quality Initiative

Originally published at on Nov 25th 2002

By Michael J. Webb

Quality initiative in sales – an impossible dream? With the right proposition and simple techniques, not only is it possible but it can also be a successful venture.

The goal is to achieve performance improvements similar to those achieved in manufacturing and elsewhere using quality-oriented techniques. Unfortunately, these initiatives often produce nothing but resentment and resistance between the sales and quality departments because they essentially speak different languages. Examining both the sales and the quality perspectives, the following discussion illustrates a technique that might be useful in getting such a seemingly impossible initiative off the ground.

Challenges Of Sales Organizations

Every sales organization is unique. To determine what the challenges to a quality initiative might be, it is necessary to look closely at how the sales organization’s performance is judged. What is the language of sales? Is profitability part of the mix, or is performance based strictly on total orders? What are the top three issues the sales executive might raise at a staff meeting that keep him from attaining his goals? What are the components that make up the success of the sales organization?.

The Disparity Of Languages

Although processes, measurements, and analysis are basics to quality-trained individuals, understanding the “culture” of the sales team may not be. Aside from the standard problems of human nature, such as resistance to change and fear of failure, the sales culture has many special challenges:

  • Sales organizations have traditionally been managed for results, not for process. Change has been slow.
  • Sales executives are usually bright and hard working but by nature may not feel they have time for analytical thinking.
  • Sales involves people and relationships and attracts expressive, amiable, and driver personalities.
  • Sales training doesn’t involve measurement and analysis.
  • Selling involves complex cooperation between many departments; communication is key.

Understanding how quality concepts apply in the sales department is no small task, because virtually all of the literature focuses on manufacturing. The effort required to translate the concepts of quality from one world to the other isn’t easy, and few people have seen enough of both worlds to do it.

Applying Quality Principles To Sales

Although selling may never achieve the predictability of an automated production machine, it is a place where the rational principles of quality management can make a huge impact. Consider the parallels to the manufacturing environment. In manufacturing, raw materials of certain kinds are sought. People work with the materials (usually via machines) to transform them into a product someone is willing to pay for. When the product is complete, it can be packaged and shipped.

What is the raw material in sales? In sales, the raw material is people in the marketplace. Sales people work with the individuals in the marketplace (leads or inquiries), transforming them from those who may have no intention of buying into those who do. Producing this stream of buyers is the obvious value-creating function of the sales force.

What Value Does Sales Add?

To be effective, sales must add value not only to their company but also to the customer. How can sales people do this? The answer clearly depends on the nature of the specific sales environment (transactional vs. consultative, new account vs. relationship management, etc.). However, the following list should provide some ideas:

  • Sales people instinctively know they must be appealing to prospects through their appearance, personality, and knowledge. They find prospects, are responsive to them, are easy to deal with, and provide answers to prospects’ problems.
  • Just as not all raw materials meet specifications, not all prospects are qualified. Time and energy can be saved for prospects and sales people by working on the right kinds of opportunities to meet their needs.
  • Sales people must do their homework to understand the customer’s business and industry issues if they are to be valuable to them.
  • Building relationships with the right people, generating a track record of reliability and truthfulness, demonstrating productive insight, and helping prospects build consensus and commit to action are all valuable services to customers.
  • Communicating effectively, learning the customer’s addressable problems, positioning value at the right time to the proper individuals, and using language customers understand are critical.

Following up to make sure customers achieve the benefits they were expecting is a hall-mark of a professional sales organization.

Similar lists could be made for the other departments. Improving the quality of these activities can increase the yield of business development, often dramatically.

Translating Quality Terms To Sales Talk

Helping the sales department sell better involves understanding the tactical urgencies of prospecting, qualifying, proposing, and closing business. It implies the skills of a sales manager or sales trainer. These may not be common traits among individuals trained in quality.

Aside from that challenge, applying quality principles in any environment requires getting the basics right. In manufacturing, “Lean” principles clean up the work area, clarify responsibilities, and establish order. Gauge reliability and repeatability studies validate measurements. These things must be done to enhance repeatability and reduce the “noise” in the environment. They are prerequisites for any defect reduction initiative.

Because these terms are foreign to the sales environment, basic “Lean” sales principles are needed that can focus and organize sales activities so implementation can be measured and assessed. The value-add of sales must be clarified. The focus must be turned toward process AND results. Also, the organization must be primed for positive change. Establishing this foundation in the sales department may mean challenging the way things are done. Sometimes the magnitude of the change needed is radical. Obviously, most organizations are NOT ready for that, which is the crux of the problem.

Meeting The Challenge Of The Sales Department

There are many possible process improvements in sales, from lead generation to various stages of the sales process. However, for a quality-oriented initiative to work, it must meet some demanding criteria. It should be:

  • An approach designed to increase sales
  • Based on concepts sales understands
  • Able to generate useful data that suggest potential improvements (to help build the momentum of the quality initiative).

Qualification Improvement Initiative

One possible area to focus on is the input specifications, also known in the sales world as qualification. For example, an electrical utility was attempting to sell a new array of technical services to its customers. They asked for help with closing skills because their close ratio was less than 10%. Sales people were overburdened, chasing as many deals as they could but not making their numbers. Prospects seemed to delay their decisions over and over. They went with engineering firms they already knew. Or deals simply died for no apparent reason.

When asked, “What is the criteria for a qualified prospect?,” the answers were all over the map. For example:

  • The customer needed technical services from time to time.
  • They had an engineering problem they couldn’t solve.
  • There were specifications, but the project wasn’t budgeted.
  • A project was designed and going out for construction bids.
  • A project was in process with an engineering firm they already knew.

With so little in common with these “opportunities,” it was clear that the sales people had not been told what constituted a qualified opportunity. As a result, they were indiscriminately throwing customer situations into the sales “hopper” and grinding away, hoping a sale would happen. In manufacturing terms, it was as though they were attempting to add value to scrap.

Although most sales organizations might not be as lost as this utility, most sales executives would admit that qualification is a critical sales activity and they can’t afford to have sales people working overtime to try to get business the organization does not want.

  Traditional Sales Approach to Qualification   Quality Oriented Approach to Qualification  
  • Qualification is a generic concept that is basically the same for all situations
  • Qualification is at the discretion of the sales person, so variations are normal
  • Consistent criteria should be applied to minimize variations
  • Qualifying criteria are intended to help close sales and have little to do with marketing
  • Qualification is a linkage to the marketing strategy by pointing sales people to desired market segments
  • Qualifying is primarily valuable for the sales person and should be analyzed only for remedial coaching
  • Qualifying is a measurement that should be recorded and analyzed across all sales activity

Since qualifying is essentially comparing something to a standard, it is linked closely to measurement. Because sales people accept the idea of qualification in the first place, it may be a bit easier to gain their cooperation in a new approach: it might help make their time more productive.

There are three components to the concept of qualification that should be fairly intuitive to sales executives:

  1. What’s in it for us: credit worthiness, size potential, market profile of prospect, logistic desirability, cost to service the account, market segment, etc.
  2. What’s in it for them: characteristics of the prospect’s product fit, strength of value proposition, compelling events, impact on various individuals in their business, etc.
  3. Characteristics of sales activity: presence or absence of request for proposal (RFP), level of coaching relationships, presence of gatekeepers, alignment with decision makers, competitive relationships, etc.

These categories of qualification can be detailed into criteria specific to product markets, and then deployed through a simple scoring assessment for sales people to use to assess (yes – measure!) their opportunities. Capturing these scores over time delivers powerful insight into sales activities. A pilot program comprised of a small group of sales people would help determine how well this initiative will work in a specific environment. Using Sales Force Automation (SFA) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, the results can be tabulated and analyzed over a few months, depending on the length of the company’s average sales cycle.

Many positive outcomes typically come from such an initiative:

  • Because it increases consistency, a positive impact on sales results is likely to be fairly short term.
  • The simple fact of measuring behavior is likely to cause an improvement in results.
  • Sales people find that they are calling on better accounts and not wasting their time.
  • The inclusion of desirable characteristics of sales activity (such as which departments to generate coaching relationships with or which level of decision maker to reach) can provide a degree of guidance in handling the opportunities. (The utility mentioned earlier nearly tripled their close ratio and had a far more realistic picture of sales activity and future business potential.)
  • Data is gathered that provide valuable insight to the strengths and weaknesses of sales operations.

The data gathered should provide the following insights:

  • Do patterns of sales activity resemble what senior executives think? Actual sales activity data can validate or contradict important assumptions about selling capacity, volumes, coverage, cycle times, and pipeline yields.
  • Are the prospects reacting as expected to the value proposition in the way marketing expects? Whether sales people are even hitting the targeted market segments can shed light on where the actual market exists and what its needs are.
  • What are the qualification-assessment scores of prospects who buy? Prospects who don’t buy? Can this shed insights on ways to increase close ratios? Comparing the typical assessment scores of sales people who are more or less successful can provide highly motivating clues to enhance skills and effectiveness.

There are several other factors that can help make this initiative successful. First, sales organizations are usually open to refocusing their qualification criteria to create a positive result. What they haven’t often done well is to gather measurements and critically analyze them. That represents an opportunity for the quality function. Be careful, however. Sales people may be wary that this information will be used against them. In this example, the fact that sales people are assessing their opportunities – instead of being assessed themselves – reduces resistance to providing the information. The data generated are valuable for improving their sales environment and for providing positive and individualized coaching.

Qualification assessment is only one way for quality thinking to potentially create breakthrough results in the sales department. In situations in which the sales department might not be focused on the right prospects, it has a good chance of creating vital early wins that are so important to gaining the credibility needed for further improvement. An added benefit is that there will be improved communication and understanding between departments in order to work better as a team.

About The Author
Michael J. Webb is President of Sales Performance Consultants, Inc., a leader in helping companies improve sales performance through scientific principles of quality management. He has worked with clients such as American Express, 3M, Marriott, Microsoft Great Plains, Rockwell Automation and many smaller companies to improve their sales processes and results. He also works with sales training firms, such as IMPAX Corporation, to help integrate the best selling practices into client companies sales operations. His website,, contains a wealth of hard-to-find articles and resources on process improvement for marketing and sales organizations. Mr. Webb can be reached at (708) 383-9309 or

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.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Susy Ting - March 10, 2010 Reply

Really great article – I was thinking about a similar article which I will probably still write, but from a slightly different angle. Thanks for sharing this with your readers…I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates it.

Robert @ Sales Consultant - August 24, 2010 Reply

I can’t agree more that a specific and strategic approach to qualification, in all areas of the business. I once heard that top salespeople have two traits that others don’t…1.) They qualify the buyer better, and 2.) They build trust faster.

franklin marshall 2012 - October 23, 2012 Reply

Aside from the standard problems of human nature, such as resistance to change and fear of failure, the sales culture has many special challenges

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franklin marshall 2012

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