Salespeople Frustrated by Six Sigma Training: What to do Instead


Sorry I missed last week’s newsletter. I got hit with a bad flu on Sunday night, and struggled through the rest of the week. It wasn’t until sometime on Friday that I started feeling human again. And, luckily, I saw a question posted on the website that got me inspired.

So, you can read it below. As the author of Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way, I am a big believer in the methodology. However, I have seen it misapplied way too many times.

I hope the message is “in their face” enough to get people’s attention while also getting people to take the message seriously.

Let me know what you think!

Until next week.

Michael Webb
March 11, 2008


Salespeople Frustrated by Six Sigma Training: What to do Instead

Recently this important question was posted to the bulletin board on’s website:

“I’m doing sales, meaning getting clients for their contact center needs.  I’m in a medium-sized Call Center. How can Six Sigma help me get the clients I need?”

Posted by “Rolly.”

Now, reading between the lines, the question appears to have been posted by a salesperson. It is a very legitimate question too: “Will Six Sigma training and tools help me sell?”

Here is my answer:


If you mean, “Will Six Sigma training and tools help me sell?” the answer is, “No, unless you operate directly in the Six Sigma industry, you probably do not need it, and it will not really help you do your job.”

I’m the author of Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way ( (Kaplan, 2006), and I never  recommend that my sales and marketing clients start  salespeople on black belt (or even greenbelt) training if they  are to do Six Sigma in sales. Money spent training salespeople on Six Sigma are likely to have only tangential benefits at best.  Managers of sales and marketing may benefit perhaps, but probably not most salespeople.

Now, I’m not saying that Six Sigma doesn’t work in sales and marketing. Far from it.

In fact, Lean and Six Sigma most certainly can rock the salesperson’s world.

It is just that salespeople are more like the machine operators on the plant floor: They are pawns in the game. I’m not belittling them: I am talking about designing systems that amplify and leverage salespeople’s talent. This means getting away from a situation in which companies are dependent on the salesperson’s involvement in everything, which is what most companies have today.

How to Apply Six Sigma to Sales and Marketing
If you are a salesperson, the kind of business process you have is one where the “Big Y” (the desired outcome, or effect) depends on something over which you do not have direct control. Salespeople are supposed to influence the decisions their prospects and customers make, yet those people have free will.

This distinction is profound, as I’ll discuss in a moment, but it doesn’t change Six Sigma’s fundamental approach, which is to identify all the “Little Xs” (the causes or contributing factors) that could possibly get people to buy your product or service.

So, for starters, even if you are not familiar with the terminology of Ys and Xs, or DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control), Six Sigma’s mindset places the focus right where it obviously should be: What do we have to do to convert prospects into paying, profitable customers as efficiently as possible?

You’ll likely find the Define phase of an improvement project to be a task of brainstorming and researching the variety of factors that might get people to buy from you. Believe me, they are vast and varied and become quite complex in some industries. You’ll be dealing in the realm of things like:

  • How do prospects become aware of your company?
  • How do they perceive their interests and their needs?
  • How do they prioritize their problems and decide what actions to take?
  • How do they evaluate their alternative choices in your space?

Of course, you’ll also be trying to define your company’s work processes (and yours as a salesperson). Some work may be in the salesperson’s control. Much of it may be beyond the salesperson and only in the company’s direct control.

Unfortunately, in most companies, these things are based on tribal knowledge and traditions, and much of what the company does doesn’t actually help your prospects buy from you (which is, of course, exactly the problem).

If more senior managers could recognize this issue, the business world would be a better place! Unfortunately, the culture around marketing and selling (especially in the U.S.) assumes the functional mindset so deeply that most senior executives automatically assume that selling is the sales department’s (or the salesperson’s) problem alone. I’ve actually seen corporate executives demanding time and motion studies on the sales department in desperate, yet futile attempts to figure out their problems.

How to Turn Your Sales and Marketing Into a Lean Six Sigma Production Machine That Runs Like Clockwork (And Do It in a Way Your Salespeople Will Love!)

The Benefits of Applying Six Sigma to Finding, Winning, and Keeping Customers
Instead of falling into the trap of the functional mindset and trying to teach salespeople about Six Sigma, most companies are in far more need of getting to first principles in their sales and marketing.

By first principles, I mean: Processes only work if they create value.

Yet identifying the value and how it is created are exactly what has never been done in the sales and marketing end of the business. Why should your customer read your ad? Respond to your offer? Take your salesperson’s call? Trust what you tell them? (Much less buy your product?)

Most important, how do you know all this? Where is the hard evidence?

Such questions are far too important to leave to chance. I currently have a client who has seen their process yield (in a call center with six agents qualifying new account opportunities for a call center with nine salespeople) a 34% increase on the strength of their ability to properly define and measure the quantity and quality of their flow of leads and opportunities, because they can now tell who they should spend time on and who they shouldn’t. Further, they no longer go about chasing down unresponsive prospects like they used to; they have developed techniques to help the customers make decisions, which the customers actually acknowledge are helpful.

Yet like most management teams before they started on their Six Sigma journey,  much of what they thought they “knew” about their sales, marketing, and servicing is a mad mix of experience, tribal knowledge, and assumptions (that may have gone unchallenged for decades). It is amazing to realize that most senior marketing, selling, and servicing executives have never actually sat down to talk plainly with each other about how things actually work, who produces what, and how it should be measured.

This where the distinction I made above, about customers having free will, has its profound tectonic effect:

  • Knowing why a predictable number of prospects will read your company’s ad and respond to its offer (and having evidence to prove it) should be something the marketing manager knows every day!
  • Knowing what can be done now to ensure the sales team has enough qualified opportunities to make the numbers at the end of the quarter should be something the sales manager knows every day!
  • Knowing that the marketer and seller are getting along, and that they have the resources they need to reasonably accomplish their objectives, and that the company will achieve its objectives should be something the president knows every day!

Yet very few sellers and marketers (much less presidents) ever get the chance to know these things, caught up as they are in the false priorities imposed on them by the functional paradigm (meaning, keep on wasting time and money for those trade shows, brochures, and proposals that probably won’t close, because that’s what we’ve always done, and it is what they’ve been told their job is). Oh, and, work a little harder while you’re at it!

The truth is that the prospect of getting to these first principles can make people feel uncomfortable or can even seem daunting: They “don’t have time.” What hidden problems will surface? What evidence is there really to support current beliefs? You can’t blame people for fearing what the world might really look like.

However, once the team has worked through this logic (defining the customer’s journey, how to help them, and gathering the evidence and data to prove it), the enthusiasm and support for the approach becomes palpable. A common framework emerges for understanding what adds value (ie, gets customers to take an action along their journey) and what doesn’t.

The framework I refer to is similar to that of production manufacturing, where executives have been obsessively measuring conversion from raw materials, work-in-process, and finished goods for a century or so. Managers begin thinking more easily in terms of evidence and data, cause-and-effect, and accurately measuring conversions from leads, to qualified opportunities, to profit. They learn how to engage prospects in ways that compel measurable actions, whether in the form of a salesperson’s single call objective or a website’s lead generation landing page. They learn how to optimize the system as a whole rather than sub optimizing some parts and the expense of others. They learn how to better deploy precious sales talent to generate the greatest return, avoiding low-yield activities such as cold calling or spending time on prospects that won’t close.

Defining the process on the bedrock of observable facts, evidence, and data is a new frontier for sellers and marketers. Frankly, it is also a new frontier for Lean Six Sigma practitioners. Once it takes hold, however, alignment happens quickly, processes start throwing off useful data, predictability of revenue is taken for granted, and the utility of traditional Six Sigma-style statistical training becomes quite obvious.

Michael J. Webb
March 11, 2008


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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