Secrets of Chinese Traffic and Your Sales Process

In 1992, Leslie and I traveled to China to adopt a baby girl. Among many vivid memories of that trip, one I often think about is the traffic jams.

When we completed the adoption paperwork in Suzhou, we trekked to the American Embassy in Guangzhou. Deadlines for health check-ups, visas, and meetings with embassy officials made Guangzhou traffic especially nerve-wracking.

From our room high in the White Swan Hotel, we watched throngs of tiny cars choking the streets in every direction. They ignored painted lines and traffic lights. They drove on the wrong side of the street. They cut into any opening that allowed short-term progress. Every driver did his level best to get where he was going, but even short distances took hours.

A few days later, when we arrived back in the U.S., it was startling to see the orderly progression of traffic. People waited at traffic lights and stayed in the lines, for the most part.

While I was running some errands on Saturday, in the back of my mind I was trying to figure out how to help a client understand what was required to improve his company’s sales process. At a busy intersection here in Norcross, that memory of Guangzhou traffic came back to me.

What could cause those drivers around the White Swan Hotel to switch from “just get there any way you can” to “stay between the lines and obey the traffic signals?” I think the answer has a lot in common with what it takes to get salespeople to switch from “just sell the best way you know how” to “follow the sales process.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these:

Define an Approach That Works
While there isn’t much debate about traffic rules in this country, in Guangzhou drivers behaved as they would if they believed their rules didn’t work. This is similar to sales processes, because when it comes right down to it, salespeople will do what makes sense to them rather than what they are told to do. If management is going to make an issue about doing things differently, they better be right.

Unfortunately, most sales processes are not “designed” based on what really works at the street level. They are designed at the theoretical level based on some idealized customer type. As a result, they don’t really work. Until someone discovers what the sales process really is, nothing is going to change.

Communicate the Approach Clearly
I’m sure the drivers in Guangzhou had to pass some kind of test to get their wheels, but their knowledge must have quickly been rationalized in the reality of their city streets. “Right of way?” Mine if I can get it. “Is it left turn or right turn on red?” Depends on where I need to go. An outside force is obviously required to define and enforce such rules. For some reason it wasn’t working very well when I was in China.

Most sales organizations are not as disorganized as the traffic in Guangzhou (although some are). Assuming a sound sales process exists, the skill and will at using it usually varies a lot. Selling is complex, and companies want their salespeople to create very specific outcomes. How well have they been trained to do it? What tools and systems enable them to do it correctly? What are the incentives and disincentives for following the process correctly?

These are things salespeople can’t do for themselves. They require informed management decisions (and usually some outside assistance).

Provide Enough Support to Make the Change
Even if many drivers in Guangzhou actually understood and agreed with the traffic rules, their system would not easily transform itself. Those who tried staying in line, stopping at the red, and staying on the right side of the road would be taken advantage of by the rest. Even if someone tried to orchestrate a major change publicly, people would have no trust in each other. Trust must be earned.

Sales organizations are similar. People need support, coaching, and a safe environment to try out new skills and behaviors. They need to know that moving to the new approach is necessary and certain. They need evidence of success to bolster their courage. They need time to earn trust in each other.

Creating organizational change is one of the biggest challenges to any management team. Their structure and format required to do it successfully are known. If your company’s sales process is in bad enough shape (and many are), fixing it requires lots of medicine. In those cases, expecting the sales organization to do it themselves won’t work.

Oh, and my daughter, Kira, now 16, is doing great!

Michael J. Webb
June 3, 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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