Should You Help Your Sales Organization Improve Its Sales Process?


I’m off to the Northeast this week for a client engagement, but I thought you would be interested in a question I received recently from an unusual salesperson.

She had a phenomenal background in process disciplines and had also managed to transition to a successful sales career. This shows tremendous talent and determination, in my humble opinion, but it also placed her in a situation many talented people find themselves in: She was “asked” to volunteer to improve her organization’s sales process.

Should she jump right in? Or are there some dangers to be aware of?

Find out by reading the response I sent her in an E mail. I think you’ll enjoy what I had to say

Until next week.

Michael Webb
January 29, 2008

Should You Help Your Sales Organization Improve Its Sales Process?

Hello. My name is Francine Baker, and I’m a former senior manager at a manufacturing company and a Six Sigma blackbelt champion who also ran Six Sigma projects as a working manager. I was also an examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, where I traveled and examined manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and abroad.

A few years ago I made a career transition and have become a successful salesperson for a large corporation. I have been approached about my interest in improving the sales processes for acquiring new clients in our company using Lean and Six Sigma tools.

I have some questions I hope you might answer:

1) Do you use primarily Lean, Six Sigma, Malcolm Baldrige, or a combination?

2) If so, do you normally see significant improvements in the sales processes using the tools of Lean, Six Sigma (DMAIC), or Malcolm Baldrige criteria?

3) Do you have literature and/or do training in this area that I could utilize in my business as an individual FA?

Best regards,

Francine Baker
Senior Salesperson
Somewhere in Corporate America

Hello Francine,

Good to hear from you, and congratulations on your career switch. You’ve demonstrated flexibility in your thinking ability, which is quite an unusual accomplishment. (I know, because I have done similar transitions!)

Your questions:

1) Do you use primarily Lean, Six Sigma, Malcolm Baldrige, or a combination?

Doing process improvement in sales and marketing requires a good deal of creativity and improvising. You have to figure out how to be true to the principles by using their intent to develop techniques that fit the environment.

Lean Six Sigma and the principles behind Malcom Baldrige hold tremendous potential in sales and marketing, and there are parallel examples of the Lean tools, such as 5S, Setup Reduction, etc. However, experts in Lean manufacturing (and most Six Sigma practitioners) would not recognize the sales and marketing versions of them, and Lean Six Sigma jargon would definitely alienate most  salespeople I have met. (By the way, one of my clients impressed the heck out of an ISO examiner when he showed them the sales process my firm helped them develop.)

So … the literal answer to your question is that I use a combination of tools and approaches, depending on the situation. The more crucial issue is that they can only work if:
A) the tools and methodologies are thoroughly and expertly translated to the language your sales and marketing people understand, and
B) if tools and methodologies are properly oriented to the SYSTEM they need to improve.

I make this point about the SYSTEM (I call it the “environment salespeople live in,” or “finding, winning, keeping”), because so many senior executives are prey to the assumption that “the sales process is about what salespeople do.” This huge fallacy prevents those executives from improving the results they yearn for.

With your background, you’ll recognize immediately what I mean. It is like the plant manager assuming that improvements will happen by teaching the machine operators to work harder and more efficiently. That might cause some improvement, but only if the causes of low performance are not in the quality of material they use, or caused by equipment breakdowns, or any of a thousand other things that are beyond the machine operator’s control. (In a sales environment those things translate into the quality of the sales opportunities, the time it takes to complete proposals or overcome time-consuming problems with technology, CRM, getting pricing, etc.) The thing is, many senior executives think they know everything that needs to be known about how sales works, and thus are not used to challenging their own assumptions. They can get a tad resistant, as I’m sure you know, so take care of yourself.

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!)

2) If so, do you normally see significant improvements in the sales processes using the tools of Lean, Six Sigma (DMAIC), or Malcolm Baldrige criteria?

Yes, of course, there are incredible gains to be made. And the parallels to manufacturing are remarkable. But, as I implied above, doing Six Sigma in marketing and sales is not really about doing Six Sigma (much less ACHIEVING Six Sigma). That analytical stuff is actually the easy part. It is the least important, however, especially at first.

The first priority for improving the sales and marketing process using Lean Six Sigma is the cultural and language barrier, beginning with the concept of value. You have to lead everyone to a better understanding of what they are doing and especially WHY? What is the value we are creating? I have  long said: “Everything you do to find, win, and  keep customers must create value for them.” You have to demonstrate to people that this is the underlying cause for why some marketing campaigns, product lines, salespeople, and services are more successful than others in the market. You have to show them that the perception of value is what gets prospect’s attention, time, and information, earns a relationship, and ultimately, earns their money. While it isn’t normally articulated this way, these are the reasons why “the sales process” works, and why people buy things.

Yet, companies (and people) fall into the trap of being self-absorbed (for example, “Our sales process is: prospect for business, qualify the prospect, give them a sales presentation, and ask them to buy, handle objections, and close the order.” A sales process defined this way is not about the customer. It is about what salespeople do, however, and it dooms them like a hamster on an exercise wheel!)

In other words, value gets people to act. People take a lot of actions before they are ready to buy, and if you set things up correctly, these actions can be measured. Once you establish what customer actions you can measure (opt-ins, phone consultations accepted, site visits, etc.), it is easy to demonstrate that measurement is a powerful way to identify and eliminate waste, variation, etc. Only then will you have the facts and data you need to understand your current sales process and begin to figure out where it might need improvement.

It is quite likely that there are better ways of finding, winning, and keeping customers at your company, especially in this age of the Internet. However, it can take painstaking time and energy to figure it out.

Unfortunately, if your company is like many, you will see the relevance of what you are doing long before other people do. May you get lucky and find some low “hanging fruit” to throw at them! You may have to swim against the current a while before you achieve significant results. In fact, it will probably take a number of people on your team working together, not just yourself, before you begin to see significant results.

But the results are there! Old-fashioned companies are sitting ducks for companies that know how to do sales process improvement. Once people are clear about what work creates value and what doesn’t, once they begin recognizing what is a fact and what is an opinion, improvements come much easier. Faster throughput, increased revenue per salesperson, measurable and increased marketing ROI, higher margins and customer retention, viral nurturing and referral programs, all these and more are likely outcomes. People begin to actually see a NEED for measuring things and using statistics appropriately.

3) Do you have literature and/or do training in this area that I could utilize?

I believe you will enjoy my books and articles. My work provides a structure that helps people arrange what they already know about sales and marketing (not to mention process improvement) in a way that helps them begin figuring out where to get the most traction.

A great way to start with something like this is to establish a team of people who really want it to work … a skunk works, if you will. There will be a lot of grunt work, data collection, testing, etc., required to begin to show people how these ideas work. You need Evangelists at first, people who are willing to go the extra mile for it. Once they discover something that helps reps improve results short term without a lot of hassle, you’ll have the first enticement for a small part of the organization to start changing. Line up enough of these little wins, and you will have made a difference for your big corporation. This is no small accomplishment!

There are several possible things this first quick hit could be, from better lead generation techniques (incorporating best practices from direct response, permission, and Internet marketing, for example), better qualifying techniques (I have written about this extensively in Chapter Five of my book, “Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way,” and in the article on my website entitled “Generating Support for a Sales Quality Initiative.”) Or it might be something else.

The point is, you will need the patient support (time and money) of your company to experiment with techniques for both measurement and with sales and marketing. You need a laboratory for developing and testing new sales processes (just like you had a lab and an engineering department for developing manufacturing processes and new products back at the manufacturing company you used to worked for.)

The only way to succeed (in ANY organization) is to show people a better way to make money and an easier way to do their jobs, something that appeals to them in particular. You have to make it exceedingly easy for others to buy in, or they just won’t be able to do it. Process thinking is a critical path to that end. Most people cannot think as hard as process improvement requires, much less work against the organization’s (and the market’s) existing operating procedures to accomplish it. Make no mistake; this is the work of organizational leaders and risk-takers.

If your employer truly sees the value this represents to the entire company, they should be more than willing to enable you to try this out. If they are suggesting you do it on your own nickel, well I trust you’ll be able to see through that and keep your discoveries to yourself.

I hope my answers to your questions prove helpful to you in some way. Good luck on your journey, and please keep me posted.

Michael J. Webb
January 29, 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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