Discussion: Bringing Process Excellence to Sales


How can a scientific approach improve sales and marketing productivity?

To improve my effectiveness selling MRP/ERP systems many years ago, I earned certification with the American Production and Inventory Control Society (A.P.I.C.S., now the Society for Supply Chain Management, A.S.C.M.).

It was rewarding to be around people applying scientific theories and succeeding. One fellow literally saved the St. Louis toy company he worked for by reducing inventory and on-time shipping performance simultaneously. The challenge wasn’t whether the scientific, analytical mindset could create improvement. It was educating and motivating senior management and others to understand and adopt that mindset.

I couldn’t help comparing these experiences to the sales and marketing world, where no one believed a scientific analytical mindset like that could work. We were told, “People make decisions based on emotions; you just can’t analyze that.” As a result, the solution to our sales problems was always, make more calls. Write more proposals. Just work harder! … “The more you throw at the wall, the more likely something will stick,” as the saying goes.

Individual salespeople thought a lot about their individual customer’s context and goals, of course. But they were hamstrung: To their managers, sales and marketing wasn’t a set of processes to improve. Instead, they were a set of distinct, independent functions to be performed. If you wanted to grow the business, you just had to spend more resources doing more of those functions.

Everything was just a numbers game – unpredictable and random. Companies grew – or shrank – along with the markets they were in. Salespeople often jumped ship searching for greener pastures. At a large meeting at Rockwell Automation where I worked, hundreds of salespeople and their managers struggled to face an elephant in the room: An important new product was a flop. One sage brought the house down when he said loudly: “Even a dead fish floating down stream appears to be making progress!”


The Red Bead Experiment

At that time Rockwell retained a consultant to conduct statistical process control seminars around the country for its customers. The afternoon session was devoted to Deming’s famous, “Red Bead Experiment,” a demonstration that depicted the life of a production team perfectly. No matter how hard they worked, and despite training, clear targets, incentives, and many other things company leaders tried, nothing ever got better or easier. Deming was giving people the opportunity to discover a fundamental issue. If leaders fail to grasp the nature of the system they are living in, achieving production targets is a crap-shoot.

This shook the earth for me, because it depicted my sales team’s situation exactly. Every company I ever worked for had tried sales contests, incentive compensation, training, personality testing, sales coaching, territory realignment, lead generation, and many other things for years. And nothing ever got easier.

Hooked, I began a lifelong study of process thinking. I knew a scientific mindset applied in sales and marketing management. The question was, “How can a scientific approach improve sales and marketing productivity?”


Deming’s Theory of Profound Knowledge

Early on, I encountered the foundation of operational excellence, Deming’s ToPK. Over many years applying it with clients I began to grasp its underlying philosophical ideas. These are the foundation of science and rationality and they apply equally to the physical as well as the human (commercial) world.


Understanding Variation

In the 1930’s Deming worked with Walter Shewart at Bell Laboratories. Shewart had invented a way of distinguishing “background noise” from variations that signaled a change, or problem had occurred. This was called a “process behavior chart,” and Deming popularized it widely (through the red bead experiment, for example).

While this discovery was profoundly useful, I believe Deming would also agree with another thinker who said, “Data, apart from their context, have no meaning.” The primary way we understand “the context” – the myriad of varying signals presented by our senses – is words and concepts. They are what make statistics (and other tools of knowledge) possible. Sales managers and salespeople swim in a vast sea of words and concepts about their customers, their company, and their competitors.


Systems Thinking

The more scrupulously we connect our words and concepts to what we observe (and what we can logically infer from those observations) the better we grasp the world. For instance, we observe that balls roll, that fire burns, that people behave according to what they believe, and perhaps, that the diameter of a hole varies in a cyclical manner.
Observations become theories about how things will behave or interact as a whole, or “system.” This is something animals cannot do, and something on which our life and survival depends.


Method for Learning

Everyone knows disaster can happen when a theory is wrong. However, we can learn the correctness of a theory through experimentation. Shewart and Deming provided a famously simple and scalable approach to experiments (PDSA, or Plan, Do, Study, Act). This is called the Deming management cycle, and is similar to other methods in other circles, such as O.O.D.A (Orient, Observe, Decide, Act) loops for example.

Whatever name you might use, the more scrupulously you develop and test a theory, the better your questions, theory, experiments, and beliefs will be. And the faster and deeper your learning will be.


Respect for People – The Key to Influence and Persuasion

The first three principles above describe how an individual thinker can stay in contact with reality to learn and mostly avoid disasters. However, even though human beings are essentially social beings, they do not always get along. How do the principles above apply in social groups?

Fortunately, this is where Deming’s genius shines the brightest. Every human being is a unique, sovereign individual who has spent their entire life arriving at what they currently believe. And these beliefs are fair predictors of how they will behave.

This recognition is of profound importance if you are someone whose profession involves influencing people, such as a salesperson, manager, or senior executive. Just as observing that balls roll or fire burns, observing how other people behave provides clues to their beliefs.

Putting in this effort to respect “where the other person is coming from” can create common ground. It provides the basis for discovering win-win alternatives for all parties involved.

Deming called his theory “profound knowledge” because examining evidence appropriately often reveals surprising and valuable knowledge. He wasn’t just referring to physical evidence.

He knew that gasping and respecting other people’s actions and beliefs also can reveal surprising and valuable knowledge. Whether you are a marketer or a seller attempting to attract customers, or a manager attempting to lead your team, this profoundly scientific knowledge is the first step to winning people’s hearts as well as their minds.

I’m curious to learn your experiences around this. Please comment below. 



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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