Why Is It So Hard to Create Improvements in the Sales Department?

Some people didn’t like the word “Easy” in last week’s blog post: “Six Easy Ways to Boost Your Company’s Sales Results.” For example, reader Tony Cole said:

“If it were easy then everyone would be doing it. …

“Let’s address the issues of why companies, sales leaders, and salespeople fail to implement and execute basic fundamental sales processes or techniques, let alone the sophisticated process improvements you talk about here.”

I called Tony to find out more about what he meant. Turns out we were talking about completely different things!

Lots of sales trainers have observed how difficult it is to get some human beings to learn behaviors you are trying to teach them. Tony was asking, “Why is it so hard for salespeople to learn to implement a new skill?”

Good question. Sometimes, getting salespeople to exhibit the right skills is what will improve results.

And sometimes, it isn’t!

Reader Dave Stein asked:

“How do you get a majority of sales leaders to even say the word process, not to mention take the time, money, resources, focus, and possible short-term revenue hit to actually make process changes?”

Again, great question. Lots of sales managers believe “process” is something that will hinder, harm, and possibly hurt. You can’t blame them for resisting something like that!

How can you create improvements when people believe “process” is bad for them?

This is such a crucial question: Everyone at all levels wants and needs sales results to improve, especially in an economy like this. And, people try so many things to improve the situation!

You have no doubt seen all sorts of attempts to improve over the years, such as:

  • Training
  • Lead generation
  • CRM
  • Compensation
  • Contests
  • Territory realignment

Yet, achieving provable, sustainable results is rare. Normally, results are just someone’s opinion, they do not last, or something else comes up that appears to change things, or whatever. Why?

There is an underlying principle that explains why this happens so often. The principle accounts for the observations behind Tony’s and David’s questions, and a whole lot more. Until you understand this principle, improving any business is completely hit or miss.

Consider these additional examples (there is something in common with all of them):

  • Why won’t salespeople follow the process?
    A company president I know dramatically increased his marketing spend and the flow of leads, yet revenue did not increase proportionally. His salespeople appeared to follow the process he had given them only when he was standing over them watching. He figured this was the problem. Why would that happen?
  • Why doesn’t sales training work?
    Sales training initiatives often define success as “some of the best salespeople used the techniques and were successful with them.” Yet the methods often result in a lot more work for ordinary salespeople, who don’t necessarily get such fabulous results. After a time, behaviors tend to return to their original state. Why does that happen?
  • Why doesn’t the company know how to generate leads?
    A sales VP for an equipment company I know needed big gains in market share. He decided to participate (along with several competitors) in an expensive trade association study designed to learn the incidence of companies needing to replace their old equipment. The study distributed thousands of so-called “leads” to his sales team, who quickly learned they were worthless. Why does that happen?

Senior executives are normally pretty smart people. Yet when they are wrong about something, it has an incredibly damaging effect.

Why does senior management’s opinion trump everything else?

  • First Example:
    A manufacturing company’s marketing director had successfully used landing pages and postcard campaigns to generate good leads, something his salespeople were starving for. Yet the marketing director’s requests for budget to expand the lead generation campaigns were turned down. Why? The company president believed “Our problem is that our salespeople need to manage their territories more effectively.” Results did not improve after that decision.
  • Second Example:
    A consulting company hired by the CEO of a $600 million services company had recommended they shift from a “hunter vs farmer” sales model to one in which  individual salespeople were expected to do both. Yet this change did not resolve any of the salespeople’s problems, it aggravated them. The manager assigned to create the training for people who would take on the new roles was in a situation she could not win: regardless of what training she could find, she knew no one would be happy. The organizational change, which really amounted to a RIF, went ahead. Needless to say, results did not improve.
  • Third Example:
    The sales V.P. hired a training company to improve the quality of telesales agent’s prospecting techniques. After great effort and expense, agents began to engage prospects more effectively, they left a better impression of the company, and they were finding more sales opportunities. Unfortunately, the agent’s calls were taking longer, so the number of calls reported per week started to decline. Senior management objected, and prioritized the number of calls above all other measures. In doing so they undercut everything that had been accomplished to that point.

Lots of additional examples like this can be found in “Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way.”

What is the root cause of all six problems?

There is something in common with them all. Can you identify what it is?

Please share your experiences, and your thoughts, for what the real problem is.

Michael Webb
April 24, 2009

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
Christian Maurer - April 25, 2009 Reply

On a very high level, I can see misalignment between executives as the common denominator in all three cases.

Michael Webb - April 26, 2009 Reply


Yes, misalignment is present in the senior executive examples. However, misalignment is a symptom. It is not the common denominator.

And what about the first three examples – where salespeople are not following the process, the sales training is ineffective, and the company doesn’t know how to generate leads?


Bob Apollo - April 27, 2009 Reply

Well, these questions are always a lucky dip when it come to reading the mind of the questioner, but it strikes me that none of the above decisions were made with any regard to their effect on the buyer’s journey or the value the prospect might derive from them.


Becky Smith - April 27, 2009 Reply

Every intervention decision was based on superstitious behavior…what worked in a previous situation was applied to the current underperforming asset class. When seeking to isolate root cause, process deconstruction and human performance analysis are the top two assessment tools (cuz if you haven’t automated the humans out of the process, then it’s either your people or your process).

Check out these links to Human Performance models (called HPT models – Human Performance Technology). My fave is from ISPI (International Society for Performance Improvement):

This is a nice survey report:

Mark Allen Roberts - April 27, 2009 Reply

What you are bringing to light is a fundamental issue holding back most companies: They don’t know what they don’t know. I wrote a blog about this at http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/do-you-know-what-you-dont-know/ . Far too often sales is instructed to sell…” like I did when I did your job back in the day” and there’s the flaw. Back in the day when your CEO was a salesperson, they probably did not have cell phones! Let alone the internet.
If executive leadership does not recognize the need to be market driven, verse inside driven, the best training in the world will not impact your team’s bottom-line results.
The reality is the leaders in these companies do not know what they don’t know. They do not know the new buying process, where the buyers go for information, how they make their decisions. They probably know their sales process (or the lack there of) but have not matched the sales process to the buying process of today and there’s the rub. Had they matched these two processes, they would have identified gaps. Gaps need sales tools to help the conversation continue.
Market leading sales teams understand their market, their buyers, and are equipped with the right tools that build trust through conversations.

Mike Kleis - April 27, 2009 Reply

Hi Michael,

In each of the examples I would submit that the companies did not have a common approach/framework for viewing and managing their marketing and selling process. This caused varying opinions, changing of direction, overriding of decisions, etc.

Simply put, with a common framework decisions and priorities become clear and opinions give way to the facts. This leads to the consistent selection of tactics that create a “leaner” process and increased flow of prospects/customers through the sales funnel.


Michael Webb - April 27, 2009 Reply

These are great comments – you are all close.

Bob – you are right that the people who made these mistakes were not paying attention of the customer’s journey. They weren’t paying attention to the “salesperson’s journey either!”

Becky – it is either your people or your process. I’m not familiar with Human Performance Technology (HPT) models, though they may apply … I look forward to your comments after I reveal what these situations have in common later this week.

Mark – Good points all – they are probably not conscious of a variety of things, depending on who’s perspective you take: The senior executive might not be conscious of the selling process required in the Web2.0 age and the salespeople (as well as the CEO) may not have considered the customer’s journey generally, or specifically for a given prospect.

Mike – your response is the closest so far. The lack of a common framework does indeed cause varying opinions, changing of direction, overriding of decisions, etc.

You’re almost there. There is a single term that accounts of all of these observations. That single term is what I’ll reveal in a few days.


Daniel Zamudio - April 27, 2009 Reply

Hi Michael,

My POV is that regardless of how pre-disposed a manager is to being process-oriented, it’s just really difficult for them to implement process because the tools at their disposal, sales technology and training, are ill-suited to the task. CRM is primarily an expensive contact management system from a salesperson’s perspective and a sales accounting system from a manager’s perspective. I am a big fan of sales methodology training; however, like any other form of training, its effects are short-lived because without proper and consistent reinforcement people inevitably revert back to their old behaviors and performance and effectiveness levels dip back to where they were pre-event.

Moreover, the spirit in which process is introduced and managed makes all the difference. If process is perceived as a set of rules that are imposed by management, then by definition they will not be very user-friendly and will not be readily adopted. Sales Process 2.0 to me is as much a philosophy as it is about technology. We are entering an era where people want/need to be inspired and empowered. As such, sales process needs to be packaged and positioned as a set of best practices designed to help the salesperson more successfully manage their leads, prospects and accounts. Change management needs to start with a management attitude change about how to bring in and effect process.

My company has developed a SaaS-based application (currently integrated with SFDC) that attempts to make it easier for sales and marketing management to institutionalize sales process and best practices and therefore for salespeople to adopt and consistently apply them. Our philosophy is “Have a process in place and have fun in the process!” We use a game-like metaphor to try to make the experience more compelling for the salesperson. But we’re only part of the answer. While we provide a great platform to define, execute and analyze your various sales processes, we recognize that this is only half the battle. The complete solution requires a “high tech AND high touch” approach with the “high touch” delivered by experts outside our confines who are conversant and passionate about the impact that a well-implemented process can have on performance and who can help broker and bridge between the various parties (sales, marketing, CEO, sales staff, product management) who have a say and stake in the matter. You need a steward of the process and that typically requires a third-party consultant because sales management is often times just plain too busy and under too much pressure to put on the brakes to do what they know they need to do. And more often than not many sales managers, especially front-line managers, have never received proper process training. In this economy, you win on the quality of your process and your people and one should reinforce the other. We’re a young company looking for guidance and ideas on how we can be of service to address the process-deficiency dilemma and welcome the opportunity to be part of the discussion.


The Hidden Obstacle to Improving Sales Performance: Systems Thinking | SalesPerformance.com - May 5, 2009 Reply

[…] week’s blog post, “Why Is It So Hard to Create Improvements in the Sales Department?” listed six examples of companies who tried and failed to improve sales results. All shared the […]

Rosa - September 23, 2009 Reply

I agree with Daniel, sales management is simply too busy to give the sales team the type of attention they need, and the sales team has usually been give corporate training, but not really sales “hands on” training that speaks to their ability level, that is why it does’nt last and that is why there is no accountability and sales goals are not achieved!

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