Now Is the Time to Shake Up Your Sales Processes

Executive Summary

Major sales force changes, such as restructuring or downsizing, are disruptive to how sales teams work and to the systems that support them. Not surprisingly, leaders often wait to implement major changes until a significant event forces them to do so. A crisis, such as the pandemic, makes sales leaders, managers, and salespeople more receptive to change. As implementing change gets easier, the key challenge becomes deciding what to change. Beyond the forced move to virtual connection during the pandemic, sales organizations are dealing with critical questions. How will customers buy in the future? How much of the sales process will remain virtual? What does this mean for sales organization design, sales success profiles, sales incentive structures, and other sales management decisions?

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Major sales force changes such as restructuring or downsizing are disruptive to how sales teams work and to the systems that support them. A poorly-orchestrated change can damage customer relationships, hurt the top line, and threaten salespeople’s sense of control and self-esteem. Not surprisingly, leaders often wait to implement major changes until a significant event forces them to do so.

A crisis like the pandemic makes sales leaders, managers, and salespeople more receptive to change. A crisis can also spark energy, courage, and perseverance as leaders bring people together to address a shared challenge.

As implementing change gets easier, the key challenge becomes deciding what to change. Beyond the forced move to virtual connection during the pandemic, sales organizations are dealing with critical questions. How will customers buy in the future? How much of the sales process will remain virtual? What does this mean for sales organization design, sales success profiles, sales incentive structures, and other sales management decisions? Four issues need urgent attention now, as changes will only get harder to implement as time passes.

Rethinking the Sales Process

Even before the pandemic, buyers had jumped ahead of B2B selling organizations in their digital savvy. Buyers’ expectations were shaped by online buying experiences with the likes of Amazon and Netflix in their personal lives. Three factors contributed to the slow progress of B2B selling organizations with digital. First, boosting digital and virtual selling usually meant taking some customers or sales tasks away from field salespeople. Salespeople naturally resisted, wanting to keep control of every step in the process. Second, sales leaders held back as they weighed the risk of disrupting customer relationships. Third, as the rigidity of technology collided with the fluidity of B2B selling, digital system implementation was fraught with delays and had questionable impact.

Further Reading

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, remarked that as the pandemic affected every aspect of life and work, “We saw two years of digital transformation in two months.” Indeed, the technical barriers to change are falling rapidly. Salespeople and customers are ready to change too. A field salesperson wistfully observed of her new virtual sales world, “Customers are getting used to this.” To move forward, it’s important to know when field salespeople will still be prominent or dominant in the sales process and when they will have a diminished role.

The key is to align in-person sales channels with buying complexity and buyer uncertainty. Sales organizations will eliminate or reduce in-person visits in simpler selling situations, including:

  • Straightforward buying steps (sharing information, placing orders)
  • Customers who are comfortable with virtual connection
  • Decision makers who already know what to buy, especially on repeat purchases

Sales organizations will return to primarily in-person selling in complex situations, including:

  • Customers who have undefined needs or are unsure about a solution
  • Circumstances requiring collaboration and creativity
  • Buyers with many decision influencers

Resizing and Restructuring the Sales Force

Sales process redesign necessitates rethinking sales force size and structure. When work shifts to digital and virtual channels, downsizing the field sales force is likely.

Sales force downsizing is an obvious consequence for industries badly hurt by the pandemic, such as travel and transportation. But other industries are downsizing field sales forces as well. At a manufacturing equipment company, customers preferred to ask field sales engineers for help with technical support and fulfillment, rather than working through the service switchboard. During the pandemic, without sales engineers on site, customers were forced to go down the “right” channels for service. Customers discovered that service personnel were better equipped to help them with service issues than they’d expected. As in-person selling returns, the company plans to have fewer field sales engineers and less overlap between sales and service.

As many sales organizations face the trauma of downsizing, there are upsizing opportunities for industries such as cloud services.  Surprisingly, sales force expansions often lag business needs because salespeople generally dislike giving up customers — a natural consequence of adding salespeople. Upsizing may also create advantage when competitors are weakened by the pandemic.

Changing the Sales Success Profile

Changes to sales processes and roles create a need to rethink the sales success profile. This may be the hardest change of all if the capabilities of current sales team members don’t align with new role requirements. Digital fluency was forced on sales teams in the pandemic. Going forward, salespeople, managers, and leaders will need other new capabilities as well.

An industrial valve manufacturer rebounding from the pandemic is redefining its sales success profile to deemphasize relationship-based selling skills and focus more on the empathetic, value-based selling approach that informed customers prefer. The change is bringing more women to the formerly male-dominated sales team.

Other sales organizations are adapting to the multichannel sales environment by bringing more team-oriented salespeople on board. The profile for sales managers is changing as well — for example, emphasizing adaptability over the ability to direct structured processes.

Revising Incentives

A new sales process and success profile can create a need to redesign incentives to reinforce sales role changes. In addition, incentive plan redesign can address unresolved issues that were emerging before the pandemic began. Changes to consider include the following.

Matching pay with value. A mutual fund executive observed recently, “The inside salespeople, who have one-third the income, are doing a better job than the field salespeople.” As selling shifts from field sales to inside sales to digital channels, the pay level for each sales role needs to adjust to match the work performed and value added.

Changing the pay mix. In some cases, selling is becoming more multichannel and team-based, yet salespeople still earn large incentives tied to individual short-term results. It could be time to shift the pay mix to a larger salary and less incentive, or to tie incentives to metrics reflecting team-based rather than individual performance.

Rethinking plan type. Industries such as office supplies and medical supplies have high carryover sales (repeat sales for little or no sales effort). Yet these industries often pay salespeople commissions from the first dollar of sales. Switching to an incentive plan that pays for meeting and exceeding sales goals can motivate more sales effort and drive growth.

Aligning metrics with strategy. For example, say salespeople earn incentives for achieving a combined sales goal (total sales of all products) even though products have different margins or strategic value. It is a good time to revise the incentive plan to emphasize some products over others.

There are cascading implications to all these sales force changes. A new sales process has impact on sales roles and organization design, which affects the success profile, the incentive plan, and more. Alignment across sales decisions and programs is essential as leaders implement these and other challenging sales force changes.

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TPS/DED/Permiso de Trabajo para Venezolanos en EEUU Explicado

TPS/DED/Permiso de Trabajo para Venezolanos en EEUU Explicado

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It’s Great to Lead with Smart Experiments

Guest post by Steven K. Gold, M.D.:

Leadership is all about decision and action. As leaders, our goal is to make the best decisions

that lead to the most productive actions. As the world becomes less certain, even highly unpredictable, how do we go about optimizing our chances for success?

Fortunately, we have a group of experienced leaders who have been grappling with the challenges of uncertainty for many years: successful entrepreneurs.

For over 20 years, I have studied entrepreneurs. As an academic and as a thought leader, I have conducted studies of thousands of entrepreneurs of all kinds, on three continents. This has included embedding myself within various accelerator programs to observe the daily (and even moment-to-moment) decisions and actions of successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs. This led to the idea of Smart Experiments.

Experiments are investments of a first set of available resources that produce a second (hopefully more valuable) set of resources. I use the term “resources” broadly, and they include human connections (networks), knowledge, experience, expertise, and ability to influence others, among many others. Resources are the foundation of experiments.

Experiments – like everything else in life – can be done poorly or well. Despite this, most of us have never been taught how to do an experiment in a way that predisposes to success. Expert entrepreneurs, on the other hand, have developed and mastered a particular process that I refer to as a Smart Experiment.

Smart Experiments are done in an ongoing cycle that includes four steps:

1) DESIGN. Entrepreneurs always look around to assess their available resources. What resources do I have – human connections, material, knowledge, experiences, expertise, finances, etc. – that I can combine in creative ways to design a possible experiment? Entrepreneurs make formal and informal lists (referred to as Opportunity Registers) of all of their possible experiments, based on the resources they have at hand. Expert entrepreneurs like having many opportunities, and options.

2) DECIDE. Given a long list of possible experiments, entrepreneurs categorize them. They do this continuously, and are always reassessing their resources in light of the results of ongoing experiments. Any possible experiment that has been Designed in Step 1 can be placed into one of four categories: a) do it now, b) do it later, c) find a partner, or d) forget about it. This prioritization determines what happens next.

3) DE-RISK. Before embarking on the “do it now” experiments, entrepreneurs de-risk their experiments. This means that they identify the most likely potential causes for failure, and prepare for them in advance of doing the experiment. This step recognizes that certain easily predictable and fixable issues can make a big difference, and they are addressed up front. This predisposes any given experiment to success.

4) DELIVER. Only then do entrepreneurs do the experiment, which almost always involves a series of small steps. Since every experiment is an investment of resources intended to secure (more valuable) resources, expert entrepreneurs harvest all of the value that results from any given experiment. They do not leave value on the table.

We can each choose to do our experiments poorly or well. Doing Smart Experiments – and helping others to do them properly – increases chances for successful outcomes. The best entrepreneurs encourage everyone around them to do Smart Experiments.

Here are a few take-away lessons for leaders:

First, Smart Experiments involve thought and action. Entrepreneurs rarely get stuck in “analysis paralysis” because they break down risky activities into less risky, small steps. Instead of jumping across a room, they take it a step at a time. By taking a step at a time they increase the likelihood that each step will go well, and they are much more likely to make it across the room – even if they encounter an obstacle. Obstacles (representing uncertainties) are easy to walk around, and much harder if you fly right into them. This is one way that expert entrepreneurs deal with uncertainty.

Second, the best entrepreneurs understand that succeeding and failing are two sides of the same coin. Smart Experiments, using prioritization and risk mitigation, mean that our failures become smaller. That said, failures do occur, and are expected to occur. If an entrepreneur is not failing at least a good portion of the time (remember, they are taking small steps and so these are relatively small failures – or learning adventures), this means the entrepreneur is probably not trying hard enough.

So why is it great to lead with Smart Experiments? First, understanding resources is the best way to understand the value you have to invest. The more you have to invest, the more you are likely to reap greater returns. Second, Smart Experiments prioritize those actions that make the most sense – to do now, do later, partner, or not do at all. Smaller steps that make up Smart Experiments are also easier to get started with, and to make successful. When things go awry, as they often do in uncertain environments, smaller steps lead to smaller failures, which protect resources. All of this predisposes to a higher probability of success, which has a dramatic compounding effect.

Leading with Smart Experiments means one more thing: prioritizing intelligent action over results. If people are empowered to do their best, to do their best experiments, then they are pursuing their potential. They will succeed much of the time, and fail at other times, both of which are indicators of effort. With this in mind, celebrate Smart Experiments. Teach Smart Experiments. Be a role model for Smart Experiments.

Steven K. Gold, M.D., is the author of HOW WE SUCCEED: Making Good Things Happen Through The Power Of Smart Experiments. He is Chairman of Gold Global Advisors, a firm that advises leaders and teams in the science of sustainable success. For more information, please visit https://www.stevenkgold.com/.