Transforming a Sales Organization: A Systematic Approach to Change
We talk with a lot of sales leaders who believe they can transform their organizations by implementing a new incentive plan or sending their teams to a one-day offsite workshop. But let’s face it: If change were that simple, wouldn’t everyone do it? Wouldn’t all sales organizations be transformed by now? Wouldn’t every sales team exceed its targets, year after year?
If a book or a seminar could actually spark and sustain growth, every year would be a banner year for any sales team whose manager was smart enough to buy the book, invest in the training, or deploy the flavor-of-the-month team-building program. Alas, most sales managers we meet are pretty smart. Yet, very few have successfully transformed their organizations. What gives?
In our experience working with some of the world’s biggest and most dynamic sales organizations, we have seen time and again that no workshop, no best-selling book, and no rewards package will lead to lasting and meaningful change. What does work, however, is a top-down, systematic approach to transformation. It starts with the development of an overarching sales model to continuously improve four key elements common to every sales organization:
- Internal alignment
We’ve found that when we work with organizations to deconstruct each of these elements, analyze them in detail, and reconstruct them in alignment with the company’s goals, our clients see significant, measurable change. True and lasting transformation requires hard work – harder than reading a book or signing up for a workshop. But for most organizations, the results justify the effort.
We begin the transformation process by taking a deep dive into how the sales organization is set up to go-to-market. Among the essential questions we ask for each customer segment:
- What does customer feedback tell you?
- What is the cost of sales?
- Is the organization structured to deliver significant value to the customer?
Segment-by-segment, we examine and refine how the sales teams are structured through this top-down approach. Often, this leads to the development of sub-groups within some of the segments – the creation of a national accounts team for example, or a consolidated brands group to give customers a single point of contact. Essentially, we look at the organization’s pain points, its opportunities, and its track record. From there, we often recommend a revised sales structure and new processes to help each segment become more efficient and effective. This is no off-the-shelf, prefabricated solution, but a proven, custom-fit process for identifying and overcoming hurdles to sustained growth.
Of course, structural changes have no meaningful effect unless the organization has a sustainable process for developing its people. For this critical element, we complete a thorough analysis of the sales representatives’ competencies and the organization’s methods for developing and deploying critical sales knowledge. Is there a common sales language across relevant segments, for example? If not, we help develop one. We also work with leaders to ensure that the salespeople use other key resources within the organization, such as the brand teams, merchandising groups, marketing professionals, or the IT department. We find that breaking down these silos can lead to a newfound synergy.
We develop competencies and a common sales language primarily through a blend of instructor-led training, webinars, and one-on-one coaching sessions, with an emphasis on sales management (since these leaders are critical to sustaining any change). Most important, we draw subject matter directly from our earlier analysis of the organization’s structures and people, not from a pre-existing manual. This phase is designed to close gaps, foster communication among groups, and align the sales organization to the company’s overarching strategies. In many cases, we recommend pairing sales teams and product or brand teams to ensure that salespeople gain extensive product knowledge so they can address customers’ questions about the product or service.
In order to sustain the investments our clients make in building their people’s skills and knowledge, we help them to develop a robust set of tools that can include reference materials, templates, and sales force automation.
We realize that different sales groups have different needs. Some need flash reference cards that can “ride along” with them in the car. Others want electronic tools on their desktops or poster-like reminders on their office walls. We typically develop a number of reference materials tailored for different groups and uses.
Designed to reinforce key selling fundamentals, these materials (such as training booklets) guide salespeople so that they can focus on the content without having to stop and ponder, “What do I do next?” As appropriate, we also look for ways to integrate these tools and selling processes into any sales force automation systems that they currently use or plan to use in the future.
As we all know, a sales team doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Success often depends on the contributions of marketing, forecasting, supply chain planning, finance, and other internal groups. Yet, all too often, we see a communication gap between sales and these other groups – especially marketing. They’re disconnected. Typically, the “disconnect” is driven by:
- Different goals and metrics (for example, a marketing team’s lead generation and brand development may conflict with a sales team’s revenue goals)
- Different “languages” and nomenclature hampering clear communication among the groups
- Different backgrounds and skillsets causing confusion around responsibilities
The key here is enabling people to “speak the same language,” whether they’re discussing marketing, sales, planning, technology, or any other of the organization’s business units. We bring these functions together through common processes and metrics, including an end-to-end marketing and sales planning process that defines roles and responsibilities for both functions.
A Case Study in Sales Organization Transformation
Our in-depth process is practical, not theoretical. When rolled out in the real world, our clients report dramatic results. One, a major consumer products company, had six discrete sales organizations calling on largely the same customer base. These selling organizations differed in how they developed and motivated their people, how they reported sales activity, and how they aligned to other functions within the organization.
We began by interviewing salespeople and customers to understand where the issues were. Time and time again we heard customers asking for one single point of contact with our client company, not six different salespeople! And our client’s reps simply wanted to sell more products and earn their commissions. We then segmented the customer base and calculated the cost of sales by segment. Based on the resulting analysis, we made a number of recommendations aimed at reducing the cost of sales, including:
- One consolidated sales force representing products across the organization
- Calibration of the existing sales forces to determine appropriate role placement or outplacement
- A tiered selling model where key account managers called on a small set of high revenue and/or high potential accounts and territory managers called on a larger set of smaller accounts
- Deliberate elimination of face-to-face coverage where the revenue from the annual sales did not justify the cost of sales
- A robust training program emphasizing sales capabilities and product knowledge
- A knowledge base in which to house critical marketing information
- Processes to align sales and marketing effectively and consistently across the new, consolidated sales organization
Since the new sales organization’s launch, the client has realized a savings of $1.98 million in the first year, and revenue has increased 15% year-over-year. Of course, they have seen some attrition along the way, but given the scope of the change, the turnover has been minimal. This is due largely to the following tactics we employed to implement this new structure:
Strategic communication plan
While our recommendations were being implemented, we managed communications to ensure that the sale force had the right information at the right time to be successful in its new role. Through each of these communications, we emphasized the support that the field had from the sales leadership team.
Thorough training program
Our client made significant investments to ensure that salespeople in the new structure were ready when they transitioned to their new clients. In addition to a classroom-based product knowledge kick-off, we provided two months of transition time from previous roles to new roles, a series of webinars to augment and reinforce product knowledge, and classroom-based sales training to improve solution selling skills and align everyone to the same sales process and expectations. In a nutshell, the program enabled the team to sell the “full bag” of offerings with a common solution-based sales process and language.
Understanding that this new sales force would be comprised of more generalists than specialists (given the number of products in the “bag”), we concluded that product knowledge would be critical.
Subsequently, we developed a “knowledge base” to house product information available in real time to salespeople in the field. Because we understood that each sales force had relied on different tools for planning routes and recording calls, we developed a territory and account management tool to standardize these processes. Finally, we deployed job aides to help the sales force apply the new sales capability training in a completely new role. This job aide assists the field in planning their activities so that they can consistently apply the sales process across all their territories.
Alignment with Marketing
While our client continues to tweak how they work internally, we advise them on processes and structures to enable more effective alignment with their marketing organization. This includes the development of a trade marketing group and a new product launch process.
With the ability to execute a sales process based on best practices, the client’s sales force is now demonstrating to its customers that it’s a world-class organization representing innovative products. At long last, the client has become the formidable competitor that its customers insisted time and time again that they wanted it to become.
Sales transformation: the bottom line
None of these results were possible without daily effort from people in the field. Since the beginning of the sales transformation efforts, the client deployed a consistent process to recognize and reward those individuals who embody the spirit of the transformation. The nomination process and quarterly award announcements provide the opportunity to renew enthusiasm for the sales process, collect and share new success stories, and recognize outstanding performance.
Effective transformation is an evolving process, not a quick fix and certainly not the result of a day-long conference, a new book, or a single theory. Our work systematically aligns selling with development, rewards, coaching, and recruitment – in short, with every aspect of the client’s sales process. As our clients’ sales organizations continue to evolve, their leaders tell us that they are able to move more quickly and effectively on what’s been built – constantly reapplying the improvement processes throughout the organization.