Have you ever seen a child who’s just received the gift of a plastic toy hammer? Preferably your memory of this includes the child wearing a colorful fake hardhat and a flimsy tool belt too, but the most important image is the plastic toy hammer. What’s the first thing the child does with the hammer? He starts hitting everything in reach. The walls, the refrigerator, his sister, the dog. Pretty much everything except a nail gets the same treatment – a purposeful whack with the new toy.
Have you ever seen a salesperson who’s just received the gift of a new sales process? Preferably your memory of this includes some PowerPoint slides, a planning tool, and some role plays in a hotel ballroom. What’s the first thing a dutiful salesperson does with the process? He starts hitting every sales prospect in sight. Big prospects, small prospects, new prospects, old customers. Pretty much every buyer gets the same treatment – a purposeful whack with the new process.
Okay, perhaps this comparison is a little unfair… To the child. In reality, the child was given an inexpensive toy intended to provide a few moments of joyful play. The salesperson, on the other hand, was given a very expensive tool intended to help him earn a better living. But ultimately the result will be the same – both the hammer and the sales process will be brandished for a short while before being unceremoniously stored on a shelf.
If you’ve been in sales for even a few years, you’ll recognize this routine. I won’t bother to name all of the popular sales processes that you’ve probably discarded in your career, but chances are you can name a few. So, what’s going on here?
There’s only one reason salespeople abandon a sales process: They don’t think it works. And most of the time, it’s not that the process doesn’t work – it’s that it doesn’t work in every situation. A new account planning process might work well for large accounts, but not for small prospects. A call planning process might be perfect for winning new customers, but not for growing existing accounts. In almost every case we can recall, a new sales process works for something… It just doesn’t work for everything.
And that’s why most sales processes are abandoned. They are great hammers, but modern salespeople need more than hammers – they need the entire box of tools. They need account planning processes for large accounts and call planning processes for prospects. They need territory plans to prioritize their effort and opportunity plans to win long sales cycles. When you give salespeople a hammer and they use it to bang on a screw, they toss it aside because they think ‘it doesn’t work.’ Of course the hammer works, but only on nails.
I was introduced last year to new research by Florida State University professor Leff Bonney, who has some fascinating data to support this observation. His research reveals that top salespeople actually do use an entire box of tools. In his terms, they exhibit ‘adaptive’ or ‘agile’ selling behaviors that employ the right sales strategies to fit each situation they encounter. They assess when each tool is needed, and they possess the skills to use them all. And consequently, they win more deals.
Interestingly, Dr. Bonney’s research confirms this fact from the customer’s point of view. 83% of buyers he surveyed said that a salesperson’s ability to adjust their sales strategy was a major factor in the buyer’s purchase decision. Yet the same buyers claim that only 12% of sellers are good at adapting their approach. Only a fraction of salespeople are agile enough to utilize the right process in the right situation, and those are the sellers that win the most deals. From a customers’ perspective, that’s a great thing. But how does that same phenomenon look from a sales leader’s point of view?
These highly agile salespeople are those very same scoundrels who have abandoned your new sales process! They’ll probably use it on occasion, whenever it’s the right thing to do. But they are just as likely to toss it aside and ‘wing it’ in front of a prospect. And in many cases, they’re doing the right thing. They’re responding to the situation in front of them – using a hammer on the nails and a screwdriver on the screws.
Dr. Bonney tells the story of a company that deployed a formal sales process with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Some time later, they quantitatively assessed how closely their salespeople were adhering to the process, and they were surprised to discover that their top performers consistently scored the worst! Their best salespeople had already concluded that the new process didn’t work in every situation, and they were using it sparingly – only when it was appropriate. Good for them… and their customers.
So what’s to be done with this insight? Do we conclude that we should no longer deploy sales processes? Of course not. What we need to do is deploy a suite of sales processes and then educate our salespeople when to use each. We need to institutionalize agility so that all our sellers demonstrate the discretion of the 12% who do it intuitively. Then all of the hammers will fall on anxiously awaiting nails – not unsuspecting refrigerators, siblings, or pets. Your sales processes will finally be embraced. As will your salespeople by their grateful customers.