Sales is integral to any business. Without sales we don’t have a business.
But running a sales operation, leading the sales effort and directing a sales team can be a constant juggling act. Sales operations have many moving parts and they all require constant vigilance and effective decision making. The execution risk is always high.
Sales operations and teams are also fragile ecosystems. Set up well to perform to a standard, they require constant hands-on leadership and stewardship; it’s like keeping a set of spinning plates spinning. Take your eyes off those plates for a second and everything can come crashing down around you.
This metaphor reminds me of one of our clients, a great sales leader who is a master at spinning sales plates: leading and growing his sales team, building out loyal client networks, working in concert with other parts of the business ensuring everyone is aligned and focused on the right things. He did this role inside a company for 20 years and was highly successful until there was a worldwide merger of two businesses. On paper it looked great. On the ground it was anything but. Due to political manoeuvrings by head office, outside of his control, our sales leader’s sales operation and team was taken over by the other business.
The new country CEO took over running the business and sales team. He didn’t value the work done by our sales leader. This CEO’s view on selling was old school: carrot and stick, transactional, do-as-I-say sales management with results measured by quarters. The good work done by our previous sales leader was dismantled overnight with the resulting effect that sales declined dramatically from the previous three years which had seen radically improved sales results and deeper client partnerships; plus highly skilled salespeople left the business in droves even though, in the previous three years, the business had not fielded one resignation.
The value of a well-structured, well run sales operation and team were not on the agenda of this management team. The highly effective sales systems, processes, training, coaching and leadership that were implemented by our sales leader were no more and with it went sales, margins and prosperous relationships.
Contrast this with a $4B publicly listed business that was in severe decline when I met them. The newly appointed Executive General Manager who’d come from finance, took my advice and went out on a limb to implement a Selling Better sales system that addresses strategy, process, people and culture – all the spinning plates. In 2 years, they’ve reversed their sales revenue and margin decline to becoming an outstanding industry leader that clients want to partner with. As this EGM says ‘The change has been outstanding. Two years ago I couldn’t have imagined that Sales would be in such great shape already. I thought it would’ve take years but here we are now with a fantastic sales team, great leadership, sales infrastructure and processes, strategy and culture that is growing and making a huge difference to our business and clients. As an accountant, I knew very little about sales but putting in place a Sales System that includes Sales Strategy & Operations Framework has steered us in the right direction.’
The Sales Juggling Act
So how do we avoid a similar sales demise as described in the first scenario or quickly turn a sales team around as in the second?
First we need to appreciate that selling is a complex variable system with many moving parts that need to be accounted for across the business, not just within the sales team. A Sales System is a whole of business approach from the C-suite down. It’s how we create genuinely customer centric and accountable organisations. As I always say selling is everybody’s business and everybody lives by selling something.
Second, we need to abandon short-termism. Many businesses are addicted to short-termism, living quarter by quarter only focusing on immediate results. It’s not sustainable.
What’s becoming evident is that maximising resources for short-term gain has harmful consequences for the future on every level. The McKinsey Global Institute2 study found that while short-termism is rising, it damages corporate performance and it costs millions of jobs. It also creates excessive burn out in people and we see this over and over again in sales teams who are highly stressed and often compromised in trying to meet quarterly targets. This study concluded that long-term focused companies deliver higher levels of economic profit than short-term ones, and that they delivered superior financial performance over time.
How do we keep our eye on the sales prize?
Juggling immediate sales priorities and short term results with longer term strategic sales goals requires clarity, commitment and communication in order to minimise execution risk and deliver profitable and sustainable sales results.
Clarity around your purpose and sales strategy and how it’s going to be executed by the business and sales team; 100% commitment from leadership to make it happen and uphold the minimum standards of sales excellence we abide by, and regular communication with the sales team and broader business so everyone knows selling is team sport and how they contribute to better sales performance and retention of customers and each other.