Dr. Douglas Hughes brings to his students the broad sales perspective he gained from his 20+ years in industry. His background includes marketing and sales leadership positions in two Fortune 500 companies as well as experience as a CEO of a business services firm. Here are just a few of the important position he holds: Associate Professor of Marketing at Michigan State University, leader of its sales program in the Broad College of Business, author, and Associate Editor and incoming Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management. He is the winner of numerous awards including the international 2011 AMA Sales SIG Excellence in Research Award and the national 2010 AMA McGraw-Hill/Irwin Sales Teacher of the Year Award.
Before becoming an academic, in his sales leadership role with large and small companies Doug developed a strong interest in not only the pivotal role salespeople play in the success of a company but the many decisions that salespeople make every day that impact performance. He watched companies throw directives and incentives at salespeople in an attempt to influence behavior. Seeing mixed results he wanted to explore if there were underlying psychological levers to be pulled that would increase performance and give companies a lead over competitors.
Helping sales managers understand how to effectively motivate salespeople and influence salesperson decision-making has been a focus of much of Doug’s research. When I asked Doug my first question about gaining sales force compliance, he suggested we think in terms of commitment instead and the immediacy of this answer and tone of his voice made clear his passion for the subject. We know that a strong and successful sales force is critical to the success of most businesses in today’s ultra-competitive environment. Customers and companies alike today depend on well trained, well equipped, and empowered salespeople.
Doug discussed how salespeople tend to operate in a relatively autonomous environment in which they have a great deal of latitude about where they focus their time and energy. They are constantly making decisions in this regard. Each time a company launches a key initiative whether it is a new product launch or a new sales process, it faces the challenge of making sure the decisions that its salespeople make are appropriate for achieving the objectives. This challenge is even more difficult to manage with channel intermediaries where there isn’t direct control over a sales force that sells multiple, often competitive brands.
To exert influence over these decisions and to stimulate desired behaviors, companies put controls in place. These could be behavioral controls that mandate and monitor the execution of particular activities, outcome controls that simply reward performance, or some combination of the two. Doug agrees that under some circumstances these controls can be effective, particularly if certain nuances are understood.
However, he is not satisfied to stop there. In his research he looks at other subtle psychological forces that sales managers can tap into to influence sales force behavior. The mechanisms he focuses on aim to achieve commitment over compliance.
His research shows that behavioral controls drive activity, but can be less effective in producing long-term results. When there is compliance rather than commitment to a course of action, the quality of the effort is weak, creativity is inhibited, and the controls actually detract from what companies need their salespeople to do today, which is to serve as consultants to customers. His research shows that when salespeople’s autonomy and decision making is inhibited, their ability to perform as thinkers and creative problem solvers is diminished.
In today’s environment companies need their salespeople to be thinkers and creative problem solvers, to be value creators and not just value communicators. These kinds of behaviors are supported by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.
So how do we rationalize that with today’s focus on sales process, metrics, best practices, and coaching to the sales process which relies heavily on behavioral controls? Doug understands there is a greater interest in metrics today. He affirmed that processes and resources must be in place along with an effective sales support function in terms of hiring the right people and training and enabling them to bring value, insights, and ideas to customers. But he warns that sales leaders must not fall victim to process. Instead they must harness process rather than have process constrain capabilities.
There is a need for process to see where things fall short and to take corrective action but he calls for a balance so as not to constrain salespeople to do what they are hired to do. For example, in a pharmaceutical company’s a new product launch behavioral controls provided short-term results but proved a double-edge sword.
Decision-making was taken out of the salesperson’s hands. This constrained activity across salespeople’s customer base, caused them to make sub-optimal decisions, negatively impacted customer product perceptions, and proved counter-productive to new product sales. When salespeople’s autonomy was restored and they were allowed to manage their own efforts customer product perceptions improved and sales increased.
To maintain balance Doug identified these courses of action:
- Hire the right people, train them, put strong support systems in place, and in a sense let go.
- Don’t over-manage the situation. Sales managers need to have trust and faith that the company has done what it needed to do.
- Build intrinsic motivation. Understand that behavioral intentions (sales efforts) are driven by three factors: the person’s attitude toward the behavior, the norms in place (other people’s expectations), and self-efficacy (the confidence the person has to successfully implement the behavior).
Doug tested these notions in another research project with a major tool manufacturer undergoing the launch of an important new product. Results showed that sales managers should resist the temptation to rely on normative pressures of control, directives, and “wagging the finger” and be more concerned about helping salespeople feel good about the activity they are charged with executing and build their confident that they can succeed. If this sounds to you a little about “Music Man” think again because there is hard data to support it.
Research also shows that salespeople can identify with the organizations and brands they work for. Identification is a psychological sense of oneness with an entity whether a religious faith, political party, company, or even a brand. Identification has relevance in sales because when a salesperson identifies with a company or brand, the goals of the company/brand and the goals of the salesperson converge, and the salesperson is intrinsically motivated to achieve those goals. In addition, the identifying salesperson is prone to perform brand specific extra role behaviors that go beyond job requirements in promoting the brand to customers and co-workers.
To help a sales team form a psychological connection with the brand, Doug offered these suggestions:
- treat salespeople as the organizations’ first customer
- bolster internal communications with the sales force
- make the sales force aware of the brand’s external advertising and what it means
- ensure salespeople understand the essence of the brand, what it stands for and what its values are beyond information about the brand (Doug emphasized that this is far more than product knowledge because research shows when salespeople simply believe a product is far superior to competitors they may actually shirk selling because they sense the product should sell itself. But when salespeople identify with a brand they perform at high levels regardless of the carrot or stick).
- when selling through channel partners, don’t focus entirely on management and overlook the importance of building relationships with the channel member’s sales personnel.
At the end of the day sales managers must evaluate performance and of course this means being attuned to the numbers. The key is to also look into how the company is getting the numbers. Ask questions such as Are the salespeople being killed in the process? Is there high employee turnover? What are customers saying?
Doug’s advice: Recognize that salespeople are in fact decision makers, making pivotal decisions every day in terms of how they manage their most critical resource: their time and effort. Sales managers must understand the importance of intrinsic motivation and strive to create an environment that equips and empowers salespeople to identify with their brand and serve as value-added consultants to prospects and customers.