New sales strategy process being implemented – caution ahead!

When senior executives are asked what differentiates top and average performers, a consistent response is: The best sales people think and act strategically.”

There is little question in today’s competitive B2B markets that being a top performer requires doing a better job than the other guy in formulating and executing a strategic approach to accounts.  Those who are good at it have several things in common. Some of these things are by-products of innate talents.  But, the biggest factors in the equation are putting in place a great process and implementing a great training program to learn the required skills.

Implementing a sales strategy process for a sales team is something that many companies try, but far fewer successfully exit the other end of the tunnel.  Success depends on the coming together of several key factors.

First, success requires planning, communication, and leadership from the executive team. Second, the leadership team needs to craft a strategic planning process that fits the culture, experience level, and history of the sales team, as well as, the type of sale.  Then an appropriate sales training program needs to be selected and implemented to help the sales team adopt the process and learn the skills needed to implement it.

Unfortunately when a company tries to take this journey, there are many potential pitfalls and potholes along the way.  Three have a particularly nasty track record because they pop up frequently and they have a substantial disruptive effect.

1. Forgetting that creating better strategies requires up-front planning, management review, and follow-up. Let’s take a typical but flawed scenario – a company decides the sales force needs to do a better job creating account strategies. So, they search for and purchase an account strategy program from a training vendor and implement it for the entire sales force.

Then compliance requirements are put in place and the wait for good things to come about begins.  At first everyone does what is required, but for only a few, do good things happen.  Soon most stop doing the “new” things and go back to doing what they were doing.  From management you hear things like – “it just didn’t stick.”

The sad note is – something like this tale happens way too often.  Training by itself is not going to carry the day, nor is it the first step in getting strategy right.

The first step falls to sales leadership: set the stage for implementing a new strategic planning process.  This involves planning and communication about what is to be done and why it is being done – it includes: sitting the stage – preparing the organization culture and adjusting individual attitudes and mindsets.   The second step is to delineate a total process that includes how the front-line managers will be involved in account reviews and follow-ups.  And, the third step is implementing a sales training program to help the reps adopt the concept and to develop the skills for a process they have already come to think is a good idea.

2. Underestimating the fact that every customer is unique. A fundamental notion underpinning getting strategy right is the recognition that one size does not fit all.  Each account and each opportunity within an account are different.  There are different players, differing views on what constitutes value, different constraints, and different price sensitivities – and that is just the short list.

If you were to ask a group of assembled sales managers whether the account strategy for each customer should be unique, every hand in the room would go up.  The problem occurs when the time comes for crafting the account planning process and putting in place the sales training.

For adopting a common account strategy process, no consideration is more important than the recognition that in today’s selling environment it’s not about learning strategies – it’s about formulating strategies. So, it is not about teaching six great strategies and how to select which one; it’s about providing the tools and best practices for formulating a unique strategy for each unique customerand that requires a comprehensive understanding of each customer.

That last part about understanding is easy to say – not so easy to do. In complex accounts the starting point for developing a comprehensive understanding of the customer is recognizing that breadth comes before depth. Four perspectives are worth highlighting:

  • There is neither the need nor the time to find out everything about everything all at once.
  • It’s important to get a broad information base about the customer early in the sales cycle.
  • Use the initial information to provide guidance as to where you need more in-depth information.
  • The trap is getting a lot of information about the wrong things from the wrong people.

3. Failing to distinguish between tools and forms. In a recent McKinsey article about freeing up sales forces time for selling, the authors noted: “Most sales reps spend less than half their time actually selling.”  If you ask a bunch of account executives to name Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to this “time away from selling” problem – paper work usually skyrockets to the top of the list.

The reason why this problem is germane to the topic at hand is too many account strategy processes involve too much “paper work”. Hence they add to the problem. The idea is to help reps to think and act strategically.  Developing a solid sales strategy for an account is about gathering and analyzing information and then using that information for formulating a path forward.  It is not about writing down what you already know so can turn in 10 account plans at the end of the week.

The distinction between a tool and a form can help address this “paper work” problem.  A tool helps a sales rep translate data into useful information.  It helps you to connect the dotes and to gain insights not otherwise obtainable.  A form, on the other hand, is all about answering a series of questions some of which you know the answer to and some of which you don’t.  The big difference is a form is unlikely to help you think differently about the account or to gain major new insights.

So, the moral of the story is if you want to increase the probability of widespread adoption, an account strategy process should include tools for helping the sales rep assess parameters like: what are the characteristics of the buying process, who are the players in the decision, and what is the nature of the competitive threat.  On the other hand, long forms requiring a lot of paper work” should be eliminated.

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©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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