In sales we spend a lot of time and effort in helping sales people do a better job thinking and acting strategically in their accounts. Sales managers establish sales strategy as a coaching priority – sales training departments implement sales training programs that focus exclusively on account strategy.
The good news: this is a case where the emphasis is entirely warranted. In the B2B market, it’s difficult to improve the sales productivity of a sales team unless that team gets better at formulating account strategies.
But getting sales people more skilled at sales strategy is only a piece of the puzzle – that effort by itself is a good idea, but it is not a game changer. To change the game in a significant and sustainable way, then getting strategy right has to start at the top.
Sales leadership needs to develop and articulate to the sales team an overarching strategic direction that the team can use as a starting point to develop their individual account strategies. The team needs a “game plan.”
Without one, some will score, but most will struggle. In a complex B2B market without guidance from the top, an individual rep can easily fall into the trap of doing a really good job, doing the wrong thing.
Given the fundamental premise about necessity, let’s explore some best practices for the sales leadership providing strategic direction to their sales team. Fortunately, we have some research from McKinsey that provides a starting point for the discussion.
In the McKinsey Quarterly, the authors summarize some of the insights from a multiyear study on how senior executives can do a better job developing and executing a winning strategy. Their work was about business strategy in general but the results translate extremely well to the world of sales.
As a starter let’s establish a general frame for the discussion, here the McKinsey authors provide some useful insight – “As a senior executive, you may think you know what Job Number 1 is: developing a killer strategy. In fact, this is only Job 1a. You have a second, equally important task. Call it Job 1b: enabling the ongoing engagement and everyday progress of the people in the trenches of your organization who strive to execute that strategy.”
These words tell a story that surely rings true in the world of sales. When the senior sales leadership develops a strategic initiative, they also need to provide the planning, communication, and leadership to translate that initiative into meaningful directions that provide guidance to the sales team.
In the article the authors go on to explore a number of traps that senior executives need to avoid in executing their roles in strategy execution. Three hold particular relevancy for sale.
1. Avoiding a strategic attention deficit disorder. As a sales person managing multiple accounts in an ever-changing environment, it’s difficult to keep all the trains on the track. When constant changes in direction come down from top management, it’s double trouble. Unfortunately, this is too often the case.
As the McKinsey authors note: “we see too many top managers start and abandon initiatives so frequently that they appear to display a kind of attention deficit disorder when it comes to strategy. They don’t allow sufficient time to discover whether initiatives are working, and they communicate insufficient rationales to their employees when they make strategic shifts.”
2. Losing sight of the sales reps’ point of view. Being in a top sales leadership position requires juggling priorities and dealing with new challenges that arrive daily. But the very best by some miraculous secret process manage to pull it off and at the same time remember the impact their behavior has on the reps that have to make it happen.
The McKinsey authors reported: “The best executives we studied internalize their early experiences and use them as reference points for gauging the signals that their own behavior will send to the troops.”
3. Failing to establish an early warning system. In the world of sales a strategic shift in direction that is just a little too late can be the difference between an okay year and a great year. Any senior sales leader should be able to answer in the affirmative the following question: Do I have in place an early-warning system that indicates when my view from the top doesn’t match the reality on the ground?
Winning more and losing less is in part about sales people doing a better job thinking and acting strategically in their accounts. But that success formula is based on senior leadership identifying and articulating the strategic direction for the sales team.
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