Permanent Change

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:37 pm

A frequent drumbeat of sales leaders is, “We need to do things differently.” A frequent disappointment of the sales team is, “We never stick to anything. Leaders don’t follow through. Each yea,r it’s on to some new program.”  

In any one organization there may be several explanations for the amazing disconnect between the leaders’ drumbeat and the sales force’s disappointment. But there is one universal explanation: the failure to manage change. But, the rap doesn’t fall only to the leaders. The sales force owns some of the fault, too.

As a discipline, “change management” has been bisected, dissected, trisected, researched, modeled, and written about for decades. Yet it continues to outsmart organizations. The principles are easy enough to grasp, but often prove very difficult to execute. As one frustrated client CEO put it, “Knowin’ it ain’t the same as doin’ it.”

At Stapleton Resources, we work with sales organizations seeking to significantly change the way they sell. With each new project, we are inevitably asked, “How can we make it stick – this time?”

Most change management models focus on a top-down model. Our experience suggests a multi-led, multi-directional model works better in a sales culture.

Deploying change successfully in sales organizations requires tweaking or revising traditional principles. Here are two “new” rules of change to help you succeed with any change effort you might be leading in your sales organization.

Drive the vision to the trenches

The traditional change rule is to define a leader-articulated “big picture, skyscraper” vision. Leadership is critical to any change effort. However, the vision needs to thrive in the trenches where salespeople live (and where they often feel leaders are generally clueless). An example:

•    A senior vice president of sales in the office printing and production industry had overseen a remarkable improvement in sales performance in his first two years.  Then, he began talking widely of the need “to get to the next level” in sales proficiency because “our competitors will catch up to us.” The trench version of this vision, in this case, became “first, take a step back.” “Getting to the next level” and “First, take a step back” may sound contradictory. As in the example above, however, taking a step back became a rallying cry for interacting differently with customers. Incredibly, it worked.  

The vision for enhancing sales performance needs to be advanced in language that the folks in the trenches can rally around.

Confront the devils are in the details

Traditionally, change is undone at the tactical, not the visionary or strategic level. Even a compelling trench-level vision will be undone by poor tactical execution.  

We define “devils” as those chronic sales issues that are given lip service to but are never resolved. I cannot stress enough that these issues can – and, more often than not, do – crash change initiatives. An illustration:

•    Saying “no” to bad business.  This issue is one of the most chronic and perhaps the most poorly dealt with in all of sales. No company will have as its sales mission, “We want our salespeople to spend their time and our resources chasing deals they will never win.” Yet, salespeople tend to spend too much time (as much as 60 percent in our estimation) on deals they will inevitably—essentially, with or without the salesperson’s involvement—win or lose, and not nearly enough time on deals where they can really affect the outcome. In addition, no sales directive says, “We encourage our salespeople to spend a disproportionate amount of their energy maintaining relationships with unprofitable accounts.”

Leaders will protest too much that, “Of course you can walk away from bad business” and, frankly, the sales force will not believe them (some of them have been “burned” by this devil). Saying no to bad business also illustrates the need for corporate and sales directions to be aligned. At one client, while the head of sales was telling the sales force to avoid competing in long sales cycles with a low chance of success, the company’s CEO was saying, “We’ll never lose to competitor X.”  What do you think happened the next time someone had to compete against X in a protracted sales process?

In the end, sales force change is about overcoming a disconnect: the disconnect between the leader’s desire to do things differently and the sales force’s wondering what program will be rolled out next month. These two variations on traditional change management principles will help you create lasting change in your sales force.

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. He can be reached at (262) 524-8099.

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