Sales: Management malpractice

A question I like to pose to company owners, executives, and sales leaders goes something like this, “If you want to gauge the effectiveness of your sales force, which view of their activities would you rather see: the view you get from your SFA’s pipeline analysis showing how many meetings they’ve had, their call plans and reports, where they are in your company’s sales process, probability of closing, etc.; or the view you’d get as a fly on the wall during their customer meetings?”

I’m always astonished at the responses I get. Most would rather see the pipeline view.

I believe that perspective is edging dangerously close to sales management malpractice.

The atomic view is what matters

In a previous career, I used to analyze metals through the lenses of high-powered electron microscopes, allowing my fellow metallurgists and me to see what was happening at a nearly atomic level. Viewing at such high magnification was an absolute prerequisite if the finished product, say, a turbine blade inside a jet engine, was to do its job.

 It seems that almost every process in business today is undergoing a form of microscopic analysis at ever-higher magnification.

The level of understanding and control of what is happening at the “atomic” level in manufacturing processes is staggering. From cars to carpets, virtually nothing in the production process is left to chance. The same is true in services; from French fries to finance, no detail is considered too small.

Not so in selling. If other processes were treated like the sales process, workers would be instructed to “buy some steel and make some cars,” “heat some oil and add potatoes,” or “count the money and tell us how much we made.” And the metallurgist would analyze the alloy, squinting at a sample held at arm’s length.

Go behind the looking glass

Oddly, few executives display much interest in what happens in the sales process at the actual point of interaction between sales reps and their customers.

It’s as if they’re satisfied by viewing the scene through the wrong end of the microscope instead of up close and personal, as if behind a two-way mirror in the sales call. Sometimes, that’s just the way salespeople like it. Some of the best selling that salespeople do is inside their own companies as they argue that they should be exempt from such scrutiny, claiming their value is relationship-based, a “special art,” and can’t be forced into the constraints of process. 

Spinning gold

Salespeople have always been the alchemists of business, each with his or her secret recipe for creating gold. What’s more, most are careful to avoid sharing their recipes with other alchemists in the kingdom. After all, “As long as I’m creating more gold than my peers, I am the most highly favored alchemist in the king’s eyes.” There’s no real malice in such attitudes, it’s just the way things generally work. It’s another one of selling’s dirty little secrets.

But process is a bullet that salespeople won’t be able to dodge much longer. Those who try – the ones who stubbornly or blindly think they can continue relying on their relationships for their value contribution – are in for a wake-up call. Fortunately, many salespeople are finally sobering up and embracing process.

But which process really matters?

Selling is a “language process”

From the words used to request customer meetings, to the words used to position it at its start, to the words used to advance the sales campaign at its conclusion, magnification of the process – the “language process” – is desperately needed. The most important process in selling is the one that exists at the point of interaction between salesperson and customer, and that is a language process. 

So when it comes to measurements you use to see how the sales force is doing, you may have to transform your own thinking from activity and numbers to words and phrases. 

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