The anatomy of a successful salesforce initiative

The anatomy of a successful salesforce initiative
Sales leaders must step to the challenge of driving fundamental change

By Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon, for SBT

Most business owners and executives seem to acknowledge that we are in a new era of selling. The buyer/seller relationship has changed for good. Technology has provided customers with "infinite" knowledge that has made them more strategic purchasers with more information about suppliers than the suppliers have. On the selling side of the equation, commoditization has become the new enemy.
That change in the buyer/seller relationship has redefined what sales professionals must do to continue to contribute value to their own companies. Agreed! But what are you going to do about it? I think you know – you’re going to lead a change initiative in your sales force.
Sales leaders must step up to the challenge of driving fundamental change in their organizations. Here are some things we’ve learned along the way from our successful — and not so successful — efforts to work with leaders to drive change in sales organizations.

1. Recognize that traditional skills training or motivational seminars are counterproductive. That’s right. They’re worse than doing nothing at all because they trivialize selling and give the sales force the illusion that they can transform themselves by the equivalent of taking a pill.
For example, in this new era, salespeople will need to become much more proficient at accessing customer executives. One salesperson told us that some self-proclaimed sales guru told the audience she was in to tell the exec’s administrative assistant that, as a tactic for getting the exec on the phone, they were the executive’s sex therapist.

2. Set and communicate a clear, high-level direction. All change requires direction. The first thing a sales leader must do is articulate a direction for the sales team. It needs to be at a high enough level to serve as a "true north" for the team.
The direction should start with "why change at all?" by basing the need for change in the realities – often harsh – of the current business environment. The consequences to the company of not making the change (of doing nothing) must also be laid out.
The direction should address the "where" by painting a picture of the expected outcomes of making the change. The outcomes can include the expected effect on sales results, profitable revenue, customer relationships or even just the viability of the enterprise.
Communicating the direction is critical. Don’t limit your communication to a big, splashy launch, although such communication has a role.
Talk about the new direction at every opportunity. Start an organizational conversation that builds early momentum and carries the team through the change. The vocabulary of the new direction should become part of the sales team’s everyday language.

3. Show salespeople the personal value. You’ve been around enough to know that most employees are not going to change for the "sake of the kingdom." As one astute observer said, "Given the choice between changing and proving there’s no reason to do so, most people will get busy on the proof."
You have to communicate the value of the change into the salespeople’s personal lives. One client executive told his sales team that they’d have "valuable new skills that they could use anywhere" as motivation. And it worked.

4. Show them how. High-level directions often fall short on the "how." Be sure to be specific about the new behaviors, mindset and skills the direction will require.
One effective way to do that is to employ a "from-to" format, as it relates to how salespeople do things day in and day out, to dramatize the direction’s effect on their day to day activities.
5. Get in the game yourself. Leaders are often more keen to have their teams change than to change themselves. More than anything, this is why significant, sustainable change fails. You must be prepared to model the new behaviors even before the sales team does.
It is impossible to overestimate the credibility early leadership modeling brings to the change. A leader who can say that the new behaviors work because he or she has used them gives the team a real jump start.
Being in the game will enable you to be a real time coach.
Again, one of the reasons change fails to gain traction is that leaders fail to reinforce new behaviors in any meaningful way. They send the sales force off to training and then "wait and hope" something sticks. Typically, nothing does. Or leaders attempt a strange form of remote coaching, in which they try to coach their team without actually having tried the new approach themselves.

6. Require participation by all. How you do this is up to you. But if anyone gets a pass for any reason, the initiative will fail. It’s a good idea to tap one or two people who are viewed as informal leaders internally and enlist them, on the side of course, to step up to the challenge.
Set a direction, communicate the value, model behaviors and watch your team rise to the occasion-because you did.

Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at

Oct. 3, 2003, Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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