What’s Wrong With The Sales Machine? Making Change Stick

When leaders communicate change well and lead their sales organizations through change effectively, change tends to take root and drive the anticipated results.

salesThis is Part 4 in a four-part series on operationalizing the sales force to create consistency, transparency and predictability in the sales function. Click here for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

“I put a dollar into the candy machine, pull the lever, and I get a candy bar. I put a dollar into the sales machine, pull a lever, and I have no idea what will come out.”      -Fortune 500 CEO

Until now, our series has focused on tangible, measurable initiatives. In parts 1-3, we looked at how to systematically determine where the sales machine is “broken,” how to get at the root cause of why it’s broken, and how to create an effective roadmap for “fixing” it by moving the organization systematically along the Sales Maturity Curve. In this final article, we venture into less tangible, more challenging territory: cultural change.

Company culture is ultimately what drives long-term change and continuous improvement through the stages of sales maturity. One of the hallmarks of world-class, Stage 4 sales organizations – the apex of the Sales Maturity Curve – is their deep-rooted culture of excellence. Getting there is a huge challenge for leaders because cultural change isn’t something they can do to an organization and see any level of success. Change that sticks comes from deep within a team, from managers and front-line employees who are bought in to the vision and hungry for improved performance. That’s a cultural shift – and it’s arguably the hardest of all organizational elements to achieve because it’s about changing people and their behaviors. And most people do not change easily.

While there are many elements that go into transforming a sales culture into one that is focused on continuous improvement, most of those elements can be distilled into two things: communication and leadership. When leaders communicate change well and lead their organizations through that change effectively, change tends to take root and drive the anticipated results.


Every change initiative involves different stakeholders at different levels. One of the first steps on any path to cultural change is to determine who needs what information and to create a very clear plan for communicating that information to them. This starts at the top and cascades outward through the organization. For instance, the PMO and senior leadership sit at the top of the communication chain for changes tied to sales effectiveness improvements. From there, communication must flow outward to the sales lane, then to other customer-facing roles and finally to the rest of the organization.

Communication should provide information that is both organizational and individual. At the organizational level, this is largely about leveraging the data and metrics we discussed in earlier installments to provide top-down, data-informed transparency around the change initiative. The goal here is to keep employees informed of where the organization sits relative to its goals. For example, a software company going through a sales transformation distributed a monthly “Sales Transformation Report Card” with key metrics that gave everyone in the organization a clear understanding of performance against the transformation road map along with challenges yet to be overcome.   This not only lets everyone see where initiatives are working and reinforces the importance of continuing to implement the changes, it helps leaders identify where their leadership is most needed to keep the sales effectiveness initiatives on track.

At the individual level, for each role people need to know (1) what is changing, (2) why it’s changing, and (3) exactly how their role will be different. What activities and responsibilities will be added to or removed from their role? What metrics will they be held accountable for? Are there changes in reporting structure that will affect them, either at an immediate reporting level or higher up? Are there organizational changes they need to know about that may not alter how they work but will impact them in some other way? For instance, mature sales organizations are highly transparent and typically publish individual sales results on a weekly basis. While transparency will not alter a seller’s specific role or goals, it will impact them. Performance results which were previously hidden from peers will now be visible to all. While this ultimately drives improved performance, getting there can be painful for many individuals who were just “getting by.”

The primary goal of communication through any cultural change effort should be to thoughtfully move employees along a path to full engagement. This requires not only effective communication but regular communication from the top. Think of it like a marketing effort: when senior leadership communicates the right strategic message to the right audience at the right time, they keep employees engaged with the change and continually signal to the organization that movement up the Sales Maturity Curve is a top priority.

Over time, as change continues to be talked about, implemented and reinforced, organizations should see employees move from the initial stage of learning about the change to accepting it, internalizing it and then making it their new normal. Done right, this means employees will evolve from understanding the change to believing in it, living it, and, finally, full engagement with the change. Along the way, companies should experience in a gradual shift in culture to one that is much more change-ready, transparent, and uncompromising in its commitment to sales excellence.


That said, talking isn’t enough. To achieve lasting transformation, people need to act on what has been communicated. And action is driven by great leadership. As one change management leader expressed it: “People will do what you tolerate, not what you preach.”

Leadership through change is all about holding people accountable. Leadership charts the course; supports employees with the training, tools and coaching to give them every opportunity to be successful within a reasonable period of time; and then holds people accountable for getting onto the path. If you tolerate exceptions, you’ll get people wandering off into the old, comfortable ways of doing things and the change will never stick. If, however, you draw clear lines on either side of the new pathway and don’t tolerate any behavior that crosses those lines, people will stay on track. Just like on the manufacturing floor, exceptions are costly and negatively impact an operation.

A great example of setting expectations and holding people accountable happened during a basketball superstar’s first practice in the NBA. The coach’s standard was that practice would start on time. The soon to be superstar showed up to his first practice three minutes late – and found himself locked out of the court. He learned quickly that tardiness was not tolerated and he adjusted his behavior accordingly.

Imagine applying those same standards to sales effectiveness improvements. If you make CRM usage a requirement of every seller’s job with certain usage standards tied to keeping the job or receiving their full compensation, do you think you’d still have a problem with keeping CRM up to date? You wouldn’t if you enforced the standards and accepted no deviation from it. Remember: people will do what you tolerate. If you tolerate tardiness, you’ll get people arriving late to meetings. If you tolerate sporadic CRM usage and incomplete data, you’ll get it. In leading a sales organization through change, leaders and managers at all levels must convey an attitude of: ‘This is the new standard and the new normal; we will support you in getting there but we will not accept anything less than you getting there.’

This means establishing deadlines for moving out non-performers. If a seller knows the new standards, has been given the training and tools to meet them, and consistently cannot or will not meet those standards, they need to be transitioned out of the organization. Done right, this tough decision ultimately elevates the performance of the team. First, it sends the signal that failure to get onto the new pathway means you will no longer have a job in that organization. Second, it opens up a spot to bring in talent that will meet the new standards. However, this turnover must happen within a culture of acceptance in which salespeople know that failure to meet the new standards does not equate to personal failure. In world-class sales cultures, leaders hold people accountable and give them a fair shot at meeting standards – but let them know that if their skills aren’t a match for the position, it’s okay. We’ve seen up to 40% of a sales force not able to make a transition – and that’s okay.

Many leaders fear letting people go and therefore wait too long to do it, particularly in the sales organization. They fear turnover. They fear change in customer relationships. But a big part of moving up the Sales Maturity Curve is having the right people in the right seats. This takes change that can, at times, be painful. Culture is a “people” issue – and once the right people are on board in the right roles, the culture of excellence will flourish and the sales organization will be well equipped to move steadily up the Sales Maturity Curve, driving consistent, repeatable top-line growth for the organization.


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