What’s Wrong With The Sales Machine? Implementing Changes To Improve Sales Maturity


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

“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

If you have applied the concepts we covered in part 1 and part 2 of this series, at this point you know where you are positioned on the sales maturity curve and why you are positioned there. You know where you want to go and what’s holding you back from being there today. And you have established clear aiming points – i.e., We are at Stage 1; we will move to Stage 3 in the next 36 months. The next question that must be answered is: How do you get there? What’s the path you need follow to get to your intended destination?

Change is hard, and a lot of initiatives stumble here. In any effort to operationalize the sales force, one of the most widespread problems we see is charting an effective roadmap. Often the roadmap is too aggressive and expects too much of the sales team in a very short period of time. Or it is not aggressive enough to be worth the effort. Or it’s not taken seriously and is just viewed as the “flavor of the month.” The key is to develop a very specific roadmap that is aggressive yet practical at the same time.

While each organization’s specific roadmap will look different at the detail level, there are three high-level elements that are required for a sales organization to successfully advance. Implementation of any plan requires that (1) the right systems and tools are in place, (2) companies are managing by metrics, not by gut-feel and reaction, and (3) there is a movement toward accountability.

The right systems and tools

To move in the right direction, companies need a single source of truth to guide their steps. There are two parts to this statement: single source and truth. First, you need one go-to source for data. For most companies, this is their CRM system. If you are currently checking multiple systems and visiting with several people to figure out what reality looks like for your company, that’s a problem. The foundation for moving up the sales maturity curve starts with having a single integrated set of sales and customer data.

The second piece here is “truth.” This refers to data accuracy, which in many companies continues to be a big problem. Duplicate records, out-of-date information, conflicting data and other problems plague most CRM and related data systems. Rather than discussing what the data is telling you and what to do about it, conversations about sales performance often devolve into a debate about data accuracy. Each sales leader and executive comes into these conversations with their own data, from which they draw different and frequently conflicting conclusions. That’s a huge obstacle to advancing sales maturity as it makes it very difficult to gain alignment on the core issues and required decisions.

If “single source of truth” does not accurately describe your current sales database, one way to tackle it is by creating groups and assigning each one ownership of a different piece of the improvement effort. For instance, a SWAT team might be responsible for scrubbing the CRM and related data to eliminate duplicates and inaccuracies. Another team might have ownership of updating the data so all entries are current and correct. A third group might establish the procedures and expectations for data entry – what gets entered, who can enter it, when it must be entered, who can alter records and so on. One benefit of this type of approach is that it can pull the broader organization into the process and help make them part of the solution. Once complete, it is critical that managers ensure everyone on their teams remains compliant with those expectations at all times; otherwise, you quickly lose your single source of truth.

Establish and manage by metrics

While many people view sales as an art form, it is really more science where, as in any discipline, a given set of inputs will produce a certain set outputs. This understanding is the key to improving sales reps’ productivity as well as creating more consistent and predictable sales results. By linking the results you want to achieve with the behaviors and activities that will drive those results, the metrics, if measured and managed, will keep your organization headed to the next level of sales maturity – and will provide early warning if things are getting off track.

Take the fairly simple example of driving more predictability in sales results. Leveraging your “single source of truth,” you can drill down into historical sales data to determine the number and type of input activities that lead to sales. If you know it takes 25 calls to have eight conversations to get two appointments and you know a rep needs to get four appointments a week in order to hit monthly goals, sales managers must ensure their reps are making at least 50 prospecting calls a week. By measuring and managing this input activity, statistically it will lead reps to the expected result.

This a hallmark of Stage 3 performance. While Stage 1 and 2 organizations tend to have more ad hoc sales approaches with frequent – and often unpleasant – revenue surprises, more mature organizations use metrics and processes that are coordinated across the company, providing leading indicators of sales performance and ultimately more predictability in results.

Move toward accountability

We frequently work with clients who have the right metrics identified, but who aren’t holding their people accountable for them. That’s why the final part of the sales maturity roadmap must address accountability. The best-laid plans will come to nothing and the organization will slide back to the status quo if it isn’t driving toward accountability from top to bottom, throughout the organization.

High standards of accountability can compensate for imperfections in other parts of the sales process. We recently worked with a client that lacked fancy systems and tools and its data wasn’t always flawless, but everyone in the sales organization was aligned on their goals and there was total transparency on performance – all felt completely accountable for their individual and team results. The focus on accountability (and transparency) overcame the fact that not all the pieces of the sales maturity puzzle were in place. As this client builds out the other capabilities, they are positioned to quickly move up the curve and achieve higher performance levels.

At another company, we found modern systems and tools, “single source of truth” data, and great metrics, but executives did not hold people accountable and were reluctant to take even basic steps such as publishing a leader board. There was an underlying fear of what holding people accountable might cause, such as sales rep turnover, broken customer relationships, and uneven sales performance. While we find that these risks are usually overstated, they can be real and need to be carefully managed. But there is no substitute for accountability. In the best sales organizations, all sellers are held to the same high standards and even ‘good’ sales reps sometimes do not make the cut – and that is okay.

Without any one of those three elements in place, it will be tough to advance to higher levels of sales maturity and effectiveness. But the flip side is also true: with the right systems and tools, metrics established and managed, and top-to-bottom accountability for meeting performance standards, companies will be able to make steady progress toward higher levels of sales maturity. The final element, unique to Stage 4 organizations, is a deep-rooted culture of excellence. Culture is usually the hardest element to change; our fourth and final article will examine what’s necessary for long-term change and continuous improvement.