As I pointed out in a recent article, we’re going to need fewer, smarter B2B sales people. But that’s not all: we’re going to need to support them in a much smarter, less prescriptive sales environment - at least that’s the position put forward in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review.
I admit it: I used to be a process evangelist, but I’ve become increasingly wary of the perceived benefits of implementing a rigid, prescriptive sales process in which every sales person is expected to follow a set of narrowly defined “best practices” - and to waste a deal of their time documenting the fact they have followed each step in their CRM system.
Unleash your sales people's creativity
If you’re in a volume-driven sales environment, you might still be able to run a functional sales force using those principles. But if you’re in a value-creating sales environment - and in particular if what you have to offer is a considered purchase, in which the customer could just as well decide to do nothing as to go with you or a competitor, you're going to need to unleash your sales people’s creativity.
Not a sales process: a buying journey
To start with, you’ve got to stop thinking of what your sales people are doing as a sales process that is defined by the activities they undertake. You need to think instead of facilitating your prospect’s buying decision process, and of measuring your progress in terms of verified evidence of the prospect’s decision to move forward with you to the next stage of their buying journey.
These “customer verifiers” are not simply evidence of their progress: they also provide evidence of their intent to do something, and of their willingness to go through the sort of change process that will involve them abandoning their status quo and accepting your approach as the least-risky of all available options, including a decision to do nothing.
Creativity triumphs over compliance
It’s no surprise that many traditional activity-and-process sales leaders feel uncomfortable with the implications of this new reality. But the simple fact is that in today’s more complex and sophisticated buying environment, exhorting your sales people to do more of the same old predictable, unthinking things is not going to do your sales numbers any good at all.
Rather than prescribing compliant behaviour (and punishing any deviation from it), sales managers need instead to be stimulating their sales people to think laterally, be creative and apply their judgement. Rather than encouraging “go it alone” and “take that hill” behaviours, they need to stimulate collaborative strategizing and problem solving - because that’s the only way their sales team can be collectively smarter than the customer, never mind the competition.
Focus on the opportunity, not the process
The HBR article also highlights the tremendous value of informal, unstructured communication - if it’s conducted in an environment where sales people are expected, encouraged and able to invest their time pursuing the most promising opportunities and not wasting their energies pursuing bad or unwinnable business. If your sales people are smart enough to spend their time doing the right things, you’re no longer forced to keep inspecting them to ensure that they are “following the process”.
In the sales environments where I have seen this working, it’s an enormously liberating experience. The collective experience of the team is focused on identifying the most promising opportunities, determining the most effective strategies, and navigating around the inevitable obstacles along the way. The rate of learning, by the way, can be spectacular.
There is no single right way
But it absolutely depends on abandoning any idea that there is a single right way in which every opportunity ought to be pursued - and it requires that your sales people have strong cognitive skills and creative abilities as well as the expected emotional intelligence.
The implications are obvious: many sales people are simply not equipped to succeed in this increasingly demanding environment. More worryingly, many sales managers are also going to struggle. And many organizations have neither the culture nor the climate (or the inclination) to support what might at face value appear to be a somewhat unstructured environment.
Get out of the way...
But the alternative is no more palatable: to fail to adapt to an increasingly sophisticated and ambiguous buying environment and as a result to lose increasingly to a decision to “do nothing” as well as losing to better equipped and smarter competition.
The Harvard Business Review author’s advice? It’s one that resonates with my own experience: “hire the best employees, create an empowering environment, provide the necessary tools and guidance, and then get out of the way…”
You can read the full article here. Let me know if it stimulates you to think differently.