The Etch A Sketch was introduced at the peak of the Baby Boom in 1960 and was one of the best-known toys of that generation. Today, it can be found in the Toy Industry Association’s hall of the 100 most memorable 20th Century toys.
This toy of yesteryear is a perfect image to use in framing a discussion about the need to revamp a sales force to be better aligned with ones customer base.
Recent years have seen a tremendous disruption in how customers buy. And if buyers change how they buy – salespeople need to change how they sell. Customers:
- want fresh ideas and creative insights for addressing a set of needs and opportunities that are both new and challenging.
- expect sales reps to be knowledgeable about their industry, company, and issues at a higher level of proficiency than ever before.
- expect insights not product pitches.
- want trusted advisors not product facilitators.
Reviewing the Research. In a classic white paper –The Adaptive Sales Force – Booz & Co addressed this alignment issue. The central thesis is:
- As markets become more competitive, products are commoditized and companies focus more on organic growth, and the need to create a superior sales force becomes more critical.
- That challenge is made more difficult because customer demands about what they buy, how they buy, and what they are willing to pay for it are changing in new dynamic ways.
- In such a business environment “companies must be willing to revamp their sales force on a regular basis.”
This notion was reinforced by a December 2015 research report released by McKinsey & Co on the digital revolution involving 150 companies from around the world. Their conclusions are a red alert for all sales leaders:
“As we work with companies on their transformation journeys, we’ve been struck by two emerging truths. One is that leaders in the field have a mindset that is less about improving and more about reinventing. That might mean re-thinking completely how they serve their customers, how they run their businesses, and where they find value.
Additionally, there is no “end state” on the change journey. Or, to put it another way, the end state is a state of constant change. Companies that are built to win are those that are built to change.”
Readdressing the status quo. The power of this notion that success is about reinvention not improvement is striking and has direct implications for the world of sales. It means the old adage about “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it “ is perhaps not the best guidance for 2016 and the years ahead.
A more apt image is an Etch A Sketch sales team where you shake up the picture by turning the left knob a bit and then the right knob a twist or two … not because your sales force is broken, but because it the right thing to do to stay better aligned with your customers.
The temptation remains to look at the process of adaptation as a “once in awhile” event. Not so, when the status quo is a constant state of change. A better idea is continuously be looking for ways to align your sales team with the changes that are occurring in your customer base.
Making it Happen. Adapting a sales team so that it is aligned with the customer base requires fine-tuning along a variety of dimensions from sales strategy, territory design, compensation and structure to the performance skill sets of the salespeople. For this blog let’s restrict our discussion of “reinvention” to sales training and the performance skills of sales teams. Some ideas for getting it right.
- Recognize the customer as a trigger. If you review history, most sales training projects are initiated because of some internal event – revenue dips, a merger takes place, a new product is launched or a new VP of Sales arrives with a different set of ideas.
Fair enough. However, if we look to the advice from the research, then an entirely new reason emerges for doing sales training. This reason stems from shifts in the customer base. If the customer’s buying environment changes, then it makes sense to implement a training effort to help the sales force to adjust and adapt to the new environment.
- Use the sales team as an early warning mechanism. People who make most of the decisions about when to do sales training and what the sales training looks like are in Corporate. If we want to be more sensitive to the challenge of customer shifts, then the sales team in the field needs to be the “canary in the coal mine.” While living to tell the tale, they need to be an early warning mechanism when things are changing and what adjustments need to be made.
- Create more innovative training designs. In the past a common framework for sales training has been the “once in awhile” model. You got some when you were hired. There was maybe an advanced program for the existing sales team. And, when there was extra time at the National Sale meeting, there would be some interest in filling the time slot.
On the other hand, if the challenge is to help sales teams make substantial adjustments in how they think and act strategically about their accounts in response to constant customer shifts that requires a different mindset.
It requires viewing sales training as an ongoing process not an event. It requires different training designs – different training partners – and yes, it requires a greater financial commitment. It also requires getting serious about sales coaching.
If the reinvention message is true for the world of sales, and we think it is, then sales training needs to move to center stage with all the advantages and disadvantages of being where the spotlight is a little bit brighter.