How Do You Future Proof Your Sales Organisation?

Space Shuttle Atlantis

The sales function is dead, long live the sales function. It’s a much more interesting debate to focus not on whether selling is finished (it isn’t), but on how it needs to change. This article focuses on the drivers that will future proof your sales function, keeping it central to any world-class company’s customer proposition.

Future proofing involves developing five key areas

  • Creating New Customer Value
  • Leveraging Technology
  • Building The Sales Team As Part of the Brand
  • Being Values, Rather Than Results Driven
  • Developing New Intellectual Capital

Creating New Customer Value

Customers are becoming more demanding and sophisticated. They want better and faster solutions. The salesperson needs to effectively position themselves to deliver and support these two dynamics. Where the salesperson resides in the value chain is not only changing, but is also potentially under complete threat. As the Internet becomes more functional and ubiquitous, customers have new sources of information and new conduits of access.

The emergence of Broadband access should be viewed as a discontinuous change. It will not just mean faster connection and download speeds but it will create new options for customers; ones that can substitute certain salespeople.

How do salespeople currently add value to the sales process? Classically, by being the carrier of information. The better salespeople take the information and tailor it (or convert it) into benefits. The value proposition is based on knowing more than the customer, and having greater access to information than the customer. The Internet puts both of these ‘reasons for being’ under threat. The Internet allows customers to find out more than what would have seemed possible a few years ago. Through customer extranets, information can be captured in one private place. The increasing richness of an extranet undermines transactionally focused salespeople.

Building the hypothesis that says as a result salespeople will become obsolete is far too simplistic. Salespeople that don’t reposition themselves will struggle, (and don’t get into a sterile debate about how people buy from people, they do, but people also bypass people if the person doesn’t add value, as in the case of cash machines versus bank clerks). If the salesperson still contributes insight, thought leadership and account coordination, they can and will future proof their role.

Leveraging Technology

Often, IT literacy is lower in the sales function than the average IT literacy within the organisation.Because of salespeople’s relatively high levels of interpersonal skills IT can be seen as a low-grade competence. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why IT literacy is higher in finance departments. The sales function should be driving the IT/Internet agenda for the customer and for themselves. They should be the holders of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) knowledge, not the IT people, or worse – consultants. Salespeople need to be e-literate so they lead the technology debate. They need to be ahead of their customers so they can effectively work with them to move towards an ebusiness model. Location independent working and virtual teams are becoming a reality. When salespeople see email as being at the cutting edge, leveraging technology will not be led by them.

Building The Sales Team as Part of the Brand

All other things being equal, brands are more valuable than generic products or services. What world-class FMCG companies have been doing for some time is weaving the salespeople in as part of the brand. When you see a salesperson from Coca-Cola they are part of the deal. The salesperson is the brand, the brand is the salesperson. In the business-to-business space, IBM have for some time done the same thing. This close alignment of the salesperson and the brand requires certain items to be present to make it work.

The salesperson has to believe in the brand absolutely. They need to be proud to sell the product and proud to work for the company that owns it, no ‘maybes’ or ‘apart froms’. This enables them to look the customer in the eye and not be the first to blink when difficult issues arise. Next, the company must invest the same support in the sales team as they do in other brand collateral. Commitment to the product must be reflected in commitment to the people selling the product. This means best in class training, sales tools, infrastructure and internal profile; all designed to demonstrate how critical the salespeople are to the brand. The benefit from this is that customers see the salesperson sitting in front of them as an embodiment of the brand, so take them very seriously.

Being Values, Rather Than Results Driven

Of course salespeople need to be focused on results. The much more interesting issue is how do we create an environment to deliver better results? Simply exhorting salespeople to do better, incentivising them, etc, can create a one-dimensional, transactional relationship, ‘What’s in it for me if I do this?’ By inculcating a values driven base for the results focus to sit on top of this will form a new and more worthwhile dynamic. The sales-team will take greater responsibility for their numbers, targets, objectives and customers. In other words, this greater level of ownership has not been achieved by simply asking why people don’t take responsibility, but by focusing on what connects them to the organisation and each other.

Before we look at values, a note about culture. It’s values that define culture, not the other way round. If you want to change the culture start by looking at the values. Culture is no more than a statement reinforced by behaviour. Make the statement – we encourage a learning environment – back it up with the behaviour, offer fully funded vocational courses and time off the job. But the thing that underpins all of that is the value that says ‘knowing and learning new things is critical to us all’.

What does a values driven sales team look like? Firstly, it knows what it believes in and what it is trying to do. When anybody is in a difficult, ambiguous or volatile situation, where the best option is debatable, they use the organisational/team values to help decide what to do. This means that even if they got it ‘wrong’ they know they will be supported, because the values have acted as a touchstone for everybody.

Secondly, there are high levels of interdependency. They need each other (including the manager) to perform at their best. Their biggest competitors are other companies, not their colleagues.

Thirdly, they rate each other’s capabilities and have real respect for their actual and potential contribution. Consequently, the only tension is a creative one, not one based on negative conflict.

Finally, it’s a very difficult team to get into, standards (both professional and personal) are high, but once you’re in, you’re cherished. Peer group pressure is clear to see.

If you’re wondering what these ‘magic’ values are, don’t. Values statements are all very similar. Typically, they will contain concepts like integrity, trust etc, and there shouldn’t be too many, 6 or 7 maximum. The difficult bit is not the words, but living the values.

Developing New Intellectual Capital

The intelligence and cleverness that made the team successful in the past will not make it successful in the future. In a world of discontinuous change the learning of the past does not help with dealing with the future. No matter how much BT know about telecoms, it isn’t enough to stop their position being eroded by new competitors with new technology and different propositions. The high tech companies of today can be the rust belt businesses of tomorrow. In our own work it is common to find the sales function (even successful ones) in a very defensive position when talking about the future. This ‘intellectual high ground’ that drives a company’s strategy and high-level business decisions should have a large sales/customer element. Often it does, but not provided by the senior salespeople. Finance, IT and marketing, but not sales.

Why not? The sales function are similar to football managers, they get too much credit for when things are going well (so sometimes feel a bit guilty about the recognition) and too much blame when things are going badly (so feel at best disgruntled and at worst total victims at ‘the unfairness of it all’). This can make them wary about looking to the future beyond next month’s figures; remember how football managers take ‘each game one at a time’. This means that a vision for the future, what if… scenario planning and general looking forward has a low priority. When your business world is in a stable, even state, this position is sustainable, but not today. Unless sales-teams scope their future others will do it for them, by either using other functions in their own company, the competition or customers.

Of course there are more things to get right than just these five, but these five are the future fundamentals if your sales organisation is going to play a meaningful and central role in the customer propositions of tomorrow.