Changing the sales force (Part 1)

Sales Pitch

Herman Alvaranga

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

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Recently one of my favourite senior executives wanted to know what she should do to improve the performance of her sales force. In the short time that we had, we spoke about the importance of motivation, incentives and rewarding work. These are levers for improving sales performance: but definitely not enough for changing a sales team.

But why, you may ask, is a very senior executive in a large financial institution (by Jamaican standards) enquiring about selling and sales management? After all, she is highly educated with deep technical knowledge of her profession and extensive senior management experience. By her admission, sales and business development were never in her contemplation. But suddenly she has overall responsibility for achieving aggressive sales targets in a sector that has experienced very low real growth in recent years. And since failure is not an option, she needed to get cracking.

Perhaps a good starting point for anyone with responsibility for sales is to ask themselves what is the real purpose of a sales force?

The purpose of the sales force

As markets commoditise, the amount of value that resides in the product steadily erodes. The sales force that sees its mission as merely communicating value is therefore living in the past. The remit of the modern sales force has moved from communicating value to creating value for their customers by the way that they sell.

“What we're looking for goes far beyond the product. We're looking for business understanding. We're looking for whether they can adapt to our special needs or whether they can advise and help us. We want sales people who can add something worthwhile on their own account.”

— Dennis Courtney

Four specific cautions

Rackham and De Vincentis (1998) in speaking of the challenges of changing the sales force mention what they describe as four specific cautions as follows:

• Caution 1: It takes longer than you think. Many managers expect that having developed and communicated a clear strategy, exposing the sales force to a day or two of sales training should result in an almost immediate improvement is sales performance. But that rarely happens because the transformation from merely communicating value to creating value is a major paradigm shift for most sales people. Rackham and De Vincentis note that they have rarely seen the desired transformation of a consultative sales force in under two years of concerted effort.

• Caution 2: There's no silver bullet. Rackham and De Vincentis further caution that improved sales performance doesn't happen as a result of any single action or change. You must align your training, your rewards systems, your coaching, your recruitment, your sales tools, and every aspect of your sales process because no single lever is powerful enough to transform sales performance on its own. For example, the best sales training in the world won't deliver substantial results if it is contradicted by supervision or the reward system.

• Caution 3: You can't hire your way to capability. Never pin your hopes for upgrading the sales force through recruiting new and more competent people. There are two elements at play. Firstly, the pool of available high-calibre personnel is small. Secondly, if you are selling complex products or services it may take a year for new people, no matter how talented, to get up to speed. And, rather than become a force for change they may well become changed by a prevailing unhealthy culture.

• Caution 4: You can't improve sales people without improving sales management. Sales people don't operate in a vacuum. Rackham and De Vincentis claim that if they had to choose between training the sales force or the sales managers, they would choose the sales managers every time. Why? Because really proficient sales managers can work wonders to improve the skills, strategies, and competencies of average sales people.

Four change levers

From the four cautions we just discussed, it must be clear that shifting a sales force from a value communication focus to a value creation focus is an enormous task. Clearly its success rests on the active leadership of top management, not just management within the sales force function.

As Rackham and De Vincintis put it; changing the sales force will require actions along four change levers aligned to support the shift to value creation:

1. A clear vision of where and how to create value in the market

2. New structures to focus on value creation strategies

3. Capability building to enable value creation

4. Metrics and compensation aligned to value creation.

The last word

This marketer has long claimed that managing the sales force may be among the most challenging positions in the modern enterprise. While many new sales reps are willing to change, particularly tedious is changing the attitude of some high-mileage, well-travelled reps who already know it all; but whose pay cheques don't reflect their superior knowledge.

Shall we conclude our discussion on how to go about changing the sales force next week?

— Herman Alvaranga, FCIM, MBA, is president of the Caribbean School of Sales & Marketing. For more insights on sales and marketing please go to his blog at




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