The word ‘Change’ to many people can bring out a cold sweat or nervous disposition as, whether in personal or business life, the usual way of doing things needs to be amended. People don’t like change, you only need to look on Amazon to see the raft of books written about change management and the myriad of change consultants plying their trade.
However, in sales it may be different, not all the time, but there is a suggestion that the characteristics of the sales professional and the sales organisation mean that this is a business unit more ready for change, more accepted of change.
As we come into the new year we will see a number of new initiatives launched by all parts of the business, corporate communication departments and sales directors will look forward to the branding of their ‘new start’, ’kick off’, ‘launch’, ‘new initiative’ or for the very daring, a ‘change program’.
This article takes the view from that of a sales performance position, the question asked being “Does the sales organisation really want to change in 2014?” And where are we left is the answer is ‘No’.
A New Idea
We have seen over the last few years some evolutions in sales skills best practice; new ideas bringing promises of increased revenues due to a ‘different style of selling’. Sales Directors and Sales L&D professionals getting excited that perhaps this ‘new way’ will change the fortunes of their sales organisation.
Perhaps the most intriguing and well presented was ‘Challenger’, a must read for any sales manager or professional engaged with sales performance improvement. Challenger seems to pose new questions, and present new ideas that were to make more blue-chip sales forces comfortable with a change in the way they sell.
To many, ‘Challenger’ was an initiative that allowed change, a conduit to change, protected by research at the front end and a Professor Neil Rackham endorsement at the back, the timing was excellent, when sales performance improvement professionals were looking for something new.
The question that of course now needs to be asked is “Has it worked?” and not just Challenger alone, many businesses may have bought in different initiatives from Sales Academy formats, to introducing a CRM or to engaging with a different sales training or consultancy business. No, the question is asking, “Has change really worked?”
The issue being explored here, is not so much the value or benefit to any ‘new initiative, but actually to the concept of change – the challenge being presented being; did those businesses really want to change, did they have it in them to change, and why on earth would they want to change?
The problem with change in a sales organisation perspective is that change is actually quite dangerous, it’s perhaps safer to ‘tweak’ than ‘change’. And there are a few reasons why;
Personal and Corporate Financial Risk
If you are in charge of the sales performance development element of the business and you want to deliver a change program, then there are two key risks. The financial risk, and the personal risk, all in an environment that is weighted towards failure – if the program fails, or delivers no change (a highly possible due to the nature of the propensity for a person to engage in change, whether working in sales or not) the cost could have been substantial. Therefore the risk from a personal point of view is high, a large outlay with no return, or certainly not any isolated and related return.
Whereas if the program works, then what are the rewards? First of all the increase will only ever be marginal, you see in sales training and consultancy organisations brochures and websites suggesting miraculous figures attached to blue chip companies such as ‘We increased Barclays revenue by 25%’,
(a ludicrous suggestion as this would have surely been on the BBC news channels breaking news, front page of the FT and would have had a seismic change in both the LSE and NYSE in terms of investors, pension companies and political and editorial cross examinations).
Therefore any new initiative does have the ability to deliver incremental increases, but nothing exceptional – this is not an issue, as even a marginal percentage gain can far out way the costs of the change program in terms of ROI, especially in years 2, 3 or 4 - thus the reward being relatively small compared to the risk of failure, the question to ask therefore being;
Why would you bother?
The scenario is clear, the best and most productive strategy for the person delivering is maintain the status quo, perhaps tweaking a few ideas with relatively low financial liability and celebrate a minor increase in performance, but an increase none the less.
The ‘Ask question, Match need, Close sale’ principle challenges nothing but is safe and risk free, you never got sacked for buying IBM.
Of course, at the point of performance improvement, the credit is also instantly split between all departments claiming responsibility. The individual sales professionals will claim that they worked harder, marketing will suggest that the proposition was improved and the sales director will take credit for motivating the team. All this meaning the new initiative does not even gain credit either, and it’s near enough impossible to measure anyway!
High risk, low return, no thanks!
Changing to a sustainable long term strategy
The other change element that has been expressed over the last 12-18 months, especially due to political interference that had to take place due to poor business practice, is the idea of how business is sustained through the organisation. This point refers to the need to move from short term wins to long term profit.
This is not new amongst sales thought leadership, in fact everyone knows that the best way of sustaining the commercial relationships is to ensure that you deliver long term benefits to customers, this benefits both the longevity of the organisation, and the satisfaction of the customer – two very worthwhile stakeholder.
The problem with this of course, is that it doesn’t satisfy two even more important stakeholders, the sales professional and the sales management team. So why is this?
The problem with delivering long term growth at a macro level is that everything at the micro level is geared towards short term growth. How many sales professionals are paid commission on business growth over 12-18 months, and even if they are, how many also have to run a monthly or quarterly target profile as well.
If sales professionals need to hit short term targets then long term growth will always be effected. The need to bring in that one last deal, that may be in detriment to the customer in the long term, satisfies the sales professional who, let’s face it, may not be in role in the next financial year to need to deal with the consequences.
And this isn’t a criticism of the sales professional, or the sales manager, this is a complete mixed message from the business who is asking for long term growth but also needs to cover the costs of the business in the short term. In recruitment terms we ask the question how long we need the sales person to be up running and covering costs if not selling proactively – are we really going to be satisfied with 12-24 month, good luck with this placement.
How ready would the CEO, MD or board be if the Sales Director said, “Yes, we are completely on board with the vision for long term growth, my forecast for the next 6-9 months will be revised to a 5% decrease, while we bring about the changes in the way we deal with customers to deliver you a 6% increase next year?”
We can all admirably suggest that we’re ok with this due to sustained long term security, but would the shareholders be happy, would the small business owner be happy, would the business survive?
Change in a sales organisation reflects the same challenges that the business as a whole needs to deal with, change isn’t just frightening to individuals, it’s risky to business. In a commercial environment there often isn’t a reluctance to change due to any emotional desire not to, but a financial risk posed against it.
For too long the sales organisation has done the same thing in terms of the way we sell and the way we manage customer portfolio’s, experts talk about ‘new’, ‘different’ and ‘change’ as all being achievable – but in sales there has not been anything seismic.
This was the success of Challenger, not necessarily as a new concept or idea, but the way it was packaged and positioned, and ultimately sold. This allowed organisations to feel less risk adverse in implementation rather than stick to status quo.
And as for sales organisations moving to long term relationship models, this may be an option for some smaller organisations with particular product portfolio’s or client structures – but as for blue chip, maybe the risk of unemployment is a more powerful factor than incremental growth that seems just too far into the future.
Let’s not kid ourselves though, this doesn’t mean that there is an excuse to not change, the question is surely “Can we afford not to?”