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Revenue is stagnant, margins are compressed, management’s yelling, and the sales team is moping. What a drag. Nothing aside from a full out financial crisis has as deleterious effect on a company's vitality & viability as a damaged sales culture.

The problem is that normally amidst that maelstrom everyone’s just strapped in -- and it’s hard to step outside, leaving emotion behind, to view the situation dispassionately. But that’s exactly what's required to begin the repair.

This article is designed to provide a framework to diagnose and respond to a damaged sales culture.

Let’s assume ...

We’ll skip the basic stuff. For instance, we’ll assume that you’ve got the right folks (savvy, intelligent, creative, curious, strong verbal and written communication, comfortable with technology and social selling) and that you’ve used an assessment tool to make sure they have the core competencies to sell a product/service like yours in an industry of your type. (If not, or even if you’re not sure, have a conversation with Chris Mott about how the OMG Sales Candidate Assessment tool might help.)

We’ll also assume that you didn’t create the problem yourself by appointing your top sales rep as your sales manager. Of course it works every once in a while -- just like you watch the guy take the shot from midcourt to win the car. Very occasionally it's a swoosh, but often it’s an airball.

And finally we’ll presume that your product is good and your company executes well on basic blocking and tackling of delivery and customer service.

So if those pieces are in place, and things are still circling the sales bowl, then where do you look?

Don’t blame the reps.

Sales culture isn’t some mystical topic divorced from common sense business and physical laws. Business management practices that work well in operations can be applied to sales, as well. And a good place to start diagnosing the cause of a damaged culture is to take a page from Deming’s quality management book.

Too often sales is measured by quota and managed by activities (cold calls, quotes, demos, etc.) The former is frankly beyond a rep’s control and the latter leads to behaviors which satisfy the requirement but don’t fix the problem.

Some of you are screaming “Heresy!” by now. How can I criticize quota? I understand that there has to be a system for objectives and planning -- but let’s assume that most folks show up at work every day wanting to work hard and do well. Some sales reps are uniquely capable. They will show up on leaderboards year after year. But often the leaders rotate from year to year. Penalizing and dismissing sales reps who fall off, just like firing ‘poor producers’ in Deming’s red/blue bead quality production examples, is often a capricious and poorly reasoned attempt to “do something.”

Assigning more cold calls, or setting a higher demo target is often simply “tampering” -- again, drawing on Deming’s work. Just as another inspection station may prevent defects from shipping but never fix the cause, demanding more “quotes” will result in, simply, more quotes -- without identifying the revenue growth impediments.  

The key is to step back and understand the systemic barriers to sales success and excellence, and eliminating those so that the sales culture improves as individuals are successful and challenged/rewarded/satisfied with their work.

Systemic Failure

Identifying the systemic challenges to revenue growth success is never easy -- especially when the systemic problem arises not from changes within the company, but because an evolving environment creates a conflict. Recognizing those system issues, therefore, isn’t only about “how we do it and how can we do it better” but “how do we need to do it differently to keep up with the changing world?” It requires a combination of broad perspective, emotional detachment, and intellectual honesty, which is rare.

And it’s also precisely what’s required. Because today’s biggest cause of damaged sales culture (again, assuming you’ve done the baseline things correctly) is the pervasive, clumsy misapplication of sales to the evolving revenue growth process.

A huge environmental shift has occurred in sales -- buyers now control the process. The asymmetric distribution of information which created a handy fulcrum for yesteryear’s sales reps has reached information equilibrium. Buyers expect to conduct self-serve research and manage their buying journey without sales rep intrusion through at least 70% of the process. That means that buyers have very specific expectations and requirements of sales reps -- they’re what HubSpot’s Dan Tyre (@DanTyre) calls “experienced prospects” -- and they tend to focus on a rep’s ability to bring particularly relevant and insightful expertise to helping them efficiently solve their problems. When sales reps do that, leveraging technology to seamlessly coach buyers, both parties are satisfied.

However, when ossified staffing, resource allocation, and ‘management by behaviors’ bludgeons sales reps to in turn bludgeon prospects prematurely and inappropriately, both parties are discontented. The prospect simply goes and buys elsewhere (or abandons the project.) The rep eventually becomes dour and lackadaisical -- and those conditions are cancerous within a sales force. The typical result? A damaged sales culture.

Note that this isn’t the routine rejection from which sales reps have always had to rebound vigorously. Instead, this is a management framework which insists they squander time on activities which the market has determined are intrusive and fruitless.  

Sales reps are becoming discouraged because they’re focused on legacy activities instead of those areas where their skills and aptitude will allow them to succeed. Imagine how damaged the culture would be in an NFL locker room after several games where players were randomly assigned to positions regardless of their skills. And yet that’s analogous to what management is doing today in most companies.

Want to fix a damaged sales culture? Align your sales and marketing resources to today’s markets rather than last decade’s org chart.

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Originally published Dec 10, 2014 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017

Topics:

Sales Culture