Salespeople aren’t known to change quickly. In fact, infrequent change – bordering on rigidity – has been a staple of sales force processes and structures.
In most companies, sales model changes usually occur due to major events, such as changes in product portfolio or market disruption. Between these events, stability is the norm. Yes, salespeople customize their approach and offerings based on each customer’s needs, but the elements of the macro-level selling model tend to stay the same. Salespeople are anchored by a repeatable and proven sales process. Territories define sellers’ customers, products, and tasks, allowing sellers to develop expertise and build long-term customer relationships. Sales managers, organized in a hierarchical structure, monitor performance. And territory sales goals tied to incentives seek to energize and guide the sales effort.
Yet meeting the needs of today’s buyers requires more frequent changes. Digitally informed buyers move non-linearly between purchase stages, choosing when to engage sellers. Customers expect business interactions to adapt to their changing needs and knowledge. Additionally, salespeople are part of an ecosystem of digital channels (eg, chatbots, web content, social media) and sales roles (eg, sales, success, support). Seller-driven sales processes and fixed sales structures are incompatible with seamless shopping in the digital world. In fact, rigidity leads to missed opportunities.
Already, many inside sales teams (i.e. teams that use video, phone, and digital communication to connect with customers instead of making in-person visits) have questioned stable sales models. One such team that we worked with in our consultations makes phone calls to small businesses to sell financial products. The team found that moving calls to the right time of day tripled the likelihood of a sale and increased profits by 20%. This fluidity is part of the DNA of internal sales teams. They can digitally track customer interactions, predict demand trends, and find out what works. Then, as a result, they can scale, restructure, or optimize roles without worrying about travel time or relocating salespeople. Additionally, inside salespeople are accustomed to following on-screen instructions and adapting conversations to real-time customer needs.
For field sales, transitioning to a seamless sales model requires a mindset shift. Instead of “command and control” management driven by organizational priorities, the new model is driven by customer needs. Organizations regularly use personalized content, messages and communication channels for each customer. But operationalizing fluency at the macro level is difficult. The need for agility collides with the existing rigidity of sales processes, territories, management structures and incentives.
Four priorities help organizations evolve.
1. Centrally track where customers are and anticipate where they are going.
Most organizations have a general understanding of typical customer journeys to purchase. But there are still challenges to integrating data from multiple sources, synthesizing insights into where each customer is in their journey, and creating an echo of customer needs ahead. Closing the gap requires digitizing customer interactions, transforming disconnected information into institutional knowledge, and creating smart, always-on digital capabilities to glean real-time insights. Organizations like Microsoft and Intuit have centralized these capabilities into demand centers that identify buying signals, generate a real-time view of each customer’s buying journey and progress, and orchestrate digital and personal outreach to customers. clients.
2. Continuous redeployment of resources to meet customer needs.
The fluidity demanded by customers forces organizations to frequently create new roles, adapt existing roles, and change resource allocation. Although organizations routinely deploy differential resources based on local conditions, it remains difficult to continually adapt roles and reallocate resources without creating chaos. A producer of agricultural products often tailors the responsibilities of sellers to the level of penetration of the company in the region. But it’s difficult to take agility to the next level, such as varying roles in real time if changing weather forecasts affect predicted crop cycles and product demand.
Agile organizations balance continuity and adaptability by designing sales roles that are stable on some dimensions but flexible on others. The structure may include a mix of customer-focused and specialized roles. Customer-focused roles serve a fixed set of customers while tailoring the tasks performed to the needs of the customers. Specialized roles have a looser alignment to specific customers but perform the same task consistently, such as qualification, product demonstrations, or pricing. Additionally, role changes are implemented with less disruption by leveraging sales staff turnover (typically 10% to 20% per year). Instead of quickly filling vacancies, organizations can redeploy resources to the most impacted areas.
3. Shift the mindset of the sales team from “closing the sale” to “leveraging for value”.
Salespeople are used to working independently, often motivated by pride in closing the deal. In contrast, fluidity in sales roles requires salespeople to operate as part of a collective. Change requires rethinking sales incentive plans that reward individual performance, while reducing the role of incentives and motivating and leading sales teams.
As customers interact with more channels and roles, measuring each seller’s impact on results becomes complex. As a result, the focus shifts from driving individual results to providing intrinsic rewards and creating an environment that fosters teamwork, collaboration and customer value. A large pharmaceutical company is responding to changing customer engagement by embracing team selling while reducing reliance on incentives tied to individual financial success. Instead, salespeople are rewarded for achieving a combination of team goals and individual goals (e.g., management by goal, sales process progress metrics, collaboration, and customer satisfaction).
4. Support agile decision making to drive growth.
It is difficult for leaders to make changes in a timely manner while ensuring the right response. Continuous experimentation creates insights to balance the speed and quality of decision making. By trying new concepts on a small scale, organizations can see what works before making big changes. A technology company introduced different types of technical sales specialists in selected territories, then monitored key performance indicators to measure the impact on sales velocity. Many organizations are reluctant to experiment, especially when changes directly affect customers. The tech company overcame this reluctance by creating a new role focused on experimentation and learning.
These four priorities encourage the organization-wide transparency, collaboration, and continuous learning needed to make the fluid sales model work. Sales teams are willing to share information not only to advance a specific deal or opportunity, but also to benefit the entire organization. Success is measured both by high level performance and by customer value and teamwork.