7 steps to a highly effective sales transformation program

3rd Feb 2003

In the first of two articles on the topic, Ian Hirst - former head of global sales operations at Reuters, and now co-founder of management consultants the Greenbank Partnership - outlines why the sales function is particularly tricky to change.

Part One - What makes the sales function so different??

There is little doubt that many sales development programmes fail to deliver the results executives expect – as many as 85% according to a Gartner Group study. This article looks at the most common reasons why and the key steps that you need to take if you want to make sure that your companies programmes are in the 15%!

At the heart of the paper is the premise that the sales function is fundamentally different from other functions when it comes to skills and process change.

Firstly though, let's look at why sales development remains an important opportunity for many companies…

The salesforce as a competitive differentiator

One of the main reasons why companies are still investing many thousands of pounds per salesperson on training and systems is that it is getting more and more difficult to find a real competitive edge from products and services alone. To fill this gap, ‘Making your staff a differentiator’ is already a common consultancy buzzword and many organisations clearly see the salesforce as the obvious way to make this happen and achieve demonstrable results.

So, sales training courses, or new CRM systems, are arranged – and then 6 months later, after life ‘back at the ranch’ has taken its toll, its difficult for CEOs to see the impact….………

“So what’s so different about this?” You may say – hasn’t the whole change management industry been built around just this sort of organisational issue?

What makes a salesforce different?

This is true - but although some classic change management tools are very relevant to make sales change ‘stick’, the sales function has some very specific characteristics, often overlooked, that make change difficult to imbed and need specific management leadership and skills.

I have described these differences under the 3 headings of


  • sales culture
  • sales management
  • the sales role itself

A) Sales Culture

Salesperson characteristics It’s worth looking here at the characteristics that are firstly looked for during recruitment of top salespeople - and then subsequently get rewarded and reinforced. Typically – certainly in a sophisticated b2b environment - this includes individuality, charisma and the ability to ‘get around’ blocks. A broad oversimplification maybe, but these characteristics are the opposite of somebody who would readily pick up and use a new process or system simply because it was the new corporate standard.

Salesforce machismo – Linked to this is the competitive, image-oriented culture in many, although obviously not all, salesforces which makes it difficult socially to try something new & it being OK to occasionally fail. This is a real block to moving from a state of ‘conscious competence’ (overtly and often clumsily trying out new skills) to the desired ‘unconscious competence’, where the skills are imbedded in the salesperson’s natural approach.

Individual v Team success – Although many sales organisations want to encourage team working, in most sales organisations, individual performance – readily measured by monthly sales figures – remains a major behavioural driver. This can make any sales development initiative requiring teamwork and information sharing very difficult.

A salesperson’s individual knowledge base (of accounts, products and especially individual contacts) is historically their personal strength – and one that can take with them to their next job. Systems and processes that turn this into shared knowledge may well be mistrusted or overtly fought against. In our experience, this is a major block in particular for sales CRM implementations, where much of the information remains in the salesperson’s head

Short-term revenue measurement The bonus or commission nature of a salesperson’s remuneration, together with the short term (monthly or even weekly) nature of their targets, means that new approaches that do not immediately deliver increased sales are likely to be discarded or ignored.

Again, this transparency of personal performance (much more than any other function in an organisation) can make salespeople feel very vulnerable. CRM or other systems that require openness on sales pipeline are very difficult to fully implement where this isn’t addressed.

B) Sales Management

First line managers are key to long-term success of any change project – but in sales, they are often actually the major stumbling block! Why? Well as a start, from our experience, it is often the most successful, most charismatic, individualistic, results-focussed, salesperson that is promoted in the first place to sales manager. Not surprisingly therefore, management practices around coaching skills or process implementation are not always of major interest to sales managers….

In some cases (much more than in other functions) sales managers do not even see it as their job to coach or develop their staff. Their role of ‘bringing in the figures’ each month overshadows other management duties and they can afford to avoid any people-management ‘outside comfort-zone’ duties.

To reinforce this, commission and bonus schemes are all too often seen as the main way the company motivates salespeople and could be viewed as removing the need for hands-on people management.

These points are hugely important. Any sales change programme will have problems and difficulties as it gets rolled out and first-line sales managers are in exactly the right place to spot and quickly address the issue – as they are to ensure that the benefits from any new skill or process is maximised within their group!

However, particularly because of the points above, their support and role in this can not be automatically assumed – if it is, then it is all to easy for them to provide at best ‘lip service’ to the changes, and at worst adopt a more cynical, destructive position…particularly if there is initial impact on short term revenue (on which many sales managers are often solely measured) by their staff attending courses, learning new systems etc…

C) Role and Geography

Geographical factors. It’s obviously a lot easier to implement change when your target audience is in one place – as in a call centre. The fact that many field salesforces are highly dispersed adds an additional complexity – which together with the typical salesperson’s characteristics outlined above, often kills a project in its own right…

Customer facing – Connected with this, the customer-facing ‘out of the office’ nature of the field salespersons job makes it difficult to know whether the new skills are being used or not! Many sales managers we have talked to find it uncomfortable to carry out coaching calls with their salespeople to test this..

Good salespeople will still make sales! – without the new skills or processes. Given the pivotal role that top salespeople have in an organisation, it takes a brave company to force a top salesperson to adopt a new way of working – even if it is for the longer term greater good of the organisation. Another way of viewing this is that new processes or systems are in reality ‘optional’ for a salesperson – they can do their job without them – unlike say a telemarketing executive whose system and processes dictate their workflow…

Immediate customer pressures The reactive nature of their work – and the build up of customer queries whilst they are being trained, means that ‘life back at the office’ is immediately on top of a salesperson once they finish training. Many salespeople we have spoken to 2 or 3 weeks after training have claimed that this factor alone has prevented them from trying out new ways of working – and it is well known that immediate consolidation of learning is vital, with only 10-20% of new learning remembered even a week after training, without trying out new skills during this time.

From Issues to Solutions……

In next month's article, we will move from ‘issues’ to ‘solutions’ and look at some practical ways that HR and business management can work together to make even the most intransigent salesforce change. We will include real-life examples in areas such as changing sales competences, gaining senior management sponsorship, effective communication – and even that tricky issue of securing first line sales management commitment

About The Greenbank Partnership

Greenbank provide consultancy and training services in both management and sales development. They have ‘real-life’ FTSE100 global sales director experience and help clients deliver sustained and measurable sales improvement via both ‘hard’ areas such as CRM implementation, sales structure and process definition together with individual development work around assessment, skills training and motivation.

If you have immediate questions (or if you would like a transcript of the full article), you can contact him at [email protected]

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