What if You Could Be 10% Better?

Author: Dr. Scott Downey, Director and Professor, Purdue University Center for Food and Agricultural BusinessSales Management Graphic

 One of the cool things I get to do in my role as a professor today in sales and marketing is work with sales organizations all over the world. Hearing some of the challenges these organizations face nearly daily gives me, I think, a unique perspective on trends. When I see repeated issues arise, it prompts me to identify tools researchers in the area of sales and marketing have explored that may be relevant to what is happening in the real world, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes academia follows the real world rather than leading it, but research about sales in one industry often applies to what happens in others. The trends I’m observing right now may fall into that category.

 I’ve spoken before in blogs and trade publications about the typical ways sales managers are promoted into their roles. The story is a familiar one — a solid, and usually high performing, salesperson is tapped for sales management. The real sales MANAGEMENT experiences they’ve had may be limited to their own engagement with sales managers who had the same background, along with maybe the influence of a high school coach or mentor.

This cycle commonly repeats, sometimes through successive generations of sales managers in an organization; however, this doesn’t mean sales managers are not competent or talented. In fact, this process has served us well in food and agribusiness organizations, pretty much since sales organizations have existed. Experience is a great teacher, after all. It is worth considering, though, that experience takes time to teach her lessons, and she’s sometimes not very forgiving. Many organizations without the luxury of waiting for experience to do her thing are accelerating learning for sales management with good reason. 

Twenty years ago, managers were promoted into a sales world very similar to the world in which they learned to sell. Buying decisions had more or less the same complexity, the data available for making decisions was more or less the same, the technical expertise expected by buyers was more or less the same and the number of options available in the marketplace to help customers was more or less the same. But compared to their predecessors, managers today may be managing sellers who are working in a far more complex environment with much more data, much more communication about options, thinner margins for buyers, differences between products that may be more technical than buyers care to learn about…and on and on.

This hasn’t been a sudden change as management skills have been evolving right along with market complexity. A sales organization simply isn’t successful today unless it is at the top of its game. Skills are generally higher at both field sales and sales management levels today compared to 20 years ago, but there’s far less patience. We just don’t have time to wait for experience to teach us everything.

Basically, the gist of what I’ve been hearing is usually something like, “We’ve trained these salespeople, so why isn’t it sticking?” or “It seems like some of my salespeople get it and some just don’t.” Many consolidated organizations today have more sales layers than they did 20 years ago, and I hear from executives, “We’ve trained our sales team, but I’m not convinced our managers are supporting what we’re training in the right ways.” Rarely is the message today, “We don’t know how to sell; come help us.” The message is more along the lines of, “Our team is running at about 90% effectiveness on average. I’ve got a few who are at 70% and the best are probably about 95%, but our difference in the marketplace comes down to how well these salespeople are creating experiences for our customers that align with our brand. Ninety percent won’t cut it. What do we need to do to get that number up so we’re creating consistently positive experiences for all customers?”

 The simple answer is: There are no simple answers anymore. We’ve gotten past the point where training salespeople on sales skills adds a lot to overall effectiveness. That’s not to say there’s nothing for sellers to learn, especially for newbies, as there’s pretty good training available today. “Creating buying experiences” is a different set of activities than just generating sales (which, let’s not forget, remains the primary reason for having salespeople). Ninety percent of the time, salespeople can confidently apply their training and their own experience to selling situations they encounter in a way that creates the positive experiences the organization desires its customers to have. But the other 10% of the time, a salesperson has to do things they may not feel confident doing. Ten percent of the time, selling is really hard (and by the way, as a salesperson in some organizations, I may be able to get away with not even messing with much of that 10% and still make a pretty good living).

 Whether it’s 10% of salespeople or 10% of sales situations, the question is the same: What are we going to do about the 10%? I see most organizations start to tackle this the way we did 20 years ago: “We have good people, but they’re not good at the 10%, so let’s train them.” After we did that and the changes we’d hoped to see weren’t made, we would say, “We have good people and they’ve been trained, they just need more coaching.” Sales managers almost always agree with this. For more than 15 years we have surveyed sales managers on where they spend their time and where they would like to spend their time. Coaching almost always shows up as the biggest gap. Coaching may be part of the way we address the 10%, but it takes a lot of coaching time which is expensive, even if capacity for doing this existed (and it mostly doesn’t). Without coaching capacity, we’re forced to go back to relying on experience, which means we either overpay for it by poaching a competitor or wait for it to develop.

Maybe a better solution nowadays is to identify and use tools or processes that require developing the MANAGEMENT part of sales management. For example, a manager might identify their 10% problem as an operational problem, describing it as, “90% of the time performance is high and variance is low, but 10% of the time performance is low and variance is high.” As an operational management problem, a manager would identify causes of the variance in the 10%, prioritize those causes, identify process solutions, plan to implement them, and then measure and analyze the results. 

Alternatively, a manager may approach this as a marketing problem, acknowledging that traditional sellers are effective at serving 90% of the market, but 10% of the market requires a targeted approach to the segment, which means using account management approaches to sales resource allocation for a portion of the market rather traditional selling. Or perhaps the manager will identify it as a compensation problem, finding that the organization is over-incentivizing the 90% and under-incentivizing the more complex 10%. Or maybe this is a technical problem where salespeople feel underconfident in their technical skills 10% of the time. Or maybe it’s a trust problem where salespeople don’t feel they can turn over 10% of their customers to experts in other areas of the business without jeopardizing a relationship. Or maybe it’s some of all of these. Sales management today requires competence at identifying and using a variety of tools that cross traditional business functions in a way that wasn’t required 20 years ago.

There’s not a simple solution except to understand that sales management today is more than sales coaching. Developing the management part of sales management comes with experience, or, if we’re not patient, these are things that can be taught.

Beyond the Blog

Learn more from Dr. Scott Downey during the Sales Management and Leadership professional development program May 25-26, 2022! You’ll have the opportunity to assess your people development skills and gain tools for becoming a more effective coach for your team, learn about the five keys to leading effective developmental conversations, practice handling situations such as retaining good salespeople, and learn to use assets your team already possesses to their greatest potential.


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