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Sales Managers Are Killing the Sales Organization

It may be that time of year. or maybe I’m just more aware of it, but it seems that too many sales managers are focused on killing the sales organization.

Researchers constantly remind us that buying is changing, that buyers prefer to minimize contact with sales, reducing it to the last 20 percent to 43 percent of their buying process.  They give us feedback from customers: “They don’t understand my problem, they talk about their products, they don’t care about what we are trying to do….”  The lists go on.

The inevitable conclusion of these reports is that buying is changing, customers have better and more alternatives to learn about our products, and the need for sales people is declining.  All the research points to the need for a more customer, consultative, problem solving approach to selling.  Many reports talk about the death of selling.

This Sound Familiar

Of course, the need for a more customer focused, consultative approach to selling is not new.  We first learned about this in the 50’s/60’s/70’s with Drucker, Rackham, Hanan, Miller/Heiman and others, constantly reinforced by others since then.

But, it turns out, it’s not the changes in how customers buy that are killing the need for sales people, it’s poor sales management that is killing the need for sales people.

OK, OK, before all of you get up in arms, declaring me a traitor to my profession, it’s not all sales managers. Some are inspired, some get it, they are amazing. Some leaders are developing organizations that do amazing things in engaging customers. There are great stories and great success we read about.  Probably most of the readers of this post fall into this category.

Unfortunately there are too few good sales leaders.

Despite reading every day about how customers buy, how they want to be engaged, and how sales people can and need to create value for the customer; sales managers seem to be pushing in exactly the opposite direction. Despite knowing, for decades, we need to create more value, be more business focused, be more customer focused, be more consultative, we’ve made little progress.

James Muir cites a conversation with a sales manager, “I recently had a conversation with a manager that wanted to shrink wrap every part of the BDR role so he could hire any body off the street to fill the role. He didn’t want them to need to think.”

Tibor Shanto and Hank Barnes discuss a situation where Tibor was trying to advise a sales manager about a well executed but inappropriately scripted call.  The manager couldn’t appreciate the input their process was off, but just sought to beat up the sales person for poor execution of call scripts.

I could come up with dozens of examples—all from the past week.

Who’s Really to Blame?

We complain about bad, clueless sales people.  But are they really at fault?  Could so many be failing so consistently because of their own ineptness?  After all, they are doing exactly what they have been told to do.  They’ve been trained, scripted, measured on selling poorly by their management.

Rather than respond to the changes in customer buying, too many sales managers seem to be in a race for dumbing down the sales person.  Sales automation vendors, recognizing an opportunity are jumping on the bandwagon, providing tools that enable sales managers to “shrink wrap,” formularize, and templatize the approach to selling.  Managers try to script every bit of the conversation even though that conversation is irrelevant to the customer.  Managers manage by the numbers, increasing volume in an attempt to make the numbers rather than increasing quality and engagement.  More and more I hear the term “coin operated,” referring to the drive sales management has to standardize every word, action, minute spent by sales people.

Managers sit behind desks, analyzing reports (thanks vendors), taking actions based on the numbers, but without understanding the context.  They don’t go on calls, they don’t see how the scripts are not working, they just double down on being completely prescriptive. And if that doesn’t work, they fire people, bringing in fresh fodder to throw at the challenge of making the numbers.

The ultimate impact of this dumbing down of the sales force is that we don’t need sales people.  Sales becomes web fulfilled transactions, and the predictions of the death of sales seem predestined.  Now the logical extension becomes, We don’t need sales managers!  Wake up sales managers, on current course and speed, you will be unemployed, and your actions are making that sooner, not later!

Our customers are crying for help.  They are telling us explicitly what they need.   All we need to be successful is to give them what they want!

They want sales people who understand their businesses, understand what they are trying to achieve, can provide insight into solving their problems.  They want sales people who can help them, not just push products.  They want ideas, they want insight, they want help in managing change.  They need help in learning how to buy and in the buying process itself.  They need help in understanding our solutions–not just from the web, but specifically how it will impact them.  They need help in understanding the challenges and risks in implementing solutions, so they can avoid them.  They need help in building business justified proposals and selling those to their management.

Changing Direction

What if we give them what they want?

Rather than dumbing down and mechanizing the sales force, why don’t we focus on hiring the right people, developing the right skills, coaching them in improving their effectiveness and impact.  We would be working on how do develop business and financial acumen.  We’d help them with critical thinking and problem solving skills–so they can both help the customer figure things out, but they can figure things out for themselves.  We’d be developing project and change management skills, helping move customers through their problem solving process so that they can buy, rather than abandoning the project in No Decision Made.

Yes, we’ll use more tools, but we will leverage those tools in different ways.  We won’t try to dumb down the sales people, but we will implement them in a manner that enables the sales person to engage in meaningful ways, to have conversation in terms that are relevant to the customers, that focus on them and what they want to achieve.

We’d recognize sales people as assets, invest in them, coach them, develop them, support them, retain them.

What’s killing sales is not the changing buyer. What’s killing sales is inept and inattentive sales management.

The greatest outcome that could be created from this post is sales managers getting pissed off enough to want to prove me wrong.  In proving me wrong, they will be forced to focus on building the capability and capacity of the organization, they will discover the things they should be doing (Perhaps some of the things I suggest), and will change their organizations and the way they lead.

Of course, some will try to prove me wrong by doubling down on what they are doing–but we already know that doesn’t work, so don’t waste your time.

David Brock is president of Partners in EXCELLENCE, a management consulting firm focused on sales productivity, channel development, strategic alliances and more. Read more of his blogs here.

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