Sales and marketing

Do We Set Our Salespeople Up to Fail?


I'm pretty tough on salespeople. You’ve read my endless rants about bad prospecting, clueless call execution, and other examples of poor “salesmanship.”  One thing, I’m certain of, is that I will never run out of examples of really bad selling.

But when you reflect, you have to consider the question, “Are so many sales people really that bad?”  Or is there another reason they are failing?

Now before you think I’ve gone all soft on you, there are plenty of really bad salespeople–people who don’t deserve to be salespeople.  These are those that lie, manipulate, and do anything then need to get the sale. They deserve no empathy or compassion.

But the majority of salespeople, I believe, genuinely want to do a good job.  They may not be superstars, not everyone can be a superstar, but they want to be rock solid performers.

But why do they fail?

Fundamentally, we hire people to do something, we train them what to do, we provide them tools to “help” them perform, we measure them, and maybe every once in a while we coach them.  How our salespeople execute, is a direct result of what we tell them to do, train them to do, and what we measure them on.

But when we see such massive problem–for example 60% of organizations failing to achieve plan, we have to ask, “Are they the problem or is the problem elsewhere?”

Are we hiring the right people, are we telling them the right things to do, are we training them to do it in the right way, are we equipping them to execute successfully, are we coaching them, are we equipping them for success?  Or are we setting people up for failure?

The responsibility for setting our people up to succeed rests on sales management.  But it doesn’t stop there.

It takes the rest of the organization to help salespeople to succeed.

  • Marketing needs to provide meaningful, relevant programs, product management needs to equip the organization to understand the problems our products are the best in the world at solving and who has those problems.
  • Finance, legal, customer service, and the rest of the organization have to make it easy and desirable for customers to do business.

Without all of these–or at least a sufficient number, working correctly, we set sales people up for failure.

Sales Management's Role

Sales management bears a central responsibility.

Sales management needs to make sure they have the right people, the right systems, tools, processes, metrics. Sales managers need to be deeply involved with their people helping them succeed and grow. Additionally, sales management must protect their people from bad marketing programs. We know customers don’t want product pitches, yet why do marketing and product management still provide programs around product pitches? Sales management must send them back to do their homework/jobs.

If we expect salespeople to engage people in a conversation about their business, then equip them with the right information to have that conversation. I have huge empathy for the poor SDR tasked to call me or any other C-Level executive with the challenge, “We can help you improve your business?”

The reasonable response from the customer is, “What am I doing wrong, what should I be doing differently, what should I change, what makes you think I have that problem, or why do you believe you can do that?”

99.999% of the time, when I challenge the sales person with one of those questions, they aren’t able to respond or engage in any meaningful way.  They can only say, “We’ve helped other customer.”

Well OK, but what does that mean to me?  “I have to get someone else to talk to you about that.” Well why didn’t they call in the first place, why are you wasting your time and mine if you can’t answer my questions? “We can improve your performance.” Well what evidence do you have that I have that problem?

I listen carefully to their responses, you can hear the frustration, the embarrassment.  Occasionally, I hear the whispered, “Oh shit….”

These are all questions that can and should be anticipated in these calls, but we don’t equip the salesperson to respond, to engage, to drill down.

It’s not their fault, it’s ours (sales management, marketing, product management).

Whose Viewpoint Did You Consider?

Too often, when we set our expectations, when we design our programs, we do it from our perspectives–not the perspective of the customer or the salespeople who must execute our plans.

Sure, I know how to deal with virtually every challenge a C-Level exec might provide, but I’m a C-Level exec and have been dealing with those issues for longer than most SDR’s have been alive.  Using our own experience base and knowledge is the wrong starting point for equipping our sales people for success.

Marketing needs to do the same.  Have they made a number of “sample calls” themselves, do they know what the sales person will face.  Are they equipping the salesperson with the right knowledge, are the providing the tools/direction for the right research/prep, are they targeting the right people?  (We already know the answer to that–72% of email marketing programs have limited or no targeting.)

It seems, rather than equipping our salespeople for success and equipping them to produce better results, we are satisfied with low results -- but just pump of the volume playing insane numbers games.

Imagine what happens when we start doing fewer things -- and doing them more thoughtfully. Imagine the results that could be produced if we really equipped our people to be successful.

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.