Improve your sales force effectiveness with job clarity

Improve your sales force effectiveness with job clarity

We often address the topic of increasing the effectiveness and productivity of the sales force. This typically concerns motivation, pay, work methods and/or standards. In this issue we will shine a light on perhaps a more fundamental element of sales force performance—job clarity.

“Job clarity, what do you mean? Everybody knows what selling is!”  Really?  Let me tell you a story.

I was once asked to assist a client that manufactured and sold high-quality office furniture. The company’s sweet spot was selling to large corporations or government agencies that were upgrading their executive or manager offices or moving to new quarters—with the obligatory requirement for new furniture. 

The client had a sales force that was disbursed in 4 local sales offices with showrooms (branches) in major markets with large populations of corporate and governmental offices (New York, Boston, Chicago and DC). The sales force sold directly to the company or agency, or would be recommended (or “specified” as acceptable) by architects or engineers engaged in the design of new office space for the buyers. The architects and engineers were customers and treated accordingly. The sales process was pretty simple: know your customer, get a subscription to the local construction/real estate trade journal so you know who is doing what, stay in the face of local architects and engineers (coffee & donuts) and plan to make a lot of sales calls on both known buyers and influencers. 

The company was becoming concerned that it was not getting the sales or market share it desired (or deserved), and was convinced that its current sales-pay plans were at fault (and, the sales force had already suggested that paying more money would surely help improve performance). We were contacted to help evaluate and then redesign the current sales-pay system, if needed.

To begin, we started with a series of field sales force and manager interviews to understand the sales process, the motivations of the sellers and impediments to success. When doing such interviews, the first question we always try to answer is: Is this really a sales-pay problem?

What we found was startling! First, as you can assume when a potential client is buying or replacing furniture for 1,000 offices, the sales proposal can be very detailed and fill many notebooks. It was taking up to two weeks of uninterrupted sales-rep time to complete each proposal. They had little or no administrative support to help with the task.

Then we found something even worse. Not only was the sales force spending nearly 100% of their time preparing the sales proposal, they were also doing all of the detailed design & logistical work to deliver and install the 1,000 suites of furniture. In short, every time a furniture deal was closed, the client lost a sales rep for the next 2-3 months.

By our estimate the sales reps spent 2/3 of their time doing non-selling activities.  Hence, if there were 8 sales reps shown on the organizational chart, in truth there now were effectively only 3 reps selling. The sales force was routinely doing the wrong job.

Everyone was shocked by what we found except the members of sales force—this was their normal “deal.” They accepted limited company resources in the field and generally did not want to complain as many were more comfortable doing back-office work than making sales calls.

Well, the deal promptly changed when the client recognized that its real productivity issue was a confused and misdirected sales force. What did they do next?

  1. The sales force was no longer involved with installation of future closed furniture projects. That work was now shifted to engineers and administrators assigned from the home office and managed by corporate resources. In addition, each branch had a specific support person assigned to writing sales proposals. In parallel, any current sales rep who wanted to change from selling to installation & logistics was allowed to promptly make that transfer. (Management also strongly suggested to three of the sales incumbents that they consider the transfer.)
  2. The sales force was now expected to make a set number of sales calls every month on current and prospective accounts, and their progress toward reaching this goal was measured& reported frequently.
  3. The client started to manage the sales “pipeline.” Members of the sales force were responsible for having 4-5 deals of 500+ office suites or more working at any given time and be able to assess the probability and time of close for each.
  4. Finally, there was something wrong with a pay plan that provided good (market+) earnings for a sales force that only spent 1/3 of their time selling. In response, the commission-based plan was modified to continue to reward for volume, but some pay dollars were now shifted to rewarding for closing big deals with new high-potential customers. Hence if you wanted to make money, you had to make that sales pipeline sing.

Suddenly, the sales force had no time left to manage an installation or anything else not involving a sales call.

Over the years, Wilkening & Company has recommended a number of tools for improving sales force effectiveness. But, assuring that your sales force clearly understands their job and your expectations may be the most fundamental tool of them all.

What is your sales force doing today?

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