'Transforming' vs. 'Tweaking' Your Sales Force

By Warren Shiver on Aug 15, 2014

We have found that many sales training companies use the word “transformation” when they’re really only talking about tweaking the existing organization mostly through training, not holistic transformation. Depending on your case for change and the gap between your capabilities and desired results, rolling out sales training or a new tool might be the perfect solution.

Training could affect the change you need. Training could also prepare a sales force for an eventual transformation initiative or reinforce a transformation you have recently undergone. But training alone is not transformation.

A sales training best selling book, The Challenger Sale, the Sales Executive Council describes research showing that the buying process has fundamentally changed thanks to the knowledge and resources now available to buyers (mainly fueled by the Internet). It goes on to suggest that in many situations, sellers must add value above and beyond their products or services by employing a consultative selling approach where they bring insights to their customers and “challenge” or “re-frame” the customer’s perception of a problem or opportunity. 

In a Harvard Business Review article that summarizes the need for this approach, the authors state, “Getting the Challenger approach right requires organizational capabilities as well as individual skills,” which to us is the essential but often overlooked key point, as many organizations only focus on one thing and look for a short-term fix, in this case running a two- or three-day sales training workshop to roll out a new sales technique. Sometimes a tweak (delivered through training or a new tool) is all a sale force needs; other times, a full-bore transformation is in order.

Transforming a sales organization to consistently deliver insights requires new value propositions, case studies and collateral from Marketing, new competencies, skill development, recruiting profiles from HR, and alignment with Operations to refine products and services. A theme that runs throughout our experience is that successful sales transformations must involve other functional areas. 

Though “change” and “transformation” are sometimes used interchangeably, not all change rises to the level of transformation. Here are four simple questions to help determine whether your organization needs a sales force transformation or just a tweak:

  • Is the solution to this challenge mostly addressable by training? As mentioned, one of the most common misperceptions we’ve seen is the notion that training equals transformation. Sometimes transformation requires training, but training per se is not transformation. If your organization provides sales training after not having provided it, that’s a change, but it’s not a transformation. But training alone will not transform a sales organization. For example, we worked with one client who trained all of their sellers around consultative selling behaviors, but didn’t change their processes, metrics, or management cadence to reinforce the new behaviors. The training got rave reviews, but it was treated as an isolated event and as a result, the sales organization didn’t transform and the training was soon forgotten. If your sales force needs vital product information, if it needs to embrace new rules or regulations, or if you are seeking incremental sales growth in your current markets with your current offerings, you probably need to roll out training, not transformation. But if you need to change the fundamentals of how your sales force sells – and you want that change to stick – you’re likely looking at transformation.
  • Will technology alone help you meet the challenge? As with training, your organization’s transformation initiative may require new tools and systems, but adding a CRM tool or even an entire IT group are not sales transformations. At best, sales oriented systems help to automate and enable processes, but they must be surrounded by many other elements, such as manager reinforcement, coaching, metrics, and training to drive user adoption, and ultimately, the desired ROI. Even though CRM as a technology is approaching its third decade, we still see companies confuse a CRM implementation with sales transformation. The technology may be necessary for a sales transformation, but it’s rarely sufficient on its own. If you’re looking to replace those Excel-based sales forecasts with a standard, automated system, this is the solution. But if your customers have told you that you need to dramatically improve the value your sales team delivers, you need more than a software tool; you need to transform.
  • Would a one-time event, such as a workshop, help to solve the challenge? While motivational speeches, team-building exercises, and seminars may be helpful motivators, they are not transformational. These events could be useful and informative components of a transformation – great for morale and incremental gains. But sales forces that face sweeping market changes, mergers, and other dynamic changes won’t likely transform who they are and how they sell based on any one-time event. There is no silver bullet. Transformation has lots of moving parts and interdependencies. This degree of complexity often derails transformation initiatives, and in many cases, this is the reason why executives never even try.
  • What is the gap between your ideal state and what you’ve got now? Draw it out, write it down, or brainstorm it with your colleagues. How big is the gap between what you have and what you want? If it’s big enough, you may need to transform rather than tweak. For example, if getting there involves the whole organization (HR, IT Marketing, Product, Operations, etc.), not just sales, you’re probably talking about transformation. Are you aiming for relatively small incremental increases in sales? That may require change (such as training, new technology, or a motivational workshop), but not transformation. On the other hand, if you were you selling a product, and now you’re selling a solution, getting your sales force to make that kind of change may require a transformation. After all, we’re not talking about selling more widgets or gaining efficiency, but changing the way the sales force sells, the way sales are measured, and the way the rest of the organization supports sales. Does closing the gap simply involve more effort on the sales team’s part? Or does it require a whole new approach to sales? The former suggests a tweak. The latter suggests transformation.

A sales transformation is not a journey for the faint hearted. In our research for our book 7 Steps to Sales Force Transformation, Michael Perla and I have found that sales transformations should not be undertaken lightly. There are a number of reasons for that – from the potential for sales leader and team turnover, to people’s overall resistance to change, to the pressures of bringing in revenues while implementing changes, to the challenge of building out new skills and capabilities.

Transformation requires staying power, consistency, and commitment from sales and executive leadership. Yet, with an average tenure of 18 months (according to an annual survey from CSO Insights), who can blame sales leaders for seeking “quick fixes” that might show incremental improvement this quarter, while neglecting structural challenges that require significant time and effort to change?

Answering those four questions will begin to help you understand whether your sales force needs to transform or change. Again, each of those tactics may be necessary for your sales force. Each can support transformation, but they are neither structural, nor are they transformative on their own.

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Warren Shiver

Written by Warren Shiver

Warren Shiver is the founder and managing partner of Symmetrics Group, a management consultancy focused on end to end improvement in sales force effectiveness. Through Warren’s leadership, Symmetrics Group has helped numerous organizations build high-performing sales teams focused on the right go-to-market strategy, disciplined sales process and well-designed enabling tools. Clients and consultants appreciate Warren’s uncompromising focus on quality and measureable impact and how he embodies the firm’s core values.

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