As the face of a company and the primary source of its revenues, the sales force is among an organization’s most critical assets. And the importance of its role is only growing as competition intensifies, products commoditize, and companies focus more on organic growth.
Yet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a high-performing sales force, especially in industries or companies undergoing significant change. With constant shocks such as internal strategic shifts, deregulation, globalization, and new competitors’ tactics, many sales forces have lost track of customer behavior and best practices for succeeding in their industries. The rapid consolidation of the retail landscape, for instance, has left sales forces at many consumer goods companies unprepared to respond to changing circumstances, such as the emergence of big-box retailers and the power they are able to exert over the value chain. That puts the affected companies at a serious disadvantage, because their sales forces should be the first line of defense in recognizing and responding to the needs of these big-box retailers.
Developing a so-called adaptive sales force that can quickly and effectively address unexpected detours in the marketplace not only helps to protect existing revenue, it also enables a company to unlock additional growth, increase sales productivity, and improve return on investment (ROI). We have seen companies that have embraced this strategy reduce head count by 10 to 20 percent, while increasing yield by 10 to 15 percent.
Despite these benefits, few companies have learned how to get the most out of their sales forces. It’s not that these companies don’t recognize the centrality of the function. But too often, organizations treat sales force concerns as isolated issues, addressing them one customer or one salesperson at a time. Needed instead is a systematic approach that looks at the linkages among all of the sales force’s roles and how they can best be leveraged.
We have developed a five-step process to implement such an approach, but before we delve into the specifics, there are two critical points to keep in mind. First, companies should realize that in order to play the game well, they must keep their eyes on the customer. A critical element of this perspective involves providing salespeople with the tools to capture relevant and meaningful insights and establishing the right processes to bring the sales force closer to the customer. Ultimately, every change must be evaluated in light of its impact on the customer.
Second, don’t take a piecemeal approach to the process. These five steps are interrelated and tackling just one or two and not the others can lead to missteps. For instance, a company that redefines its sales approach without giving its people the tools to support the new approach can find itself in a worse position than if it had done nothing at all.
Step 1: Develop in-depth customer profiles. In other words, address the questions, “What does the customer care about most?” and “Who are the key decision makers?” in a way that provides actionable information. Although many companies gather information about their customers, they do not always use it to generate value. Furthermore, they fail to update this information on an ongoing basis and adjust their sales strategy accordingly to allow for dynamic customer needs and buying behaviors.
Sales forces must engage with customers to establish a clear breakdown of prioritized customer needs. This detailed knowledge of requirements will help in designing the appropriate deployment strategy and determining what skills the sales force will need to implement it. For example, one consumer goods company produced a list of 10 needs that were of primary importance to a big-box retailer and, based on this knowledge, successfully tackled in-store execution, marketing support, and corporate buyer support as the three areas to focus on when working with the retailer.