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Reframing Sales Effectiveness

Aligning Strategy and Sales is the best sales book of the year — and one that senior executives should read.

I’m calling it early: Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors That Drive Effective Selling (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), by Frank V. Cespedes, is the best sales book of the year. I know we’ve got a few months left in 2014, but I’m not too worried that I’ll be proven wrong—I’ve been waiting for a sales book like this one for a long time and the odds that another will appear before December 31 are long indeed.

With rare exceptions, sales books are about one of two things: the sales process or sales skills. The process books are aimed at providing the sales force with a path it can follow to close deals; the skills books are aimed at bolstering an individual salesperson’s results. Good ones of both ilks can be worth their weight in gold. “But,” warns Cespedes, a consultant and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, “they also treat selling in isolation from strategy, and the focus of much sales training can have a perverse effect: It often leads a company’s sales force to work harder but not necessarily smarter .” Worse, he adds, the sales force can get “better and better at things that customers care less and less about…and the cycle can be self-reinforcing.” 

“Sales training can often lead a company’s sales force to work harder but not necessarily smarter.”

In Aligning Strategy and Sales, Cespedes enlarges the frame in order to show us the bigger picture. That picture reveals a set of linkages:

• A combination of company strategy and market/customer characteristics dictates sales tasks (i.e., the sales process). This suggests it is highly unlikely that a generic sales process will be optimal for your company—unless your strategy is also generic, in which case you’ve got a different problem.

• Sales tasks dictate selling behaviors. You need to know what you are trying to accomplish before you can determine how to accomplish it. This suggests that generic lists of sales traits probably will not be optimal either (and I write this as the coauthor of a book that derived a list of desirable selling behaviors from the correlation between the behavioral traits of several hundred thousand newly hired salespeople and their subsequent performance).

• Sales behaviors dictate sales hiring, sales systems, and the sales environment. The latter three buckets are the levers by which you get the behaviors that you need to execute the sales tasks that enable you to deliver on your strategy in the marketplace.

This type of framework is not rocket science and it shouldn’t be unfamiliar to executives. After all, every function in a company is subject to the same—dare I say it, generic—set of linkages. But they are rarely articulated in a sales context and so one or more of them are often neglected when companies set strategy or seek to enhance sales performance. And, as you might expect, the results aren’t pretty in either case.

What I really like about Cespedes and his book is that he knows achieving success in sales isn’t simple. The parts are always moving. Executives are adjusting their strategies in response to a host of variables. Salespeople are changing their processes and adjusting their behaviors in response to ever-changing conditions on the field. Sales managers are coming and going. Sales incentives are constantly changed based on inventory levels and margins and demand. “In any situation where you have interacting variables like this, you must confront the interactions and diagnose the problem,” he says. “That’s what’s needed to improve selling and strategy.”

(That little italicized and is worth a brief aside: Strategy informs sales, but sales also informs strategy. Your salespeople are in the market and they are tripping over vital strategic intelligence on a regular basis. You might want to start actually listening to their bitching and moaning.)

Back to the business at hand: Let’s say your sales aren’t exactly cause for celebration and, as is their wont, everybody is pointing the finger at each other. How do you fix it? The answer to that question is the core content of Cespedes’s book. Chapter by chapter, the author deconstructs the big picture, explaining how to tell where there are disconnects in linkages and how to approach the job of repairing them. Again, not rocket science—but in a business world where sales is often seen as a black box and sales misses are addressed by firing underperformers, giving big signing bonuses to new managers and salespeople, and chucking money at motivational speakers, Aligning Strategy and Sales is well worth the cover price.    

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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