Now Is the Time to Shake Up Your Sales Processes

By Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, Sally E. Lorimer, Chris Morgan. Published in Harvard Business review on October 23, 2020.

Major sales force changes such as restructuring or downsizing are disruptive to how sales teams work and to the systems that support them. A poorly-orchestrated change can damage customer relationships, hurt the top line, and threaten salespeople’s sense of control and self-esteem. Not surprisingly, leaders often wait to implement major changes until a significant event forces them to do so.

A crisis like the pandemic makes sales leaders, managers, and salespeople more receptive to change. A crisis can also spark energy, courage, and perseverance as leaders bring people together to address a shared challenge.

As implementing change gets easier, the key challenge becomes deciding what to change. Beyond the forced move to virtual connection during the pandemic, sales organizations are dealing with critical questions. How will customers buy in the future? How much of the sales process will remain virtual? What does this mean for sales organization design, sales success profiles, sales incentive structures, and other sales management decisions? Four issues need urgent attention now, as changes will only get harder to implement as time passes.

Rethinking the Sales Process

Even before the pandemic, buyers had jumped ahead of B2B selling organizations in their digital savvy. Buyers’ expectations were shaped by online buying experiences with the likes of Amazon and Netflix in their personal lives. Three factors contributed to the slow progress of B2B selling organizations with digital. First, boosting digital and virtual selling usually meant taking some customers or sales tasks away from field salespeople. Salespeople naturally resisted, wanting to keep control of every step in the process. Second, sales leaders held back as they weighed the risk of disrupting customer relationships. Third, as the rigidity of technology collided with the fluidity of B2B selling, digital system implementation was fraught with delays and had questionable impact.

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, remarked that as the pandemic affected every aspect of life and work, “We saw two years of digital transformation in two months.” Indeed, the technical barriers to change are falling rapidly. Salespeople and customers are ready to change too. A field salesperson wistfully observed of her new virtual sales world, “Customers are getting used to this.” To move forward, it’s important to know when field salespeople will still be prominent or dominant in the sales process and when they will have a diminished role.

The key is to align in-person sales channels with buying complexity and buyer uncertainty. Sales organizations will eliminate or reduce in-person visits in simpler selling situations, including:

  • Straightforward buying steps (sharing information, placing orders)
  • Customers who are comfortable with virtual connection
  • Decision makers who already know what to buy, especially on repeat purchases

Sales organizations will return to primarily in-person selling in complex situations, including:

  • Customers who have undefined needs or are unsure about a solution
  • Circumstances requiring collaboration and creativity
  • Buyers with many decision influencers

Resizing and Restructuring the Sales Force

Sales process redesign necessitates rethinking sales force size and structure. When work shifts to digital and virtual channels, downsizing the field sales force is likely.

Sales force downsizing is an obvious consequence for industries badly hurt by the pandemic, such as travel and transportation. But other industries are downsizing field sales forces as well. At a manufacturing equipment company, customers preferred to ask field sales engineers for help with technical support and fulfillment, rather than working through the service switchboard. During the pandemic, without sales engineers on site, customers were forced to go down the “right” channels for service. Customers discovered that service personnel were better equipped to help them with service issues than they’d expected. As in-person selling returns, the company plans to have fewer field sales engineers and less overlap between sales and service.

As many sales organizations face the trauma of downsizing, there are upsizing opportunities for industries such as cloud services.  Surprisingly, sales force expansions often lag business needs because salespeople generally dislike giving up customers — a natural consequence of adding salespeople. Upsizing may also create advantage when competitors are weakened by the pandemic.

Changing the Sales Success Profile

Changes to sales processes and roles create a need to rethink the sales success profile. This may be the hardest change of all if the capabilities of current sales team members don’t align with new role requirements. Digital fluency was forced on sales teams in the pandemic. Going forward, salespeople, managers, and leaders will need other new capabilities as well.

An industrial valve manufacturer rebounding from the pandemic is redefining its sales success profile to deemphasize relationship-based selling skills and focus more on the empathetic, value-based selling approach that informed customers prefer. The change is bringing more women to the formerly male-dominated sales team.

Other sales organizations are adapting to the multichannel sales environment by bringing more team-oriented salespeople on board. The profile for sales managers is changing as well — for example, emphasizing adaptability over the ability to direct structured processes.

Revising Incentives

A new sales process and success profile can create a need to redesign incentives to reinforce sales role changes. In addition, incentive plan redesign can address unresolved issues that were emerging before the pandemic began. Changes to consider include the following.

Matching pay with value. A mutual fund executive observed recently, “The inside salespeople, who have one-third the income, are doing a better job than the field salespeople.” As selling shifts from field sales to inside sales to digital channels, the pay level for each sales role needs to adjust to match the work performed and value added.

Changing the pay mix. In some cases, selling is becoming more multichannel and team-based, yet salespeople still earn large incentives tied to individual short-term results. It could be time to shift the pay mix to a larger salary and less incentive, or to tie incentives to metrics reflecting team-based rather than individual performance.

Rethinking plan type. Industries such as office supplies and medical supplies have high carryover sales (repeat sales for little or no sales effort). Yet these industries often pay salespeople commissions from the first dollar of sales. Switching to an incentive plan that pays for meeting and exceeding sales goals can motivate more sales effort and drive growth.

Aligning metrics with strategy. For example, say salespeople earn incentives for achieving a combined sales goal (total sales of all products) even though products have different margins or strategic value. It is a good time to revise the incentive plan to emphasize some products over others.

There are cascading implications to all these sales force changes. A new sales process has impact on sales roles and organization design, which affects the success profile, the incentive plan, and more. Alignment across sales decisions and programs is essential as leaders implement these and other challenging sales force changes.

About the authors

Andris A. Zoltners is a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is a cofounder of ZS Associates, a global business consulting firm, and a coauthor of a series of sales management books, including The Power of Sales Analytics.

PK Sinha is a cofounder of ZS Associates, a global business consulting firm. He teaches sales executives at the Indian School of Business and is a coauthor of a series of sales management books, including Building a Winning Sales Force.

Sally E. Lorimer is a marketing and sales consultant and a business writer for ZS Associates, a global business consulting firm. She is a coauthor of a series of sales management books, including Sales Compensation Solutions.

Chris Morgan is a principal at business consulting firm ZS Associates, where he helps businesses transform their go-to-market models and drive effectiveness with customers.

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