By Lou Schachter
Harvard Business Review recently ran an article titled “Putting Sales at the Center of Strategy”, which as its title implies, encouraged CEOs to more deeply engage sales leaders while working on a corporate strategy, so that the new strategy fits with the organization’s people in the field. We couldn’t agree more, but we do think a key component was left out.
Sales leaders, and through them strategists, oftentimes couldn’t get an accurate picture of their salespeople even if they wanted one. It’s our view that this is a key task of sales enablement. Sales enablement doesn’t quite have a seat at the table when overarching strategy decisions are made. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t arm their CSO or CRO with a concrete understanding of the salesforce's current capabilities and a what would need to be done to shift to a new strategy successfully. Too many times, the sales transformation required to shift the direction of large enterprises is more of an afterthought because there’s no good data on what currently exists and what is possible in the future.
A large manufacturing firm has recently developed a strategy to move from producing mid-value components that are sold transactionally to other manufacturers, to taking on large, on-going manufacturing projects through outsourcing agreements with clients. The strategy on the whole is sound and profit margins are expected to rise; however, the company failed to take into consideration the salespeople they already have in place. Their salesforce is highly tenured and has been selling off-the-shelf products for years. They have decent relationship-building skills because that’s how the they had separated themselves from their competitors in the past. Yet, they have little knowledge of deal structuring or negotiating in uncertain environments. The budget for rolling out the new strategy is large; the budget for taking their salespeople from where they are to where they need to be is undetermined. It’s very possible that the company will succeed in becoming a more strategic partner to their clients, but only if they make big investments in their salesforce. And as of now, this large multinational firm is flying blind.
One way to avoid putting the firm’s strategy into such uncertainty is for sales enablement to own the on-going measurement of the skills of their people. The key to success here is that you must be measuring real sales behaviors (having business-focused conversations with customers, gaining access to customer executives, demonstrating value in the customer’s terms, collaborating internally on behalf of customers) and not abstract competencies (courage, clear communication, conflict management, comfort around upper management). It’s fairly easy to envision the transition the above manufacturing firm’s salespeople will need in terms of needing to collaborate on more complex sales, but it is much more difficult to predict how much more “courage” they will need. Even if you could know that, how would that help management plan the strategy roll-out? Less clear cut competencies than W/L ratios can and should be used, but they still must be measurable. How well someone plans may be up for debate, but either they can show you their account plans, or they can’t.
The role of sales enablement in setting corporate strategy is to provide a clear understanding of the limiting constraints presented by an organization’s salespeople and what is needed to lift those constraints. Failing to do so has led to many strategy execution catastrophes, while succeeding to communicate this critical information can add change management to a firm’s list of competitive advantages.
For an in-depth look at the critical behaviors of key account managers, see the new white paper from the BTS Sales Practice: The Keys to Key Account Management.
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About the Author: Lou Schachter is a Global Partner and Managing Director of the Global Sales Practice at BTS.