Dismantling the Sales Machine, by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman in this month’s Harvard Business Review is a well-timed and well-aimed shot at what has become entrenched “wisdom” in selling today. If you’re in sales management, you should get your hands on the entire article. I would first like to summarize the main points of the article, and then give my own commentary.
The title is a bit misleading. The “machine” they urge to be dismantled is not the sales organization; far from it: sales today is even more important than ever. The machine that should be dismantled is the current sales process. The authors’ first point is that the current fixation on process discipline is broken, site and is causing all kinds of woes such as lower margins, longer sales cycles, and less reliable forecasts. The reason is that buyers are engaging suppliers much later in their own process, so that they already have defined their needs and identified available solutions. What remains is a competitive process in which suppliers have little room to do anything but respond as quickly as possible with the lowest possible price. So in order to compete, managers stress strict compliance with sales process and discipline, help to give the sales force a chance to respond faster and more efficiently than the competition.
Second, the only way to rise above this squeeze is to change the game by challenging the customers’ thinking and offering unexpected solutions, and this can only be done early in the sales cycle. The emphasis has to go from efficiency of response to the effectiveness of demand creation. While efficiency is best promoted by flowing the shortest distance between two points, there is no one best way to proceed through the sales cycle, so there is a premium on individual judgment and creativity in finding ways to shape the customer’s thinking about the situation.
The hard part, of course, is moving from the first point to the second, and this where sales management has to radically change its approach, in several ways. At the risk of oversimplification, they are:
First of all, I agree with and applaud the general theme of the message. I applaud the emphasis on judgment, critical thinking and creativity on the part of reps. In my more than two decades of sales training, invariably the members of the sales force who stand out are those who go beyond the confines of their job description and see themselves as business problem solvers for their customers. Unfortunately, they haven’t always had the support of their management in their efforts, so the fact that an influential publication such as the HBR gave them a forum for these ideas gives me encouragement that—just maybe—life will become easier for these top salespeople, and by extension better for their customers.
At the same time, I don’t agree that sale processes need to go away. In fact, the authors themselves say, ”Our data do not suggest that process and structure are always bad.” (As in their past writings, they set up a strawman that helps them emphasize their points.) Process should not go away, but it does need to be modified. Sales organizations tend to begin with a general, loosely structured set of activities that emerge from successful sales efforts. When these are used as guidelines they are immensely helpful in disseminating effective practices and bringing up the general level of performance. But good processes go bad because they tend to be evolve into tools for management convenience than for sales effectiveness. They gradually shift their focus toward activities and precise inputs because they are easier to measure and track than more vague outputs and customer agreements. Eventually they become ends in themselves rather than a means to an end, particularly when they are housed in those shrines called CRM systems.
But I digress…the article actually advocates its own “new” process, which differs from the old bad process in two ways. First, the sales funnel should be “customer-verified”, meaning that progress in the sales cycle is tracked by meaningful steps taken by the customer, such as running a pilot application or agreeing that status quo is untenable. Second, process activities need to be front-loaded, so that more work is done early to create the right kind of demand, not simply to respond to it when it’s too late to do anything about it.
Finally, I enjoy it when a new publication comes out from this trio of writers, because they actually do a great job of eating their own dog food. Their entire approach to selling is to provide disruptive insights, and I predict this article will toss a few bombs into more than a few boardrooms. Regardless of whether you agree entirely with what they write, they always make you think, and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
 As a student of military history in my other life, I also find it ironic that the US Army learned about the value of putting judgment into the hands of people out in the field long before most sales forces have.