The Problem With Blaming the Sales Force

Guest Post Monday returns today with Rebel Brown, who is challenging the status quo with her book Defy Gravity: Propel Your Business to High-Velocity Growth. Follow along below as she peels back the layers on why some product and service launches fall flat.

I had to remind a client to stop blaming the Sales Division as we were discussing the company’s last product launch — a launch that was less successful than they’d hoped.

The executive was complaining to me that the revenues just hadn’t ramped as expected. The field was discounting, selling point products versus the complete solution, so margins were disappointing as well.

The company had to finally assign quotas against the newly launched product to get the field to pay attention to this revolutionary whatchamadoodle. The field hadn’t even found early reference customers — the company had only targeted the ones nominated by Engineering.

Does anyone else smell a rat? I surely did.

I hear this story too often. All about how Sales is the reason that product launches and marketing efforts fail — why our marvels of innovation never achieve the recognition (or revenue) they deserve. What a bunch of baloney.

Sales is Marketing’s customer.

Marketing’s role is to give Sales the tools and training they need to sell the company’s solutions. It’s also Marketing’s role to get them excited about the newest offerings.  And FYI — Marketing and Engineering are supposed to deliver solutions that are differentiated and that customers want to buy. But you know that already, right?

If Sales isn’t responding, then Marketing is responsible. I know, you don’t want to hear that.

And of course there are exceptions to every rule.  But in general, if a sales rep isn’t eating the dog food it means they don’t think their customers will either.  If that’s the case, Marketing  has missed something — it’s the wrong product, story, pricing or target audience.

Take the above example.  As I probed a bit deeper, here’s what I learned:

1. The only members of the the Sales organization involved in the launch planning were the VP of Sales, (who’d been in that position for six years) and their top sales rep (who managed the oldest and largest customer). These two provided all  on the solution — its packaging, targeting, positioning and sales strategy.  Pricing was set in the corporate vacuum, er headquarters, as well.

2. Marketing tested messaging with Engineering and Product Management, as well as a couple of customers hand-selected for the technology prowess (the largest customer being one of them). When I asked if these customers represented the primary profile for sales engagement, I learned these were the earliest of early adopters. There were only two of them that the company could identify in their customer base.

I was assured that “others will buy when they see how cool the whatchamadoodle is.”

3. Sales training included an explanatory email, announcing a variety of selling tools posted to an internal sales portal.

Actual training consisted of a two hour webinar that included engineering presentations and architecture reviews, an overview of the single beta customer’s infrastructure (yep, the largest customer), and a demonstration of the technology in action at that site. Also included was a pricing exercise. Note: I learned that fifteen minutes into the webinar attendees were dropping off like flies. Can you blame them?

    No wonder this company had trouble generating momentum. At the risk of being obvious, does this feel like the way Marketing should treat their customer — meaning the sales force? Let’s look at some of the issues:

    Lack of sales buy-in.

    There was never an attempt to include the “sweet spot” of the sales force, meaning the reps who were selling to the next generation of customer. There was no chance for Sales to  offer feedback during the launch planning. Why would you expect them to act like a part of the team when they weren’t treated as such? Trust me when I say, if you get the right few sales leaders involved — the ones most respected by the reps themselves — you will get buy in. And a lot better feedback too!

    Lack of appropriate customer input.

    OK, so they did get some feedback from a couple of large customers.  But these two customers did not represent a target market large enough for reps to meet their quotas. They represented an infinitesimal segment of first and only adopters — and the status quo of the company. Revenues were doomed from the beginning thanks to a small and narrowly defined customer audience.

    Lack of sales training.

    Sales reps don’t necessarily want to know about the feeds ‘n speeds anymore than your customers do.  Sure, their technical reps want this information for the IT user buyers.  But it should be given to them in a separate, in-depth training exercise.

    Sales training is best when its focused on how to win business from the economic buyer — you know, the guy who signs the checks and doesn’t really care about that whizbang new architecture you developed. That includes customer-centric targeting, messaging and evidence (in the form of real world application stories) — all focused on bottom-line value and the evidence to support those claims.

    Attitude.

    Sales reps are driven by the potential to make money.  In the absence of the right information, you won’t get their attention.  They won’t see how to make the bucks without a big long fight. If a product is too difficult to sell, too far ahead of its time, too complex and technical, if the training isn’t appropriate…Sales will continue selling their status quo suite of products — and making money. It’s human nature, and it’s certainly Sales’ nature.

    So the next time someone starts to blame Sales for lack of product acceptance in your customer base or for discounting deals that don’t generate the margin or results you expected, think again.

    It’s most likely Sales is doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.

    For more from Rebel Brown, be sure to visit her Rebelations blog.

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