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Dismantling the sales machine

Sales leaders have long fixated on process discipline. They have created opportunity scorecards, qualification criteria, and activity metrics—all part of a formal sales process designed to help their team members replicate the approaches of star performers. This is the world of the sales machine, built to outsell less focused, less disciplined competitors through brute efficiency and world-class tools and training.

For years, tuning this machine has been the primary means of boosting sales productivity. But recently sales has been caught off guard by a dramatic shift in customers’ buying behavior. Even as leadership has tightened compliance with the processes that have served so well, sales performance has grown increasingly erratic. Companies are reporting longer sales cycle times, lower conversion rates, less reliable forecasts, and compressed margins. The sales machine is stalling.

The good news is that the way forward is clear. In our research at CEB, we have found that the very approaches that made the sales machine so effective now make selling harder. We have also identified the keys to winning in this new environment: Leaders must abandon their fixation on process compliance and embrace a flexible approach to selling driven by sales reps’ reliance on insight and judgment.

The Rise of Insight Selling

Until recently, customers seeking business solutions had to ask suppliers for guidance early in the purchasing process, because crucial information wasn’t available anywhere else. But today customers are better informed than ever before. By the time they approach suppliers, they generally have a clear idea of the problem they need to solve, the solutions that are available, and the price they’re willing to pay. In this world, process-driven sales machine approaches fall short, because they give sales reps no room to exercise judgment and creativity in dealing with highly knowledgeable customers. They leave reps with little to do but compete on price. As we explored in our HBR article “The End of Solution Sales” (July–August 2012), the new environment favors creative and adaptable sellers who challenge customers with disruptive insights into their business—and offer unexpected solutions (see the sidebar “Selling to Empowered Customers”).

Selling to Empowered Customers

Such “insight selling” is flexible, in recognition of the many possible routes to a sale. Delivering the right insight in the right way requires determining what the customer has already concluded about its needs and available solutions, who the decision makers are (often not the usual suspects), and what it will take to change their minds. The most effective approach to a sale varies, sometimes radically, from deal to deal. As a result, in recent years sales has seen a dramatic uncoupling of specific sales activities and specific outcomes; the sequential tactics that once led to predictable progress in a sale no longer do.

How can sales leaders best support insight selling? To find out, CEB spent the past year surveying 2,500 sales professionals from more than 30 B2B companies representing every major industry, geography, and go-to-market model in our client membership. We zeroed in on the managerial and organizational attributes most closely associated with star reps’ success. And we corroborated quantitative findings through more than 100 structured interviews with heads of sales, sales operations, and sales excellence, and with frontline sales managers.

The study showed that most large B2B organizations are still designed to achieve peak efficiency by ensuring that reps abide by an established “optimal” behavior. These organizations, all vivid examples of the sales machine, are marked by a strong process orientation, clear lines of authority, and close governance through formal rules. They particularly emphasize individual performance, nurturing a competitive atmosphere characterized by frequent contests, campaigns, and the regular updating of leaderboards. And they monitor sales reps through close attention to near-term metrics—especially cycle times and close rates.

by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman


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