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Executive Roundtable

Take a Hard Look at the Way Company Sells Products Before Replacing the Sales Team

July 01, 2001

TEC Worldwide is an international organization of more than 7,000 business owners, company presidents and chief executives. TEC members meet in small peer groups to share their business experiences and help one another solve problems. The following questions and answers are based on recent TEC meetings in Southern California.

Question: We know we have a good product, as verified by customer and competitor feedback, but we can't seem to get sales to where market research indicates they should be. I've gone through three sales managers in the last two years and am about ready to fire my entire sales staff and start over again. Any suggestions?

Answer: Replacing your entire sales team might seem like a convenient answer to your dilemma. However, it's unlikely to solve it.

According to Mitch Gooze, president of the Customer Manufacturing Group in Santa Clara, Calif., lethargic sales can often be traced back to your sales process as a whole.

If you make it difficult or inconvenient for customers to buy from you, many will look for a competitor that's easier to do business with.

So before causing any heads to roll, make sure you have the proper selling process in place.

To start, gather your management team and ask: Do we understand how, when, where and why our customers buy? Do we conform to our customer's buying process or do we expect the customer to conform to us? Does our selling process support each of our key customers' unique buying processes?

If the answer to these questions is no, you may want to take a hard look at the way you sell products.

To undertake this important exercise, first examine in detail how your customers move through the buying process. Identify the discrete steps that customers go through--from their internal perspective and mind-set--when acquiring a product or service like the one you sell.

Document who makes the buying decision, the timing of decisions, the actual physical steps and the buyer's expectations of value at each step. Next, identify your selling process as it currently stands (not how it should be), noting any discrepancies between it and your customer's buying process.

Conduct this analysis at the macro and micro levels, including specific activities, responsibilities, decision criteria, decision makers and influencers and timing for each important step. With this information in hand, construct a selling process that mirrors your customers' buying process and provides the value expected at each step.

Make sure your sales organization (including those who support the salespeople) has both the talent and the technology to match the buying actions that occur at each step. This may require changing people, positions, responsibilities, incentives and organization structure.

Getting your sales process exactly right takes time and commitment, but if you listen to your customers--especially the ones who buy from your regularly--they will tell you what they want, expect and need.

Once you have complete alignment between your sales process and your customer's buying process, then you can determine whether you have the right sales team in place.

Question: I've worked long and hard to assemble a top-notch management team. Now I want to make sure I don't lose any of them. What do you recommend for holding on to my most valuable players?

Answer: Retaining key employees requires a more focused approach than with your work force as a whole. Accordingly, experts recommend five steps for holding on to your most important managers.

1. Identify the four or five key players who have the most impact on your company's performance. These people usually have something to do with your core competencies, are uniquely valued by customers and have real power in the company because of their product knowledge, expertise or influence over others. They're also very difficult to replace.

2. Know what motivates these people. Drill down and understand what each key player values most in the workplace. This kind of information comes from an ongoing dialogue, not from one 30-minute conversation when you first hire the manager. Initially, most employees will talk about compensation, but don't overlook non-monetary factors such as challenging assignments and opportunities for growth and advancement.

3. Give them the financial incentive to stay. Provide a deferred compensation plan that rewards loyalty and performance, vests over a number of years (but not so long as to be a disincentive) and has a substantial amount of money at stake.

4. Actively monitor and manage key employee performance. Make sure all key employees get frequent performance reviews. Check their salaries once or twice a year, set career development goals and review those goals in progress. Make sure top performers get rewarded accordingly. Create mutually agreed-upon development plans to help good performers become top performers.

5. Conduct an annual key employee review. At least once a year, bring your human resources manager and supervisors together for a half-day meeting that has three objectives: to conduct a performance review of all key employees; to create a key personnel action plan that identifies what you want to accomplish over the next year with your key players; and to discuss key employee succession and contingency planning. Most chief executives spend too much time with problem performers and not enough with their key players. To keep your superstars, find out what they hope to get from working for you and do your best to fill those needs. Above all, give your key players your most precious assets--your time and attention.

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If there is a business issue you would like addressed in this column, contact TEC at (800) 274-2367, Ext. 3177. To learn more about TEC, visit http://www.teconline.com.

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