One of the challenges that the leaders from the Cisco partner community are nearly unanimous in their opinion on is their frustration with inconsistencies in their sales talent. While most agree that it’s healthy to have a variety of styles in approaching a sales challenge, it is the inconsistency in results that is the stressor.
Many of our successful Cisco partners evolved from relatively small organizations where the proprietors- whether they had a sales background or not- were performing most of the sales responsibilities. It was great for them to have such a close proximity to their customers and to be in control of delivering a high-quality value message from one engagement to the next.
Those leaders, however, often advanced through a sales cycle and achieved results despite the lack of any defined or deliberate sales discipline. Success frequently came from a demonstration of superior technical capabilities, or by simply capitalizing on legacy relationships. Again, while achieving the desired results, there was some element of “unconscious competence” in their sales execution.
As more customers were acquired and existing customers increased their purchases, expanding the sales force became a necessity. But even with revenue increasing, the dynamics of a more sizable sales force brought new challenges for the leadership that previously performed much of the sales activity themselves.
Questions arose about the quality of their sales teams. Our partner’s leaders have shed valuable light into some of the troubling sales conditions. Many suffered through the hiring of seemingly pedigreed and/or well-connected sales professionals, who then struggled to demonstrate the quality of the success they enjoyed with their previous companies. This also contributed to an imbalanced sales force over time- where 80-90% of sales were produced by only a small fraction of the team. Maybe the most troubling condition was when a highly-compensated sales team was relying almost entirely on customers that were actually acquired by leadership in the early days of the company. With an unappealing mixture of seething resentment and nagging anxiety, leadership was left collectively scratching their heads and wondering if any of the sales talent would bring in new business.
Unfortunately, at Comstor what we have seen too frequently are attempts by leadership to correct the conditions in ways that don’t produce the desired results. How familiar does some of this sound?
• Restructuring in panic, inserting poorly vetted sales management and adding complexities with new or short term incentives;
• Inserting high-performance individual contributors as sales managers without vetting their leadership potential;
• Adding compensation variables with hopes of inserting profound motivation for every conceivable sales challenge.
Alas, these are all very common occurrences. Again, because the senior leadership was often “unconsciously competent” in their early sales success, their ability to articulate executable sales tactics more closely resembled boastful war stories than useful coaching.
Building and sustaining a high-quality sales team requires attention to many factors- many of which are uncomfortable for leadership. This is a very rich and potentially controversial topic; however, a few of the successful strategies and tactics we have witnessed with best-in-class Cisco partners deserves recognition. After all, when our partners are successful, Comstor is successful!
First, the leader that was previously winning in sales without formal sales training is not necessarily the image to build the sales force around. That leader’s ability to articulate and coach sales persons will usually be incomplete in addressing the fundamentals of a well-executed sales strategy. While it is invaluable to OBSERVE the unconsciously competent leader in a customer engagement, investing in sales leadership that is skilled and fluent in recruiting, coaching, and mentoring is priceless.
Next, identifying sales priorities for the organization and applying rigorous discipline to resourcing those priorities and measuring the activities associated with the goals is surprisingly often overlooked. For example, too frequently we see partners fail at inserting new customer initiatives within a sales team that is heavily consumed with servicing the highest volume and most demanding established customers. When a new customer prospect occasionally presents itself to that type of sales team, it’s typical that the prospect goes cold when the required activity to develop the prospect is delayed or left entirely unaddressed. Incidentally, if the prospect was identified through a lead generation program (often at substantial cost to the partner), the typical explanation for a lack of success, regardless of the level energy invested, is that “the lead was weak.”
(Anyone remember what happened to Jack Lemmon playing the role of Shelly Levine in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross when he insisted “the leads are weak”?)
Worse, it is all too common for an organization to make costly investments in hiring new sales talent, specifically to find new customers, only to leave those new hires without an actionable flow of sales prospects to qualify as legitimate prospects. The seething resentment continues with these new sales people summarily criticized because “they can’t close.”
These types of miscues and misinterpretations demand leadership to shift from their comfort zone and live closer to where the sales engagement is initiated and advanced. I personally challenge the commonly accepted concept “Those who can DO; those who can’t TEACH” as a philosophy applied to sales leadership. I believe the best example of a coach can both demonstrate expertise AND articulate the structure and process.
I prefer to embody a “roll up your sleeves” sales philosophy that incorporates insight and guidance from senior sales leadership with as much hands on, customer facing coaching as possible. And, let’s not discard the leadership that was successful even if they can’t explain how they did it. There is definitely value in witnessing the unconscious competence that’s part of the company’s successful history. Just like a virtuoso violinist that doesn’t know how to read music, an untrained sales professional can demonstrate inspiring virtuosity.
Any TRUE business priority deserves a level of intimacy from the highest level of leadership possible. All of the examples that were presented here have an exponentially higher potential for success when senior leadership is proficient in the fundamentals of what is being demanded of any of their subordinates. A return to the “hands on” approach that so frequently took place “back in the day” invariably brings startling revelations about the talent, practices, resources, and even the key business priorities established.
Going back to our roots often reignites the inspiration that may have been diluted as a company has expanded. The celebration of sales success is one that needs to be experienced more frequently by every company. And, senior leadership deserves to have a more prominent place in that celebration.