May 02, 2009

Sales Alchemy: From Reactive to Proactive Sales Organization

Changed Times Requires Changed Companies

What made your company successful in the boom, is not enough to ensure its survival in the downturn. Times have changed and that means the fundamental character of your company must change too.

In a constricting market, the customers you get are the customers you pursue, with creativity, energy and vigor. That means your entire organization needs to be more active and more proactive about sales. That means more sales calls, emails, meetings and so on. It also means a switch from business development by the few (i.e. sales and marketing), to grass roots and senior managemnet involvement in sales.

A New Era of Pro-activity

After a decade of customers walking in the door and RFPs arriving in the post, responding and reacting are no longer enough. Your organisation’s efforts must switch to the proactive pursuit of customers.

Your organization must make an alchemistic transformation from reactive to proactive – from inward looking to outward reaching. It must become more innovation in the solutions being offered and more flexible in term of how they are packaged and priced.

The objective is to magically transform what has been common, into what is uncommon and of great value. A change of attitude and behavior is required, from the top to the bottom - from the board room to the sales office and from customer service to administration। Also required are the appropriate underlying business metrics, systems and processes.

Making the transition

Henry Ford famously said ‘your business, like a chicken, is at its healthiest when it has to do a little searching for its food.’ However, we have become accustomed to having our food served on a plate and at regular intervals. Going back to the old ways is going to come as a bit of a shock.

For many organisations making the transition from reactive to proactive in terms of the changing marketplace requires rewriting the organization’s DNA. We have watched the transition in sales organizations, as well in professional services organizations, manufacturing businesses and retail organisations. Some have employed a bullwhip to drive staff to adopt more proactive and sophisticated approach to sales, while others have offered gentle encouragement. Neither is guaranteed success.

Lessons from those who have succeeded, as well as those who have failed

Here are some of the lessons from those who have already made the transition, as well as those stumbled in the process.

  1. For most companies the transition will not be easy, as it involves changing deep rooted organization habits and cultures laid down over many years. The main reason it will be painful: because it requires people moving outside their comfort zone – for example it requires sales reps, customer service and other staff to increase the level of sales activity and in particular to undertake some element of cold calling.
  2. Many organizations, having endured the trauma of downsizing, lay-offs, lost business, etc. find themselves at a low ebb currently. However, those organizations paralyzed by negativity and reeling from shock find it most difficult to rise to the challenge. Keeping in tact the essential esprit de corps of the organization is key. Managers must win hearts as well as minds.
  3. Managers tell us they are tired of telling staff of the urgent need for more sales activity, but that the message is not getting through. But prophesies of doom, fear of redundancy and constant nagging fall short of empowering staff to take up the baton for a more proactive approach to sales and run with it.
  4. How to make it easy for people? The answer is to provide the support required, ensuring that people have the confidence, skills and tools, as well as the encouragement and leadership that is required. Also required is to identify and remove, ahead of time, any barriers that may exist. The most important one of these is not having the time, but there are many more.
  5. Arguably most important of all is to set modest/realistic expectations at the start. That includes a slow and modest take-off in terms of the level of activity, rather than a mad burst of activity that quickly dissipates. That often means focusing on the activity required as opposed to the target to be achieved. For example, remedying a sales deficit (250,000) based on targeted conversion rates becomes less daunting and more meaningful when it is couched in terms of each person on the team talking to an extra 10 potential customers per week, or spending the necessary 6 hours per week calling potential customers.
  6. Leadership is the vital ingredient in the success of any program of proactive sales and marketing, once off as well as ongoing. That is not to be mistaken for ‘charging over the hill leadership’, but the most subtle and more effective forms that entail coaching, as well as setting an example. Quite simply managers have no legitimacy in asking staff to do things that they themselves have not demonstrated themselves willing to do the same. That is why it is important in sales meetings and progress reviews that the manager are first to report on what they have done.
  7. If managers want something from staff (more calls, more activity, etc.) they have to be willing to give something in return. That goes beyond the obvious rewards and recognitions to include new levels of openness, honesty and communication.
  8. It is important to rally activity around a sales campaign that provides a new reason to contact customers, or prospects, including perhaps a new message, or a special promotion. It is also important to combine a number of sales and marketing ingredients together, for example supporting cold calling with direct mail, or PR for example.
  9. Getting started won’t be hard, but maintaining momentum that is tough. That is because as management attention turns to the next immediate priority sales activity and pro activeness will return to its previous default level. For this reason regular coaching of staff, ongoing meetings, revisions to the sales campaign, new initiatives, etc. are required to keep the oxygen of flowing to revitalize sales. It is vital that the manager regularly 'drops by' to enquire how things are going, show interest and offer encouragement.
  10. Inevitably there will be casualties along the way, with some staff being simply unable to meet the challenge at this point in their professional lives. There will be other setbacks and disappointments too. For example a sales message that fails to tempt buyers, a target sector that proves to be dry, etc. All this is to be expected - the success requires experimentation and ongoing correction. Many successful business development initiatives are borne out of a false start, with the ability to start again with enthusiasm being key.
  11. Job descriptions are being widely rewritten, with the addition of business development to the tasks and responsibilities of so many. However, even though the balance of power has swung very firmly in favour of the employer, care is required to avoid an arbitrary change of employment terms that could result in a a claim of constructive dismissal, or unfair selection for redundancy. Now, in our view sales is everybody's job, however it is a mantel that people must take up for themselves, as opposed to one that is forced upon them.

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