November 11, 2009

Strategic Inflection: Is Our Strategy Working? Or Is It Too Early to Tell?

This is a time of inflection for many sales managers. Companies are venturing into new markets, developing new strategies and new sales approaches in response to a changed market. Uncertain times ahead for many.

New Strategies, Uncertain Times

Many companies are innovating in their sales and marketing in response to a changing marketplace. Everything is being considered, the list includes;
  • Launching new sales drives / initiatives
  • Improving sales processes
  • Changing sales structures (including greater team involvement)
  • Adopting new pricing structures
  • Developing new business models
  • Targeting new segments, or even new markets
  • Offering new products/services, or at least new variations of existing ones
  • Developing new partner, or channel relationships.

Sales Strategy Questions Abound

For most companies these new strategies represent an increased commitment to sales and marketing. In many cases they entail something of a step into the unknown. So, it is little wonder that we hear sales managers (conscious of the investment of time, effort and money that is being made) asking questions, such as;

1. How quickly before we will see results and even more to the point, how quickly will we know if it is working or not? Are our assumptions regarding how long it will take, the length of sales cycles being borne out?
2. Is the strategy the right one? Is it going to work? Will it deliver the results we expect? Are our expectations regarding results realistic given our experience thus far?
3. Is our sales and marketing working? Is there enough activity? Is it the right activity?
4. Do we need to change, or refine our approach? Have we got the skills to carry this off?
5. Is the market ready, in particular, have our assumptions about the potential been realistic (especially in the context of the slowdown)

Some Observations

Even the self assured sales manager is asking these questions and asking them out loud. It's like a question and answers time in some organisations with some very interesting discussions taking place at the board room table. Listening in on these conversations we have made a few observations:

Increasingly managers are adopting a ‘get it all out in the open’, plain speaking approach to these issues. Indeed, many managers are approaching these issues with ‘brutal honesty’. They are not shying away from any of the issues involved adopting a ‘warts and all’ view of what is and is not working. All options are on the table and there are few ‘sacred cows’’ left, that includes people, or strategies.

‘Is it too early to call?’ This is an issue that comes up time and time again, particularly where long sales cycles have been lengthened further by the slowdown. Managers seem to naturally fall into two camps – one adopts the view that ‘we need to give it more time’, the other tends to want to ‘cut their losses and find another way.’ In any respect making u turns, or redirections does not seem to present problems for managers anymore. Perhaps that goes hand in hand with a turbulent market.

‘Is it the market?’ Horror stories of stalled buying decisions and cash strapped buyers are so pervasive that managers struggle to look beyond the market to find other reasons why they are slow to see results. At this point the CEO that intervenes with a ‘there is business out there we just have to work harder to find it’ is very important to the organization.

The CEO is leading the conversation, challenging the performance and challenging the assumptions. This is having a mixed response, with feathers being ruffled in some cases. The CEO who has good coaching and leadership skills is a real asset to the sales manager at this time. More than ever the CEO seems to be the touchstone for organizational confidence at this time. With people looking on, it is vital that he, or she remains un-phased and confident about the future.

In one strategy review session - an appraisal of a campaign to enter a new market segment - the CEO appeared to be distracted. He was writing in a notepad as the conversation went on around him. After a few minutes went by he showed a diagram (as presented below) outlining a process for reviewing the sales strategy, or plan. First he wanted to know how results compared with what was forecast, then whether the plan had been implemented as set out and whether the plan was still valid. It put an interesting steer on the conversation and it might be something that you can use. Food for thought.

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