A close examination of companies with successfully implemented digitalization strategies clearly shows: Their success is based on a savvy use of new technologies as well as a change in their sales culture and a shift toward increased agility of their processes and workflows. One of the most decisive factors is a consistent – sometimes even radical – customer focus.
Agility in sales: the current state
Sales managers tend to be sceptical of agility. I frequently hear arguments along the lines of: “We’ve always been agile in sales, anyway!” This statement is actually true for many aspects of sales. Here’s analysis of the current state:
- A high degree of self-organization
Sales and customer service generally have a flat hierarchy. Employees act independently and make their own decisions within a certain framework.
- 100% commitment
Successful sales reps have a high level of commitment and self-discipline, especially when it comes to handling their own accounts
- Customer orientation is self-evident
Customer orientation is a key driver in sales. All actions cause a direct response by the customers. New ideas are tested directly with customers and business partners before being adapted and brought to market.
- Feedback and learning as a routine
Sales people are used to getting a direct reaction from their customers, be it a verbal response or a change in purchasing behavior. Feedback is an integral part of their working routine. Many sales or customer service departments have their own internal or external sales coaches and trainers. Learning, growing and staying up to date is simply a part of sales.
- Measurability and transparency through numbers and workflows
No other area is as transparent and measurable as sales. Success can be directly measured and controlled in numbers and the respective service level. Transparency via workflows has long become state of the art.
- Adaptation and flexibility: daily business in sales
When you work in sales, you’ve learned to adapt and react flexibly. Accommodating different types of customers is a fundamental success secret in sales. It is what makes the job so interesting. At the same time, frequent changes in the product or service portfolio require adaptation and quick learning.
Why agility in sales is changing
With all this flexibility, there are some signs of overheating. “Higher goals. Less time. Less freedom.” These are but some of the complaints I often hear from various areas of sales.
It seems that the mechanisms and solutions currently applied in sales no longer meet the increasing dynamics and complexity of their environment. Not just in the aftermath of the Corona pandemic. Will this mark the end of B2B sales as we know it?
The future of sales is even more agile!
What does it take for sales organizations to be flexible, agile and effective in the future? I’ve put together an action plan for you. All 10 strategies have come from an active exchange with my clients. Bottom line: The future of sales will need to be much more agile in the best sense of the word.
1. Define your sales vision for future success
Busy sales managers with plenty of accounts might wonder: “Why should I change anything?” They need to understand that the increasing complexity and dynamics of future markets will require new approaches. An adaptation – or transformation – will be inevitable.
An attractive sales vision is required to ensure that this transformation won't end in an unattainable state of nirvana. What will your sales ideally look like in the future? What will be different? What do your customers say? How will you be collaborating? It’s okay to dream and idealize at this stage. Defining your vision is like focusing on a fixed star to guide you. It’s like calibrating your compass.
Making adaptations to your sales processes will pave your way into the future step by step. It prevents hasty last-minute decisions that may come too late. The challenge is to find the right balance between urgent ongoing business (exploitation) and securing future success (exploration). This ambidexterity is the paradigm for innovative sales.
2. Customer journey and touch points: central elements of your sales success
The customer journey starts long before the first contact with your sales team. Do you know what it is that makes your prospective customers look for certain products and services? Are you aware of their problems and needs? Do you know where and how future users research information before they buy?
If you haven’t done so yet, draw the customer journey of your (potential) customers with all the touch points. Begin by analyzing who the potential users of your products and services are. You may find approaches like the customer journey mapping, personas, empathy maps or jobs-to-be-done useful.
Be prepared for some aha moments. They will provide valuable insights that can determine whether you lose or win a customer. Identifying these so-called “moments of truth” will help you define specific measures for sales and other areas.
3. Replace silos with cross-functionality
Most customer journeys clearly show: Customers don’t care about the internal processes and structures of their suppliers. All that matters is an amazing customer experience from the very beginning along all the touch points. Sales can therefore not be uncoupled from other business areas. Every interface is also a potential breaking point. Once a customer notices that, you’ve already lost the game.
It begins with your internal sales structure. Inside sales and outside sales are often worlds apart. What used to be dismissed as sports rivalries has become a significant competitive disadvantage. Especially if your customers experience palpable cracks between different departments. The customer journey doesn’t end after the sale has been made. It continues with operations, logistics, after-sales and whatever follows. All these areas require collaboration, not competition. On the other end of the customer journey, there must be close cooperation with product development and marketing.
My recommendation: Assign cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams to be in charge of the customer journey. As a guideline, ask yourself: What do your customers need and expect? How should you design your processes and workflows to best possibly meet these expectations? How can you react swiftly to short-term changes?
4. Promote self-organization through employee and team development
The above questions clearly show: Breaking down barriers between departments requires the right framework conditions. This particularly applies to leadership. Try to assign a maximum of operative responsibility to your (newly formed) teams. Then, manage the remaining dependencies that cannot be solved on a team level.
This requires a different kind of leadership. Making that change may be challenging. Sales directors often consider themselves to be the sole captain on the bridge. They tend to be information hubs, massively intervening in operative business in turbulent times.
A new leadership style based on self-organization requires leaders to take a step back and empower their employees to make their decisions on their own or, even better, within a team. Successfully developing teams and employees thus becomes one of the core competencies of modern leaders. Another key asset for self-organized work is user know-how.
5. Radically transparent information for all employees
Much information that used to be bundled at the management level has become highly relevant for all members of the sales team, especially when they are to be self-organized. Most businesses have all the data but tend to store it locally or make it available to only a few. Many things are not accessible at a click but need to be compiled cumbersomely.
The transparency and accessibility of information must be radically improved. Examining various agile-digital solutions can serve as a good start. A simple kanban system or a well-structured and well-managed project portfolio may suffice to bring clarity and serve as a basis for quick and efficient decision-making. Sometimes more sophisticated solutions will be required, such as connecting various data sources or even big data solutions.
Beware: Technologies and methods are one thing. Successful application is another. Only if you understand the logic and philosophy behind the methods and have the skills to effectively use them, will you actually benefit from these solutions. The key is to ask the right questions. Which takes us back to employee and team development.
6. Immediate feedback and frequent retrospectives
The higher the speed of change in sales, the shorter your feedback and adaptation loops will have to be. In a dynamic environment, elaborate annual customer satisfaction analyses simply take too long. By the time the results are evaluated, they are already outdated.
Quick feedback mechanisms after every customer interaction may be more effective. Use the inherent willingness of your team to learn and grow. Agile retrospectives every 1-2 weeks will provide valuable insights and allow you to quickly adapt sales processes and practices.
Sales people that used to work in a lone-warrior mode may find it difficult to participate in an open exchange on experiences and learnings. It will take some time and patience to gradually transition them to this new work style and behavior.
7. Managing goals and performance
Rigid annual budgets and hardline goals will make it more difficult to react flexibly to changes. As a leader, you may want to examine some new approaches for monitoring goals and performance. Only if you can effectively and flexibly align your strategic orientation with your operative business, will your sales develop its full potential in a dynamic environment.
The question is: Are you really doing what it takes to implement your strategy and create customer value? Often, there is a lack of focus because the priorities haven’t been clearly defined. If everything is important, nothing has priority. As a result, all your efforts will be less effective. Approaches like Objectives and Key Results, an agile goal management system with short planning and feedback cycles, may serve as useful tools in this context..
Commissions and bonuses based on annual performance assessments are considered the holy grail of sales. New approaches for managing goals and performance tend to be met with fierce resistance. It is paramount to closely examine where changes make sense and what should be achieved. In my experience, the old and the new can often be combined in smart ways. Once your sales team has realized the benefit of the new system, they’ll be happy to adopt it.
8. People over processes: Keep it human!
With all the new technologies implemented, it is often the human factor that makes all the difference with the customer. We all know the desperate feeling of not finding a sales assistant in a shop or searching for a customer service phone number on a website. No matter how excellent your digital processes are, provide an easy opportunity for personal contact! This tends to significantly increase customer satisfaction levels. The agile principle of “people over processes” also applies in sales.
The question is: How much time does your sales team have for personal customer interaction? Are they busy manually following up, putting information into various systems or finding workarounds for unclearly assigned responsibilities? Check which processes you can automate further and which automated processes are superfluous because they aren't creating any value.
And again, strong transparency and ongoing feedback will be paramount. What makes sense? What doesn’t? Where can you still improve? What are your real priorities? How can you utilize your limited resources most effectively? Don’t be afraid to take a critical look. And don’t compromise! Especially when it comes to digital support in sales. Having the right tools and processes will allow your employees to do a good job. And a happy sales team creates happy customers!
9. Patience and courage lead to innovation
There are many reasons to promote agility in sales. Take the first step. Decide on a new approach. Communicate the importance and urgency. And give your team a protective space to experiment with new sales methods.
Don’t be fooled: Not every new approach will be a big hit. Cultural transformation is an ongoing process that never ends. Ideally, with the right framework conditions, your sales team will have the courage and innovative power to implement and ultimately “automate” these new processes successfully.
10. Quick-start questions
If you’d like to launch into action right away, start with some of these questions, which I often use in my work with my clients:
- What will your sales ideally look like in the future? What will be different?
- In which areas of sales and customer service does it even make sense to introduce and exploit agile approaches?
- What will your desired agility look like in practice? Which action fields will it affect?
- Where will agility help you to generate (customer) value with limited resources?
- Which changes on a cultural and structural level as well as an attitudinal and behavioral level will be required to achieve more agility?
- Which new competencies will be needed?
- Which past initiatives can you build on to achieve the desired goal?
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