In my years of experience in working with (and for) companies large and small, I have discovered that there is a common element to the most successful businesses. The most successful companies have a sales culture. A “sales culture” is a philosophy that permeates the company, from the corner office to the loading dock, that says, essentially, “We are a sales organization, and everything else we are able to do is a product of our ability to sell our products or services to our customers.”
This isn’t a philosophical statement; it’s reality. The only difference is whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. It’s reality because no matter how good your products or services, if you can’t persuade someone to exchange money for those products or services, there’s no reason for production or service to exist, and hence your business will cease to exist. An acquaintance of mine attempted to make a go of it as a financial consultant, and to be frank, he was the most brilliant financial guy I’ve ever met. He’s now working for someone else as a CFO – because despite his brilliance, he was unable to make a single sale.
The most successful companies both acknowledge and embrace the idea that they are first and foremost a sales organization, and that culture flows from the top. It flows from the top because it must. Despite the protestations of those who advocate bottom-up leadership, the reality is that any corporate culture is set not by the employees at ground and field level, but by the overriding philosophy of management. That’s you, by the way. So, let’s assume for the moment that you have decided that your company needs to accept and embrace a sales culture. How do we go about that?
Set the mission: First of all, whatever your mission statement, throw it away. I know, it’s something that you’ve put a lot of thought into and probably has some great phrasing. It’s probably also something that your employees couldn’t remember if a gun were put to their heads. Let’s replace it with something simple like this: “We are a sales organization, and we grow profitably by Acquiring new customers, Developing current customers to greater profitability, and Retaining profitable business.” Use this as the mantra that guides your company’s decision making.
Communicate: All good things in sales (and business) come from good communication, and most bad things happen because of insufficient communication. Knowing this, the next step is to communicate the message to your people, and to do so consistently. This is where a lot of companies fail, because the communication happens like this: The Big Guy at the Top will have a staff meeting where he/she communicates the ‘new mission’ forcefully to his key managers, and then expects the managers to communicate it downstream. They do, but with varying degrees of emphasis and enthusiasm. The Sales Manager obviously embraces the mission, while the Production Manager may be less enthusiastic, and so forth. If you really want to effect change, it has to be up to you.
In creating a sales culture, there is no employee whose job is so small or insignificant that he/she shouldn’t hear this message from YOU. Have all-company meetings, or all-department meetings, or all-branch meetings; however you need to do it in order to have the opportunity to have every employee hear the message directly from your lips. I once struggled with the support personnel in a 50-person department; no matter what I told the supervisors, nothing seemed to change at ground level. So, over the objections of several supervisors and even a couple of managers from other departments, I held a full-department meeting and laid out my goals for the next quarter, how we would achieve them, and what everyone’s duty was as part of the goal achievement. The employees asked great questions, and within days were taking the actions that I needed them to take in order to achieve the goals. Result – we didn’t just make the goals, we blew them away. And you can bet that we repeated the quarterly meetings consistently. The take-away is that, for the most part, if your people know the goals, they will act in accordance with them – if they believe that the goal is real and permanent.
Align Goals: To accomplish your goal of profitable growth through acquiring, developing, and retaining customers, you must align all your departments and goals. I once worked for a company that would set each department’s goals in a vacuum; for instance, sales would be tasked to grow the company 15% while the production department would be tasked to cut labor costs by 10%. Assuming there are no major technical innovations (there weren’t), you had departments with goals that could not all be reached collectively. This produced management and interdepartmental conflict on a constant basis.
Instead of this, set department goals in such a way that they can all be achieved together. For instance, instead of budgeting in dollar terms, budget in percentages from the top line. This way, when departments need more resources for equipment and personnel, they know how to get it – help grow the company. Even with the best goal setting, however, you’re going to see some internal conflict.
Remove Internal Conflict: Good sales forces, by their nature, create internal conflict. This isn’t because salespeople are bad people, obnoxious, or difficult to work with (although that is a separate issue), but because good salespeople push the frontiers. Because sales is all about growth, good sales forces are always creating extra work and pressure for the other departments which must then function at a higher level to support the sales growth created. This creates conflict and push-back.
As a business owner, it’s your job to mediate and handle these conflicts and push-backs. It’s a delicate issue because no department, or department manager, wants to feel subordinate or less important than sales. The reality is that, if you’re truly embracing a sales culture, the other departments are exactly that – subordinate to sales. When conflicts arise, you should go back to your mission statement; what helps your company grow profitably through acquiring, developing, and retaining customers?
Few things can be as demotivating to a sales force, or as detrimental to sales productivity, as the daily interdepartmental battles that can result when other departments feel that they must act as a brake pedal on progress. Good sales cultures overcome this problem by empowering managers who are sales advocates and by removing internal obstacles.
Have a High Performance Sales Force: So far, we’ve talked about aligning a company’s objective, people, and goals around the sales force, which creates a very sales-friendly environment. Now it’s time to turn up the heat on the people who are doing the selling. You have the right, and the responsibility, to demand excellence from your salespeople once you have molded the culture of the company around them.
First, you need a strong sales manager. A “strong sales manager” is one who actively works, on a day to day basis, to strengthen and enhance the abilities of his/her salespeople. Your sales manager should be not only a good administrator, reporter, and forecaster; the sales manager must be a good coach and developer of people. He should be willing to advocate for the needs of the sales force while simultaneously demanding the highest effort and achievement from them. He must be capable of surrounding himself with top talent and then making that talent even better.
The sales manager must understand the basic equation of sales achievement: Quantity of activity x Quality of activity = Results. To this end, the sales manager should have performance metrics in place to assess both quantity and quality of sales activity, and be equipped to hold salespeople accountable for those metrics and for the results. Struggling personnel must be either coached or changed; top performers should be rewarded and coached to even higher levels.
Your salespeople should be excellent “fits” for your company and environment, and should be capable of winning new business, developing current business, and retaining customers (remember the mission statement?). They should have the appropriate mix of traits necessary for success, while being highly skilled and trained (which means that your investment in training should be ongoing). The salespeople in a high performance sales force are not salespeople that must be babysit or constantly watched to achieve results.
Moreover, the people in your sales force should be excellent relationship builders, both inside the company and outside. That means that the sales force shouldn’t have any “cowboys” who are negative or abusive to other employees; for a sales culture to work, the other employees have to want to get behind the sales team. Salespeople who can’t play nicely with others will work against your goals, no matter how good they are with customers.
Reinforce the culture: As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not enough to have some meetings, say “we are a sales organization,” and call it good. Cultures happen because they are reinforced, directly or indirectly. For this to work, key decisions must be made based on the new mission statement: “Does this decision help us to acquire, develop, or retain customers?” That doesn’t mean that non-sales departments starve; that new machine for the plant may be completely justified by its benefits in product quality. The raises for the production staff may be appropriate to reward them for their part in acquiring, developing, and retaining customers. It does mean that your company has one universal criteria for spending, personnel allocations, and any other key decision making.
The Benefits: There are numerous benefits to aligning your company around a sales culture. The biggest is this: Sales focused companies tend to produce excellence in every department. The reason is simple: Companies with a strong sales department cannot stay bad or mediocre in other areas; if they do, those sales gains will quickly be lost through customer dissatisfaction and attrition. As noted earlier, good sales departments tend to lift other departments through necessity. This is not true of other departmental objectives; an excellent production department seldom creates pressure on other departments to up their games.
On the whole, organizations that center their culture around the process of profitable growth tend to achieve that growth, year after year. It’s not easy, but the results are worth it.