Sales is the lifeblood of a business. Sales organisations provide the social and operational infrastructure for account managers and sales representatives to thrive and to compete in their chosen markets. As we all know, customer-facing functions are always expected to achieve high levels of performance and to improve the results of previous periods. However, increasing demands from informed customers, new technological breakthroughs and globalisation has made achieving top performance ever more difficult but necessary; sustaining top performance ever more challenging but indispensable.
This has resulted in more complex and multifaceted sales roles increasingly characterised as ‘knowledge brokers’ and ‘boundary-spanning’. Sales people need to develop simultaneously external (customer focused) and internal (process driven) orientation. Sales professionals also need to manage dynamically the tension between the ‘current’ and the ‘future’, delivering short-term performance and efficiency but also ensuring long-term business sustainability.
So, what are the guiding principles to lead top performing businesses in the age of knowledge, pressure and paradox and more complex sales roles?
Creating world-class sales and customer management organisations calls for the ability to reconcile tensions in a mutually reinforcing way; a widely-shared understanding of performance measures and what achieving them entails. Sustaining this performance involves the creation of environments where people can thrive despite experiencing complexity and dilemmas.
Leading top performing sales and customer management organisations requires constructing a new paradigm focused on reconciliation of dilemmas such as efficiency-effectiveness or short-long term orientation. These dilemmas are ubiquitous and seldom directly solvable, but can be balanced and reconciled by developing ambidexterity, the ability to combine contradictory coordination mechanisms that are characterised by decentralisation and formalisation. Ambidextrous organisations require leaders who have the ability to understand and to be sensitive to the needs of very different kinds of businesses and environments: they possess both proficiency in systematic analysis as well as free-thinking abilities. They break into new business territories and explore new ways of creating value, and at the same time maintain and defend traditional business processes.
Performance measures in organisations, most commonly referred to as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are highly visible representations of what matters. However, most organisations have too many KPIs, leaving ‘what really matters’ largely to the interpretation of individuals. Airline pilots find themselves in a similar situation. Modern aircrafts have more than one hundred cockpit instruments. Nevertheless, trained pilots know what the ‘big five’ instruments that are critical to keeping all airplanes in the air are: airspeed, altimeter, artificial horizon, heading and vertical speed indicators. These are Critical (aircraft) Performance Indicators (CPIs). Similarly, leaders in sales organisations also need to define CPIs. These few CPIs should be the ones that make the critical difference in achieving customer value and thus, top sales performance.
Creating an environment for thriving
Sustained performance in sales organisations calls for a nurturing environment where enabling factors, such as appropriate incentives, values, mindsets and behaviours are established. These environments are characterised, first by a high level of fit between the person and the job. Second, clarity of role is the norm, where individuals are clear about what is expected from them, and also aware of the sales strategies and tactics to achieve what they need. Third, given that sales teams are regularly under pressure, expectations of top performance are accompanied by high levels of support. Fourth, top performing sales leaders promote ‘healthy competition’ in the form of shared learning and commitment to everyone’s development, as well as individual and team goals. Learning from mistakes and from one another are essential elements of the ‘sales agenda’.
This is what modern sales organisations require, and most likely what most customers will demand from their suppliers.
By Javier Marcos is a Senior Lecturer in Sales Performance and the Director of the KAM Best Practice Club. He has recently published From Selling to Co-creating: New trends, Practices and Tools to Upgrade Your Sales Force (BIS, 2014)
Also by Graham Jones is the founder of Top Performance Consulting and Professor of Performance Psychology. His latest book is titled Top Performance Leadership: A dynamic and achievable new approach to delivering first-class, sustainable results (How to books, 2014)