Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Seller's Dilemma

Read an interesting article today from Garner entitled "Future Sales Growth Challenged by the Seller's Dilemma.   (  )   The fundamental issue set forth in the post  was that sales management was "handcuffed" if you will, by quarterly revenue demands that required all of their efforts.   No time was left apparently to "reinvent themselves" or align their sales methodologies with the new technical reality of today's business environment.

I find that hard to believe.

I would argue the problem lies far deeper than time constraints.   I would argue that for too long, especially in the high tech industry, sales is viewed as a necessary evil, sometimes an afterthought.   Often times, sales budgets are mere extensions of last year's sales figures.   Sales managers are brought in temporarily from other departments so they can pad their corporate resume with the required revenue generation tour of duty.  Sales is often a dumping ground for aspirational MBAs on their way up the corporate ladder, mediocre marketing folk looking to gain a transitional rung on some their cohorts, or product and technical managers whose technical skills have been outstripped by their own march towards retirement.  Sales management is considered by some firms as nothing more than a corporate career hospice.

Even this article, "The Seller's Dilemma" leaves out the sellers themselves.  The actual sales representatives, the road warriors, and the notebook bag carrying, PowerPoint  packing henchmen, whose job it is to grab any available red eye, show up at the prospect's door refreshed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, deliver a generic presentation, painstaking developed by marketing two versions ago, and come home with the contract.

The only problem is:  it's just not that simple.

Any sales rep who has ever carried a bag can tell you that.

For the real seller, the dilemma is not whether or not they have time to make their present quotas and realign themselves for the future.  Their dilemma is that they do not have a voice at the table when corporate decisions are being made.   In many firms, even middle layers of sales management have had their functional responsibilities restricted to sales execution only.  They too, just follow orders.  If middle managers don't achieve their quota, they and their subordinates are corporately executed.  In such sales organizations, it's impossible to look forward into the future if you have to constantly watch your back.

Career paths you say?    What career paths?

For most salespeople on the front lines, their only path up the ladder lies out the door.  Little commitment is given for upward internal advancement and little mentoring or coaching takes place.   Often the mid-level sales manager with experience outside of sales, or worse still, the letters MBA behind their last name, doesn't have any actual sales experience to draw on.  Their advice is often based on book smarts rather than street smarts.  While they may have an MBA, they are by all accounts, functionally illiterate.  During this interregnum, it is often the sales reps themselves, bringing their manager up to speed.  Their own advancement set adrift, until the next top sales officer is appointed and another wave of administrative or organizational change sweeps in, with little or no corporate benefit, other than career carnage.  

In situations like these, the best a sales rep can hope to achieve is survival.   Seeing customers and closing business takes a back seat to political alignment and garnering special treatment from those one rung higher up the corporate ladder.  Large accounts and opportunities, dug up by those on the fronts lines are often passed over to those reps who spend more time face to face with their own manager, courting favor, instead of face to face time with customers closing real business.

We've all heard of death by PowerPoint.  In sales bureaucracies, it's death by spreadsheet.  Here, death is much quicker, yet much more painful.  It's here during times of corporate cost cutting, where the reps are ranked by revenue only, on a spreadsheet.  It's printed out shortly before a bean counter with Occam's razor approves on exactly where the final line between retention and dismissal gets drawn.  Those above the line are retained, while those below the line are let go.   Shortly after this occurs, the melee begins amongst the survivors to see who gets to salvage what, from their recently departed colleagues.

Some would argue that this is nothing but a Darwinian struggle towards the survival of the fittest.   I would counter with: "Close."   It's really a survival of the fattest.  Who's been able to elbow their way closer to the trough of managerial favoritism, usually gets to survive.  Merit has given way to simple bureaucratic assertion.

At this point, your departmental sales revenue is in free fall.   For the best you can manage, with nothing but sales bureaucrats in your lineup, is to retain last year's sales going forward.   To show real sales growth you need new accounts.   But with no hunters on staff any longer, how is this going to happen?

It isn't.   

Better get started on your resume.   Because that Sword of Damocles hanging over your head is Occam's Razor.   And this time, it's your name that's below the line.