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Smart Management: Is Sales Force Transformation Right For You?

Sales force transformation is one of the most popular initiatives among leading sales organizations. It offers the promise of improved performance, better productivity, and lower costs.

As a popular sales management initiative, it has momentum. In some quarters, senior management expects the VP of sales to lead an inspiring sales force transformation effort.

Of course, as most sales leaders know, the downside to such efforts is they can cause field distraction, excessive expenditures, and a failed implementation.

Before beginning your sales force transformation journey, you first need to define the term. Go ahead, try it: What exactly is "sales force transformation?"

As you search for a definition, you'll most likely think about words such as goals, alignment, competencies, organizational design, change management, and many other popular sales effectiveness themes.

Be wary of advocate-supplied definitions. Those who want the sales leader to do something different (the advocates) will often supply their own definition of sales force transformation. It might be an internal resource attempting to alter the way the sales organization functions. Or, it might be an external resource attempting to sell a solution.

Frankly, there is no uniform definition for sales force transformation. Clearly, it includes some type of change and an attendant implementation of that change. But the change could be substantive/strategic or minor/tactical.

What follows is an explanation of different types of sales force transformation changes and their implications.

In a sense, any change to the sales organization is a form of "sales force transformation." At any given time, sales organizations are making changes. The following is a list of changes that move from strategic to tactical and from substantive to minor:

Charter. The primary goal of a sales organization can be found in its charter. This charter, whether explicit or implicit, defines the role of the sales organization. It gives meaning and direction to the sales function. Over time, sales departments' charters evolve.

In the beginning, it might be simply to grow revenue. Later, senior management might expect the sales department to successfully sell dissimilar products, sell more profitability, sell solutions, sell applications to select segments, or all of these goals. Any change in charter could substantially change the design of the sales organization.

Processes. Customer contact processes are an inclusive look at all the actions necessary to successfully secure customer orders. Using process mapping methodologies, sales organizations can display all of the contact points and actions necessary to move a prospect to a customer and then to an ongoing buyer. Any change in the customer contact processes will affect the activities of the sales organization.

Organization. Customer needs drive sales organization design. Channel types (whether direct or indirect), type of contact (premise selling versus telephone sales), and job type (such as major account managers versus territory reps) affect the roles and headcount of the sales department. Any change in buyer needs will change the nature of the sales organization.

Job activities. Job content defines the activities of the incumbents. To assure sales force productivity, sales management needs to specify job activities to ensure the highest return on invested dollar. Any changes to job activities will most likely affect numerous functions.

Competencies. Your talent system will ensure job incumbents have the competencies to accomplish their assigned roles. You may gain these competencies through a variety of means: effective recruitment, development, training, and performance improvement programs. Adoption of new competencies frequently requires significant investment of management resources and sellers' time.

Systems. There are underlying administrative and automated systems to support the sales function. The effectiveness of these systems provides leverage to the sales organization. Assessment and upgrades to the systems require ongoing investment by sales leadership.

Notice how the most significant element begins at the top of the list: charter. Each subsequent factor is a subset of the factor before it. Thus, any change in charter will most likely affect each of the downstream components of processes, organization, activities, competencies, and systems. This cascading phenomenon exists for any transformation effort begun at any level.

Once you have selected the starting point of change from the list above, you can follow these steps to improve sales force effectiveness:

1. Assessment Don't start any major sales force transformation effort without conducting an assessment of current practices. Without a comprehensive assessment, you won't know the extent of the problem, degree of investment needed, and benchmarks of success.

2. Design. During the design step, current practices must be set aside. The discipline of designing with a "blank sheet" gives you the freedom to develop the right solution. Later, when considering implementation, you can comprise this "ideal" design to what is actually implementable.

3. Implementation. An implementation strategy lays out all of the elements of the required change in appropriate sequence. A major change might require several stages of implementation. Some changes might be "gated" by the implementation of other programs. These programs have their own timeline of development and execution. An overall implementation strategy with tasks, time, and accountabilities will provide the roadmap for rollout efforts.

4. Change management. The emerging science of change management provides numerous methods for helping the current workforce adopt new practices. Applying these change management practices will determine the degree to which the current workforce embraces the new approach.

5. Provisioning. Sales management must fully deploy infrastructure systems prior to implementing a major change to the sales organization. Examples of these systems include CRM, pricing, quotes/proposals, order management, customer service, and sales reporting.

Ongoing sales force transformation is the business of running sales departments well. The degree of misalignment drives the scope of changes. The transformation steps, however, are universal.

David J. Cichelli is senior vice president of The Alexander Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. He can be reached at