During my time 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, saying, 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. Regardless of how wonderful your products or services are, if you can’t persuade someone to exchange money for them, there’s no reason for those products or service to exist (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. They also recognize that culture flows from the top because it must. Despite the protests of those who advocate bottom-up leadership, the reality is that any corporate culture is set not by the employees at the ground and field levels, but by the overriding philosophy of management.
So, let’s assume, for the moment, you have decided your company needs to accept and embrace a sales culture. How do you go about doing that?
Set the mission. The first thing you should do once you’ve decided to embrace a sales culture is throw your mission statement away. I know, it’s something you’ve put a lot of thought into and probably has some great phrasing. However, it’s also something that your employees most likely couldn’t remember if a gun were put to their heads. Let’s replace it with something simple, such as: “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. Success in sales comes from good communication, while failure is typically due to insufficient communication. Thus, you must communicate messaging to your people and do so consistently. Many companies fail because communication happens like this: The big guy at the top will have a staff meeting where he communicates a 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.
When creating a sales culture, there is no employee whose job is so small or insignificant that he or she shouldn’t hear this message from YOU. Have all-company meetings, all-department meetings or allbranch meetings—whatever you need to do in order to ensure that every employee hears 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, despite 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 necessary in order to achieve the goals. As a result, we didn’t just meet the goals, we blew them away. And you can bet that the quarterly meetings were repeated consistently. Most of the time, if your people know the goals, they will act in accordance with them if they believe the goals to be real and permanent.
Align goals. To achieve profitable growth by 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 example, sales would be tasked to grow the company 15 percent, while the production department would be tasked to cut labor costs by 10 percent. Assuming there were no major technical innovations (there weren’t), we had departments with goals that could not be reached collectively. This produced management and interdepartmental conflict on a constant basis.
To avoid the situation mentioned above, set department goals that can be achieved as a group. For example, 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 them: help grow the company.
Remove internal conflict. Successful sales forces, by their nature, create internal conflict. This isn’t because salespeople are obnoxious or difficult to work with (although that is a separate issue), it’s because quality salespeople push the frontiers. Because sales is all about growth, good sales forces are always creating extra work and pressure for the other departments. These other departments must then function at a higher level to support the sales growth created, which then leads to conflict and pushback.
As a business owner, it’s your job to mediate and handle these conflicts. It’s a delicate issue because no department, or department manager, wants to feel subordinate or less important than sales. However, if your organization is truly embracing a sales culture, other departments are exactly that—subordinate to sales. When conflicts arise, you should look to your new mission statement. Consider what helps your company grow profitably by acquiring, developing and retaining customers.
Few things can be as de-motivating to a sales force, or as detrimental to sales productivity, as the daily interdepartmental battles that ensue when other departments feel they must act as a brake pedal on progress. Sales departments can overcome this problem by empowering managers who are sales advocates and by removing internal obstacles.
Maintain a high-performance sales force. As previously discussed, aligning a company’s objective, people and goals around the sales force creates a very sales friendly environment. Now it’s time to turn up the heat on the people making the sales. 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 salespeople. Your sales manager should not only be an administrator, reporter and forecaster, but should also be a 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 working to make 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. He should also be equipped to hold salespeople accountable for those metrics and for the results. Struggling personnel must either be coached or changed, while 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. They should have the appropriate mix of traits necessary for success, while being highly skilled and trained (meaning that your investment in training should be ongoing). The salespeople in a high-performance sales force should be able to work independently to achieve results.
Moreover, the people in your sales force should be excellent relationship builders, both inside and outside the company. In other words, the sales force shouldn’t have any “cowboys” who are negative or abusive to other employees. For a sales environment to be successful, the other employees must maintain the desire to rally behind the sales team. Salespeople who can’t play nicely with others will work against your goals, no matter how great they are with customers.
Reinforce the culture. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s simply not enough to hold some meetings, say “we are a sales organization” and call it a day. Instead, for cultures to be successful, they must be reinforced both directly and indirectly. Key decisions must be made based on the new mission statement: Does this decision help us acquire, develop or retain customers? This doesn’t mean that non-sales departments starve —that new machine for the plant may be completely justified by its benefits in product quality. Raises for the production staff may also be appropriate, as they should be rewarded for their part in acquiring, developing and retaining customers. However, your company should have one universal criteria for spending, personnel allocations and any other key decision making.
The benefits. Aligning your company around a sales culture has its benefits. The biggest is this: Sales-focused companies tend to produce excellence in every department. And the reason is simple: Companies with a strong sales department cannot afford to remain mediocre in other areas. If they do, those sales gains will quickly be lost through customer dissatisfaction and attrition. As noted earlier, successful sales departments tend to lift other departments through necessity. This is not true of other departmental objectives, as an excellent production department seldom creates pressure on other departments to up their games.
On the whole, organizations that focus on the process of profitable growth tend to achieve that growth year after year. It’s not easy, but the results are worth it.