Take a Strategic Approach to Evaluating Your Sales Ecosystem

by Harvey Bergholz, Adjunct Faculty
February 19, 2019

One lesson I’ve drawn from working with over 40 different sales organizations is the importance of sales execution in a well-developed business ecosystem. Picture a glass bubble with a fully enclosed habitat in which organisms can be born, develop, and thrive without ever leaving. All that’s needed is contained within a complete ecosystem. Most of my work as a management consultant focuses on strategy and organizational issues (like acquisition integrations and restructurings). These engagements usually bring the sales group into play since that is where execution succeeds or fails – at the point of customer contact. Frequently, execution weaknesses trace to the supporting elements in the sales ecosystem, not to the talent base.

Here’s a high-level visual aid to prompt a more thorough, strategic analysis of the elements in a typical sales ecosystem. A focused effort on continuous improvement – with honest inputs from the sales people – will yield the kind of productive supporting environment sales professionals require to succeed.

How Other Factors Could Be Contributing

One example from a large automotive parts company several years back will illustrate the main point here. The management complaint was that the salesforce was ineffective in generating new accounts. They could sell new and existing products into their current accounts, but signing up new accounts was a real weakness.

Management had set upon conducting sales training for the entire group. This was to be a series of workshops through which hundreds of salespeople would rotate over several months. The Training and Development Department was happily developing content, evaluating instructors, and planning schedules. The sales people themselves had begun the expected grousing. We had done other work for this client, and one executive asked us to look over the proposed plan, instructional design, expected outcomes, etc.

I suggested we take just a week to interview a dozen sales people in the field. “Give me the bell curve sample: four top performers, four average, and four at the lower end. We’ll go out to work with them for a half-day each and confirm what’s really happening.”

The results, paraphrasing what we drew from observations and interviewees, were:

• Sales people could make their budgets and bonuses without signing new accounts: “So why go through the hassle if I don’t have to?”

• Internal processes were punitive: “I sign a new account and make promises about our service, and then it takes weeks for credit approvals, paperwork, and the account is screaming about first shipments, and I look and feel ridiculous. When they fix the internal processes I’ll sign more new accounts.”

• “Have you seen our sales aids and materials? They’re all aimed at existing customers. We don’t have very impressive things to use with potential accounts, and samples? Forget it. We’re told they’re too expensive.”

Harvey Bergholz, Adjunct Faculty

Training hundreds of sales people in “New Account Selling” would have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and weeks of valuable time. The answers were elsewhere in the ecosystem. That does not mean selective salespeople would not have benefited from that training; but the operative word there is “selective.”

Sales success depends just as heavily upon all the contributing variables around the sales individual as it does on the individual’s ability to execute at the point of customer contact. Granted, every sales force, like every group of performers, is a bell curve of talent. The superstars will accomplish more with less support, while those at the back end of the curve are more reliant upon supporting elements. But regardless of degree, all group members are dependent on this ecosystem.

Be On the Lookout

For sales executives, this means paying constant attention to the major and minor elements of the ecosystem. Talented sales leaders tend to see these elements as a regular part of their weekly routine. They continually look for ways to enhance them. The most reliable means to do this is to seek feedback from sales people as to what’s working and what isn’t, and to solicit specific recommendations for improvements. High-performing groups do this continually, both casually (i.e., phone conversations, ride-along’s, call reports) and in highly-structured formats (i.e., written surveys, formal interviews, consultant evaluations).

Not Everything Can Change at Once

Certainly, there are elements in any sales ecosystem that cannot be changed at times. Be frank and tell the team that. Provide no false hopes, which only create cynicism. Choose the priorities carefully: they should always be set in terms of which targets will provide the greatest upside leverage, not in terms of which are easiest, fastest, or cheapest to accomplish. A talented team appreciates the difficulty of tackling difficult projects; it disrespects the window dressing of resources put against low-value opportunities.

Three Suggestions

1. Customize the visual aid offered to your own organization. There is no cookie-cutter that works with all sales organizations. Tailoring is vital as every organization has its own culture, history, style, and priorities.

2. Use the diagram with your group – after you’ve engaged them in helping to flesh it out – as a discussion tool, a vehicle to drive toward a consensus on the highest-value change targets and opportunities for improvement.

3. Conduct your own annual “audit” of the sales ecosystem. Do it as part of the budgeting process, or the business planning process, to uncover the obstacles to sales success and remove them.

Looking for help analyzing your organization’s ecosystem? Contact us for more information or to set up a free discovery session.