There sure are a lot of often-quoted factoids/observations about the state of affairs among sales forces. We are hearing and reading how:

  • Fewer salespeople are hitting quota.
  • Buyers are much more knowledgeable before they meet with salespeople.
  • Improving the volume or quality of leads boosts marketers’contribution.
  • Making it easier to access sales information helps.
  • Sales managers are not effectively coaching their sales teams.
  • Lots of spending is dedicated to better equipping sellers.

I could go on (and if you’ve heard me before, I probably have), but what is the point?

We ALL know that something is wrong.

The questions to ask are: Who is determining what to fix and what does that person think is the problem?

In 2008, I published a report (still worth a read) entitled “Engineering Valuable Sales Conversations” whose thesis was correct (sales results struggle under the weight of unneeded and overwhelming complexity, and to design it out, you need to model the sales conversations by working backward from your audience), but whose focal point was off. Back then, I thought the locus of the problem was better streamlining the supply chain behind sales and developing ways for sales and marketing to work better together.

Boy was I wrong.

Over the past four years I’ve been speaking with CFOs, business unit leaders, VPs of sales, CMOs, VPs of human resources (HR), and CEOs, and my understanding of the problem is far more clear now.

Your Selling System Is Broken

Don’t take my word for it. Like most other CEOs taking over a new post, Steve Bennett, president and CEO of Symantec, spent a good amount of his time interviewing employees and speaking with customers. During an earnings call in January 2013, he shared with investors his assessment of their ability to execute: “Our system doesn’t work, or probably said better we don’t have a system.”

If you are in: training, product or solutions marketing, demand generation, branding, sales operations, sales management, or any other function – imagine if your CEO said that. Do you just assume he or she is only talking about those darned salespeople, our could your CEO be talking about you too?

I love Bennett’s quote (and share it with others often) because it is so crystalline of the problem, but it’s a problem so few can see because the whole idea of a “system” seems so fuzzy, so abstract, to them.

Selling System – What Are You Talking About?

Your CEO and executive team are trying to execute a new business strategy by installing a customer-centric engine onto a selling system chassis fine-tuned to sell products. The only thing is, this problem is really hard to see, because everyone has very different interpretations about their sales force and what a selling system is.

Here is a paraphrased example of one conversation I had with a company president, recently.

“I’d like to talk about my sales force. I don’t have the right people to carry out our strategy. How do we get or make new ones?” said the CEO, who’s been with his firm for four years.

“Did you look into your hiring practices?” I asked. “How do you know you are hiring the right people?”

“We only hire the best people – there is no question about that. We also pay competitively within our industry and we are investing more on training than the benchmark.”

“OK, well – how about your products and services. How do you know they are the right ones?”

“We had our product strategy independently verified and I personally went into the field and got feedback from our clients. It’s solid,” said the now getting-a-little-annoyed-with-me CEO.

“OK – so, you have hired the right people, you are paying them well, you are investing a lot to train them, and you are certain you have the right products. Do I have that right?”


“Well, if you are hiring the right people – then all of the things you are doing to help them sell are turning them into the wrong people. The system you have set up to properly equip and prepare your sales force is broken.”

This conversation changed his opinion about, well . . . everything.

Together, we were able to identify how many different people inside his organization were doing things to “help the salesforce” but were doing it according to different beliefs about the cause of the problem in the first place, and thus the objectives and design points of what to do were all over the place.

How Are CEOs Involving Themselves To Fix The Selling System?

I asked our CEO, George Colony, to help me better understand this gap. Last year, he went to Davos and interviewed 20 CEOs, asking them one single brilliant question. “What are you personally doing to ensure that your salesforce is getting the company to its strategic goals?” The answers were amazing.

The graphic below is how George grouped his findings for our 2013 Sales Enablement Forum audience. The responses are revealing in how broad they are and also the randomness of action.

From highly motivational tactics such as “public executions” to CEOs “personally approving compensation plans,” we can take away two things right away. CEOs are highly interested and involved in making sure the sales force gets to where it needs to be and that what they are doing to ensure that result are probably the wrong things.

The clip below is a video summarizing George’s recommendations for you (someone responsible to fix this process) to be successful.

1) Educate the CEO on the voyage.

2) Clearly define a role for your CEO to play.

3) Provide a way to update on progress.

4) Have courage.

George’s Clip (2:40)

Executing A Growth Agenda In The Age Of The Customer

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, a lot of the information I shared with you is dated last year. Am I getting lazy and just phoning it in on the research? No, this year I am going to share results. We’ve created a new metric to assess the performance of selling systems to give Steve Bennett’s quote some texture. We call our metric “growth return of selling system,” or GROSS for short. I don’t want to give away too much of my thunder, but the results are, well, gross. If you read my post from last week about the misalingment of sales teams with buyers, you’ll probably be able to start putting the pieces together.

Over the last year, I’ve immersed myself with clients working on the goal of systematically driving profitable growth and have received counsel from George about elevating a strategic sales enablement role to the CEO. On March 3, 2014, in Scottsdale, AZ, I will share our research around “the growth agenda.”

My keynote speech will introduce an entirely new way of looking at executing a business strategy, introduce you to an easy-to-understand framework, and provide you with some radical tools to help you start simplifying your selling system. The tracks of the main event will then dive into the execution implications of the new strategy.

For executives who are ready to include their CEO and be a catalyst to driving growth inside their companies, I will be leading a series of sessions (think of this as a conference within a conference) where we go through modules of the framework in an interactive way to make sure it’s clear and actionable. Some of the questions we will tackle include:

1) How do you translate the business strategy into a realistic execution plan that can be cost effectively carried out?

2) How do you allocate resources from areas of sales and marketing (or other areas too) that are suboptimized and effectively redeploy them to drive growth?

3) How do you stop all of the wasteful “random acts” of sales support and refocus that energy on programs that generate measureable results?

4) How do you allow a lot of different groups their own autonomy, while still making sure those efforts roll up into a simple value envelope to keep the CEO updated and focused for benefit realization?

5) How do you “fix the plane” while it’s flying and drive change without disrupting ongoing operations?

How To Learn More

Please consider joining us in Scottsdale in March; our full Forum program is linked here.

If you’re interested in learning more about the track session I will be leading, please contact Brad Holmes at He can provide you with more information and help you determine if you are a fit for the session or not.