• B2B functional leaders frequently deploy new technologies, processes, or tools designed to improve overall sales productivity
  • These initiatives often require seller utilization to succeed, but when adoption itself is the goal, most of these efforts fail
  • Sales enablement should serve as a moderating voice of reason to balance out organizational and individual needs

Whenever our Sales Enablement clients ask for assistance in driving adoption of new technologies, learning, or processes, I recall the following personal, cautionary tale:

Years ago, I was responsible for launching a new customer relationship management (CRM) system to support a global sales force of more than 200 reps. At the time, the technologies available to enable what we now take for granted were fairly new, which meant the initiative was met with a wide mix of responses, from curiosity to compliance to skepticism.

I’ll never forget socializing the CRM system to the number one rep in the company — you know the type, the one who easily makes Winner’s Circle annually and generally rules the sales roost — to ask for their help in championing our cause. They looked me in the eye, and said, honoring every cliché out there about selfish sales reps: “I will never use your system. I won’t even bother logging in. And we both know there’s nothing you can do about it.”

And they were right. The launch went well despite the lack of 100% participation, and my boss, the CSO, permitted that top performer to remain exempt from participation for reasons that, to this day, remain plausible. After all, sales tech adoption should never be an MBO measurement for enablement or operational success — it’s a tactical means to a strategic end. And let’s face it, most CRM system deployments benefit the company more than the individual contributor, so if management ended up with better but imperfect data, or if they moved the middle performers in the right direction, those are not bad outcomes.

But let’s return to this common scenario: the uncooperative but high-performing rep. Many sales leaders employ, tolerate, and enable them, because such reps, like the production of an effective law or a tasty sausage, yield a final product we value, even if we sometimes hold our nose when considering the process by which it was achieved (thanks for that reference, Otto von Bismarck). When, exactly, did this B2B cold war begin? Why is there so much tension within sales organizations that outside advisors are asked to help force internal reps to comply with processes?

The answer was provided long ago, by Aretha Franklin: Respect. Every time a sales leader parrots phrases such as “forgiveness instead of permission,” “coin-operated salesperson,” or “bad process, good results,” they reinforce the cold, impersonal, and hard-wired management tropes that deliver a “What have you done for me tomorrow?” message to their team members. Or, for example, when a cost-cutting CFO stack-ranks sellers based only on year-to-date performance to determine who stays or leaves, they’re bolstering reps’ beliefs that Darwinian dynamics are in charge of their fate. Inevitably, these top-down messages inspire the same WIIFM mind-set I encountered all those years ago: it’s only about me, my deals, and my survival … because those are the ground rules that you, the company, have dictated.

The best B2B leaders, however, recognize that this is a poor, unsustainable sales talent management philosophy. They understand that investing in a rep’s competence requires recognition of their potential lifetime value to the organization, and build a mutually respectful — and profitable — relationship on that foundation. They acknowledge that seller compensation is more highly incentivized than that of all other rank-and-file employees, but resist the temptation to leverage it as a hammer to enforce behaviors such as CRM system adoption.

Alternatively, they align a seller’s success factors with the ongoing attainment of competencies that help them sustainably beat quota — and just happen to line up with organizational desires as well. And finally, they understand “weakest link” management philosophy: Their cultural brand is associated with the least cooperative members, not the top performers.

So if you need more CRM data entry to run your business, incorporate highly desirable (and seller-validated) resources, content, job aids, and tools inside the platform. If you require reps to learn a new product offering, allow them to learn it when they need it, rather than when it’s convenient for you to teach it. And follow all the smart customer-obsession mantras that your organization purports to deploy with buyers with your internal customers: your salespeople. Because respect is a two-way value proposition — you have to give it to get it.