Build A Solutions Force, Not A Sales Force

English: A screenshot showing use of the sales...

Do you dream at night of your sales force closing all the deals in your pipeline only to wake up and realize that you still don’t have the Ferrari in your driveway and that very few of the leads you get ever turn into cash? Your company’s approach to sales might be killing opportunity. Just recently, the CEO of a Minnesota-based firm explained how his newly developed sales force was not selling a thing while chewing away at over a half a million a year in payroll. Within a year, the CEO had hired both a president and a national sales manager to take over the expansion of a firm that was growing at a rapid pace. Customers like Target and Wal-Mart were just a few of the household-name clients he had already secured. Yet with the hiring of the sales manager, something had gone terribly wrong. The new staff wasn’t making any money, and for the first time in the company’s history, customers were complaining. In order to get the business back in order, the fantasy of sipping Pina Coladas on golden beaches would have to wait.

The CEO had four basic problems. One, the sales manager was hired away from an extremely large firm where he was successful during an expanding economy and had no clue how to work in a 32-person company. Two, the new sales people primarily were drawn away from tech firms when the economy was so good that sales was not really the skill one needed to generate revenue. Three, he paid everyone way too much. The sales manager started with a salary in the low six figures and the sales personnel were paid enough that even if they never made a sale, they could have a great living. The rationale for the base from the new sales manager was that you needed to pay for talent, especially in the tech industry. The fourth problem was that he wanted a sales force that could cover the country, but in the past, the CEO had done all the sales himself while running the business at the same time.

One day, the CEO received a call from his company’s largest customer, Wal-Mart. They were terminating their relationship. He was dumfounded and could not understand what went wrong; remember, he had completely turned over the reins. Jumping back into the fire, he asked his contact, “What can I do to earn your business back.” To that they replied, “Personally take over the account again.” The customer had become disgusted with the new sales staff along with the changes in operations. In his initial shock, the CEO was ready to roll heads until he was offered a little introspection; his sales force was not the problem, he was! These were some of the problems he realized:

1. The CEO used to be the sole salesperson, and in each case, he did not “sell,” but showed people what his service could do for them. As a result, sales volume shot sky high. (The “ah, ha.”)

2. The CEO had not taught the sales manager how the former had been successful. He just assumed that a guy with a great sales history would ignite sales. (Lesson: success in one firm does not mean success in another, especially if it’s not the same product.)

3. The CEO’s expectations were out of whack with reality when it came to hiring sales people. The more the merrier is not a formula. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially if you’re just hiring to cover regions. The best approach would have been to start with a sales person or two and to create a structure that mimicked what made his firm grow so quickly in the past.

4. The sales force was not a “Solutions Force:” solutions-oriented, as the CEO had been. The CEO never passed on his method of helping customers gain solutions by utilizing his firm’s products. In the past, the entire organization built the sale as the customer was educated on the services.

5. The CEO let go of too much, too soon. Would you just let your kid jump in your car and start driving without any instruction? Letting go and expecting others to fill one’s shoes without a period of education is ridiculous. Think of it this way; the larger the sales ticket or the more critical the supplier is to the (buying) firm’s overall success in a project, the more important it is for the vendor to offer solutions, not simply standard products and services. (This is a common mistake so don’t think that he’s the only one to use the new “empowerment” model. He built a technology firm with 30 employees that was extremely profitable. He just didn’t know how to build a “Solutions Force.”

6. They didn’t need a lot of accounts to grow aggressively. The type of clients this firm serviced spent hundreds of thousands annually and would best be serviced by showing long-term value in addition to targeting prospects.

US Retail Sales 1992–2010

The warpath now over and much of the dead weight in the sales department gone, the CEO was able to see that he inadequately equipped his Sales/Solutions Force and ultimately was responsible for their early failures. The best approach to sales is like any other operating function within the firm. In the case of the CEO, it’s the leader’s responsibility to build and implement the STRUCTURE that enables others to duplicate his successes.

So, what happened with Wal-Mart? The CEO took over the account once again, and then took measures to teach his sales personnel how to provide the same type of value to customers. The CEO assessed the situation and started with what improvements needed to be made in the executive office in order to support the sales staff.

The new formula now looked like this:

1. The CEO will define the role of the sales manager only after he has determined the exact process the employees will follow to secure new business. Then the sale manager can have input.

2. The CEO will now have the sales manager shadow him as a coaching scenario for several months so that both of them can see the progress and define how the sales force may be built. (No, not every day: an ongoing relationship.)

3. The CEO will help the sales manager pass the skill sets down into the “Solutions Force” so that there becomes a consistency of operations.

4. The CEO will hire capable people and reward them for offering solutions first. Solutions-thinking takes precedence over the “killer salesperson.”

5. The CEO will move out of the direct role only when everything is moving as expected and customers feel as if the CEO’s firm is the one of choice.

6. The CEO will install feedback mechanisms for the sales manager and sales staff so that they get information when it’s needed and not have to worry about the mechanics.

7. The CEO will take, under advisement, suggestions and not expect all employees to have great ideas. Remember, that the same person you may be asking advice from in the form of millions of dollars may never have paid their rent on time or bounces personal checks every quarter.

Winning sales forces with winning products (can’t solve everything today) are based upon finding formulas that work. Begin by looking at the successful individual. Break down his actions into steps that others can take. Management’s role is to do this while educating staff. You can easily attain solid goals if you take charge and make the structure stick.

Look, anyone can make the conversion from Sales Force to Solutions Force by noting the following differences and making even the smallest adjustments on a daily basis. Of course, you’ll want to implement tools that educate your people and enable them to be solutions providers. This is where you begin.

Ask yourself if you have a Sales Force or a Solutions Force?

Sales Force looks like this:

Image: Salespeople out for themselves, known as pushy.

Purpose: To get the sale.

Type of Talent: Sales skills and “relationship building.”

Management’s Role: Sales education with product knowledge.

Solutions Force looks like this:

Image: Less intimidating, desired by customers to help them.

Purpose: Find problems and offer solutions. (Some may offer competitors services!) In doing so earns the sale.

Type of Talent: Sales skills, problem solving and the ability to educate the customer/client, “relationship building.”

Management’s Role: Teaches sales, problem-solving skills, and about product knowledge. Understands how the company works.

If you’re already closing sales, you may already have a “Solutions Force,” or maybe your products are so good that customers don’t care. Think about it. The staff at the SUNOCO down the street most likely can’t tell you one piece of valuable information about the gas you just pumped, yet if your network sales person can’t give you options and improve your business, you’re in trouble. It might must mean making minor adjustments to build a Solutions Force. The largest shift you’re going to have to make is how you look at the management and executive role.

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