5 Things Running Can Teach Us About Implementing Sales Effectiveness Programs

Brian Williams, PhD

I’ve recently taken up running. Actually, I’ve become an addict, completing a 5K or 10K just about every other weekend. It’s a big change for someone who – just four months ago – couldn’t run more than 100 feet without stopping and gasping for air.

But here’s the truth: running for me is hard. I’ve yet to complete a run without some serious aches and pains. And the combination of heat, hills, humidity here in Atlanta can be brutal.

So why do I subject myself to the misery? I just love the feeling I get after I cross the finish line or complete an early morning jog. During the runs, these positive feelings never enter my mind – I’m too busy calculating the distance until the suffering ends.

If most sales executives were honest, they’d probably use some of the same words to describe their sales effectiveness programs: painful, agony, lots of hills. No matter what sales consultants tell you, driving change within the sales force is hard. You’ll likely experience pushback and complaints from a large number of reps and managers. Maybe worse are the sales professionals, who just like me during a run, are spending all their time calculating how long it will be before the initiative is abandoned and their suffering ends.

At Brevet, we’ve seen some pretty poor sales effectiveness initiatives. In fact, we’re often engaged to clean up the mess after a failed first try. Even though so many sales leaders, managers and reps love the results of well-executed sales effectiveness programs, the implementation process can be as brutal as a hot, humid and hilly run. There are a number of ways to minimize the pain of a new sales initiative. Here are five things to think about as you plan your sales effectiveness programs:

1. Go slow to go fast

No one takes up running and immediately hits a steady 6 minute mile pace. Good programs take the long view and appreciate the importance of gaining early victories. Build up your sales force’s change muscles methodically by taking small steps first. Try a pilot approach where the program is implemented in a smaller unit or territory. Systematically address one sales operational lever at a time vs. changing too many things at once.

2. Listen to your body

In the case of sales organizations, this means paying attention to what the field is saying. Are you pushing too fast or too hard? Sure, you’ll always have naysayers and negative resisters, but solicit informal feedback from your top performers. Encourage them to be honest and direct with their perspectives. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to modify your plans based on what you’re seeing and hearing.

3. Plan your route

While it might seem obvious, you may be surprised by the number of companies we see who roll out the flavor-of-the-day program with little regard to a larger plan. How will changes in one area impact another? Do you have clarity around what success looks like? Can you measure it? What is the target ROI? If you’re not asking these questions of yourself early in the process, someone else more senior will. Be prepared with a larger implementation roadmap that includes not just the immediate initiative, but other related changes and a thoughtful sequencing of events.

4. Get a good partner

Running is always easier with someone to talk to (and commiserate with). Implementing a new sales effectiveness initiative is no different. Honest and insightful advice will be a rarity during times of organizational change, which often become overrun with different personal political agendas and general confusion. You need an objective partner to help you make sense of competing perspectives and stay focused in the face of the expected noise. Sometimes that partner will be internal (a peer in another function or a trusted lieutenant), but more typically, we see outside consultants playing this role. Make sure your consultant takes an integrated view of both strategic and tactical matters as well as the near- and long-term issues.

5. Don’t forget to stretch

Sweaty and exhausted after a run, it’s easy to forget the importance of stretching your muscles. In the same way, it’s easy to declare victory too early after a program rollout. In the context of sales force change, the notion of stretching means planning for appropriate program reinforcement, especially equipping front-line managers with the tools and training to support new behaviors. This work may be less glamorous than the initial launch, but these actions will likely make the difference between success and failure.

One of the best things about running is that success breeds success. Legs get stronger and endurance builds with every single outing. The same is true for well-designed sales programs. The most effective sales forces are continuously changing and adopting new programs to stay ahead. With each effort, these sales organizations become more adaptive and better equipped to deal with market and competitive shifts.

Whatever you do as a sales leader, keep moving. With each step you’ll learn more and your teams will get stronger. They may not all come to embrace change, but they’ll at least acknowledge the benefits of doing it right.

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Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.