Drive Focus to Drive Results

Brian Williams, PhD

In a blink of an eye the first half of 2019 will be behind us. For some sales leaders, it’s been a great year. For others, strong headwinds have emerged. The end of the second quarter is an inflection point. Your decisions over next 30 days will determine the outcome of your year.

Sales leaders often struggle with the dilemma of driving fast change in their sales organization. And as partners in supporting sales performance, this challenge often falls on sales enablement. There’s a natural pull to toss out the long-term enablement strategy and deploy everything to the field all at once. Surely something will stick, right? As urgency mounts, there’s no shortage of “good ideas” coming from the field and corporate. A "more is more" mentality becomes pervasive.

It can be a tricky balance to maintain momentum on the longer-term transformational plans while addressing near-term performance gaps. How can sales leaders and enablement move the needle under a time crunch? More importantly, how can it be done without abandoning the broader sales enablement program?      

One Idea at a Time

We recently worked with a large manufacturing firm facing this exact dilemma. Despite multiple leader and organizational changes, sales results continued to erode. As the company neared the mid-year mark, they were at risk of missing the year's sales targets yet again. Pressure mounted on enablement to do something… anything.

While everyone agreed with the need to quickly change field behavior, the company faced many obstacles:

  • A large and complex sales organization (1500 professionals with multiple roles)
  • Highly decentralized structure and limited corporate resources
  • No history of successful top-down deployment of programs and initiatives

A variety of alternatives were considered: an all-hands front-line manager conference, juicing up incentives, deep discounting. But for each of these, the cons outweighed the pros. And all could erode the focus and credibility of the strategic sales transformation.

Instead, the company deployed a focused activation approach. At heart of the program was a structured set of training and coaching interactions centered on one topic at a time. These topics represented specific behaviors that could immediately improve close rates and deal sizes. They included such things as:

  • Positioning an differentiated discovery experience
  • Re-engaging stalled-out opportunities
  • Delivering a compelling product message
  • Handling the price objection

The monthly sales management cadence was reoriented to focus on the one single topic. Every leader – from the CEO to the front-line manager – spoke with a single voice about the importance of the one topic during the month. Leadership messaging early in the month emphasized the “why” of the topic and desired behaviors. This was followed with more practical training, tools, and coaching to support execution of the behaviors.

The focus topic followed a highly choreographed process– first, a top-to-bottom cascade:

  • A monthly leadership kick-off message delivered to all senior sales leaders to clarify expectations. Targeted KPIs were set related to the topic.
  • A national webinar to all managers that outlined the coaching plan specific to the topic.
  • Push of highly actionable coaching tools tailored for each topic. This included a quick rep assessment process that documented where every seller was relative to the topic and the coaching actions needed to improve related behaviors.
  • National virtual training to all reps (organized by region and product teams).
  • Reinforcement content and guides to support small team sessions and 1:1 coaching.

As the month closed, the cadence reversed course, moving from bottom-to-top:

  • 1:1 Sales manager and team reviews – what worked and gaps to expectations?
  • Regional manager calls to debrief learnings and provide visibility into the quality of the coaching.
  • Senior leader wrap-up call to review dashboards, recognize advocates and best practices, and reinforce accountability.

This 360-degree activation approach included monthly recognition contests and bonuses specific to the topic. Testimonials and real-world examples were regularly showcased on the internal social platform.

Coaching conversations were also documented using a simple online tracker. After the third month, clear improvements were seen. Historically, manager-rep coaching conversations were conceptual. Using the tailored coaching guides, the quality and quantity of rep conversations and field visits improved. The focus on training and reinforcing a select set of tangible behaviors each month took the guesswork out for managers.

This top-down and bottom-up cadence quickly became the sales enablement operating platform. Nothing touched the field outside of this structure. For reps and front-line managers, the model became a familiar rhythm. It's repetitive format minimized “change fatigue”, even though the specific topic changed each month. The substance of the targeted sales behavior may have been different, but the structured touchpoints and tools remained the same.

In the second month of the program, leading sales indicators began to turn to the positive. By the third month, the company had reserved course on 16 months of missed budgets. By the end of the year, the company achieved their annual sales target and now, two years since launch, the positive results continue.

Key Takeaways

As with most things, senior leadership involvement is critical to set the tone and expectations of the program. Front-line managers quickly embraced the focus and prescriptive nature of the tools, letting them devote their full energy to execution. For reps, the monthly pattern was a welcome alternative to the onslaught of seemingly random directives experienced in past downturns.

Three important learnings for sales enablement:

  • Remain focused. There’s a common tendency to over-complicate field rollouts, and the temptation will grow each month as more parts of the organization embrace the monthly structure. Many groups will ask to add “their stuff” into the mix. But if you try to get people to do 3 things, they won’t likely do anything at all. Be clear about the one behavior you want them to do to influence results in a given month. Focus on that. Be a gatekeeper to protect the integrity of the focus design.
  • Commit to a steady drumbeat. Doing the same thing every month has positives and negatives. Some of the negatives come to light by the third month as the initial novelty begins to wane. Don’t interpret this as a message to change, but commit to continued execution of the standard touchpoints and tools. Maintaining discipline in the cadence can be hard.
  • Be nimble. Realize that getting the program content and list of focus topics right at the start is nearly impossible. Stay steady to the cadence but be prepared to tweak the content based on early results. Revising same topic in later months may be required.

There's Still Time to Hit Your 2019 Number

Overcoming a mid-year shortfall is difficult for every sales leader. But even large and complex sales teams can make up gaps in a relatively short time frame. When quick results matter, there’s no reason to abandon your strategic enablement plan. The key is maintaining momentum on your strategy using a focused approach to activation.

Contact us to learn more about designing and executing programs that quickly impact field behaviors and overall sales results.

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.