Sales Management

The parable of the blind men and the elephant, and its relevance for sales effectiveness

John_Godfrey_Saxe_-_Brady-HandyJohn Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887) wrote in his 19th century poem “The blind men and the elephant”:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

And then the well-known history of the six blind men and the elephant unfolds.

Well, what has this to do with sales effectiveness?  A lot, it turns out.  Let me explain: I frequently engage in discussions with friends and ex-colleagues, typically management consultants and sales development consultants, about drivers of sales performance, and especially sales under-performance, in a general context or in the context of a specific client company.  In such discussions, I tend to lose out, as my positions tends to be: it depends on context; and it is a mix of factors, typically addressed in multiple disciplines.

Indeed, my somewhat wishy-washy position is sometimes seen by my friends and ex-colleagues as lacking clarity of thought.  They tend instead to list 1-3 explanatory variables from the following (incomplete) list:

The sales development expert: “It is a numbers game, stupid, they do not pursue enough opportunities.”

The management for hire in position as VP Sales: “They do not have effective systems for lead generation and prospecting in place, and pipe coverage is miserable.”

The CRM analyst: “How can they hope to succeed without a decent CRM system in place, and the quality of their CRM information is a disgrace.”

The marketing guy: “Well, their products do not match competition’s price performance ratio.  And, moving forward, they will be eaten for breakfast by competition, due to their lacklustre marketing department.”

The sales development consultant: “It is obvious, Joe and Peter simply are not sales execs, but mere order fulfillers.”

The sales development consultant: “Just 30 hours more of communication skills and interactive skills training and they will be OK in their role.”

The management consultant: “That company simply has not done a decent strategic analysis; there are simply not enough prospects in that territory with a need for such service.”

The HR consultant: “Their bonus scheme has got it all wrong; the company pays too much compensation for sub-standard performance.”

The provider of communication training: “They really need to work on their Powerpoints, and ensure that the structure is in accordance with the single allowable structure in rhetoric.”

I will make three points today: i) yes, drivers of sales performance depend on context (company, competition, and industry); ii) yes, high-performing companies, sales-wise, work with many levers simultaneously, including strategic levers; and iii) with reference to my consulting friends: yes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail (Maslow’s Hammer).

My advice to organizations aspiring to radical improvements in sales performance is this:

  • Accept that your company’s position is unique and that you need to understand, at an analytical level, the internal and external reasons for current under-performance (relative to target). It may not take a lot of time, a simple SWOT, best practices analysis or benchmarking analysis can sometimes do, but back up your analysis with serious numbers.
  • Be prepared to work with multiple levers at any point in time, possibly time-phased, as there is there seldom a single explanatory variable for sales under-performance (but do ensure that you get some easy, early, and visible wins). If considering a fundamental cultural transformation, there is no way around using best practices in managing change, see for example Kotter’s “Leading change”.
  • Prioritize initiatives with the most leverage; sales execs have limited attention span, but they tend to be good at focusing on activities that result in outcomes that are excellent for them (that is, bonus-generating order intake). Good news is that order intake is exactly where you should have your attention as well.

John Godfrey Saxe’ poem ends:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

And this concludes my blog about the possible existence of a Holy Grail in radical sales performance improvement.


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