Challenging rigid sales process in favour of an approach that unlocks natural sales strengths and talents

Sales leaders have long fixated on process discipline in attempts to help their teams replicate the approaches of star performers. They have created opportunity scorecards, lead qualification criteria, and stipulate achievement of a minutiae of activity metrics.

The approach is intuitive; indeed many FTSE500 companies have historically achieved remarkable success using such sales methodologies and formulas. However, this approach to motivating sales performance is underpinned by two assumptions:

1) That sales executives are ‘all-rounders’ and are equally talented and energised by the same aspects of the sales process
2) Market conditions are relatively stable and unchanging

Typically, sales managers work backwards from a target revenue figure. They will set corresponding activity metrics such as cold calls, face to face meetings and product demonstrations, with reference to what has worked in the past. This model is scalable and provides feedback on progression (or not) towards a sale. However, it assumes that all sales executives take the same journey to reach a sale.

We know that sales people come in different forms; the great technicians we meet who are excited to share their passion through depth of technical knowledge about their product; compared to the ‘connectors’ who derive their energy by making connections with people and persuading them to their point of view. These different types are likely to be energised and talented at different aspects of the sales cycle. A risk with this prescriptive targeting is that as a result of the emphasis on compliance with the process, we are often constraining the natural talents and passions that could lead to exceptional sales performance.

Extensive research in a US retail chain showed that customer facing departments giving individuals the support and autonomy to use their strengths to carry out their work, had improvements of 38% on productivity and 44% on customer loyalty and employee retention measures. Moreover, in his book ‘Drive’, Dan Pink, who conducted an extensive study on factors motivating sales executives, highlights that individuals are motivated by three factors: Autonomy – the desire to direct our own work lives; Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters; Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. The rigid, process-driven approach to sales runs counter to the first two factors, diminishing the overall meaningfulness for the individual i.e. Purpose.

Another assumption of this approach is that market conditions remain the same. If market conditions change then will these individuals be as agile and adaptable as their counterparts in sales companies who have been given more autonomy to develop and stretch their natural sales talents? Customers are now significantly better informed about the solutions available to them and their needs and buying preferences change quickly. Given this fast-changing context, the process-rigid sales ‘machine’ may fall short because they give sales executives little room to exercise judgement and creativity in dealing with highly knowledgeable customers, with little other than price to compete on. The new environment favours adaptable and empowered sellers who challenge customers with disruptive insights into their business and creative solutions to do this.

What can companies can do to make a sales culture that allows people reach their potential and be more agile to adapt to future market challenges:

Allow employees more autonomy at work

  • When they do it – Consider switching the focus to outputs rather than the time/schedule, allowing employees to have flexibility over when they complete tasks.
  • How they do it – Don’t dictate how employees should complete their tasks. Provide guidance and then allow them to tackle the project in the way they see fit rather than having to follow a strict procedure.
  • What they do – Allow employees to have ‘creative time’ where they can work on any project/problem they wish – there is evidence which shows that many new initiatives are often generated during this ‘creative time’.

Provide more opportunities for Mastery

Allow employees to become better at something that matters to them. Encourage them to complete a strengths inventory such as Strengthscope® ( that will allow them to identify and articulate their key passions. Help sales people deploy and optimise their strengths by providing time and resource to undertake ‘stretch projects’ and develop new skills and knowledge that enable them to build mastery in areas of strength.

  • Encourage sales managers to act as strengths coaches rather than enforcers, and encourage collaboration rather than competition between individuals with complementary strengths and skills.
  • Encourage and celebrate creative ideas that lead to improved sales and use these individuals as role models for others.
  • Allow experienced individuals to set their own activity targets, or set targets that focus on customer behaviours and outputs rather than prescribing behaviours that how to sales.

Sarah Stevenson-Bennett

Harter et al, (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: a meta-analysis
Drive: (2010). The surprising truth about what motivates us