Don’t forget the sales!

The sales function far too often treated like an impenetrable combination of personalities, voodoo, and tradition.  It’s time for that to stop.

Geoff Wilson

I have a theory when it comes to sales.  It goes something like this: Along the way in their executive development, a lot of really smart people develop a disdain for sales as a function.  In some cases, they view sales as “dirty” or “basic.”  They might view sales as risky . . . why would a smart person ever subject themselves to the risks of not making a sales quota.

As that prejudice against sales develops, this particular sort of executive tends to think of sales and the people and systems that enable sales as a sort of mystery.  It’s a realm of knowledge that is best left to the salespeople, who take those risks and drive the relationships necessary for the business to thrive.

But they also leave a lot on the table.

Some of the most complete business strategies I have seen have also completely ignored the processes and tools that accelerate sales. Why?  Because, as noted above, it’s a mystery. It’s rumored to be personality- or relationship-driven.  The thinking goes that we can control our product.  We can control our operations.  We can control our cost structures and our hiring and our marketing messages.  But we can’t “control” our salesforce.

This thought process is dangerous since there are process losses in sales just as there are in a manufacturing operation.  The difference is that in a manufacturing operation if something is left by the wayside it gets calculated as a cost.  It’s a known quantity.

In sales, if a call doesn’t get returned or a meeting is botched–and millions of dollars of sales are lost as a result–the cost never gets really quantified.  Sales process losses are far too often an unknown quantity. . . and a lot of people have incentives to keep it that way. Sales leaders who make their number don’t really have to own up to unforced errors.

On the other side, there are also plenty of elements of focus and efficiency that can be missed within a salesforce.  Poor lead qualification can lead to salespeople spending a lot of time on dead ends.  Poor account planning practices can lead to salespeople spending a lot of time selling the wrong things, or at the wrong value.

Imagine if your manufacturing plant consistently produced the wrong product.  You’d likely be mystified and perhaps furious.  Now imagine how often your salesforce might be selling to the wrong customers, with the wrong products, and at the wrong times.  Do you know?  Can you possibly know?

In most environments, you very much can know these things. But, your attention must be focused on sales as a function, as a process, and as an integral lever for strategic management success.

What do you think? 

Systems vs. goals in your search for success

Much is said about whether success is better framed as a goal or as a system…I think it’s both, but at different times.

Geoff Wilson

Have you ever had a question posed to you that made you think more than it should have?

A team member recently asked me if I was a goal-oriented person.  My response was that I was far more interested in having systems that enable success than in distilling success into specific goals.

I’d rather have a system for serving clients than the goal of serving a certain number of clients or projects.  I’d rather have a system for developing people than the goal of developing a certain number of people.

Like many, I’ve read plenty of blogs on the systems vs. goals dichotomy that was probably best laid out by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame in his book How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big:  Kind of the Story of My Life.

Here’s a 2013 blog post from Adams on the topic.

In short, the thesis is that goals are self-limiting and sometimes counterproductive, while systems often perpetuate success by building habits that are perpetual.  The diet analogy Adams uses is a good one.  Which one would you rather have:  A goal of losing 10 pounds (which is often met but rarely maintained) or a system of eating more healthily?  Most people would agree that a system of healthy eating is a much better all-around approach to success.

But it’s only half right.

As with many things that relate to economics, tradeoffs, and incentives, the reality is very different depending on the time scale and existential realities one lives within.  For instance, economic systems of different types fit best at different societal scales. Pretty much every household is a miniature communist dictatorship of some kind (a goals-based economy where the head of household allocates resources to needs from abilities). Whereas countries do much better under mixed capitalist economies (which are much more about setting systems and guidelines).

And just like this, the systems vs. goals quandary is best viewed not as a dichotomy but as a matter of context.

To wit, if you really need to fit into your old tuxedo, then a goal of losing 10 lbs is worth a heck of a lot more than a system of healthy eating. And, if you want to develop a system for success, then setting incremental goals for development can actually be highly effective. Likewise, if your highly systematic business model that has delivered value for many years suddenly hits a snag, then you’d best start achieving some specific financial, customer, and operational goals, or else your business won’t survive long.

Where systems and goals get most confounded is when the goal is confused for the system.  In our strategy practice, we often see companies setting financial goals and calling them–at least implicitly–strategy.  This is very common when financial sponsors are involved in companies. The question of whether a business model should earn a given EBITDA margin is often subordinated to the fact that it simply has to.  

That’s a failure of goals dominating systems.

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this?  I think it’s that it is perfectly fine to manage life to goals in crunch times, crises, and during transformations.  Goals aren’t the problem, but as Scott Adams implies, they are also not the end. Goals, by definition, can be met.  And that’s where systems come in.  Systems should be perpetual.  They should be molded and shaped, but never “met” or “achieved.” Use goals, but don’t let them crowd out the need to develop systems.

You’ll be better for it.

What do you think?