Is b2b sales productivity complicated? Or complex?


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According to a recent HBR, wise executives tailor their approach to leadership to fit the complexity of the circumstances they face. They manage differently when a situation’s complicated than when it’s complex. They also use data differently.

This, of course, begs the question: how correctly are leaders managing the complications vs. complexities of b2b sales productivity? The authors contend that unless leaders correctly read the complexities of a situation, they’ll place themselves and their organizations at further risk. They’ll not only make worse decisions but also create even more problems when their preferred management style isn’t appropriate to the complexities of the situation at hand.

In one sense, b2b sales productivity is pretty simple. All it requires is that effort invested create real value for every buyer. As Mark Roberge of Hubspot so elegantly puts it: “always be helping”. Yet, if it was that simple why is it that so many firms struggle to improve their sales performance? Why is it, as Forrester notes, that SG&A spending growth outpaced growth in margins in the ICT sector every year for over a decade?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve been trying to improve b2b sales productivity in ways that assume it’s complicated when it’s not. Complicated situations tend to be best managed by analyses that reveal one right answer to a detected problem. Once found, this one right answer then really does fix the problem.

One example: let’s fire all our underperforming Reps, replace them with more appropriately skilled new hires, and team performance will undoubtedly improve. Have you ever tried this tactic? Did its impacts on improving sales performance ever disappoint you?

Perhaps an analysis-paved path to improving sales performance is a fruitless hunt for a ‘one right answer’ that doesn’t exist. As one seasoned sales executive recently observed: ‘sales performance seems increasingly random, and unrelated to the quality of Reps; from afar, it seems increasingly like a game of whackamo in which you give it your best and hope for the best.’

Perhaps it’s time to manage b2b sales productivity as a complex, rather than complicated, situation.

The HBR authors suggest complex situations are best managed: as a process of discovery; with metrics as a guidepost; using patterns to better understand what’s going on and assess what to do about it.

In complex situations, the main goal is to use metrics as a flashlight with which to see patterns of influence that you couldn’t see before. Patterns discovered often highlight blockages or leakages in the flow of events or a “supply chain”. They create conversations, amongst peers, on what to do about things that were, before, pretty non-obvious. Problems that get detected + fixed aren’t expected to be ‘the fix’, but rather just part of an on-going process of de-risking uncertainties. The focus is on eliminating little mistakes before they compound into bigger problems downstream. Fixing one thing rarely fixes the ‘whole thing’, nor is it expected to.

If your b2b sales situation is complex, rather than complicated, then manage it as such. In doing so, you’ll focus on improving your sales productivity one small execution mistake at a time. It will be much easier than: finding that elusive one right answer that everyone else is looking for; or firing that one giant, silver, bullet which never seems to be enough no matter where it’s aimed.


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