Optimizing Part Of The Selling Function, Sub-Optimizing The Whole


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Recently. I read an article in which the position was put forth, “Inside sales does not have the responsibility for creating pipeline, only the responsibility for selling.  They should never pick up the phone and make a prospecting call!”  Many of you can imagine what my knee jerk reaction was to this statement.  But for a moment, I managed to contain myself.  The speaker was clearly smart and had been very successful in selling, perhaps there was something I misunderstood.

As I got into the article, the question was posed, “Who is responsible for developing pipeline?”  The response was, “Someone else….”

The article went on, I realized the speaker was arguing for a very high degree of specialization within the sales function.  Specialization makes sense—where it makes sense.

Specialization has been around for decades.  We’ve long had product line specialists, organizations where sales is oriented around different product lines, each sales team responsible for the sale of a specific product line.  A terrific strategy for driving product line growth.  But then the questions come, Who is responsible for the customer relationship?  Who is responsible for maximizing our share of customer?  What experience do we want to create, how do we want the customer to “think” of our company?  Where product lines are very diverse, with different and unrelated buyers within the account, this issue may not be important (But I’m still driven by my mantra, “It’s our God-given right to 100% share of customer and territory…”).  But as buying teams start to overlap, this issue becomes critical.

Enter the realm of account management/territory.  Often, the way we solved the inherent challenges of a product oriented sales force, is we shifted to account/territory management, with sales people responsible for selling the entire product line to their customers.  There are some clear advantages to this, but also limitations—particularly if you have a large, diverse, and complex product line.  No one person could be expert in each.

Organizations solve this by creating hybrid/overlay sales organizations.  Perhaps account/territory managers for core product lines and managing the overall customer relationship, with specialists for the more complex product lines.  The idea here is for the account/territory people to work collaboratively with the specialists.  The concept of “team selling” arose.  Variations started being introduced as partners and channels became part of the go to customer model.

Then, the idea of specialization by simple/transactional versus complex sales arose.  We started segmenting the sales process with people focused on the simpler/transactional sales (usually inside sales) and those that focused on complex sales (usually the field/territory people and specialists).  There were still challenges from the customer point of view (if it wasn’t for those pesky customers worried about their experience and how they want to buy), but this specialization was another turn of the crank in making the sales organization very efficient.  Often, the idea being, inside sales was a lower cost of selling than field sales, they could more cost effectively handle the transactional/lower margin product lines.

As selling becomes more complex (though I think at least in B2B, it’s always been complex), sales executives have always been confronted with the issue of “How do we become more efficient?  How do we reduce the cost of selling?”  Oddly, they don’t ask the question, “How do we become more effective, how to we align ourselves to buy the way the customer wants to buy,” very often.

Over time, we continue to slice and dice what sales people do—all in the name of efficiency.  We’ve sliced and diced the sales process, getting people expert at one thing–prospecting, qualifying, discovering, proposing, closing.  Each expert at doing their job and only their job, each waiting for others to do their jobs.

We have SDRs, they have further been segmented by inbound/outbound, BDMs, Sales Executives.  We have Account SDRs, BDMs, managers/executives.  We have inside/outside/partner/channel sales people.  Based on the argument of the person I cite at the beginning of this diatribe, we need to further be segmenting by having people–but not sales people–prospecting and generating pipeline.  We have marketing generating pipeline–or at least a marketing pipeline–which always seems different from the sales pipeline.  We have organizations that have “closers,” only focused on the final steps of the sales process.

In our quest for optimization and efficiency, we’ve created a giant assembly line, passing the customer from specialist to specialist.   Each specialist doing their job, then passing the customer along to do the next part of the job, then the next.

(We, also, have to recognize, that we are driving increased levels of complexity into our business (managing the transitions is a challenge), as well as huge levels of complexity for our customers in doing business with us.)

Wait a minute, haven’t we seen this model before?  Oh, yes, it’s the manufacturing line made so famous by Henry Ford.  The job of building cars was segmented down to minute steps, each performed by a specialist, with hundreds of specialists doing their thing–perhaps tightening a bolt, installing a door.  But there were problems with the approach.  Back ups/problems in one area would shut down all the other functions–upstream and down stream.  Quality became an issue.  Each person doing their job, but no one responsible for overall quality–so by the time the product got to a customer, it didn’t work.  (In engineering, we call it the “stack-up problem—each part fits it’s specs, but taken together they don’t.)

Toyota did huge amounts to address this with the Toyota production method.  A fundamental principle is to eliminate all variability  (Hmmmmmm, works well with inanimate objects, but what about people?)

Soon many manufacturing organizations started looking at the issue from the “whole,” not the “pieces/parts.”  They started clustering work, reducing the number of specialist, building teams, empowering them to change the process (but they are still doing inanimate parts).

You get the picture.  Specialization works–where it works.  But sometimes specialization sub-optimizes the entire process.  Focusing on the efficiency of the pieces-parts may not create an overall efficient or effective end to end process.

But the most important thing lost in this discussion is the customer and their experience!

Efficient manufacturing works because we can design out variability.  It works because we are dealing with objects that have no emotions, that have no fears, that aren’t learning, growing, or changing their minds.  It works because we’ve broken down what may be complex and made it simple–but that’s not how our customers work–they are in the world of the complex (6.8 decsionmakers involved in the consensus decision).

Perhaps, in our quest for our own efficiency, we are solving for the wrong problem.  What if we focused on the customer–their efficiency and effectiveness in their problem solving process?  Perhaps, in solving for this problem, we discover how we might become more efficient and more effective–for them and for us.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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