Start a Trend: Treat Your Sales Staff Like Customers


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Have you ever thought of your sales staff as customers? Henry Ford thought of his employees as customers for his cars. He wanted to pay them enough and charge the buyers so little that his employees could afford to buy the cars that they made. I think we should go even further with the sales staff: We should literally treat them as customers of their company’s management. If that’s not something more and more businesses recognize in the coming year, it should be.

Many salespeople are incented to sell. They often make a percentage of their income based upon how well they do in sales. A recent Dilbert cartoon strip focused on strategies for selling without a sales staff. The pointy-haired boss thought he could reduce headcount by eliminating sales but needed marketing to find a way to get customers to select their products, pay for them and pick them up at the warehouse. Obviously, a sales staff is needed to meet customers’ needs.

Some companies have taken the idea of treating sales staff like customers to heart. As I wrote in Find Out What the Customer Wants, First, there are benefits to following a robust process for developing customer-centric products and services (see the figure below). What we have done in these companies is to follow the same process for developing ideas to improve the performance of sales staff.

One company that followed this system makes such high-tech hardware products as flow meters. First, we conducted a detailed “Voice of the Sales Person” study. Management had assumed that the salespeople would want more perks, more money and more time off. In fact, most of the wants, needs and pains that were described had to do with reducing roadblocks that get in the way of doing a good job: excess paperwork and reports put in place by management, travel restrictions and lack of up-to-date sales tools.

Wants and needs

Twenty salespeople from around the world were interviewed one-on-one, as is commonly recommended in “Voice of the Customer” studies. After we had generated a list of 75 specific wants and needs from these interviews, we had—in the language of the salespeople—a focus group of salespeople organize and categorize the needs. They created 16 categories of wants and needs. These represented their major ideas for describing the ideal salesperson experience in this company.

A team of sales managers and salespeople met to construct a set of internal metrics to predict success with the 16 categories. For example, the “amount of time required to generate reports” back to the home office was seen as a metric linked to sales employee satisfaction. The salespeople wanted this metric to be reduced, so they could spend more time and effort selling. Another example was the ability to link information between different sales tools. Some of the tools required the salesperson to enter customer information multiple times in different tracking tools. Team members felt that this was wasted time and effort that had nothing to do with sales success. The metric used was a subset of the previous metric, namely, “time required to enter customer identification and sales data in sales tools.”

In a very real sense, the sales employees wrote the employee satisfaction survey.

Twenty metrics were generated to link to the categories of salesperson wants and needs. These metrics were used to generate a salesperson employee satisfaction survey. In a very real sense, the sales employees wrote the employee satisfaction survey; the questions were derived from the categories they had created. In this way, the survey was telling managers what sales employees wanted to say, rather than what management might have asked. The sales staff worldwide was surveyed to determine how well people felt they were supported by the company. Nearly everyone responded, as they recognized that the issues in the survey were their issues, phrased in their language.

The employee team then related the internal predictive metrics and survey data to the categories of wants and needs through a process known as Quality Function Deployment (the most powerful metrics are those than can affect several needs rather than just one).

The internal predictive metrics and survey results were used to generate strategies for improving sales success and evaluated. The survey was implemented again, several months later. In this company, several key strategies emerged that led to a tremendous reduction in the time required to track and report sales progress. The sales tools were integrated and updated.

The result was a 25 percent increase in sales without hiring additional salespeople! A robust system of metrics, surveys and analysis had been created that could be perpetuated. Employee satisfaction improved significantly, as the sales staff felt that management was listening to them and being responsive.

Company executives had learned how to treat their sales force as customers of management and management decisions. Management saw that treating salespeople like customers resulted in better service to the customers and higher customer satisfaction scores.

Treating the sales staff as customers of management and management systems resulted in increased revenue and profits for the company, as well. And that is the mission of the sales staff, isn’t it?

Chris Stiehl
Chris has helped companies save money and sell more by understanding their customers better. He once saved a company $3 million per year for a one-time research expense of $2K. What does your competition know about your customer that you don't know?


  1. It is a great idea, to treat employees as customers. In today’s business world, it is being done every day – both are getting poor or bad service from business management.

    For customers, trying to find out what they want is not just asking them what they want. Maybe they don’t know what they want until somethig shows up that makes them want it.

    The best way to find out what they want, and maybe much less expensive than doing market research, that the business does not offer is to set up a “feedback” system for employees at all levels to let managagement know what customers came in and asked for that the business does not sell. People come to businesses when they believe that the type of product/service is what the business might or should be selling. A one time request may be a fluke. Asked for more than once, it calls for investigation. There needs to be some reason that generated the request(s) and that a prime key to making the decision to offer or not offer it.

    For employees. The above is the first part of treating them like customers i.e. learning what they think, want, need. The other is to use their inputs for things to do better or different or a combination of both without the fear of being seen as a complainer or being a victim of stepping on someone’s toes.

    I call both of these two exercises as part of my Business Calisthenics program that lead to teating employees as customers and visa versa.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Awarded the 1992 Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network

  2. If every manager had the basic goal to provide an environment where the employees could succeed business would run much more efficiently. This presupposes that employee, including salespeople, first and foremost want to succeed at what they do. Treating them like customers simple says that we are recognizing their wants and needs and are asking them the right questions to get the answers to be able to satisfy their pain points.

  3. In over twenty years of selling, I’ve heard hundreds of comments like this one:

    “If our salespeople can’t sell, we just fire them.”

    During the same time period, I’ve heard only two comments (from two different people at two different companies) that take a much different view:

    1) “Our job as a company is to make it as easy as possible for our sales force to sell.”
    2) “I admire anyone who takes on the job of selling. Our salespeople are true heroes in our company.”

    Strong words, spoken with great sincerity. And yet neither of these comments reveals a shred of lower expectations compared to the first comment. So, is it heretic that a successful business can be highly supportive of its sales force while similtaneously having high expectations (read: high quotas and performance goals)? Just the opposite–in fact, supportive companies do have higher goals, and have a better track record for achieving them.

    Unfortunately, today most senior executives and entrepreneurs still don’t ask themselves this key question: What value must my sales organization contribute to the company in order to achieve our strategic goals? The result: sales forces are commonly misunderstood–or in extreme cases, reviled–within their own organizations.

    Consider the activities that ensue at the companies that take the simple view that corporate management must make it as easy as possible for the sales force to sell: ongoing sales process improvement, knowledge capture from the field, focused sales risk reduction.

    Which corporate view–“fire,” or “support” is more likely to yield the better financial results?

    It’s always revealing to ask, whether you’re a buyer, prospective employee, or investor.

  4. Chris

    I couldn’t agree more. Companies in the service sector have, on the face of it, much more to gain from treating salespeople as customers. Service salespeople often produce and deliver the service too – mobile mortgage consultants, for example. And, whereas most other business roles create costs, salespeople create revenues. I’ve met some dissatisfied salespeople, who feel they’ve been treated poorly by their bossess – kept in the dark about new product launches, left to wait 3 months for expenses to be paid, not invited to sales conferences – and I really wouldn’t want to let them loose in front of a prospect or customer. Angry? Apathetic? Both, and more. Happy employees makes happy customers makes happy shareholders. That’s the Service-Profit chain creed, and it applies to salespeople too.

    Francis Buttle


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