Your Sales Productivity Improvement Plan: Tiger in the Tank, or a Meek Meow?


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Tiger parents move over! The Anti-Amy Chua, Adequate Parenting, shocks the world, telling parents their kids don’t have to be perfect!

Could the Adequate Movement come to a sales force near you? After all, has screaming “do more with less!” and moaning about sales force incompetency gotten us beyond a generation of burnouts and job hoppers? In fact, some sales managers have confided to me, “if half our sales force could sell their way out of a paper bag, we’d have a shot at making our goal.”

Don’t bet on Adequate Selling being a hot sales topic anytime soon. (The URL,, is available for anyone who wants it!) I’d sooner walk into a sales meeting wearing a tie emblazoned with a competitor’s logo than explain my way through a PowerPoint slide about how “good enough” will propel an organization to the next level. So for now, improve sales productivity is a hot topic, with 213,000 Google results—just 10% less than eradicate hunger, with 235,000.

And for consultants like me, improving sales productivity has become the gift that keeps on giving. The problem never goes away. Sales systems are systems of systems. (Got that one out of the way!) But when one system changes, there’s an impact on productivity. And no one reading this will be amazed to know that systems change daily, if not hourly. In selling, new systems are introduced regularly. Anyone embedded “community building” into his or her sales process lately? And new systems create new selling problems. So there’s always something to do under the hood, productivity-wise.

For many companies, sales productivity growth is a seductive elixir, helping them wring more output from salespeople while senior executives tinker with corporate strategy. For some salespeople, productivity growth yields fatter carrots. But for others, there’s no upside, just a faster treadmill and more sales contests in which the winner gets to keep his or her job. The gift that keeps on giving, if you’re a sales recruiter.

For all the rhetoric, improving sales productivity—and productivity in general—is something that every company must do, or they risk a myriad of problems that will derail their business plan. Backs to the wall! Do or die! But then an ugly question waddles up to the conference table and takes a seat: “Do we have to pay for this? Isn’t it far less expensive just to get red-faced and scream for higher numbers?”

While it’s true that many sales productivity improvements don’t have to cost a lot, sustained productivity improvements result from capital investments. For sales productivity improvement, there are the three levers:

1. Improving individual salesperson skills

2. Deployment of tools and infrastructure for helping salespeople execute their goals

3. Innovation to create new proprietary advantages and more effective business practices

The most important lever? Please don’t ask me that. You can’t improve sales productivity long-term without your hands on each one, and without understanding which tactics will likely yield the greatest financial return, given current circumstances and the forces most likely for the future.

Of course, there’s more to productivity than “I’ll know it when I see it.” There’s the question of effectiveness versus efficiency. Semantic hair splitting? Not really. Tom, a top-producing sales rep in the Eastern district, has customers that churn at double the rate of the next highest rep. Stefano has never made more than 80% of his quota, but he has rabidly loyal customers, and he absorbs a large burden for the support team because he provides 100% of his customers’ installation and training support. Who is more productive, Tom or Stefano? I’m not sure. “You are what you measure.” —or something like that.

As sales organizations develop more complex channel models, encompassing partners, resellers, outsourced lead generation, direct salespeople—some on full commission, others, not—executives will need to develop productivity measurements that are not only accurate and fair, but ones that reflect what is truly valuable—and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. After all, is sales productivity simply about improving revenue per employee, profits per hour worked, and improving the ratio of Revenue to Cost of Sales? Are we using revenue and profits as value proxies, assuming they mean that customers are benefiting from our sales productivity improvements?

A smart sales productivity improvement agenda is different from the scattershot, Management-by-Magazine approach that many companies take. It requires will, mojo, some “Grrrrrrrr!” That means having an ongoing strategy, commitment of capital resources, shared risks and benefits, and making sure the measured outcomes are valuable to the sales organization as well as to its customers.

Further reading:

Sales Productivity in 2011: What Are the Big Picture Issues?


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