January 2004



Challenges to Implementing Best Practices in Sales Effectiveness


Common Challenges to Implementing and Sustaining Best Practices

1) Limited Perspective on Best Practices

2) Weak Sponsorship and Facilitation

3) Structural Impediments

4) Poor Communication and Coaching


In our last newsletter, we reviewed a process to identify and improve on best practices throughout a life sciences sales force.  In this edition, we expand on this important subject by focusing on:


  • Common challenges you may face in implementing a best practice process, and
  • Methods for sustaining best practices across your organization


Limited Perspective 

Sales managers often think of best practices in terms of skills and knowledge that separate star performers from average performers. What do the stars do that gives them an advantage?

This narrow approach to implementing best practices tends to focus specifically on the sales training function – if skills and knowledge are the problem, then more or better training is a logical way to fill the gap.   In our experience, however, many of the challenges to best practices lie outside the domain of knowledge, skills, and training.

The marketing, hiring, and IT functions also play critical roles in identifying and sustaining best practice improvement.   Firms with a “skills and knowledge” perspective focused only on the rep may never even identify (let alone rectify) their best practice deficiencies.   That's why a cross-functional approach is critical.

Consider two examples from our recent experience.

  • First line sales managers complain that reps don't use the call reporting system effectively because they lack basic computer skills. 

Is this a problem training can fix?  Perhaps.  But a better solution may lie in the hiring process: adding computer literacy to the hiring profile could significantly improve call reporting usage without increasing training costs.

  • Marketing complains that a new sales force does a poor job executing marketing's many programs for a product in a competitive therapeutic class.

Field observation confirms that reps have a poor understanding of the purpose of and target audience for these programs.   High performing reps are executing only one or two of the marketing programs.   More program training is an option – but the real problem is the sales force's inexperience. This is an instance in which marketing needs to collaborate with sales to design fewer, simpler programs that can be more effectively implemented given the experience and abilities of the current sales force.

Obviously, pulling together an effective cross-functional best practices team can be difficult.  Yet trying to identify and replicate best practices exclusively within the "sales silo" often yields only incremental improvements.  By adopting a broader perspective on best practice and inviting the involvement of key sales support functions, you improve the likelihood of significant sales increases.

Next, let's review typical barriers to best practice implementation and how your organization can overcome them.


Weak Sponsorship and Facilitation

Appropriate sponsorship is critical to the success of any cross-functional activity.  In addition, to ensure that marketing, sales, sales training, sales operations, and IT work together effectively, the best practice sponsor must have high-level authority within the organization.

The difficulty is that cross-functional teams are often comprised of "part-timers" -- people who work on the team in addition to their regular responsibilities.  While this model can work in the early stages of diagnosing problems and identifying solutions, it rarely works well in the implementation phases. 

Here's why:  Team leaders are empowered to convene meetings, but lack the authority to direct real change.  As the novelty of the best practices process wears thin, team members increasingly focus on their "regular jobs."  This "refocusing" not only impacts implementation -- it limits the team's ability to identify new opportunities to improve as the sales force and markets evolve.  To succeed, therefore, firms must designate a permanent best practices "owner" who is evaluated and compensated in part or whole based on best practice implementation.

Weak Facilitation is another common weak spot for best practice teams.   Because the team leader is often a “part-timer” drawn from an area that may be viewed as a competitor or adversary by team members from other functions, team discussions can easily become bogged down in inter-office wrangling.

That's why it is important that all participants view their team leaders as neutral parties and honest brokers without their own agenda. This kind of atmosphere can be achieved by selecting a leader with facilitation experience from a different business unit or division, or by using an outside consultant.


Structural Barriers

Many firms have unintentionally erected huge barriers to best practice identification and implementation.

Compensation is a typical barrier.  Incentive plans that rely on stack rankings – requiring reps to compete against their colleagues for pay or recognition – encourage reps to develop “proprietary” knowledge, skills, and relationships.   When we see a rep excel in a particular sales activity, we often ask whether the rep has shared their knowledge or ability with other reps in the organization.   Frequently, the answer is a decided “no."  Reps who compete against their colleagues are typically reluctant to help them increase their sales or performance.

Budgeting is another area through which firms often inhibit best practice implementation.   In many cases, firms allocate resources to geographies based on past resource levels.   This can provide a powerful incentive to spend all budget resources and a disincentive to control costs where appropriate. 


Poor Communication and Coaching

Ultimately, many best practice dissemination efforts fail in the implementation stage.   Standards, communication and coaching reinforcement are critical elements of a successful best practices program.

Many best practice teams believe that identifying and communicating best practices are sufficient to drive change.   For a minority of employees, this may be true.   For most, however, setting new expectations and reinforcing new behaviors through regular coaching is also required.

While building consensus for specific best practice expectations may be difficult and time consuming, it is an essential activity.   Some best practices involve one-time events, such as modifying the hiring profile or changing the format of sales activity reports used by reps. Such changes, once implemented, may be easily executed with consistency.   Other changes – such as those involving call planning or execution or ongoing interaction between two or more functions – may require the best practices team to set expectations and generate buy-in of key participants.

For example, a best practice expectation might be for marketing to conduct focus groups of reps and first-line managers at various stages of marketing program development to obtain feedback on implementation feasibility.   Disagreements among team members about these specific expectations may be difficult to resolve but are critical to impacting sales results.

Once expectations are established, they must be effectively communicated.  In our experience, management almost always overestimates the quality and quantity of information that is retained by the field.   Reps today are bombarded with more information than ever before, and many struggle to manage it effectively.

In communicating new expectations, it is critical to demonstrate to those affected the urgency for making change and how new activities will personally benefit them – usually through increased sales and increased incentive compensation.   If they do not share this sense of urgency and understanding of personal impact, most reps will not change their activity.   Good firms “pilot” their communications with a select group to test for effectiveness and impact on understanding.

Finally, most best practices require sustained coaching and reinforcement.   When new expectations are placed on the field force, it is absolutely critical to obtain buy-in from first-line managers.   A best practices process flawlessly executed up to this point of rollout will almost certainly fail if subsequently the firm fails to gain the cooperation and advocacy of first-line management.   For this reason, any best practices team should include at least a few first-line sales managers.

Sustaining best practice improvement is a difficult but valuable process.   Although some best practice work is conducted in virtually all sales forces, it tends to be sporadic and localized.   Most of the potential benefit remains untapped.   Unlike other processes that involve competitive or third party information, the best practices process can generate significant sales improvement simply by leveraging information that is already present in the organization.

In the end, the key to success is meeting the challenges outlined above: maintaining a proper perspective, managing sponsorships and facilitation, removing structural impediments, and effective communication and coaching . Firms that master these continuous best practice improvement tasks develop an important and sustainable advantage over the competition.

Prior Newsletters

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