September 2003

Identifying and Improving upon Best Practices

“We have met the enemy and he is us”—Walt Kelly in his Pogo cartoon strip

5 Steps to
Achieving Best Practices

1) Gain a commitment

2) Establish baseline best practices

3) Coach to best practices

4) Define best practice owner

5) Reward and recognize

One of our consultants shared with us the following story:

"I was reminded of the Pogo cartoon during a recent day of field travel. The sales representative being observed had just used an innovative approach to gain access to a target physician. When I asked if she had shared this approach with anyone else on her sales team, her reply was, 'No way!! That would help them and would decrease my bonus and my chance of being an all-star!'  The more I worked with this sales force, the easier it was to see that this competitive attitude was common throughout the organization."

Sales representatives and district sales managers need to be competitive –- against the competition. The best sales forces develop and continuously improve the best practices for selling their products.  This effort requires teamwork by the sales force, marketing and sales training.  This article identifies five key steps to executing a “best practices” approach to continuous improvement.

1.  Gain a commitment  Many managers believe that the key to improving performance is getting their team to work harder.  This tends to produce short-term results whose gains are difficult to sustain. Identifying and coaching best practices creates long-term sustainable gains. Common reasons that organizations identify and transfer best practices for performance improvement include:

  • A compelling call to action.  A number of events can cause companies to evaluate their competitive position and effectiveness.  These can be internal changes (like the arrival of a new CEO or Vice President of Sales and Marketing) or external (from the upcoming launch of a competitive product.)
  • A demonstrated success.  Just as clinical and manufacturing operations run “trials”, many sales and marketing organizations run “pilot” programs.  Frequently a DM or RM begins developing a “best practices” program within their geography. As performance improves, others begin looking for the source of the success.  These compelling examples of success have created great support for more internal sharing and process transfer.
  • Recognition of the potential gain.  What would the financial impact be if every sales rep, sales force or product met just the median level of performance?  For example, if your median sales rep’s territory has a 14% market share, how much is it worth to increase all territories below 14% up to 14%?   If this gain would increase total market share by just 1% for a product in a $500 million market – the program is worth $5 million of sales per year with very little cost.
  • Benchmarking evidence.  Seeing your competition getting better results is a powerful motivator…and external benchmarking is the way you see those results. This situation creates not only a sense of urgency, but also a sense of hope.  After all, if another organization can achieve better results, so can your team.

    Sometimes benchmarking awakens a firm to its own “best in class” capabilities.  By looking across one’s own sales teams, companies often identify practices that can be easily shared.  These include:

    • A business unit that has outstanding integration of sales and marketing planning
    • A sales team that consistently gains access to hard-to-see high value target physicians
    • Use of CRM-based profiling to retarget physicians and customize messages

2. Establish baseline “best practices”.  Some District Managers believe that their first task with a new hire is to “teach them the real world” and “correct” what sales training has just spent weeks teaching.  As a result, there is a high degree of inconsistency across sales reps.

A quick, effective way to rapidly develop baseline best practices and gain alignment is to:

  • Bring together a SWAT team of top district managers, sales trainers and product marketers. 
  • Have each team member spend two or three days in the field observing and evaluating current sales practices.
  • Focus the team on developing and documenting “baseline expectations” based on the field travel, experience and current strategy.  When possible, establish metrics and expectations.  For example, if the best practice is to enter calls soon after they occur (keeping  the SFA system current) a metric could be – Percent of Calls Entered into SFA/CRM on the Day of the Call and an expectation could be to achieve this for 95% of all calls.
  • Train all sales reps and district managers on these expectations.  Encourage them to use these processes, but also look for and share opportunities to improve the processes.  This training needs to become the basis for all training – new hire, experienced rep and district manager coaching.  The entire sales team must know and understand the desired processes and expectations.

3.  Coach to “best practices”   Ultimately the district sales managers determine the success or failure of the program.  They need to believe that the “best practices” work and coach their sales team to follow these agreed upon methods.  If they are not constantly reinforcing the importance of following the best practice and achieving expectations, sales reps aren't going to change and adopt the new practices. 

Through their coaching sessions, district sales managers should be tracking and monitoring performance improvement in both utilizing best practices and in identifying opportunities for additional process improvement.  Seeing is believing: By observing 8 or 12 sales reps continually utilizing good selling practices, coaches can see firsthand the program's benefits, how additional changes can further improve performance and how championing new ideas improves performance.

4. Define “best practice” owner.  Identify one person or organization (frequently in training) responsible for receiving, evaluating and sharing new ideas and changes in best practices.

Let's face it: The day that you define and implement baseline best practices, they become obsolete.  While you may hope that reps and district managers are identifying opportunities to further improve, if there isn't a centralized “best practice owner”, their ideas remain “local initiatives” and process variation begins to return. 

The “best practice owner” performs the role of a “suggestion box” to collect all ideas.  This person should use former members of the core team to test these ideas.  If the core team agrees that the idea should be added to the “best practices”, the “owner” has responsibility for implementation.  If it is a small change, implementation may be as easy as an “all sales” voicemail or e-mail.  More complex changes may require new technology or training.  Will this change impact any metrics?  Regardless, the change needs to be incorporated into new rep training and process documentation.

5. Reward and recognize “new” best practices.  Sales people are still motivated by success and recognition.  As the anecdote that began this article indicates, it is important that sales reps and managers are rewarded for their ideas.

The firms that have done the best job of implementing “best practice” programs have reevaluated their entire compensation system, eliminating programs that emphasize “rep rankings.”  New programs focus on what matters--individual and team improvement on key metrics like share, total sales and gross margin.  Additionally, reps and district sales managers are encouraged and rewarded for their efforts to improve best practices.  These rewards can be small incentives like getting paid to write short “success stories” for an internal newsletter to  significant incentives like an “All Star” award to the top sales force innovator.  Additionally, many sales forces are now requiring sales reps to demonstrate teamwork and “problem solving” before they become eligible for promotion. 

Committing to “best practices” requires both determination and a process.  It isn't easy, but the payoff can be enormous at the rep, district, team and company level.  A future edition of HIPS will discuss some of the challenges associated with maximizing the impact of this approach and maintaining the program's momentum.

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