Learn to Embrace and Manage Sales Complexity

In BICSI Bytesby info@bicsi.com.au

The fourth instalment on Sales Trends for 2017 by Sue Barrett from Barrett Consulting addresses the topic of ‘Embracing and Managing the Complexities of Sales’. No matter what your activities as an ICT professional, you will benefit from what Sue shares with us in her authoritative articles.

Regrettably most organisations ONLY view their sales operations as tactical linear functions of the value chain—and while sales teams need to get close and personal on a tactical level with customers, if sales is only viewed through the overly simplistic lens of ‘foot soldiers selling products’, then these organisations will fail.


Sales operations are complex variable systems with many moving parts—they don’t follow a straight line; smart companies get this. They recognise that oversimplification is their enemy when developing and deploying effective sales strategies.

However, in a world of instant information and the constant pressure to solve people’s problems, easy answers have the greatest appeal even though they’re rarely the best answers. This leads to the proliferation of the oversimplification of complex issues. Opting for the simple answer often makes matters worse or delays progress to finding and implementing the best solution. Furthermore, so many people try to earn a living providing simple solutions to complex problems, resulting in a culture of over-simplification; and like the siren’s call to a sailor, these become very enticing but ultimately very distracting and dangerous.

One of Seth Godin’s blog posts – The Candy Diet (04/01/2017) qualifies why it’s dangerous: “The decline of thoughtful media has been discussed for a century. This is not new. What is new: A fundamental shift not just in the profit-seeking gatekeepers, but in the culture as a whole.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. When challenged, some sales leaders readily admit that they need a sales strategy; however, the pressure to meet shorter-terms targets and their heavy involvement in day-to-day operational issues means that strategy takes a back seat, and they opt for short-term fixes instead. This is incredibly dangerous.

“Is it possible we’ve made things simpler than they ought to be, and established non-curiosity as the new standard?

“We’re certainly guilty of being active participants in a media landscape that breaks Einstein’s simplicity law every day. And having gotten away with it so far, we’re now considering removing the law from our memory.

“The economics seem to be that the only way to make a living is to reach a lot of people; and the only way to reach a lot of people is to race to the bottom, seek out quick clicks, make it easy to swallow, reinforce existing beliefs, keep it short, make it sort of fun, or urgent, and most of all, dumb it down.

“And that’s the true danger of anti-intellectualism. While it’s foolish to choose to be stupid, it’s cultural suicide to decide that insights, theories and truth don’t actually matter. If we don’t care to learn more, we won’t spend time or resources on knowledge.”

A focus on the fight between understanding and managing complexity and the desire for simple answers and actions and why embracing and managing complexity is a vital capability for achieving the extraordinary. Here’s why:

More and more, the high cost of selling, longer lead-times, multiplicity of choice, maturing markets, rampant competition and diminishing differentiation, is taking its toll on sales performance.

Not only are salespeople being squeezed to produce more revenue at better margins, but corporate return on sales effort isn’t what it used to be.

The GFC kindled the deepest recession since World War II and spurred companies to make changes in managing assets, reduce costs and improve optimisation of equipment. But it somehow failed to spur sales on to make any significant changes or to do anything differently.

In response to declining demand, the pressure to reduce selling prices (on the buying side) and a push for greater volume at better margin in the face of increasing competition (on the supply side), companies sought to cut costs. Similarly, organisations looked for ways to be more efficient -production, logistics and operations all looked for ways to be more streamlined; and finance pulled back, cut credit lines and reined in spending.

However, in the main, sales and salespeople continued to do the same things, with the same processes, in the same way as they always have. If anything, what sales did do was increase its resistance to change. Sales leadership seems to have forgotten that doing the same things, in the same way is unlikely to get a different result.

The major reason for this lack of change is the lack of any exposure to or understanding of sales strategy. This resulted in sales leaders floundering, and uncertain about what approach to take. Subsequently, it forced marketing and corporate strategists to take the lead, even though they mostly had little understanding of the very specific focus of sales strategy. And because of this lack of understanding on their part, the solution to all sales problems and challenges was seen as some form of sales training. Once again, the simple solution to a complex problem.

Frank Cespedes, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School said: “One big problem is that in business schools, daily practice, and strategic planning, sales and strategy are treated as separate worlds.

“In academia, there is remarkably little written about how to link strategy with the nitty-gritty of field execution. Few of the many books and articles on strategy formulation have much, if anything, to say about the role(s) of a company’s sales channels in executing strategy. In fact, sales advice, if it’s even discussed, usually revolves around a combination of ‘reorganising the sales force’ and ‘incentives.’”

What sales leaders and other managers soon learned however was that sales training alone didn’t encourage the changes that could result in improved sales volumes or margins. Nor did increasing/decreasing rewards or expanding/contracting territories.

The reason for these failures was not that they were incorrect, but rather that they were driven more by panic than by strategy. They were motivated by a need to find some improvement in sales by a simple solution, rather than looking for a way to improve customer satisfaction.

Sales leaders failed to look at the bigger, more complex picture. It was just easier to push for more sales productivity or to cut prices, than to step back and re-examine the entire process.

The message is clear: If sales leaders fail to have a clear picture of what they want to achieve, and embrace and manage complexity, combined with the courage and conviction to make their strategy real, they’re doomed to fail.

Smart companies are already moving away from the oversimplification of the sales excellence industry that has been (and still is) notorious for peddling ‘silver-bullet’ solutions for years.

Instead of searching for the latest app, smart sales leaders and their CEOs are starting with sales strategy—analysing their sales and operations frameworks and assessing all the variables.

By examining these as part of a complex system, smart companies are finding they can better manage and lead their sales teams and the whole business.

Taking into account all the variables, they ask:

  • What directs the efforts of the salespeople on a sustained basis?
  • What support, resources, skills and plans provide salespeople with the focus they need to be fully effective?
  • What gives the sales force the discipline and sets the standards of behaviour that differentiates one professional salesperson from another, or that reinforces the brand equity the company has invested in creating?
  • What’s the optimal size for the organisation’s sales force, and the best way to remunerate, reward and motivate them? And how does one shape the sales force to make sure it’s able to best serve customers and prospects?
  • What’s the optimal sales structure for the organisation as a whole, for regions, and for branch operations that ensures sales has an unfettered track to follow; that synthesises the sales effort with the organisation’s strategic imperatives?
  • What infrastructure allows salespeople to function at optimal levels without being hamstrung by unnecessary administrative activates, complex management dictates or inadequate information support?

The trend in smart companies is to recognise that selling is much more complex than just getting business, and understanding and working with that complexity will help the organisation and its sales teams move from ordinary to extraordinary.

As Seth Godin’ blog concludes: “Even if only a few people use precise words, employ thoughtful reasoning and ask difficult questions, it still forces those around them to catch up. It’s easy to imagine a slippery slope down, but there’s also the cultural ratchet, a positive function in which people race to learn more and understand more so they can keep up with those around them. Turn the ratchet. We can lead our way back to curiosity, inquiry and discovery if we measure the right things and refuse the easy option in favour of insisting on better.”