he notion of making selling more strategic is not new or novel. It’s been discussed and described for decades by a variety of thought leaders including:
- “Strategy is the process you use to lay out your moves in advance of the sales call… The objective of a good sales strategy is to get yourself in the right place with the right people at the right time so that you can make the right tactical presentation.” from The New Strategic Selling, 1995, Stephen E. Heiman, Diane Sanchez, Tad Tuleja
- “Selling strategy is about customers. The measure of an effective selling strategy is how well it succeeds In influencing customer purchasing decisions… Build a selling strategy that focuses on the steps the customer takes in making a decision, not on the steps the salesperson takes in making the sale.” from Major Accounts Sales Strategy, 1989, by Neil Rackham
- “Sales strategy defines who a firm sells to, what the customer offering is, and how the selling is done. Successful sales strategies define effective yet efficient sales processes that deliver the right products and services to the right customers.” from Sales Force Design for Strategic Advantage, 2004, by Andris A. Zoltners, Prabhakant Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer
- Strategy is “the movement of an organization from its present position to a desirable but inherently uncertain future position. The path from here to there is both analytical (objectives, where we play, how we play, and what this means for the customer value proposition, sales tasks, and other activities) and behavioral (the coordinated efforts of people who work in different functions but must align for effective selling to happen).” from Aligning Strategy and Sales, 2014, by Frank V. Cespedes
- “A tactical salesperson is focused on the features of what it is they sell. The questions they ask are all geared around getting the customer to think and see whythey need what it is they’re selling. The strategic salesperson is focused around the outcomes the customer is looking for. Their questions are focused on getting the customer to think about the outcomes they need to succeed.” from The Sales Hunter Sales Motivation Blog, 2013, Mark Hunter
The very nature of selling forces us to think short-term and tactical. Tactics are the processes and procedures we use to get to a desired result. Your sales quota this period is a desired result, and your plan of activities for reaching that quota are tactics. Sellers get paid on quota attainment and hear, mostly, about sales activities that are short-term in focus. They are, therefore, conditioned to think and act tactically.
Strategic selling aims to elevate the approach above the day-to-day tactics. Strategy encompasses a series of maneuvers for obtaining long-term results. The strat plan for your business, for example, looks at the 5-year horizon and has some aim that is bigger than this period’s revenue goal. Similarly, YOUR strategy as a sales manager, would be linked to something higher-level than a sales goal (even higher than your annual target!).
It will be easier for you to think strategically if you’re not mired in tactics. What you’re focused on depends on what lens you’re looking through. To elevate your perspective, take these steps:
- Look at sales work from the perspective of a seller (as you likely did before you were promoted to sales manager). The purpose of this work was to make quota, satisfy customers, and represent the company and your products/services well. It was probably tactical with specific activities each day like making outbound cold calls, conducting discovery meetings and demos, presenting solutions, processing orders, etc. Your long-term view was likely influenced by your quota or awards and commission systems. If you have an annual President’s Club and goal, you probably looked as far into the future as that goal and award conditioned you to.
- Now look at sales work from the perspective of a sales manager. You may still be thinking of your work’s purpose as quota attainment, customer satisfaction, and representation of the company/brand. Hopefully, at a minimum, you’ve added a new purpose of developing team members to become stronger sellers. Your long-term view may still be tethered to sales goals, incentives, and budgets.
- The definitions, above, of strategic selling urge you to also consider your customers’ perspective. How do your customers view the purpose of your work? You want them to see it as relevant, meaningful, and useful to them in achieving their business goals. Ideally, they see the purpose as more than a quick transaction and consider you to be a long-term partner who’s helping solve important business issues. If they see you solely as a purveyor of products/ services, it’s tactical. For you to show up as a strategic partner, you’d also be offering consultation in your area of expertise and creating value as you help their business transform.
- Now let’s elevate this even more to look through the eyes of your sales director, VP, CHRO, COO, and/or CEO. What do they think the purpose of the sales function is? Is it to sell a certain number of products and hit a revenue target? Or is it to generate revenue so the company can deliver on its stated Mission and Vision? Given a choice, most C-level executives would claim the latter. Unfortunately, their actions in the day-to-day bustle seem to suggest the former. If they aren’t talking about sales in the context of Mission and Vision, you may be struggling to see that bigger picture.
- What if you looked at the purpose of sales the way a board member does? Board members are removed from the immediate pressures to perform and able to focus more clearly on the long term. Their view is more strategic because they aren’t enmeshed in the tactics. If you are able to look at your work this way, you can become more strategic as a sales manager.
This metaphor may help explain the difference. The board of directors are like pilots working at the 30,000-foot level, overseeing everything, surveying the big picture, and changing course when necessary. The executives operate at the 1000-foot level, while frontline employees are on the ground. Those pilots see more and have a broader perspective.
Board members have a responsibility to shareholders. They have to maintain an objective view to act in good faith and keep the company in good health. They pay attention to how well the company is living up to its Mission and Vision. They don’t dwell on any one tactic or function. They continually look to the long-term and the over-arching strategies that move the company toward its core purpose.
Why elevate the way you look at the work you and your team are doing? Because tactics without strategy are little more than busy work that fatigues and burns out employees. You can’t lather-rinse-repeat forever. To be effective, people need to know the higher meaning and purpose of their work. They need context. They can do better work when it’s all about something more than the work itself. What’s more, your organization needs you – the sales manager – to be plugged in to the company’s strategy and long-term growth plans. Otherwise, you’ll miss opportunities in the marketplace and focus on the wrong work and tasks.
Step One: Set Sellers Up for Strategic Selling Success
First things first. You won’t have time for strategic work until you extract yourself from tactical work. That starts with removing yourself from the role of mercenary closer. Leave the selling to the sellers. Equip them in every possible way to succeed in their work of selling. We’ve covered this throughout the Promoted! Series for New Sales Managers, so you can review previous posts if you want more than this brief review.
Hire the right sellers for your team. Use a competency model and behavioral interviewing to select the sellers who are most likely to succeed in your organization. More here.
Set expectations and communicate clearly about them. Be sure to explain exactly WHAT you need, how MUCH you need, WHY you need it, and HOW sellers are to go about delivering on all this. More here.
Provide training starting on Day 1 to ensure your team can maximize sales productivity. Training needs to cover more than company policies and products. Every seller, no matter how experienced, benefits from quality, ongoing training on selling skills. More here.
Coach and mentor every seller on the team. There’s a difference between these two activities. Both are important, and you’ll need to understand the difference and master both skills. Mentoring is when you teach others based on your superior level of experience and knowledge. This includes sales demonstrations where you step in and show sellers how to make a sale. Coaching is something else entirely. It’s a high-value skill that not many sales managers have truly learned. More here.
Give candid feedback to sellers to help them develop. Support them with regular feedback, both positive and instructive. Use the 3W feedback model to fully explain what they can do to improve. More here.
Host regular 1-to-1 meetings with each member of your team. This is a great opportunity for checking in on learning and development, providing coaching and feedback, and demonstrating how much you value this seller’s contributions. More here.
Talk about the Vision, Mission and purpose of your work. Remember, your job is to simultaneously manage sales AND lead people. Your leadership is necessary to inspire sellers. Inspiration doesn’t come from the mundane, routine, ordinary tasks the recur day after day. It isn’t found in “what have you done for me lately?” management check ins. And it’s not linked to achieving sales goals since those are part and parcel of a seller’s routine. Inspiring sellers requires the bigger picture context. More here.
By fully preparing sellers for long-term success that they can achieve autonomously, you will liberate yourself to shift toward a more strategic perspective. This is where you get a multiplying effect. The better your sellers are equipped, the more you can do strategically. And the more you can do strategically, the more better your sellers will be equipped for top performance.
Step Two: Develop Your Skills for Strategic Sales Management
With better-equipped and more strategic sellers, your next step will be to stretch yourself.
In an earlier post, we addressed the need to continually develop new skills in preparation for next-level jobs. The passages described in that post also included a look at allocating more time and placing higher value on strategic vs. tactical work. It’s worth taking a look back if you missed that one.
Being strategic doesn’t happen automatically. In addition to overcoming all the conditioning you’ve had for focusing on tactics, you’re going to need new skills to go along with your new perspective.
It takes practice to master any new skill. You won’t be good at it right from the start, even if you have natural tendencies toward strategic planning and thinking. Work to build your skills in these areas:
- Critical thinking. Here’s a video playlist of free tutorials to get you started.
- Clarifying your vision and enlisting others to support it.
- Gathering and analyzing information.
- Asking purposeful questions and listening to diverse points of view.
- Formulating a strategy.
- Making decisions that are objective, well-informed, and inclusive.
- Implementing your strategy using solid change management principles.
- Aligning tactical actions and priorities with your strategy.
- Evaluating the impact of your decisions, direction, and strategy.
- Developing risk tolerance so you can experiment and innovate.
It’s a big list. Any one of those bulleted items can consume time and effort just to learn. Don’t let that be a barrier. Investing time to learn, practice, and perfect these skills will make you more effective as a sales manager AND set you up nicely for next-level roles.
Step Three: Stay Focused on Strategy vs. Tactics
What we’re describing here will never happen if you keep backsliding to tactical work and short-term thinking. If you are addicted to the adrenaline rush of putting out fires, you’re unlikely to succeed in becoming more strategic. If you’re unwilling to trust your sellers with the big sales, you’re never going to liberate yourself for doing higher-level work than selling. If you don’t invest time in coaching and preparing sellers to solve problems and make sales, you’ll always be stuck in the tactical pursuit of this period’s revenue goal.
It all boils down to becoming more proactive and less reactive… more long-term and less short-term…
To move away from short-term, reactionary responses, consider this:
“It is better to have a hen tomorrow than an egg today.”
– Thomas Fuller
In sales, you’ve experienced pressure to produce today’s egg. Now it’s time to think differently and take care of the chicken who will produce more eggs tomorrow and next month and next year.
Being proactive and focusing on the chicken requires a change in thinking. Building new habits takes time. You will need to recondition yourself to ask question different questions. Instead of wondering “What could go wrong today?” and “What do I need to fix right now?” shift to asking “What can we create that will be right in the future?” and “How can we make things better in the future than they are right now?”
Being proactive means that you consciously engineer your own events and outcomes. You don’t wait around to merely react to events as they happen. You prepare for, intervene in, and control expected occurrences or situations. You are anticipating and maintaining control instead of being at the mercy of whatever comes up.
Because you are thinking strategically, planning proactively, and anticipating change, you are empowered. You have equipped sellers to handle problems that crop up. They no longer need you to don your superhero cape and swoop in to save the day. You trust them, and you now that they’re learning and growing as they handle these situations. (Don’t forget, once up on a time someone trusted you this way even though you weren’t entirely ready and solidly proven!).
It’s a discipline in and of itself to catch yourself getting tactical and to refuse to go there. You’ll make some missteps and need to get back on track when you do. Over time, you’ll get better at recognizing the tactical traps and temptations. Value being strategic, and you’ll get there sooner.
To learn more about becoming proactive and strategic, tune in for this free, on-demand webinar Look Beyond Tomorrow for Sustained Growth.
As you continue growing into the strategic sales manager you want to be, consider getting some support. Find a mentor who has done this and succeeded. Work with a credentialed executive coach who can help you work through barriers and create accountabilities. Keep learning and don’t give up when it seems like a struggle.