Jason Jordan is a sales management researcher, author, and expert focused on training and developing sales management in large B2B sales forces. Partner at Vantage Point Performance, Jason has been consulting with international organizations from various industries for over a decade. He is a recognized thought leader in sales management and effectiveness. I was happy to get his opinion on some of the challenges that sales organizations are facing today.
Read the full interview below.
If you could give a piece of advice to sales business leaders for driving sales excellence, what would that be?
My one piece of advice is to get front-line managers to coach sales reps. Research shows the importance of sales coaching, but not a lot of managers do it. You should do everything possible to enable and drive that activity in your organization: define coaching clearly, communicate expectations, train your sales managers, and measure results. Right now, there is not enough focus on preparing people for coaching and making sure it happens.
As far as sales coaching goes, does it include making sure salespeople understand what their compensation plan means for them personally?
When people don’t understand their compensation plan, I don’t think it’s an issue with coaching or management, but with the plan itself. Incentive compensation should do two things: motivate the right behaviors and reward outcomes. Whenever we see sales compensation plans that are complex and over-engineered, it’s typically because senior leadership is trying to use compensation as management in absentia.
So, one lever to pull in sales performance is compensation. But in your view, it’s not the only lever.
There’s no shortage of things to do to improve sales performance, but you need to prioritize. Is incentive compensation more important than technology, training, management, or coaching? It’s all part of the same riddle: how to get your salespeople to do the right things.
Speaking of getting salespeople to do the right things, what do you think the top five challenges are for sales management in the coming year?
It might sound cynical, but I don’t think there are new challenges in sales. The two things that management struggles with every year are focusing on and executing the critical few actions that will make a difference. As I said before, there’s no shortage of ways improve sales, but the issue is identifying and driving them. The idea of focusing on the few areas that have a huge impact is a challenge for every organization.
Then comes execution. If you decide that the focus for the year is pursuing opportunities of a certain type, make sure everything is there to support that activity: your sales team, the sales management team, the incentive compensation plan, the processes, and the technology.
In your experience working with various companies, do sales departments understand how they fit in with larger business objectives?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the business’s problem, but sales management’s problem. To be fair, sales leadership probably communicates the business priorities. If you look at all the communication from leadership to the field, you can find the strategic vision in there. But, then, quickly behind that, come all the other instructions. We may say, “The focus for the year is breaking into new customers,” but then comes, “And, we also need you to cross-sell products, to increase the average sales price, to win back customers you lost, etc.” By the end of the conversation, whatever direction has been given from the top has been diluted at the middle. Direction is often clouded with all the other things that sales leadership wants.
How do you feel that technology and process automation are reshaping the sales environment, or are they?
Technology and automation have absolutely reshaped the sales environment, but not to the extent they should have. Unfortunately, technology has been largely implemented for its own sake. In the 90s, CRM was a strategy unto itself. That mentality has largely carried forward. If you ask a lot of organizations what their strategic objectives are for the year, they may say, “Implement CRM.”
Technology isn’t a strategy, but one of the tactics that support it. Technology, training, incentive compensations, and coaching are all enablers to getting salespeople to do the right thing. If we started with the business and layered in the technology rather than started with the technology and expected to change the business, we would probably have had a smoother path since computing showed up on the scene.
In conjunction with CRM, we see engagement increase when sales performance information is added through that “preferred” system. Sales performance management solutions should create a central repository for all that disparate sales data and offer everyone answers about performance.
Technology is amazing at what it does. At least in the sales force, technology is largely meant to gather, organize, process, and report data. The quality of the data and systems today is exponentially better than the quality of the data 20, or even 10 years ago. But I don’t think sales is any better at asking the right questions and at understanding the answers.
As you work with your clients, do you think for the most part that their sales operations departments have the necessary expertise to tackle those analytics responsibilities?
I do. We work with a lot of larger companies, so this may just be the population that we see, but the sales operations folks we work with are professionals. The biggest issue is that senior leadership often doesn’t know how to get the most out of sales operations. They often are underappreciated, seen as people who implement technology and create reports. The sales ops people we work with can do more than that. Beyond gathering data, they generate insights and influence strategy. And, they can be agents of change.
Most sales operations groups are very capable, but organizations are still figuring out how to best use them in the most impactful way.
Do you see an opportunity for organizations to adopt an as-a-service approach for sales ops?
We do this today. We have an entire consulting industry around incentive compensation and I.T. infrastructure. People are comfortable with that model, especially with sales force and other as-a-service technologies coming along.
Larger organizations typically prefer to build that capability in house, and hire outside people to help with design and implementation. When organizations don’t see it as strategic, or they don’t have the money to invest in it, or the internal capability, I think it’s a great option. It gives people flexibility to focus where they need to focus.
We’re curious to find out who influences you and why?
The biggest influence in my career has been Neil Rackham, the premier sales researcher of all time probably and author of Spin Selling. The thing that makes Neil so interesting and influential to me is that he doesn’t come from sales; he’s a bit of an outsider. Unlike a lot of thought leaders, you see, he doesn’t have an agenda and isn’t married to the way things have always been done.
I believe in research, and I am most influenced by it. We do a lot of research ourselves and there are some other places outside of Vantage Point that conduct great research. CSO Insights is a group of folks that we pay attention to – Barry Trailer and Jim Dickie.
It’s harder to put your finger on influences now because you consume so much information in bite-size pieces. Today I read a tweet, and I glance at the business news, and I read the name of a book in the back cover of another, and someone sends me something on LinkedIn. You must go out of your way to follow someone as an influencer. So, to the extent that you think I’m an influencer, I’m flattered.
Well, you’re out there trying to make a difference.
Only in a small space, in the sales management space. We’re not technologists. We have a small box, we stand in it with both feet, and we believe in it. From our perspective, it’s easier to be a leader and influencer if you’re not trying to be all things to all people.
We think sales management is an undeveloped area in the sales force. Technology is there but it’s not being used as well as it could be. Processes are there, but they’re not being managed as well as they could be. We pick one specific population and try to press hard. Our success comes from that closeness.
Thank you, Jason, for these interesting insights! If you’d like to read more influencer interviews, check out the series here.
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