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    « Branding Wisdom (Part 5) | Main | Ultimate Brand »

    August 02, 2006

    Sales Renaissance

    I just read one of the articles from the Harvard Business Review (“The Sales Learning Curve”) and had an epiphany.  I find that the best books or articles are those that add simplicity and clarity to a complex topic that I have been pondering.  The issue I have been pondering is why have sales reps with a successful track record failed at selling innovative solutions while other sales reps (sometimes with less experience) are successful selling the same solution to similar customers.  At Digital Paper we had a couple sales reps that were consistent performers for several years.  These sales reps had helped us double our sales every year.  We decided to ramp up our sales force to capture the large market opportunity in front of us.  We decided to bring in sales “heavy hitters”.  We hired several sales reps with a proven track record selling enterprise technology solutions.  Unfortunately, many of them were not successful at Digital Paper and were terminated due to poor performance.  Most of these reps went on to be successful in other endeavors.  Some were very successful soon after leaving the company.  Through the turmoil of hiring and firing, the most successful reps continued to be the original sales reps.

    I have tried to make sense of this phenomenon and developed some of my own opinions.  This HBR article crystallized it for me.  The authors describe how an organization goes through a learning curve much like an individual goes through a learning curve.  The mistake that many companies make (as we did at Digital Paper) is to hire too many sales reps before the organization had reached the point where it is ready to scale.  It is not about the sales reps learning or even the sales force, it is about the whole organization learning and tweaking the offering.  The article argues that in the early stages of launching an innovation to the market you need fewer reps.  The reps that you need are unique.  These are what the article referred to as “renaissance reps”.  These reps do not need sales training, sales materials or sales strategies.  They are self starters.  They will figure it out themselves.  They will build the sales materials and the sales strategies that the company needs.  If something isn’t working with the product or the sales strategy they will fix it themselves or they will work their relationships within the company to make the appropriate change.   They make it happen.  Once these issues get worked out, the sales reps are consistently successful, and the organization has institutionalized the learning, then it is time to bring on more “mainstream reps”.  Please don’t confuse mainstream reps and renaissance reps with transactional reps and consultative reps.  Mainstream reps and renaissance reps are consultative, but they go about things differently.  A mainstream rep expects most of the details to be worked out and their specialty is efficient sales execution.  Conversely a renaissance rep may not be as good at execution as a mainstream rep, because they enjoy and thrive on creating and building.  They may be less interested with an execution oriented approach.

    The reason we struggled at Digital Paper was because we hadn’t institutionalized the knowledge and experience that the renaissance reps had.  We hired new reps and divided up territories between existing renaissance reps and the new mainstream reps.  The mainstream reps were expected to perform as well as the renaissance reps, but the strategies and sales materials weren’t effectively institutionalized and transferred.  The renaissance reps tried to help the other reps.  They cared more about the success of the company and seeing their success replicated, but they were held to high standards.  They found it difficult to find the time to transfer this knowledge and still hit their goals.  Had we established processes to transfer this knowledge from the renaissance reps to the mainstream reps and also brought on mainstream reps at a more measured pace we might have had more success.

    For those of you trying to change your organization and your sales force.  Here are some thoughts:
    Make sure you have renaissance reps (this may be a principal in the company)

    1. Your existing reps may or may not be renaissance reps.  If they have stuck with the company for a long time selling transactional services they are probably not.  A renaissance rep would get board and leave the company.
    2. Understand that it will take time for your organization to adapt.  It is not just about the sales rep adapting.
    3. You can do things to help the process, but you can not MAKE IT happen.
    4. It will take many iterations to get it right.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater because it doesn’t work the first time.
    5. You can hire more mainstream consultative sales reps once the model starts to scale.
    6. Make sure you put in place methods of institutionalizing what your renaissance reps learn and develop.  This is critical to transferring skills and knowledge to mainstream reps.

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