Our findings about strategies that win sales are based on a year-long study consisting of interviews with more than 150 sales professionals from 16 organizations worldwide and across a variety of industries. We met with sales professionals from all ranks to get a better understanding of their experiences in the field, their observations of their customers’ buying attitudes and behaviors, what sales skills they require to be successful, and how their segmentation and sales technology strategies are working. In our study, we first attempted to identify the critical challenges impacting sales organizations, and ultimately, we set out to understand what strategies successful organizations are implementing to address and overcome these challenges.

Our Approach

Organizations were selected to participate based on the performance of their sales organization within their industry. We also looked for companies that had demonstrated success with various strategies involving channel or customer segmentation, training and development of sales skills, or sales technology. Because a sales technology strategy is important for competing in many industries, we focused a portion of our research on organizations that implemented or were in the process of implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) or sales force automation (SFA) system. Other criteria in the selection process were to identify sales organizations that were leading in their respective industries and to find organizations that would provide us a representative sample across industries and geographic regions, including those from Europe, Asia, and North America.

Interviews, each typically about an hour in length, consisted of both face-to-face and telephone conversations. We personally visited all but a few organizations so that we could observe firsthand the sales culture of the organization. On-site visits provided us a richer understanding of the sales operation and allowed us to ask more follow-up and deeply probing questions. We interviewed people at the following levels within each organization:

  • Heads of sales who were responsible for strategy development

  • Regional sales leaders who were responsible for the implementation of strategies across regions or areas

  • Sales managers who were responsible for identifying and developing sales representatives and managing the sales process

  • Training professionals who were responsible for developing the skills of the sales force

  • Frontline sales representatives who met with customers on a daily basis and were responsible for executing strategies

As part of our investigation we reviewed documents from each company, including organizational charts, strategy statements, training programs, marketing collateral, annual reports, and descriptions of product or service offerings, to gain a better understanding of how each sales organization worked, and where it was experiencing either challenges or successes in each of the seven primary strategic areas.

What We Asked

The focus of the study was on how successful organizations responded to changes in the marketplace through strategies centered around sales technology, organizational structure, sales channels, sales management development, new sales skills requirements, and sales culture. Our overarching questions related not only to how marketplace trends impacted a sales organization’s ability to compete, but more importantly, what strategies they were developing to win sales in this new environment. More specifically, we investigated the following areas and sought answers to the following questions:

  • Changes in customer behavior. What is different about customers today compared with five years ago, and what will be different in the future? What challenges do changes in customer behavior present to the sales organization?

  • Adoption and usage of sales technology. How advanced are the company’s use of CRM/SFA systems? What challenges have they posed for the organization? What are the next generation going to look like, and what lessons were learned for future implementations?

  • Sales organization structures. What channels to market are utilized today and why? What kinds of sales resources are utilized (sales teams, account managers, etc.) and how are they deployed?

  • Selling processes and practices. What is the common selling approach of each organization participating in the study and how is this similar or different from their competitors? Are selling practices based on any particular philosophy and, if so, what is that philosophy? How might this change in the future?

  • Sales management. How are managers selected? What are their key responsibilities and skill sets, and how has that changed over time? How are they trained and prepared in each organization?

  • Sales skills requirements. What types of sales skills are necessary to achieve the benefits of the strategies being implemented to win sales? Are there new sales skills required and are there old ones that are still valid? Where are the common skill gaps?

  • Sales culture. What role does the sales culture play in implementing strategies that win sales? What makes for a strong sales culture and what are the challenges to maintaining an influential sales culture?

In addition to our qualitative interviews and analyses of sales organizations, we thought it was important to better understand customer behavior and the challenges it presents to sales organizations by hearing from customers themselves. In a joint study with Schaaf (2004), we surveyed more than 500 customers of information technology from midsized organizations to compare what customers want and value in their salesperson and their buying experience with what sales organizations think customers want and value. This part of our study provides interesting insight into what customers really expect from their vendors and their salesperson and what they say influences their decision to buy or not to buy.