The notion of culture often is considered a rather abstract concept; something that’s difficult to observe and explain in a tangible way, but nonetheless very real. Underlying all organizations are unique values and beliefs that guide how members of that company make decisions and perform their work on a daily basis. According to Schein (1984), corporate culture can be defined as a “system of behaviors, rituals, and shared meaning held by employees that distinguish a group or organization.” The norms and values of a company’s culture are rooted in its organizational history, typically defined by founders or leaders of the organization, and communicated through formal and informal mechanisms.
Most discussions about culture begin with the norms, values, and beliefs that shape the behavior of employees and guide decision making. While a norm describes how an individual should behave when confronting a choice, values guide how an individual should aspire to behave. Although underlying components of a culture generally remain constant, norms, values, and work styles, or the actual activities and behaviors of employees, often evolve over time. The norms and values that work well and lead to successful outcomes are reinforced, while those cultural characteristics that lose their purpose or relevancy are abandoned. This evolution, along with changes in leadership, can result in shifts in corporate culture.
In a more tangible way, norms and values are manifested through stated “guiding principles” that are modeled consistently by management and through managerial decisions. These principles define behavior around operations, roles, responsibilities, employee and customer interactions, corporate social responsibility, and daily work activities. The stronger a culture is, the more likely employees are to live by these principles and the more willing they are to perform the tasks to accomplish the company’s mission.
“The user first, advertiser second, and Yellow Book third”—the mantra that can be recited by any Yellow Book salesperson—reflects the cultural values and norms guiding every decision and behavior throughout the company. This simple motto means that salespeople must first do what is in the best interest of the users of their yellow pages—those consumers who refer to the yellow pages when searching for a business listing. Yellow Book wants their directories to be the consumers’ first choice. The next priority is given to the company’s customers: the advertisers. According to the culture, no matter how small, each and every advertiser is important to Yellow Book. As one company official said, “Every account counts for Yellow Book. We build the business because we care more than the competitor about our accounts, and we take no account for granted—no matter how small.” Finally, after taking care of the customer and the advertiser, salespeople must do what’s best for the company.
Yellow Book prides itself on its sales culture and strengthens that culture by making the sales force a priority. Yellow Book has built a career ladder that clearly demonstrates where and how salespeople can grow, and they recruit those who have the desire, work ethic, and passion to be the best at what they do. The company views the sales force as its greatest asset, aiming to make Yellow Book the “last company you’ll ever work for,” meaning that “this is a company where an employee’s personal and career goals can be met as they grow.” If Yellow Book is passionate about one thing, it is people development, and their intense focus on training proves this point. Salespeople go through ongoing training and even sales managers participate in regular manager conferences designed to instill in them Yellow Book’s core values.
In the end, the company feels that it is successful and is confident that it will beat the competition by maintaining a culture of “stable, high-flying, high-charged sales reps who are caught up in what they do.”
As with corporate culture, sales culture provides salespeople with the ground rules for being successful members of the organization, provides a central theme around which salespeople’s behavior may be focused, and affects sales force productivity through its influence on how sales organizations socialize new salespeople and respond to market challenges. A sales culture instills discipline by establishing daily sales processes and activities, and a well-managed sales force culture improves communication, morale, and motivation. It also provides salespeople direction in terms of behavior that is supported by the organization and that ultimately impacts performance.
According to Ott (1989), the content and structure of a sales culture is composed of three levels. The first level is made up of visible and audible artifacts that define and perpetuate the culture. Level two requires consciously held beliefs that govern the behavior of employees, and level three involves basic assumptions and ideologies that are so ingrained in the beliefs held by the employees that they are more or less subconscious. Jackson (1994) defines the components of each level as detailed next.
Examples of culture at this level include the following:
Symbols, which communicate information about the beliefs and values of the organization. They are usually objects, such as plaques or trophies, that members identify with the overall culture.
Language, which includes the words or phrases that are attached to a culture and have special meaning in the organization. These may be made-up words, but they are understood by everyone in the organization.
Myths/stories, which describe a company’s beginning, history, and desired direction with past events and employees’ actions and that display the essence of the mission and values. One company always tells a story about a sales representative that called the CEO of a prospective customer every day for two months. He finally got a call back and it became the biggest account landed in years. This story has been passed from team to team for years.
Heroes, who personify the values of the organization and provide role models for salespeople to follow. One company named a sales award after a successful and popular salesperson who had been with the company for many years and recently passed away.
Rituals, which are activities of the organization that include evaluation procedures, meetings, work scheduling, and indoctrination practices. One telecommunications company surveyed requires their salespeople to attend a two-week training class at the end of their first year. This training event has become a right of passage for salespeople as they move from rookie to the next stage in the sales organization.
Celebrations, which acknowledge the contributions of successful members and display the culture both internally and externally. Celebrations include annual quota trips, national sales meetings, and other events that have become “traditions.”
At this level in the culture, the following are well defined:
Values, which represent what an organization stands for, what its members believe in, and what its members must do. Values for several of the organizations we spoke with included such things as “integrity,” “fairness,” and “superior work ethic,” among others. As one company representative described a value, “We operate with extreme morality in a marketplace that is often ripe with misleading information.”
Beliefs, which are ideas members perceive to be true. Such ideas that a company’s products are the highest quality in the industry, that salespeople are the cream of the crop, or that managers are always there to support their salespeople are some of the “beliefs” we heard in our interviews.
Basic ideologies and assumptions are found in this third level of culture, as noted by the following:
Fundamental perceptions, which are implicit and consistent throughout the organization and guide how members behave and think and feel about things. Members make their own decisions about how to behave based on their assumptions of the culture.
On all levels, culture can be understood by observing the work styles and activities of employees that reflect how people act, make decisions, and interact with each other and with the outside world.
While the sales culture is reflected and guided by the greater organizational culture, sales cultures are different and often exhibit distinct behaviors from the rest of the organization because of the unique work activities of salespeople. Salespeople differ from other functions in their roles and responsibilities as well as in other areas, such as their proximity to headquarters, level of customer interactions, and compensation structures. Salespeople often work alone and are distant from headquarters, in most cases resulting in a lot less exposure to the organization’s culture. The sales organization, as a whole, generally meets only a few times per year at most, while other functional areas may meet on a weekly or even daily basis.
Sales cultures also differ, and take on a different level of importance, in their values guiding performance, collaboration, and interactions with the customer. Unlike others in the organization, the daily work activities of salespeople are not readily observable by the rest of the organization, yet their outcomes are measurable and individual performance is usually communicated to the rest of the sales organization if not the entire company. While teamwork and collaboration are highly valued in most office environments, the sales force is by nature often more competitive than collaborative. Finally, sales activities are externally focused on the customer, whereas most other functions in the organization are internally focused on operations required to run the company. These differences may not mean that their culture must be distinct from the rest of the organization, but they do require unique mechanisms (symbols, language, and incentives, for example) through which the culture is reinforced.
The makeup of a sales culture can be very different from organization to organization. Cultures differ in their underlying values and beliefs and the priorities placed on them within the organization. The shared languages, behaviors, and attitudes that characterize sales cultures may include a host of attributes. As we’ll discuss later in this chapter, regardless of how many attributes are selected to define a culture, the content of the sales culture must align with the organization’s strategies and objectives, and their business and industry environment.
While cultural constructs may be complex and there may be many characteristics that compose the content of a culture, leading sales organizations are able to boil them down to a handful of powerful yet simple concepts. The organizations we interviewed, for example, characterized sales cultures in a variety of ways: “competitive and hardworking”; “encouraged to take risks and think outside of the box”; “empowered to make customer-focused decisions”; “team-oriented and collaborative.” These characteristics can be extended to individual characteristics as well. For example, one company preferred a sales culture of seasoned sales professionals, while another looked for sales reps who were “young and enthusiastic.”
There are no inherently right or wrong values or norms that make up a culture—some organizations may encourage cut-throat competitiveness as part of the culture, while others value team work and collaboration—what is important is that they are the right components given the company’s strategies, objectives, and business environment. The following are a few of the attributes organizations in our study used to describe their sales cultures:
Encourages experimenting with different selling techniques.
Is team-oriented and collaborative.
Is adaptive and flexible.
Is fair and compassionate.
Encourages taking initiative and making decisions independently.
Is socially and environmentally responsible.
Promotes healthy internal competition.
Focuses on the competition.
Confronts conflict directly.
The content of a sales culture—the mix of norms, values, and standards that guide actions and attitudes—can be complex. However, the culture is more effective if it can be conveyed in simple yet all-encompassing words or phrases. It is important to remember that an organization must make a conscious effort to proactively create and maintain cultural content instead of just allowing one to develop and accepting passively what norms and values develop. Only then can the optimal culture be created and fostered, as well as controlled. Next we discuss why it is important to have a sales culture in terms of performance and we review how successful organizations create cultures that win sales.
Research shows that a strong sales culture enhances individual and organizational performance. A strong culture refers to the degree of influence cultural values and norms have on individuals in the organization. The stronger a sales culture, the more individuals will conform to the culture and abide by the norms and values guiding behavior and decision making. Several studies identify relationships between a strong culture and various performance indicators, suggesting that a more influential culture indeed improves individual and business performance. These performance indicators include the following:
Satisfaction. Churchill, Ford, and Walker (1990) found that organizations with more widely shared cultural values experience more positive job satisfaction. That is, a strong culture with clear values that are well communicated increases the likelihood that salespeople will be satisfied with their job.
Commitment. In another study, Mowday, Steers, and Porter (1979) found that when sales cultures are strong, salespeople are more likely to demonstrate commitment to the company and stay in their job for a longer period of time.
Turnover. According to Mobley (1982), a strong sales culture will result in selecting and recruiting salespeople with values that more closely conform to the cultural values of the organization. The findings suggest that this will lead to lower turnover.
Performance. Futrell and Parasuraman (1984) found that there is a positive relationship between the strength of shared cultural values and sales performance in terms of revenue generated.
Role clarification. A strong culture involving high levels of shared values was found by Behrman and Perreault (1984) to inhibit role ambiguity. According to this argument, clearly communicated values, norms, and beliefs improve access to pertinent information and generally reduce the degree to which information is lacking within the sales organization. This facilitates teaming within the organization, thus leading to more efficient and effective outcomes.
Motivation. Tied closely to performance and commitment, Kohli (1985) found a positive relationship between a strong, well-managed sales culture and motivation among salespeople. A strong culture provides salespeople with direction and an understanding of what needs to be done, thereby motivating them to succeed. Recognition and rewards are provided to support performance expectations that are aligned with the cultural values and norms.
A clear, well-articulated sales culture that effectively influences behaviors and attitudes of employees is more likely to lead to happier salespeople and, consequently, better performing salespeople. Many of the organizations we met with confirmed these research findings with experiences in their own organizations. Motivated, loyal, hard-working, and successful sales professionals result from a culture that strongly influences its members—in other words, those with compelling values, symbols, and supporting practices. Next we discuss how organizations go about creating influential cultures.