Successful sales organizations understand why it’s important to have an influential culture and how to create the symbols, language, activities, and values to establish positive cultures that win sales. They consciously do things to build and maintain strong sales cultures. Throughout our interviews with leading sales organizations, we observed various best practices that organizations pursue to strengthen their sales culture. As organizations all begin with some type of culture, it is critical that the sales organization create and perpetuate a strong set of cultural norms and values that lead to improved sales performance. Indeed, creating and maintaining a culture is an important strategic effort in and of itself. Following are the critical success factors that leading sales organizations consider when pursuing a strategy to build a culture.
A well-managed sales force culture is strong, focused, and appropriate for its environment. That is, it has a high level of influence and direction and it fits the circumstances of the company. The influence of a culture, as discussed in the previous section, depends on how many shared values there are, the extent of sharing, and the prioritization or ordering of those values.
The direction and fit of the culture means that the values and beliefs that constitute the culture are right for the nature of the business and the overall organizational and market environment. Although there is no intrinsically right or wrong work style or culture, the culture must be appropriate for a particular situation—that is, it must be appropriate for the firm’s products, markets, selling environment, industry practices, philosophy of management team, and the like.
Some of the environmental factors organizations must account for when developing a culture and creating reinforcing tools, such as recruitment practices, incentive programs, language, and symbols, include:
Customer buying behavior
Behavior and strategy of competition
Nature of product or service offerings
Industry concentration (number of buyers and sellers)
The focus of the sales culture must fit with the company’s strategy and the nature of its business. Does the culture guide the type of behaviors and decision making that best suits what’s being sold, the type of customers targeted, and the strategic goals of the organization? For example, the “boiler room” cultures of many brokerages in the 1990s did not “fit” well with the new realities of an increasing number of average consumers trading stocks who were turned off by the aggressive, hard-sales tactics of many brokerage firms. At another company participating in our study, salespeople are not commissioned, but rather they work on straight salary and consequently work in teams instead of competing with each other. Teamwork is an important attribute in this company’s culture. Because salespeople work in teams with a concentrated number of very large customers across multiple channels, commissioning salespeople would have provided incentives to compete internally where the goals are to work together to grow sales for the company, not for the salesperson.
The company’s strategy is both a manifestation of and an influence on the culture. A sales strategy involves a clear understanding about what segment of customers to target, what value is provided to these customers, and how products and services are sold to the marketplace (see Chapter 2 for a more detailed discussion about company strategy). The sales strategy thus focuses and guides all sales efforts and tactics.
The sales culture directs the strategy because the culture is what a company is all about. It also reinforces the implementation of strategy because a strong culture enables an understanding of the strategy and encourages support among employees and a belief that these are the right strategies to pursue, or are at least worthy of support. In order for one of the organizations interviewed for this study to roll out a new customer relationship management (CRM) strategy, management needed to align the culture of the salespeople with the requirements of the strategy. Many of the salespeople were more tenured and used to working with the same systems and processes for many years, and consequently, somewhat resistant to change. By focusing on cultural values that included progressive thinking, technological change, and customer focus, the company was able to demonstrate the benefits of the CRM system and create an acceptance, if not an excitement, among its salespeople about adopting the new system.
Culture requires a vision of how norms, values, and work behaviors must be so they are aligned with the requirements of the company’s current product line, selling environment, and business model. The mission and vision of the company is really a statement of the culture in terms of what the company does, what it aspires to be, and how it will get there. For a culture to be influential, it is critical that company leaders be able to articulate a clear mission and vision for the company. For example, Yellow Book USA has a clear vision and mission: To help small businesses, the engine of the U.S. economy, be successful and increase their sales by providing high-value, low-cost advertising. Everything the sales organization does is guided by this vision and salespeople expressed their pride in providing a service that helps small businesses succeed.
The culture at Marriott can be characterized as highly salesand customer focused with a significant emphasis on the human element in business regarding both employees and customers. The underlying values and philosophy of the company are underscored by even the most senior leaders and are reflected in many of the processes within the sales organization. At Marriott, everyone knows that “everyone sells” and the customer is highly valued. In fact, Bill Marriott himself makes it a practice to talk with a customer every day.
The processes and policies around teams, training, and recruitment at Marriott are aligned with and support the culture. The company utilizes team strategies to support the culture by creating core teams that are permanently assembled to manage customer relationships, and extended teams as needed to handle specific opportunities.
In-depth sales training programs also support the culture. The company believes that it is important to “train to retain,” and the field sales unit is involved in on-the-job training by deploying segment teams that educate the properties on how to obtain business in specific areas, such as government or aviation, so that properties can uncover new sources of business, fill gaps, and sell inventory.
The use of mentoring and recruitment to support the culture is pervasive across the organization. Sales managers have a specific curriculum designed to help them “motivate, inspire, mentor, build customer relationships, and reinforce skills.” Finally, Marriott’s recruitment policies perpetuate the customer-focused sales culture. Marriott hires predominantly from within those who already possess the key product knowledge and enthusiasm to advance. As a result, tenure tends to be high within the organization and turnover low as the company experiences favorable employee satisfaction and retention.
Culture requires communication to disseminate stated values, norms, and work standards. Communication, both internal and external, can take place through mottos, public statements, slogans, and other language. Everyone within a sales organization takes part in communicating a culture. Sales managers communicate the culture through mentoring, coaching, daily interactions, training, and events, such as national meetings. According to one sales manager, “Culture even gets down to the language—we use training to establish a common language.” Other communications are facilitated by salespeople themselves through such things as sales stories, legends, myths, and real case studies that illustrate the outcomes of the culture.
In one company interviewed, communications that reinforce the culture include a monthly newsletter, which recognizes leading salespeople for the month, and a weekly team meeting that reinforces sales messages and campaigns. At another company, different salespeople on the team leave a voice mail to the whole team about a success story, best practice, or lesson learned that relates in some way to the mission and vision of the company.