A few years ago, American manufacturers discovered they were getting their quality “socks” beat off by Japanese manufacturers. The Japanese learned these skills from two U.S.-based manufacturing gurus, J.J. Juran and W.E. Deming. These experts tried to spread their message across the U.S., but few in this country were interested in listening to what they had to say. Deming was a consultant and a professor of physics, engineering, and statistics. Juran was an engineering professor and consultant. Deming emphasized statistical measurement of quality, while Juran emphasized the involvement of people. Juran first coined the term “Total Quality Management.” Both Juran and Deming were so widely respected by the Japanese for helping them rebuild their industry into a quality leader that they were both awarded a Second Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor of Japan (the highest order awarded to non-citizens). Anyone enjoying high quality products today can probably it trace it back to the teachings of Deming and Juran. Both of these quality leaders argued that over-the-shoulder and end-of-line inspection was the wrong way to approach quality. They each took a slightly different approach, but the message was essentially the same: variable quality was the inevitable result of “out of control” manufacturing processes. The only way to regain control, they argued, was to break the manufacturing process into critical steps, measure process variability in each step, tweak the process until the variability was minimized, and move on to the next step. The process was repeated until all processes were under control. TQM and Six Sigma in the Sales Process Any quality-oriented manager is aware of the high cost of fixing mistakes and the effects of poor quality on repeat business. They know the solution requires breaking the process into steps that can be observed, measured, and controlled. In manufacturing, this involves working from detailed material specifications, conducting thorough incoming quality inspections, and examining separate processing steps. But quality management is not limited to manufacturing; it can also be applied to sales departments. In most organizations, the sales department is totally “out of control.” People are hired based on seat-of-the-pants decisions and coached by managers who were selected based on past production, not coaching skill. More often than not, sales training programs are out of touch with manager goals and the department is often at war with the rest of the organization. It is no wonder that sales has about a 50% failure rate. If you don’t have competition or don’t care about quality, this is not a problem. On the other hand, if you care about sales productivity or rapid competitive response, “out of control” sales departments are one step away from “out of business.” Using a few basic TQM processes, you can gradually bring sales under control, but it takes a programmed response. Step 1: Clearly define specifications for the job. As I have written in earlier articles, clear skill definitions involve more than “selling the pencil.” They require knowing the mental challenges of the job, the planning required, the learning curves, strategies, the tangibility or intangibility of the product, and the associated attitudes, interests, motivations, and so forth. Unclear definitions lead to unclear standards. And unclear standards lead to hiring mistakes. Step 2: Observe and measure where the process is breaking down. Sales is one area where individual performance can be observed. This might involve contacts, prospects, sales, repeat orders, service issues, or turnover ratios. Before we can recommend a solution, though, we have to be able to identify and isolate the problem. And before we can implement a solution, we have to be able to measure the results. This means understanding all the factors that affect sales. Basically, we can only find solutions when we are able to “separate people from the process.” That is, we must know what effect sales people can have and what effects are due to uncontrollable factors. Some controllable factors could include:
- Hiring processes
- Manager quality
- Training content
- Organizational factors like pay, benefits, and working conditions
Some of the “difficult to control” processes could include:
- Product quality
- Client/prospect conditions
- Economic factors
Step 3: Control the process. This is an area where people identify the processes most out of control. Usually, these are the ones with significant impact. In the sales arena, these include quality of the salesperson (not every person with a positive attitude is a good producer), quality of sales management (not every ex-top producer is a good manager), and quality of sales training (not all sales training represents the sales job). Some interventions may include:
- Hire better people using behavioral-style interviewing, sales simulations, AIM tests, or mental ability or planning tests (all built and scored for the job).
- Measure the developmental needs of the current workforce using behavioral-style interviewing, sales simulations, AIM tests, or mental ability or planning tests (all built and scored for the job).
- Measure the developmental needs of the managers (goal setting, coaching, appraising, other leadership activities).
- Hire better managers using behavioral-style interviewing, sales simulations, AIM tests, or mental ability or planning tests (all built and scored for the job).
- Integrate sales training with sales activities and manager goals (checking to see if training, selection, and management are aligned and supportive).
Some interventions that have big impact, but are more difficult include:
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- Developing client-centric education and training
- Improving or changing the quality or range of products and services
- Changing organizational factors such as pay, compensation, job design, or sales-inhibiting factors.
Conclusion Selling is a critical part of every organization, but it is seldom done well. In my experience, I have seen sales managers encourage over-shipments and authorize excess returns so they could make personal quotas; insurance sales managers expect prospects to listen to a 20-minute sales pitch before they were allowed to ask questions; sales departments wait a year before they sent their salespeople thru sales training; branch managers who told trainees to forget everything the home office taught them; office managers who tried to sell company accounts to competitors; salespeople who fell asleep in their offices; salespeople who only sold one account each year; salespeople who sold products at prices no one could deliver; and, the list goes on. Here are two sobering facts:
- In the majority of organizations, top-tier salespeople outproduce bottom-tier salespeople by at least four to one.
- About 90% of sales managers are unqualified to manage.
Like I said, “out of control” sales departments are one step away from “out of business.”