Unexpected Lessons in Sales Transformation from Little League

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If you’ve ever watched your kids at a little league game, you know that the coach can make all the difference. If, on the first day of the season, you heard a coach say things like "throw strikes, buddy," you knew you were in for a season of frustration. The kids would never be able to live up to their full potential with that kind of coaching. But if the coach gave clear instructions like "put your shoulder up, look at the catcher, check first base," you could look forward to a good season. The kids were bound to learn more, play better and have more fun. The first kind of coach had good intentions, but those vague instructions and focus on outcomes gave the kids nothing to work with. Kids couldn't just will themselves to be better; they needed knowledge and tools, as well as encouragement.

We often think of these two kinds of coaches when we are working on frontline transformations. Very often, companies that are undertaking transformations focus on frontline sales—where new approaches can have rapid and direct impact. But too many of these frontline programs fail to deliver expected results because, as with my Little Leaguers, the coaching that sales reps get from their supervisors is not generating the needed changes.

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Underestimating the importance of the sales manager in a sales transformations is a huge mistake. The sales function is changing in many industries, with reps taking on new responsibilities as problem solvers rather than product pushers. But sales organizations still resemble sports teams. Salespeople compete against rival teams (and their teammates). They try to score goals. The sales managers are the coaches—setting targets, keeping score, motivating players and pushing them, too. The sales manager/coach, is a critical link in the "sponsorship spine" that cascades change to the front line. The new demands on salespeople—to work collaboratively with experts to help customers solve problems, for example—requires them to stretch and master new skills.

Whether salespeople rise to the challenge depends largely on how well the coaches perform. If companies want the frontline sales reps to adopt new routines and mindsets, they need to focus on sales managers and give them the tools and training to be effective coaches. During a change program, just like in little league, a successful coach provides both the knowledge of the specific skills that are needed and the kind of positive and constructive feedback and motivation that makes the team want to perform.

Recently, we worked on a change program at a company that sells enterprise computing hardware and was in the middle of a major transition. The rise of cloud computing and open source software has changed the way its customers consider, procure and use technology. Increasingly, they tap into cloud resources rather than purchase on-premise hardware. They are interested in producing business results rather than acquiring technology with specific features and capabilities.

Adapting to this trend requires enormous changes for the company, especially for the sales reps. In the past, sales reps had mostly functioned as order takers for customers who bought and refreshed systems every few years. That’s all over. Not only are customers purchasing less equipment, they are also looking to vendors for broad business solutions, and they expect specific outcomes from their investments. They want to work with sales teams that know their business and their challenges. This means that the company’s reps had to stop selling hardware and start consulting and solving problems.

But the needed shift in the sales organization was not happening. The problem, we discovered, was that the change program had not enlisted the sales managers—the coaches—to get the team to use a different playbook. Sales managers were still managing the way they always had—opening up the CRM files to see pending orders and then pushing reps to close their deals (the results-focused approach). What the company needed was a very different kind of coaching. In the new environment, sales managers have to help reps grow and think strategically. The coach needs to be a thought partner with the rep, brainstorming the solutions sale. So, instead of asking when the next deal will close, the coach might start a conversation like this: "I see you have been working on a nice piece of business from XYZ. Help me understand your strategy for this customer."

Now, sales managers at the tech company are learning to coach reps on three levels: activity, pipeline and results. The logic is that the right activities—engaging customers, developing an account strategy and calling in technical experts—will fill the pipeline. The fatter the pipeline, the better the results will be. For this to work, managers are learning to work backwards from results rather than focusing primarily on the goal, and to spend their time coaching reps who need help on how to shift their activities to the new model.

Multilevel marketing is another industry roiled by technological change. With online shopping spreading around the world, reps for direct-sales organizations need to do much more to keep their clients buying. A large direct-sales, personal-care products company recognized this challenge and designed a more user-friendly online portal for reps to enter orders instead of scribbling on paper and handing orders to their supervisors. The idea was to give customers better service and take the order-entry work away from supervisors so they could focus more on coaching and sales management.

But the company had not properly prepared the sales supervisors, who were not at all on board with the change. These are the people that recruit and manage reps (often friends or even relatives). A big part of the supervisor’s role was gathering orders from reps and placing them into the system. This put them in a position of power and established a clear role for them in the organization. Threatened by the change, the supervisors actively discouraged their reps from using the new system. After many attempts, the company was unable to make the change at the front line.

When the company finally understood the problem, it launched an initiative focusing on supervisors and the new role they needed to play. Instead of entering orders into the system for their reps (a low-value-added task), they needed to spend their time coaching reps to sell more profitable products and reinforce the need to enter orders directly. It required a big shift in mindsets for supervisors. But the company provided training and new tools, such as tracking reports that helped them better understand how the reps were performing and where they should be focusing their coaching efforts. The company also gave special recognition to supervisors who were embracing their new roles. The program seems to be working. In the first 12 weeks of pilot programs, the share of orders being placed by reps on the portal rose by 20 percentage points, and the company is now preparing for a full rollout.

The lesson from these companies is clear: Frontline change does not happen without the right kind of coaching from managers. Give them the knowledge, tools and incentives to change—and help them be the kind of coach whose players learn, improve and win.

Tracy Thurkow is a partner in Bain & Company's Atlanta office and a leader in the firm's Results Delivery® practice. John Kanan is a partner with Bain & Company in the Atlanta office, focusing on salesforce effectiveness. Melissa Burke is the global director of the Results Delivery practice, based in Atlanta.