Sales Growth

By: Thomas Baumgartner



Marc Benioff knows a thing or two about sales. He visits and meets with thousands of sales executives every year in his role as Chairman & CEO of In the foreword of the book Sales Growth: Five Proven Strategies from the World’s Sales Leaders, Benioff is surprised that there isn’t more rigorous research in the field of sales. Incredibly, he says, “MBA students can graduate without ever attending a class in sales.”

A team of global leaders from McKinsey’s Sales & Marketing practice led comprehensive research and interviews with more than 120 of today’s most successful sales leaders across a wide range of industries. The results led to Sales Growth, one of the first comprehensive books on the discipline of sales management.

Read this book and you’ll learn about five strategies that the world’s best sales practitioners use to create growth in any market.

Strategy #1: Find Growth Before Your Competitors Do

The first way to find growth before your competitors do is to look 10 quarters ahead to find out what the market will want.

There’s a well-known quote by Wayne Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” In order to do this well, you’ll need to “surf the trends” and see where your market is heading. Of course, you will need to invest in the appropriate resources in order to take advantage of the demand when it hits.

You should be looking at technological, political, geographical, and regulatory trends. For instance, cloud computing is estimated to be worth $65-$85 billion by 2015, so one opportunity would be to target small businesses with a pay-as-you-go model for online software.

The second thing you can do to find growth before your competitors is to “mine growth beneath the surface.”

In essence, this is all about turning on the microscope to find small pockets of growth that collectively deliver real impact. For instance, a European telecommunications company broke down its 15 traditional sales regions into 500 micro-markets. This exercise made it very clear that it was under-investing in areas that were prime candidates for significant growth, and over-investing in areas where its returns would be much lower.

However, if you want to start analyzing your markets in this sort of microscopic detail, your sales force will need assistance from other teams, including marketing, and even customer service in order to execute effectively. For instance, your marketing team might need to transfer some of its spend to markets where there is more growth opportunity.

The third thing you can do is to “find growth in big data.”

Making the most of big data means doing much more than analysing the information contained in your CRM. It includes looking at data from your company, your suppliers, partners, and even your customers’ social media accounts.

When you start looking at all the sources of data in your decision making process, you find growth potential in unexpected places. For instance, a marketing executive at Google noticed that the colour of the links in the Gmail ads was different from the colour of ads on the Google search engine. The company tested 40 different shades of blue to see which link colour would generate the most revenue. The results were staggering. The winning blue collar added $200 million in revenue to Google’s coffers.

Strategy #2: Sell the Way Your Customers Want

How do your customers want to buy from you? The answer to this question is not as simple as it once was given the dramatic changes that the Internet and social media are driving

The first thing you can do to sell the way your customers want is to “master multichannel sales.”

This goes beyond the traditional understanding of multichannel, which typically assigns lower-value customers to low-cost channels such as the web and telesales, and directs bigger customers to more expensive channels, specifically, face-to-face direct sales.

In the new world of sales, leading companies understand that more important customers might have smaller needs that risk being unfulfilled because sales reps simply couldn’t afford to spend time on them. The implication is that you might consider pairing up an inside sales rep with each field sales rep. One company reaped a sales force productivity increase of 14% just from this simple change.

Of course, to master multichannel sales you also have to integrate online and offline experiences. The key here is to truly understand what your customer’s decision journey is. For instance, in the case of a car dealership, customers will probably want to research models and prices online, before they head in to the dealership for a test drive.

The second thing you can do to sell the way your customers want is to “power growth through digital sales.”

As the authors point out, more than two-thirds of all sales today involve some sort of online research, consideration, or the purchase. This proportion will only grow with time, and there are two specific ways to generate sales growth from this trend: optimise fanatically and get social.

Online optimisation is a huge topic with many facets. One of them is conversion rate optimisation through A/B or multivariate testing. A powerful example is this when upscale shirtmaker Thomas Pink learned through testing that adding product videos to its website doubled conversions compared to static images. You also need to start thinking seriously about investing in a great mobile web experience, as more and more people use their mobile device to shop online.

Getting social means that you need to start thinking about how you engage your customers and prospects through the various social networks. Although it’s still “early days” for many B2B marketers, the best performers are finding growth by running test campaigns through social media.

The third lesson the authors drew from leading sales executives was “innovating direct sales.”

This means doing things a little bit differently from your competition. For instance, sales leaders have found that by engaging customers early, and by not mentioning their products in these early discussions, they were able to generate higher levels of sales.

These early discussions instead focused on collaborative problem-solving of the customer’s specific business issue. Another finding was that companies who had more experts on hand as part of the sales process, sold more.

There are plenty of other options for selling the way your customers want: orchestrating direct and indirect channels, investing in partners for mutual profit, and selling like a local in emerging markets. If you want a more in-depth look at these elements, you can read more in the complete version of the Sales Growth book.

Strategy #3: Soup Up Your Sales Engine

“Souping up your sales engine” is all about designing sales processes that support your sales team.

The first thing you can do to turbo charge your sales engine is “tune your sales operations for growth.”

This means unearthing every opportunity to let your sales teams use more of their time to sell. That might seem simple enough, but if you haven’t looked at how your reps are spending their time lately, you might be in for a surprise.

A logistics company found that its sales reps were spending only 35% of their time actively selling. The rest of their time they were having to deal with other issues such as billing systems updates, internal communications and firefighting. Once the company understood this state of affairs, it implemented solutions to cut down on non-sales related activities, and voila – instant sales growth.

The second thing you can do to soup up your sales engine is to “build a technological advantage in sales.”

As the authors explain, putting the right insights into the right person’s hands at the right time can be enormously valuable. One company was able to help its reps automatically map their daily travel plans to enable them to make the best use of their time.

The technology looked at traffic patterns and the store hours of their retail customers and then automatically generated a map for them to follow. Not only did the reps not have to spend too much time mapping out their day, they were also able to travel much more efficiently and spend more of their time actually selling.

You should also enable your channel partners to take advantage of these insights. For example, Cisco developed communication tools for its own reps, and then opened them up to its channel partners so that they could take advantage of them as well.

Strategy #4: Focus on Your People

Of course, with all of this focus on technology and strategy, it’s easy to forget that we are also dealing with human beings. So, it makes sense that you also need to focus on your people in order to create sales growth.

The first thing you can do to is to “manage performance for growth.” There’s a difference between managing a sales team in the traditional way, and managing a sales team to engineer growth. To do the latter properly, you need to create a mindset shift in a few key areas.

First, you need to “coach rookies to become rainmakers” - as quickly as possible.
Traditional thinking was that “coaching” was a nice-to-have. Wrong. Sales growth thinking makes it a core competence of your team. Through the research the authors carried out, they found that a structured coaching program with weekly contact between the coach and sales rep was critically important. One industrial company has what it calls an 80/80 rule: sales managers are required to spend 80% of their time with their reps, and 80% of their variable compensation is tied to that coaching.

Second, you need to set the tempo of performance.
As the head of advisor sales at a US financial services firm says, “Great sales leaders run their operations with the precision of an engineering firm.” One pattern that emerged from the authors’ research was a high pace of reporting. Sales reps report to managers, managers report to executives, and the sales executives report to the CEO - every single week. Those calls are used to address issues and to put in place corrective actions.

Third, you need to recognise that it’s not just about pay.
Non-cash rewards can be a powerful incentive - up to four times more effective than cash rewards, if designed correctly. Even perks as simple as tickets to your team’s favourite sporting events can be a more powerful motivator than extra money in reps’ pockets. And, believe it or not, extra training for your team can also be considered a powerful motivator.

It’s one thing to create the mindset shifts we’ve just described, but it’s another to make them stick for the long haul. The authors found that it’s bolstered by going a level deeper. “Building sales DNA.” is critical.

The key to embedding these concepts is to encode the behaviour you know will be successful (such as those weekly meetings) into your team’s daily, weekly and monthly routines. After all, as the authors state, adults need to apply a new skill at least 20 times before it will stick.

The final item to pay attention to when creating long-term change is to give your middle managers a starring role.

Too often, companies underinvest in front-line managers, who can easily make or break any change effort.

Strategy #5: Lead Sales Growth

The final section of the book starts off with a great quote by Albert Einstein, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it’s the only way.”

The only way to generate the growth that you and your team are looking for is to drive it from the very top. As the authors point out, transformations of all kinds are two and a half times more likely to succeed if they have strong leadership commitment.

The most successful leaders focus on a few specific things in order to make this happen.

First, they challenge the status quo.

If there’s one thing that’s certain in your drive for growth, it’s that you’ll meet resistance from your team. By having the courage to insist that you and your entire team always challenge convention - always question the “but we’ve always done it that way” mentality, you’ll be ensuring the long-term growth of your sales team. Second, leaders galvanise sales teams.

You will need your team’s buy-in over the long run if you want your sales growth program to succeed. To get that, you need to paint a simple and compelling vision of the future. One CEO created a video highlighting the vision for the company that brought tears to their sales executives eyes (seriously). That’s the type of vision that you need to create. Lastly, leaders need to demand results.

Sales growth leaders know that in order to generate results, you need to be very specific about what you’re trying to achieve. First, be crystal clear on who is responsible for the growth plan. Second, be willing to move talent around to deliver results - ultimately rewarding those who produce results by setting them up to achieve even more.