ATD Blog

Why Your Sales Strategy Is Not as Clear as You Think

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

LSA Global’s recent organizational alignment research found that strategic sales clarity accounts for 31 percent of the difference between high- and low-performing sales teams. And most sales leaders I meet seem to agree that a clear and meaningful direction is paramount to creating a high performance sales team. These same leaders also believe that their current sales strategy is “pretty darn clear to everyone.” But when I dig a little deeper, I find that the majority of these leaders think quarterly sales targets combined with ever-increasing pressure to perform and hard work should be “enough of a sales strategy” to meet ever-increasing targets. And when I dig even deeper, most of their teams are not performing at their peak. 

Not surprisingly, most of their sales teams are behaving tactically, performing inconsistently, chasing unqualified deals, moving too quickly, or reacting to outside factors outside of their control. These same teams also report that their level of strategic clarity and confidence is 50 percent less than their boss. This lack of strategic sales clarity impedes short-term performance and long-term health. 

Effective sales strategies are 100 percent aligned with the overall corporate strategy and outline the ideal target clients, value proposition, success metrics, goals, roles, processes and specific actions required to meet targets. Conversely, an unclear sales strategy blurs priorities and trade-offs for sales teams and does not consistently attract, engage, or retain top sales talent. Top performing sales reps want leaders to provide a strategic rudder to help steer important decisions and consistently beat the competition.

Sales Execs Must Be Crystal Clear on Sales Goals (Where the Team Is Headed) and Sales Strategies (How the Team Will Get There)

The good news is that sales targets are typically very clear and easier to construct when compared to goals of other organizational functions where it is often more difficult to definitively measure success. 

Once you have clear and meaningful sales goals, the sales strategies to achieve those objectives must include an implementable plan of action and be supported by a well-articulated rationale. Otherwise, you run the risk of having aspirations without a winning game plan. I hear about this problem from far too many CEOs who are frustrated with the high aspirations but average performance of their sales teams. Far too few sales leaders are able to clearly and simply articulate the critical few activities that would truly advance their sales organization. 

A good sales strategy guides the undertakings of the entire sales organization, provides rationales for resource allocation, and sharpens decision-making at every level. Meanwhile, a bad sales strategy creates ambiguity and opens the door to politics, bad choices, chasing the wrong deals and lower performance. 

Here are seven warning signs of strategic sales ambiguity. If you observe any of the following in your sales organization, it is time to increase your strategic sales clarity before you increase the pressure on your sales team to perform at a higher level:


#1: Too Many Sales Priorities

Fundamentally, sales strategy is about making choices and focusing on areas (for example, customers, markets, territories, accounts, opportunities, products, and solutions) with the greatest leverage. If the sales force is unsure about “what to do” and “what not to do,” priorities, opportunities, and initiatives tend to multiply with different and often conflicting strategic directions. When sales leaders do not agree on major priorities, resources, funding, or timing, the burden rolls downhill and creates confusion and a loss of focus. If your sales strategy contains more than five major priorities, do what it takes to trim the list by determining what really matters most. While it is hard work, strategic sales focus really pays off. When done right, it stops your people from being stretched too thin and reduces the competition for limited resources with conflicting goals.

#2: Shifting Sales Priorities

Priorities that shift frequently based on reactions to outside or emergent events typically lack a solid direction as guidance. Without a true North, it is easy to fall prey to the urgent instead of the important. It also becomes difficult not to chase the “shiny object” (Think: a bad customer, a bad opportunity, or a bad deal) or the loudest voice (Think: the highest performing sales rep that you do not want to disappoint). If key accounts, opportunities, or initiatives often languish or get off track, or if the sales plan or methodology is not being executed consistently throughout the sales organization, chances are your sales strategy and plan is not compelling enough to focus the troops. While it is natural for priorities to evolve as you prototype and learn, it is not effective to constantly change the game or chase opportunities outside of your sweet spot or brand promise.

#3: Relationships Rule

When sales goals are vague, “who you know” can become more important than “what you do.” Ambiguity creates a corporate version of "survival of the fittest" that gets played out with power plays, turf battles, and deceptions that hinder progress. People start caring more about whom they sit next to at meetings and dinners than adding value. Employees ingratiate themselves with powerful individuals and create the “halo effect” for themselves, while often taking undeserved credit, hoarding information, and tarnishing reputations when it furthers their interests. Strategic sales clarity and performance accountability is a great panacea for an overly political sales culture.

#4: Lack of Accountability

Even with clear sales quotas, uncertain sales strategies and plans provide a wonderful opportunity for under- and just-average-performers to hide. Without clear direction regarding target clients, differentiation, and sales plans, it is difficult to identify and take action against sub-standard performance—especially in a team-based selling and service environment. Without the positive performance pressure to improve, team-based targets tend to slip amid a plethora of excuses. Additionally, high performers end up feeling that the performance management system is not only confusing, but unfair and inaccurate. It does not take long for your star performers to realize that elevated results are unappreciated. When this occurs, “A” players tend to coast and look for better opportunities where their contributions will be more valued and better rewarded.


#5: Lack of Collaboration

If your sales, marketing, service, and support teams are not effectively and consistently working together, chances are they are having trouble distinguishing between priorities and strategic imperatives. While many leaders mistake this warning sign as personality conflicts, we find that unclear goals and roles are the root cause of most internal clashes. Unless your strategy points your key players in the same direction with clear goals and roles, your path will be impeded by silos, internal battles, and confusion. If your sales reps are spending too much time “selling” internally to get their deals through, you have a big problem.

#6: People Consistently Ask for More Clarifying Information Before They Act

Troublingly common (yet most shocking) for sales leaders who think they have provided clear direction is the situation where employees “do not get it.” Successful strategy implementation requires marketing, sales, service, and support functions to not only clearly understand the strategy but also how their work directly contributes to that strategy together. An approach that does not provide coherent direction to their work has little chance to make a meaningful impact. If you want improved sales performance, be laser sharp when it comes to the choices, priorities, and actions you want middle management and their direct reports to take across the entire company. This organizational alignment takes communication, involvement, and persistence.

#7: Leadership Problems

Many sound strategies fail because the leaders responsible for execution fail to provide the direction and sponsorship required for success. Some leaders may be afraid to speak honestly and openly about potential obstacles and concerns. This can cause people to lose faith not only in the strategy, but in their leaders. If your people do not believe that your business or sales strategies is equal to the challenges faced by the organization, your hard-worked plan will not get very far. To combat this, leaders must be authentic, visible, and clear about what is expected and why. They should solicit and incorporate feedback, identify key barriers to change, and co-create an action plan with key stakeholders. To truly lead, executives must listen, guide and reinforce all the way to the finish line. 

Bottom Line

Understanding the business strategy is a first step. Creating a clear, believable, and implementable sales strategy based upon your market and business strategy is the second step. Executing it is another step. To effectively move from creation to implementation, make sure that your sales strategy is clear enough, compelling enough and believable enough before you move into action. 

About the Author

Tristam Brown is chairman and CEO of LSA Global, where he is responsible for the overall strategic direction and management of the company and client services. He has more than 25 years of consulting and management experience. Prior to joining LSA Global, he served as vice president of organizational strategies at Proxicom, an e-business consulting and development company, where he ran human resources, organizational development, recruiting, training, and internal communications. He also previously he served as chairman of the National Outward Bound Professional Committee and director of Outward Bound Professional for the West Coast, where he ran the corporate leadership training and consulting division for Fortune 1000 Corporations. He currently serves on the boards of Outward Bound California, the Chief Learning Office Business Intelligence Board, and Advertising Audit & Risk Management (AARM).

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