One of the best books ever written about selling is David Dorsey’s “The Force,” in which Dorsey focuses on a Xerox sales team in Cleveland, Ohio. In it, Xerox is missing a large strategic point: More and more copies are being handled by printers linked to personal computers, not by copiers. The disconnect between sales and strategy is the hidden subtext of the book.
Twenty years later, the real lesson of the Xerox story may seem obvious. The disconnect between strategy and sales is costly, dangerous and pervasive. Selling is the most expensive part of implementation for most firms. Yet relatively few strategies – some studies indicate fewer than 10% – carry through to successful execution and, on average, companies deliver only 50% to 60% of the financial performance that their strategies and sales forecasts promise.
One problem is that in business schools, daily practice and strategic planning, sales and strategy are treated as separate. Sales advice usually revolves around a combination of “reorganizing” and “incentives.” But sales reorganizations are always costly and risky because they disrupt established call patterns and client relationships. Appropriate incentives are a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of getting field behaviors to align with company goals. You can’t substitute money for management.
Consultants and trainers also treat selling in isolation from strategy, and so the focus of much sales training can have a perverse effect: People work harder, but not necessarily smarter.
Finally, the planning process in firms generates a disconnect. The average corporate planning process takes four to five months per year. While that is going on, the market is doing what the market will do, and sales must respond issue by issue and account by account. The planning process itself often makes it irrelevant to sales, which is responsible for executing strategy in daily interactions with customers.
Linking sales efforts with strategy is vital for profitable growth and must be a two-way street. In any business, value is created or destroyed in the market with customers, not in planning sessions or training seminars. Without credible sales input, any strategy runs the risk of dealing with yesterday’s market realities. Conversely, daily selling efforts constrain and redirect strategies in often unintended ways. Selling in your firm can’t generate sustained returns if it’s not linked to your strategy.
(Frank Cespedes is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and faculty chair of the HBS Executive Education Program Aligning Strategy and Sales.)