When is a sales force agile?
Many sales forces want to become agile. However, this desire often stems from a gut feeling rather than a concretely defined idea of what makes an agile organisation different from a non-agile one. Conversely, many sales managers and their employees think that they have already been doing what is being sold as an “agile revolution” by numerous self-proclaimed masterminds, apparent innovators, cosmopolitan consultants and dynamic managers in various forms – only under a different name. This is partly true and partly not.
The Agile Manifesto as a source
The question of what an “agile” sales force is and what it is not is a comprehensive one. And in a certain sense also a question of faith. Here, too, it makes sense to go back to the source. What the Bible is to the believing Christian is to the agile movement the Agile Manifesto. It therefore forms the basis of these considerations. What does the Agile Manifesto define as the goals of agility, and what conclusions can be drawn from this for the modus operandi of sales forces? Sales organisations, when they follow the words and spirit of the Agile Manifesto, work differently from traditional sales organisations in three areas:
- In the way they work with the customer,
- how work is done within the team
- and how management leads its teams.
In this article we focus on the relationship between the sales force and the customer.
Customer relationship as the core of the Agile Manifesto
The relationship with the customer was particularly important to the fathers of the agile movement and is therefore dealt with in detail in the Agile Manifesto. The highest priority is therefore customer satisfaction. This is achieved primarily through three types of behavior:
- The close involvement of the customer in the development process and the frequent delivery of manageable services whose quality and usability the customer can immediately check.
- Through the continuous creation of added value. In the Agile Manifesto, the added value for the customer consists in the delivery of “valuable” software (functions), because it was originally written with software development in mind.
- By making reflection on one’s own actions and the continuous improvement of quality central goals, because only by doing so can one learn to work efficiently. The Agile Manifesto describes efficient working with the expression “Simplicity – the art of maximising the amount of work not done”.
Three examples of agile implementation
Three examples illustrate how organisations are implementing the key points of the Agile Manifesto listed above:
The example of proposal preparation
While joint product development with customers and partners is now standard practice at many companies – think, for example, of Hilti, Villeroy & Boch or the numerous special-purpose machine manufacturers in the automotive value-added chain – this method of working known as “co-creation” is not yet very widespread in the sales forces. Large companies in particular use a highly structured sales and quotation process. The account manager identifies the customer’s requirements or, in the worst case, reacts when a request for quotation flutters on the table. A quotation is then created and presented to the customer. Often there are separate departments that create the quotations for the customer in a perfect form. The process is thoroughly organised, optimised by division of labour and spares the salesperson the details of preparing the offer. However, this has a decisive disadvantage: once the offer is fully formulated and is in the hands of the customer, the train has left the station in terms of content. The possibility of involving the customer in the development of content-related options in the sense of value selling is completed when the fully formulated offer is submitted.
The psychological hurdle for the account manager to once again turn to the neatly elaborated service descriptions is high. Instead of discussing possible alternatives in terms of content, the customer will also prefer to do something else: talk about the price. And the manufacturer is already in a price war.
Sales forces, which implement them in line with the Agile Manifesto, work out the offer together with the customer from start to finish. They let the customer help them prepare the offer. They don’t send the customer finished documents, but instead send drafts in stages, which they go over again and again with the customer until the customer says: “This is exactly the offer I wanted. Each new iteration of the quote corresponds to the new iteration, the Minimum Viable Product that the Fathers of the Agile Movement had in mind when they wrote the Agile Manifesto.
Does this mean that in the future the account manager should write all offers himself again? No, it does not. The account manager creates added value for the customer from Scrum in the sense of the Product Owner. He is the link between customer and offer creator. He makes sure that the customer is not cut off from the quote creation after the problem definition, because this disappears in the back office of the manufacturer. And he makes sure that the quotation is coordinated with the customer bit by bit, whereby he must convince the quotation department of such a procedure.
From “One Face to the Customer” to “One Message to the Customer”
Especially in B2B and business with strategic key accounts, many companies apply the mantra “One Face to the Customer”. Customers appreciate having a fixed contact person they trust and do not have to deal with new contacts all the time. This is often the right thing to do. However, according to the studies by Tuli, Kohli and Bharadwaj, the way in which customers feel added value in the purchasing process has undergone a fundamental shift.¹
xplaining the solution, which used to be the main task of the contact person, is hardly necessary nowadays for the increasingly well-informed customer. Instead, the customer appreciates the manufacturer’s help in understanding the specific problem. Does he really need a CRM system, as originally thought, or do successful competitors now use fully automated sales systems that not only give them a strategic advantage, but also make CRM superfluous? Manufacturers generate added value for their customers by helping them to define necessary solutions in a way that is open to results. Manufacturers who have a broad view of customer needs in the market and are able to form flexible alliances with partners have a clear advantage here. In addition, customers expect to benefit from the manufacturer’s experience in implementing the solution. The manufacturer generates further added value for the customer by helping them to derive maximum benefit from the solution and at the same time ensuring that employees understand the many possibilities of the new solution and use them accordingly.
A sales force acts agile in the sense of the Agile Manifesto if it adopts this customer perspective and does not adapt the solution to its own structure for the customer, but organises the sales resources flexibly according to the customer priorities. In concrete terms this means that the account manager arranges an interdisciplinary team. Like the partners in a management consultancy, the responsibilities change: For example, while in the “problem definition” area a business development specialist leads the team instead of the account manager, in the “solution definition” area a product developer leads the team, in the “implementation” area a technician leads the team and in the “ensuring customer value” area the account manager himself. Instead of one account team there are now four Scrum teams, each of which works together to create a value-added service. The account manager slides from the head of the team into the role of the product owner, who is part of each of the teams and – if the customer really values the “one face to the customer” – is the central customer interface. However, he no longer has veto rights over what is delivered in the four areas.
In the new sales world described by Tuli, Kholi and Bharadwaj, the activity of the salesperson increasingly resembles that of a management consultant rather than that of a traditional account manager focused on selling specific products and solutions. As the technical possibilities converge and the offerings of the various manufacturers become more and more interchangeable, the added value manifests itself more and more in the way the sales force works and less in what it sells. The customer buys the team, its characters and its competence. With this in mind, a customer told me a few years ago, after I had carried out a major transformation project for her as a member of a management consultancy: “We knew that this project was uncharted territory for you too. But we did not buy the project, we bought the team.” It’s important that everyone on the team speaks the same language to the client. “One face to the customer” thus becomes “One message to the customer”.
Example Sales Meetings
If you ask a sales representative what the aim of the sales meetings he has to attend, the answer will in most cases be: “So that my boss knows and the numbers are right! The exchange of data and information is good in itself, but it is not agile. A sales force acts in the sense of the Agile Manifesto when this data and information is used to reflect on the work of the team and its members and to derive from it opportunities for problem solving and for the further development of the team as a whole and of the individual members. This attitude is reflected in a few very specific behaviours:
First, the reflection of the team’s work is institutionalised. Regular win/loss analyses are a good start, but they often relate solely to the results of the work with the customer. In the spirit of the Agile Manifesto, if the question “What did we achieve and why was the deal successful or not” is followed by the question “How did we work together as a team in this case, and how can we ensure that we will work even better as a team next time?”
A meeting fulfills the efficiency requirement of the Agile Manifesto if it maximises the benefits for the individual participants. A mere presentation of numbers certainly does not do that. Managers and participants can read through the figures before the meeting. They then have something to gain from the meeting when they learn something that will move them forward in their deal or their way of working. This is the case when problem-solving is discussed; when participants share their experiences; when they have clarity about where they need to improve and how to do so. A manager who holds sales meetings in the sense of the Agile Manifesto therefore goes into the meetings prepared – just as one would expect from a Scrum Master. He has already derived hypotheses from the numbers where, for example, problems lie. He then verifies these with his team and discusses how problems can be solved.
The efficiency requirement of the Agile Manifesto is also fulfilled by strict time boxing: Sales meetings only last the estimated time, and the time frame for the individual agenda items is also precisely defined. Detailed discussions and anything that cannot be completed in the time allotted are moved to separate meetings. So that no topics are lost, all follow-up activities are recorded in to-do lists.
Is that agile now?
Some of the points listed above have certainly been implemented by sales teams for a long time, others are relatively new. “Agile sales” is also a very broad term that covers more aspects than the relationship with the customer alone. In another article, we will look at the implications of the Agile Manifesto for the work within the sales team and for the management of the team.
 TULI, Kapil; KOHLI, Ajay K.; and BHARADWAJ, Sundar G.: Rethinking customer solutions: From product bundles to relationalprocesses. (2007). Journal of Marketing. 71, (3), 1-17.
Dr. Michael Scherm has published further articles in the t2informatik Blog:
Dr. Michael Scherm
Dr. Michael Scherm began his career in 1999 as a management consultant in Washington D.C. and subsequently worked on customer projects for IBM, Microsoft, British Telecom, SAP, Mastercard and other companies in the USA, Europe and Asia-Pacific. After working in London and Singapore, he returned to Germany in 2009, where he became sales manager of a medium-sized German software company. From 2011 to 2020, Dr. Scherm was a partner at NewLeaf Partners Europe GmbH, a service provider specialising in sales effectiveness. Since 2020, he has been active as an Agile Coach and Scrum Master at ODAV AG.