An In-Depth Interview with Harvard Business School Professor Frank Cespedes: Sales Management That Works

How to Sell in a World That Never Stops Changing

Rather than moving sequentially through the sales process, buyers now progress in parallel activity streams – explore, evaluate, engage, experience – as they make a purchase decision. While selling is changing, much of the conventional wisdom about the impact of e-commerce, big data, AI, and other megatrends on sales is misleading and not supported by data, declares Harvard Business School professor Frank Cespedes.

In SALES MANAGEMENT THAT WORKS, Cespedes separates signal from noise and truth from hype. Selling and profitable growth today involve a combination of factors: a coherent strategy, relevant hiring practices, and incentives, and ongoing performance management that motivates the right behaviors in the face of many changes outside a company’s control. Cespedes provides data, examples, diagnostics, and insights in five key areas:

People  Hiring is tougher as selling becomes a more data-intensive activity, and companies already spend 20% more per-capita on sales training than in other functions. But most hiring and training practices only exacerbate the difficulties and, as Cespedes points out, “customer focus” remains a perennial slogan but not a behavioral reality at most firms.

Process – Without a coherent sales model, selling is a series of individual activities. As the lines between online and in person sales are blurring, companies need to rethink—and reconstruct—their current sales models and this has implications for customer selection, deployment, metrics, and compensation plans.

Pricing – In a changing landscape, pricing can build or destroy profits faster than almost any other business activity. Linking pricing with a value proposition, sales model, and selling behaviors is essential, and in information-rich markets price testing is especially important. The book discusses how to do that and why, despite conventional wisdom, value-pricing approaches are now more possible in many categories.

Partners – Buying is now a dynamic process where a prospect and order touch multiple points in the distribution channel for most products and services. Hence, selling now means working with partners that are influential during the buying journey and after the sale. The options have increased, and so has the managerial complexity. Realigning the role of channels in sales programs is critical.

Productivity – Customer acquisition plays an essential role in a company’s success, yet many C-suite leaders are out of touch with sales activities. Leaders need to close this gap and, especially in services-dominated economies like the U.S. and many other nations, increasing sales productivity is a social responsibility of management as well as essential to profitability and growth.

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