Far too frequently, sales professionals are left to navigate their own journeys. They’re slapped with a quota and are defined by whether they hit this challenging milestone. Each quarter, it’s wash, rinse, and repeat. It’s a tough life. And it’s becoming more and more challenging: since 2012, there’s been a marked downtown in the number of salespeople who successfully hit their quotas.
Although many factors have contributed to the decline in sales quota attainment rates, a major contributor has been the ineffectiveness (or lack) of a sales support organization. Without a dedicated sales support organization, sales professionals will inevitable struggle and fail to hit quotas.
When most companies begin to scale their sales organizations, their natural inclination is to increase the number of customer-facing salespeople. New research published by Harvard Business Review indicates that this strategy may not be advantageous. Researchers concluded that top performing and lower performing organizations (as measured by sales ROI) have an approximately equal percentage (~30%) of customer-facing sales people. What sets the top performing organizations apart from the rest, however, is the number of operational and administrative sales team members (~27% vs. 12%, respectively).
This new research ought to come as a wakeup call for sales organizations. Specifically, it should inform hiring strategies and other initiatives moving forward. The Harvard researchers explain, “only by putting into place and optimizing the right levels of support can companies hope to get the greatest growth from their sales organization.”
Unfortunately, sales organizations appear to have overlooked the importance of building out a dedicated sales support organization. A 2015 CSO Insights survey asked respondents to outline their top three sales objectives for 2016. Top responses shed light on the fact that sales support was not top of mind. Top responses included: “capture new accounts” (58%), “increase sales effectiveness” (40%), “optimize lead generation” (39%), and “increase existing account penetration” (30%). Ironically though, when asked to identify the top sales management barriers to achieving these objectives, responses were closely related to a lack of sales support. Top responses included “lack of a common sales process” (20%), “ineffective sales process”(20%), “onboarding new hires take too long” (19%), and “low sales process adoption” (12%).
In addition to undervaluing the importance of a dedicated sales support organization, many organizations mistakenly assume that sales support primarily entails support from sales managers. This is not the case. The McKinsey survey found that a 1:8 sales rep:manager ratio represents a “sweet spot” in terms of performance levels. Lower performing sales organizations typically had ratios above 1:10 or below 1:5. These results are telling as they imply that lower performing organizations are either under-led or over-managed. Importantly, merely increasingly the number of managers won’t do the trick.
In order to successfully foster a well-tuned sales support organization, consider three best-in-class strategies:
First, establish clearly defined roles. The McKinsey researchers underscore the need for a clearly defined sales process with well-defined roles. “If roles are not clear and separate, customer support will quickly become an afterthought with no one accountable.”
Second, integrate analytics. Keep abreast of new sales enablement tools in the form of sales playbooks, predictive and prescriptive sales technologies, and data hygiene tools. These tools can also help empower sales professionals to devote more time to selling and reduce “administrative burden”. According to CSO Insights, sales professionals spend a staggering 21% of their time generating leads and researching accounts (equivalent to about one work day each week). Not surprisingly, a measly 9% of sales professionals are “very satisfied” with their current time management allocation (almost half feel they don’t have the time to focus on strategic priorities). Sales enablement tools can also help inform pricing strategies (optimal product pricing has been cited as the sales function that drives the greatest impact on sales productivity). Additionally, keep abreast of new trends and research related to sales excellence. Recent research, for example, has found that gamification can help increase quota attainment rates. A study by Aberdeen Group found that in the presence of gamification 85% of reps hit quota and 51% of new hires achieve quota in their first year. In contrast, without gamification, these percentages plummet to 78% and 42%, resp. Finally, keep in mind that it’s okay to be experimental and test out multiple tools and strategies. According to McKinsey, “the best companies are willing to adopt an experimental approach, continuously testing tools, analytics and features to make sure they are in line with how their sales teams sell and with what customers want.”
Third, create a dynamic sales process. According to CSO Insights, sales organizations can be grouped according to one of four levels related to their sales process. Level 1 (“random process”) includes organizations that lack a clear process and allow salespeople to use sales tools in an ad hoc manner). Level 2 (“informal process”) includes organizations that have a sales process but don’t actively enforce it or measure its effectiveness. Level 3 (“formal process”) includes organizations that enforce and review their sales process and spearhead changes as they see fit). Finally, Level 4 (“dynamic process”) includes organizations that dynamically monitor sales processes, continuously provide feedback to salespeople, and proactively enact changes as market and other dynamics change.
Just as football teams need cheerleaders to support them as they compete, sales professionals need their own cheer squad in the form of a well-developed sales support organization. The 2016 Sales Performance Optimization Study found that nearly two-thirds of companies intend to increase the size of their sales force. Companies that allocate headcount only for front-line roles are likely to be at a disadvantage. Top performers will use additional headcount to build out a dedicated sales support team. They’ll recognize that sales support entails much more than managerial oversight and ad-hoc sales training.