Messages that Matter: Selling Lean


Posted By Dr. Tom Sant | Dec 12, 2011


The Development of Lean Thinking

One of the most fruitful movements in business during the past twenty years or so has been the development of Lean Thinking. Championed most notably in the auto industry, it has spread to other industries as well. Using careful measurement of performance in real-world settings, Lean Thinking focuses on identifying the activities that create value, determining the optimum sequence of activities, eliminating those activities that add no value or that produce waste, enabling the customer to "pull", and then improving the process again and again.

The Lean Thinking movement identified seven forms of waste in manufacturing environments that needed to be eliminated. Three of them involve people and their activities — using extra or unnecessary processing steps, engaging in unnecessary motion, and waiting. Three sources of waste involve product quantity — overproduction, moving things around, and carrying inventory. The final one involves product quality — fixing defects.

Identifying & Eliminate Waste

Now I invite you stop for a moment and ask yourself: doesn't this mode of thinking about work, of identifying waste and of optimizing performance, apply to sales?

For example, what are the activities that create value in sales? What is the optimum sequence of those activities? In answering those questions, we define the ideal sales process for our business. Unfortunately, many businesses simply buy an off-the-shelf solution, something recommended by this guru or that, something that purports to magically boost win rates, and impose it on the sales force. Is it working? Nobody knows. Is it efficient? We're too busy worrying about revenue to look at that.

And what about the issue of identifying waste? If we analyze the typical sales professional's workstream, we might find a lot of waste in there. In terms of people-based waste, we might find that some sales people are required to fill out forms and file expense reports, update customer data in a CRM system, run around dealing with collections, or just wait for approvals from management to move forward — activities that have nothing to do with actually selling something. Sometimes sales people are required to use methods of selling that became irrelevant long ago.

For example, many banks require their sales people to present a "pitch book" to a prospective client. But the pitch book is typically a self-centered hymn of praise to how mighty the bank is. It seldom focuses on the prospective client or their industry. And it almost never encourages an open conversation between the sales person and the client. It's a one-way presentation, it's old fashioned, it doesn't work, and yet most banks still use it.

How much of this kind of waste goes on in sales? It varies from company to company, of course, but the answer is a lot. Several years ago George Smith analyzed sales processes in terms of wasted time and motion and found that the typical business-to-business sales person was involved in actual sales activities less than 40% of the time. Over 60% of his or her work week was wasted. Sales automation and customer management tools that were supposed to make the situation better have, in some cases, made it worse.

What about waste that relates to the quantity of product being produced? Well, before we can answer that, maybe we need to define what the "product" that a sales process produces actually is. I'd argue that it's a decision. The output of our process is a decision made by the customer. And our role as sales people is to facilitate decision making by providing the right information and insight at the right time. If you're willing to go along with me on that definition, the sources of waste in sales involve finding the right information, positioning it effectively for the given prospect, and dumping too much information on the prospect.

The seventh source of waste in Lean Thinking terms — quality — is pretty easy to define. If we allow that the product of our sales process is good information that helps the customer make a decision, then providing faulty, inaccurate or erroneous information is a huge source of waste. But it happens every day because sales people are under pressure to respond to prospects and to move deals forward, so they grab whatever they can find. Working with a major telecom provider years ago, we found that they had eleven different Web sites with product information from which sales people were cutting and pasting content. And seven of those Web sites were effectively dead! No one was maintaining them and some of them contained telecom products that the firm didn't even offer.

Embrace Automation & Start Selling Lean

Automation came to manufacturing first, then to fields like accounting and data processing. Sales was one of the last fields to take advantage of information technology and automation. The same is true of Lean Thinking. But those sales organizations that learn to recognize waste and drive it out, who focus on creating lean metrics that support efficiency and effectiveness, will be the victors. They're the organizations that will close more business, waste fewer resources and opportunities, and increase their margin.

If you would like to discuss ways to deliver the right information at the right time to support a lean sales organization, give us a call. We're leaders in providing tools and processes that add value and drive out waste.

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