Play Safe or Get Creative

A couple of nights ago I enjoyed several cheeky drams with an old pal around Manchester’s wannabe-bohemian Northern Quarter. He was keen to disparage Consultants as we watched a barman amazingly finish off his cocktail-making with a piece of brulee burner theatre.

The last time one of my clients employed such resource, the impact was a mixed bag. The company retained was Bain, tasked with introducing a new sales strategy that would break my client’s perceived cycle of “cutting costs and raising prices” each time they were in trouble.

The client MD raved about the Bain crew. He left for pastures new around a year later, which in itself is an insight into the strategy’s eventual results. When I (admittedly briefly) met some of their team myself, I was struck by the absence of passion, verging on disinterest. The troops also got wind of this, and mutterings akin to “take your watch to tell you the time” predictably emerged.

Yet I for one enthusiastically agreed with the main thrust of Bain’s findings. The unbreakable wall that their strategy crashed into involved implementation of the central tenet; a new sales management process.

I’ve two degrees, many years of sales experience and consider sales strategy almost a hobby. I was not alone in finding its spreadsheet reporting core incomprehensible.

Reminded of this tale, I went onto the Bain website and was delighted to find a section of case studies where you could match yourself against their top thinkers, as part of interview preparation.

It only takes a few minutes, but even from question one you can see how they think. What hits you is how relatively simple it is to deduce which answer Bain consider “right”, even as the task leaves multiple-choice constraints.

The other worry is more severe. There is no sparkle in any of their recommendations. Each option taken seems the safe one. It’s a consult-by-numbers process that will inevitably, like my spectator experience a few years back, fail to fire up a workforce.

And I say this as a fan of Consulting. I even conduct similar projects myself. There are absolutely times when a company should hire from outside to make change. And let’s not forget that you should not confuse ‘basics’ with ‘safe’, as Bain’s approach does ask correct and fundamental questions, such as why keep selling the lowest margin products?

Although I do not run a Sales Consultancy as such, the last time I was asked to “consult” in these terms was on a new product launch. My proposals where ranked on a scale of evolution to revolution. And thinking back now, my client really bought into the mindset of judging a possible action by where it sat between the poles of incremental marginal differences through to radical paradigm-shifting. What was interesting was how, when pointed out how left-field an idea might be, its attractiveness grew. I wonder if this is a trait that’d be replicated across all sales leaders as, by default, are they are more inclined to view themselves as renegades?

The most obvious topic of sales strategy that comes to my mind that just about every salesforce I’ve ever encountered could do with, is that of ‘process’, extending to its alignment with buying types and management alerts.

Re-engineering your operations to follow a best-practice sales process can hardly be considered a ‘safe’ option, yet how often do you find yourself erring on the side of caution by opting to try and emulate what you did yesterday, only a little bit better, rather than attempting to steer a new course entirely?

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