I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.
– Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors
All progress depends on feedback, learning, and adaptation. Progress is thwarted when feedback loops are cut. And, in turn, there is enormous value in capitalizing on the power of feedback loops.
This thought came to mind recently when the term “last mile problem” entered a conversation about today’s field sales organizations.
It’s a term I’ve heard used in other circumstances, most especially related to telecommunications. In fact, the last mile problem is very much bound up in the “net neutrality” debate that’s recently been in the news.
You see, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently ruled that it must regulate Internet service providers (ISPs) – the ones who control the last line (metaphorically, “last mile”) of cable into your home – the same way it ruled AT&T when it was a recognized monopoly in the 20th century. And, at present, 60% of consumers effectively have no choice when it comes to their ISP.
The FCC is concerned that cable and telecommunication companies (such as Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon) will abuse their last mile connection to consumers to control, block or unfairly meter services offered by companies on the Internet. Netflix, which represents as much as 30% of downstream Internet traffic at peak times, is one party that advocated something called Title II regulation (first introduced in 1936). While evidence is scant that these telcos and cablecos have harmed consumers by impeding access to Internet services, the FCC wants to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.
The interesting point about added regulation is that it often ends up helping the regulated parties create new barriers to entry in relation to potential competitors. Economists call this phenomenon “regulatory capture.” Implications? It simply becomes too expensive to overcome all the regulatory costs and uncertainties necessary to get in the game. That may explain why Google (which runs Google Fiber, an alternative to Comcast, Verizon, etc.) was resistant to the FCC’s heavy-handed approach.
Excessive regulation, in other words, interrupts feedback loops. It makes the big bigger and the strong stronger. (ISP stock valuations certainly haven’t suffered in relation to news of new regulation.) And it restrains new forms of growth and innovation.
So how does the last mile problem – the problem of feedback and progress – relate to field sales?
At present, companies have no eyes and ears on what field salespeople are doing in the field when they meet with customers. What’s more, sales managers struggle to manage, coach, and evaluate the performance of their people. Since they can’t actively see what sales professionals are doing day to day, they tend to take a rearview mirror approach.
In other words, salespeople are judged on whether or not they hit their quota. How they hit or don’t hit this quota remains largely mysterious. There’s very little feedback, learning, or adaptation. Even CRM usage is declining, according to recent research from CSO insights.
Contrast this state of affairs with what’s happening with inside sales organizations. In the highest performing firms, these teams are actively monitored and coached. All activity is visible. Conversations are often recorded and digital streams are actively tracked. As we’ve written elsewhere, inside sales teams are “on the grid” while field sales teams are largely “off the grid.”
Over time, this factor will have major implications in terms of sales performance. In fact, this is already happening and it helps explain why money is on the move and it’s finding its way into sales activities that don’t suffer from a last mile problem. What’s interesting is that companies keep trying to raise field sales performance by trying to replicate the behavior of their best performers – the so-called “sales eagles.” But here’s the thing: the eagles have no particular interest in sharing their secrets. And it’s not clear at all that their approaches will scale to the rest of the sales organization, particularly in the years ahead.
You’re better off leaving the eagles alone. Let them soar and continue killing their quotas. You don’t have to drag them on the grid if they don’t want to be there. You’re better off concentrating on the performance of your sales force’s next-generation and next tier of performers.
So now it’s time to begin asking how you might address the last mile problem in your field sales organization to ensure your newest people, your average performers, and your underperformers are meeting their potential.
One of the most powerful ways of engaging a distributed sales team in this fashion is through an approach that’s been dubbed “sales huddles.” The idea is to get your team together – virtually in most cases – on a periodic basis and immerse the group in a specific issue or topic.
You might have a curriculum of sorts that you wish to address with different subjects progressively over time. You might explore issues such as account targeting and research, discovery techniques, conversation skills, and storytelling. Perhaps you are huddling around a Sales Playbook – addressing a different aspect of that playbook at every meeting. Separate huddles might revolve around territory or account strategies when a team is involved.
Just try to keep it brief. It’s best to run huddles that last 20-30 minutes and occur no more than once a week (maybe just once a month in some cases). The objective is provide a forum where learning can occur, key success factors can be introduced and reinforced, and tribal knowledge can be shared.
It’s difficult for many sales team members to be cut loose from the tribe in a typically distributed organization. It can be isolating and de-motivating.
Sales huddles, when effectively facilitated, enable the team to interact more frequently and stay on top of key issues that are vital to their performance. They raise team morale and encourage collaboration.
And by making discussions playful and engaging, you can gather insights from the field. You learn what’s working and what is not. You make feedback loops shorter and stronger. By addressing the last mile problem, you put your team first.