Change Sales Behavior: It Fails, Most of the Time…

Research conducted by both the Sales Benchmark Index and Gallup indicates that individuals fall into three distinct groups when it comes to their attitudes toward sales change:

• 20 percent of people are early adopters. These are the people who immediately embrace change.

• 60 percent of people are “fence-sitters,” as Greg Alexander, CEO of Sales Benchmark Index, puts it. These individuals resist change in a passive way, neither supporting the change initiative, nor directly acting against it.

• 20 percent remaining are entrenched in their own methods and will not accept the change. The reason that such a low percentage of salespeople are willing adopters of change, Alexander says, is that frontline management and executives have not provided a clear link between what the change means for the organization and what it means for the individual. In other words, salespeople wonder: What’s in it for me? And, will the change really stick this time?

In 1996, John Kotter published “Leading Change”. Considered by many to be the seminal work in the field of change management, Kotter’s research revealed that only 30 percent of change programs succeed. Since the book’s release, literally thousands of books and journal articles have been published on the topic, and courses dedicated to managing change are now part of many major MBA programs.

Yet according to article “The irrational side of change management” by Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller published as a McKinsey Report in April 2009; a McKinsey survey in 2008 of 3,199 executives around the world found, as Kotter did, that only one transformation in three succeeds. Other studies over the past ten years reveal remarkably similar results. It seems that, despite prolific output, the field of change management hasn’t led to more successful change programs.

“It also hasn’t helped that most academics and practitioners now agree on the building blocks for influencing employee attitudes and management behavior. McKinsey’s Emily Lawson and Colin Price provided a holistic perspective in “The psychology of change management,” which suggests that four basic conditions are necessary before employees will change their behavior: a) a compelling story, because employees must see the point of the change and agree with it; b) role modeling, because they must also see the CEO and colleagues they admire behaving in the new way; c) reinforcing mechanisms, because systems, processes, and incentives must be in line with the new behavior; and d) capability building, because employees must have the skills required to make the desired changes.”

In their research and by working with companies attempting change, Aiken & Keller have identified insights into how human nature gets in the way of successfully applying the four conditions (noted above) required for behavioral change. As they describe these insights, they’ll show how various companies have, either by conscious awareness or simple luck, overcome or leveraged counterintuitive sides of human behavior in making change happen.

Creating a compelling story: Change-management thinking extols the virtues of creating a compelling change story, communicating it to employees, and following it up with ongoing communications and involvement. This is good advice, but in practice there are three pitfalls to achieving the desired impact.

1. What motivates you doesn’t motivate most of your employees. We see two types of change stories consistently told in organizations. The first is the “good to great” story: something along the lines of, “Our historical advantage has been eroded by intense competition and changing customer needs; if we change, we can regain our leadership position.” The second is the turnaround story: “We’re performing below industry standard and must change dramatically to survive. We can become a top-quartile performer in our industry by exploiting our current assets and earning the right to grow.”

These stories both seem intuitively rational, yet they too often fail to have the impact that changes leaders’ desire. Research by a number of leading thinkers in the social sciences, such as Danah Zohar, has shown that when managers and employees are asked what motivates them the most in their work they are equally split among five forms of impact—impact on society (for instance, building the community and stewarding resources), impact on the customer (for example, providing superior service), impact on the company and its shareholders, impact on the working team (for example, creating a caring environment), and impact on “me” personally (my development, paycheck, and bonus).

This finding has profound implications for leaders. What the leader cares about (and typically bases at least 80 percent of his or her message to others on) does not tap into roughly 80 percent of the workforce’s primary motivators for putting extra energy into the change program. Change leaders need to be able to tell a change story that covers all five things that motivate employees. In doing so, they can unleash tremendous amounts of energy that would otherwise remain latent in the organization.

2. You’re better off letting them write their own story. Well-intentioned leaders invest significant time in communicating their change story. Road shows, town halls, and Web sites are but a few of the many approaches typically used. Certainly the story (told in five ways) needs to get out there, but the insight we are offering is that much of the energy invested in communicating it would be better spent listening, not telling.

3. It takes a story with both + and – to create real energy. The “deficit based” approach—which identifies the problem, analyzes what’s wrong and how to fix it, plans, and then takes action—has become the model predominantly taught in business schools and is presumably the default change model in most organizations. Research has shown, however, that a story focused on what’s wrong invokes blame and creates fatigue and resistance, doing little to engage people’s passion and experience.

 “The fact is that human begins consistently think they are better than they are – a phenomenon referred to in psychology as a self-serving bias.”

This has led to the rise of the “constructionist based” approach to change, where the change process is based on discovery (discovering the best of what is), dreaming (imagining what might be), designing (talking about what should be), and destiny (creating what will be). The problem with this approach is that an overemphasis on the positive can lead to watered-down aspirations and impact. The reason is that, as humans, we are more willing to take risks to avoid losing what we’ve got than we are to gain something more. Some anxiety is useful when it comes to spurring behavioral change.

Role modeling: Conventional change management suggests leaders should take actions that role model the desired change and mobilize a group of influence leaders to drive change deep into the organization. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily deliver the desired impact.

4. Leaders believe mistakenly that they already “are the change.” Most senior executives understand and generally buy into Gandhi’s famous aphorism;  “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

They commit themselves to personally role modeling the desired behaviors. And then, in practice, nothing significant changes. The reason for this is that most executives don’t count themselves among the ones who need to change. How many executives when asked privately will say no to the question, “Are you customer focused?” and yes to the question “Are you a bureaucrat?” Of course, none.

Consider that 94 percent of men rank themselves in the top half according to male athletic ability. Whereas conventional change-management approaches surmise that top team role modeling is a matter of will or skill, the truth is that the real bottleneck to role modeling is “knowing” what to change at a personal level.

5. “Influence leaders” aren’t a panacea for making change happen. Almost all change-management literature places importance on identifying and mobilizing those in the organization who either by role or personality (or both) has disproportionate influence over how others think and behave. We believe this is sound and timeless advice. However, we have observed that the role of influence leaders has gradually shifted—from being perceived as a helpful element of a broader set of interventions, to a panacea for making change happen.

Reinforcing mechanisms: Conventional change management emphasizes the importance of reinforcing and embedding desired changes in structures, processes, systems, target setting, and incentives. We agree. To be effective, however, these mechanisms must take into account that people don’t always behave rationally.

6. Money is the most expensive way to motivate people. Companies that try to link the objectives of change programs to the compensation of staff find that it rarely enhances their motivation for change to the extent desired. The reason for this is as practical as it is psychological in nature. The reality is that in the vast majority of companies, it is exceedingly difficult to incorporate a meaningful link to the change program within compensation systems that are based on a vast array of metrics. Moreover, many studies have found that for human beings satisfaction equals perception minus expectation (an equation often accompanied by the commentary, “reality has nothing to do with it”).

7. The process and the outcome have got to be fair. Employees will go against their own self-interest if the situation violates other notions they have about fairness and justice. In making any changes to company structures, processes, systems, and incentives, change managers should pay what might strike them as an unreasonable amount of attention to employees’ sense of the fairness of the change process and its intended outcome. Particular care should be taken where changes affect how employees interact with one another (such as head count reductions and talent-management processes) and with customers (sales stimulation programs, call center redesigns, and pricing).

Motivating Salespeople and Sales Organizations to Embrace Change: Building on the aforementioned discussion: Some sales practitioners say; “millions of dollars are wasted every year on sales training programs that are designed to change salespeople’s behavior and they don’t generate any extra sales. Corporate giants and small start ups spend massive budgets on bringing in outside training companies and get no return on their investment.”

“I have never seen a salesman, or woman, sell more for any length of time, after attending a sales training program. You can’t instill a lasting change of any significance by sending someone on a short course to learn sales skills.” 

“Salespeople get distracted with the day to day problems, and the new sales method  gets forgotten, and salespeople go back to the same old ways of selling with the same old marginal results.”

However, there are some methodologies and programs that embody the basic principles of change and have demonstrated a higher rate of success for affecting change in sales behavior, e.g.; winning sales organizations embrace sales change with methods that are based on “principles”, “process”, “discipline”… The practices of these programs are based on a very simple philosophy, as quoted by the Chinese philosopher Confucius;    “What I hear, I forget; what I see, I remember; what I do, I understand.”

Basic Elements for Changing Salespeople and Sales Organizations are as follows:

Create a powerful coalition: The promoters of change must involve all levels of management: CEO, executive team, sales leadership and frontline sales manager, and they must all drive change on a day-to-day basis. The sales leadership must involve frontline managers in the change initiative by demonstrating to them that they are solving a problem or embrace an opportunity.

Keep the process simple: Use this rule of thumb: “Whenever you can’t describe your vision in five minutes or less, you’re in for trouble. That means your process is too complex. If the sales force can’t grasp how the change will help them retain and acquire more customers, they’re unlikely to participate in the initiative.”

Explain why a change is needed: Why would anyone change a process that seems to work? People won’t accept change unless they believe the change will truly make a difference. It’s important to explain to the sales force why the change is attainable and quantify for them what the benefit will be if they embrace the change.

Create short-term wins:  “Sales leaders must work to get short-term wins with the new initiative and then promote the victories. That allows momentum to build and highlight success; it raises the confidence level for the change, and those responsible for implementation realize it’s attainable.”

Focus on adoption, reinforcement and culture: Change initiative must be institionalized in a company’s culture and the process continually reinforced, and performance numbers consistently delivered, over a period of time.  Greg Alexander at Sales Benchmark Index says that “sales leaders make a conscious attempt to show salespeople how specific behaviors and attitudes have improved performance. By making the change something that affects individuals, it becomes something that salespeople will do in their own self-interest. That’s how a change initiative stops being something that people resist; and starts being the way things are done.”

According to Alexander, “Sales leaders can take another step to make sure everyone is on board by positively reinforcing the early adopter sales people; those 20 percent who adopt the process early, and by removing those who have demonstrated they won’t change. Sales leaders need to work within the process to keep the early adopter salespeople in early-adoption mode, and prevent them from falling into the 60 percent who passively resist change. Rewarding early adopters defends against a future change-weary attitude. Passive resistance is often borne of failing to see the results of too many change initiatives.”

Alexander continues and says, “Show the ‘fence-sitters’ that they should emulate the behavior of the early adopters by highlighting and rewarding them when they have a success as a result of the new process. “And, if you ask the bottom 20 percent; people who won’t change, to leave, the middle 60 percent will realize there’s equal consequence for not getting behind the initiative.”

When sales leadership displays commitment and demonstrates to the sales team that change will positively affect them as individuals, it will make a difference. A successful change initiative avoids common pitfalls; particularly tolerating complacency and permitting obstacles, measures progress, creates accountability for individual salespeople as well as frontline management, and encourages executive sponsorship.”

Changing Sales Behavior is a Realistic Expectation: Real-life successes suggestions that combination of methodologies and Alexander’s philosophies can have a significant impact effectiveness in changing sales behavior.