Top performing sales teams aren’t just teams, their training isn’t just training, and they don’t just use software. The best sales organizations are much more than a collection of parts - they’re a coordinated system made up of many smaller and interrelated systems.
To achieve a coordinated sales system that supports top performance, sales leaders must think beyond point solutions and individual performance. In a recent interview with Ross Arnold, a systems engineer for the US Department of Defense, we discussed the concept of systems thinking and how it can be used to solve large, complex problems.
This week, I spoke with Mike Kunkle, recognized sales thought leader and VP Sales Effectiveness at SPARXiQ, about how we can apply systems thinking to solve the problems of the sales organization.
Kunkle uses a definition created by Daniel Kim of the MIT Center for Organizational learning to answer the question of “what is a system?”
“A system is any group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent parts that form a complex and unified whole with a specific purpose.”
Systems thinking, he says, is thinking about problems and their solutions with the understanding of their relationship to the systems they interact with.
To understand what a system is, he uses the analogy of a human body. The human body consists of a large number of interrelated systems - the circulatory system, nervous system, respiratory system, digestive system, muscular system, and so on. Together, they form the system that is the human body.
When all the systems in the body are working together, the body functions well. When one system is not functioning properly, the body as a whole will suffer.
But some systems are more important than others. To illustrate this point, he uses the example of a car, which is also made up of systems. Exhaust system, safety system, power train system, etc. If the safety system fails, the car will still function, even though you might not want to drive it. If the starter system fails, you might be able to jump it and drive it to the mechanic. If the engine fails, however, the car will not drive at all.
In a thriving sales organization, we also have multiple interdependent systems. Hiring systems, compensation systems, learning and development systems, coaching and management systems, readiness systems, technology systems, and more. And some of these systems are more critical than others, and some are dependent on others.
Kunkle says that in many sales organizations, problems are viewed in isolation rather than in relation to their systems.
For instance, an organization may want to focus on creating effective strategy and tactics, but every time a problem occurs, they get distracted. He calls it the “master of disaster” problem - sales leaders can get addicted to solving immediate problems and never address the root of the problems.
“It’s an executive overreaction to the last bad thing that happened,” he says. “Then everybody has to stop and focus on this thing, which might be minor, but something bad happened and we’re determined to put energy into it.”
He says it reminds him of his stepdaughter when she was nine and playing peewee soccer.
“There’s no such thing as position in a peewee soccer league,” he says. “At least not at first. Anywhere the ball goes, there are girls in pigtails going there. There’s no strategy and no one is going to win games that way.”
When sales leaders don’t step back and look at the system and root cause of a problem, they force the whole team to chase balls instead of developing winning strategies.
When sales leaders do start thinking about strategy and systems, one of the problems almost everyone faces is overwhelm.
For one thing, sales leaders rarely have the luxury of focusing only on the system. Demands from leadership, stakeholders, and the need to stay in business force most sales leaders to play a dual role - meet the numbers today, while creating a more predictable and successful future for tomorrow.
Secondly, the overwhelm comes from the fact that every sales organization consists of many, many interlocking systems.
Unfortunately, the way most sales leaders deal with this overwhelm is by tackling pressing problems as they arrive, and constantly finding point solutions to address whatever is urgent. This leads to point pollution and the Hydra problem, which I’ve discussed extensively elsewhere.
Kunkle says instead that sales leaders need to carve out time to look at their organization from a systems thinking perspective.
“You have to take a step back and look at all the many systems that make up the sales organization,” says Kunkle. “Then you think about all of the pieces that affect the sales value chain, from talent, to go to market strategy, etc. And you start putting systems in place, one at a time.”
By taking a step back and evaluating all the systems together, he says sales leaders can then evaluate and prioritize where to begin. And it’s not always going to be in the same place. Some organizations may not be hiring for several months, so addressing the hiring system is not the right place to start, for instance; while others may have a pressing talent issue they need to address with a system right away.
In many cases, the right place to start is with understanding what your best salespeople are doing right, and building systems to help others in the organization do the same. Tools like Membrain and services like Kunkle’s organization can help establish these systems.
Another way that sales organizations get systems thinking wrong, says Kunkle, is by forgetting that the customer has their own systems and that, in many ways, those systems are more important than your own.
“We talk so much about buyer personas,” says Kunkle, “but then the way we go about building them is all internal, feedback from marketing and sales, without going out to interview buyers and find out what they’re really thinking and how they actually work.”
If you understand how the buyers are operating as a system - what challenges and opportunities they have, the impacts of their problems on other aspects of their system, what needs are created by the decisions they make, and what outcomes they’re looking for within their own systems - you can radically change and improve how you approach them.
When you understand the customer’s systems, you can better organize your own systems to meet their needs.
Kunkle says it’s important to tackle your systems gradually rather than trying to do everything at once. And once you’ve nailed one system, such as your customer approach, then you can tackle the next on your list based on priorities and dependencies.
He says more about how to do that, and specific approaches, in the latest episode of Stop Killing Deals, which you can watch here.
How much thought have you put into your sales systems? Which systems need your most urgent attention? Tell me about them in the comments.
George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.
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