7 steps to an exceptional sales organisation

Culture  Leadership
06 February, 2017

How can we build a great sales team that hits the bull’s-eye, time after time?

Consumers are engaging with brands in amazingly new ways and technology is profoundly changing how we sell. In this evolving landscape, the role of sales becomes even more crucial. And for our sales team and our approach to be a differentiator, it is important to build an enabled, passionate and empowered sales organisation, supported by intelligent tools and processes.

I am delighted that Parveen Dalal has written this week’s piece. Parveen, as many of you know, leads our India sales team and our Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar businesses. Over the last few years, under his leadership, our sales organisation has taken significant strides to become more future-ready.

Please read on…

In a survey conducted by Bain & Company with 120 consumer goods company CEOs, 90% ranked salesforce effectiveness as one of their top 5 priorities – with less than 50% of them being of the view that their sales teams were operating near full potential.

This leads us to the obvious question – how does a company build a great sales organisation?  Should it target hiring and retaining a group of great salespeople with the belief that the coming together of these individual sellers will lead to the desired outcome?  Or is too simplistic a thought?  Imagine a football team full of stars with each one of them targeting individual glory – a recipe certainly not meant for greatness.  The super salespeople function in no different in this manner – with each aiming for what he or she thinks is the right objective and playing to their own strengths. This would naturally lead to a less than optimum delivery of the company’s objective.  From a company perspective, a great sales team would be one which delivers the desired objective period after period and helps it out-perform the market.

Based on my experience and learnings, I have attempted to lay out my recommended 7 steps to a great sales organisation:

1. Alignment with company strategy

John F. Kennedy had said it well, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction”. 

Before you start planning for the path to greatness, it is vital to have a clear, unambiguous understanding of what is expected out of the sales function in view of the overall strategy.  While “revenue growth” would be an automatic answer almost everywhere, it comes with its own nuances.

For instance, for a B2B company the growth could be driven either through the same set of accounts (perhaps by selling more products or services to them) or by tapping into a new set of accounts (while offering already existing products or services).  Similarly, in the B2C space, growth could either come by share gain in existing categories or by expanding into newer ones. In a company with diversified offerings – the objective could well be a balance of aggressive growth in low share and new offerings while sustaining shares in the other set of its offerings.  Growth could also come by getting into new geographies – be it extending into new geographies within the country or going across the globe.

Growth also depends on the stage the company is at – for a startup, growth would be the only imperative, while for an existing company top-line growth will come factored with elements such as overall cost productivity and the need to increase profitability as well.

In the absence of the above understanding, the design & scale of the sales organization would end up being flawed. It is essential to understand the direction that the company is taking.

For us at GCPL India, it is the alignment at this stage that sets up grounds for the much-desired collaboration between the marketing and sales function required to ensure that we meet our objectives. As we drive premiumization and expand our portfolio in existing offerings and add to our category presence, the implications in terms of increasing complexity, the requirement of developing new channels (E-commerce, Chemists & Cosmetics), developing team capability to juggle multiple initiatives, widening our brands presence etc. have to be factored in.

2. Sales strategy for competitive advantage 

Once you know which direction you are headed in, the blueprint on how you plan to get there needs to be drawn up in a manner that it provides a competitive advantage.

For doing so, the levers of growth & performance (will it be width of coverage or the mining of accounts or relationship management or better execution etc.) need to be identified along with the market and competitive dynamics. The areas where the intent is to out-perform the market should be fleshed out.

For instance, for a consumer goods company, it could well be driving greater share in a specialized channel or simply having the widest coverage in a geography while in the B2B space this could be building stronger relationships in a certain vertical.  As an example, for us at GCPL India in the hair colour category, the sales blueprint needs to factor in that rapid expansion of distribution would go a long way in building a sustainable advantage in the hair colour space over our competitors at the national level. Analyzing the competition in the Crème space (the fastest growing sub segment) would point us towards its relatively sparse availability and the over-dependence on indirect distribution.

The blueprint document must lay out the collective priorities, key result areas and answer the questions of who does what, as well as where and how they do the same. This would form the basis of resource allocation and deployment and ensure that the sales force is focused on what matters the most.

3. Organize – structure and process

The importance of having a structured sales force which strives to exceed the objectives can’t be overstated and is borne out by the results that it delivers.

In interviews conducted by Steve W. Martin (University of Southern California Marshall School of Business) with over 780 business leaders, respondents from over 50% high performing companies stated that they had a strictly enforced or closely monitored sales structure compared to only 28% of the respondents from underperforming companies.

The structure needs to be designed and deployed basis clearly defined strategic fit criteria considering both the market potential or opportunity size and the cost to serve. In effect, the deployment must consider not only the revenue aspect but must also address the aspect of how the resources can be deployed most gainfully. This decision would tend to be guided by the stage at which the company is in or the priorities for the planning period.

You need to address both quantity (width of coverage, span, frequency of connect) and quality (internal vs. external, specialist vs. generalists) while laying out the same.

A relevant example within the GCPL India fold would be of the sales team structure for B Blunt. The brand in its infancy needs to be established in the specialist cosmetic and salon channel – a blind spot for the generalist, mass coverage sales team.  Given the smaller size and the fact that it is in its start up stage, the topmost priority has to be ensuring presence in the relevant channel through a specialized sales force. Cost and productivity, in this case, would become more relevant as the brand achieves scale.

For the rest of the business (in the mass coverage space), as we chase higher growth through rural, which has an in-built higher cost to serve model, the approach that we follow is to ensure a wider coverage but through an outsourced resource model.

Post the structure being in place, it is advisable to turn your attention to the processes which will govern the “last mile” or how you want the sales people to connect with the customers and what you want them to do.

The processes that you ask the team to follow must be defined after evaluating the key drivers of the results that are desired and targeted.  For instance, a consumer goods company could well identify the key drivers of revenue as being a wider availability of brands, the right assortment at the stores, impactful visibility which ensures consideration etc. and as such the processes it devises must focus on these elements. On the other hand, a B2B team may identify account conversion as the key determinant of success and as such would have to define processes which focus on ensuring a greater number of calls, a higher conversion rate and building a now and future order pipeline.

My advice while designing the processes would be to avoid over complicating the process design as it prevents repeatability. It is particularly important to focus on optimize your sales operations. Maximize time for selling and relationship building.  Look to streamline your processes, wherever possible.

Also, manage your partners as an extension of your sales organization. Work on improving your partners’ performance the same way as you do with your sales teams. Understand their strengths and weaknesses. Help improve their economics. A strong symbiotic relationship can be a big competitive advantage. Resolve any conflicts head on.

4. The talent aspect

While the first 3 steps define the goal and outline the approach to getting there, a company will not get there if it does not have the right set of people. Both capacity (the numbers) and capability (to achieve) have to be addressed.

The first step would be to ensure that you have the right leadership talent across all levels. While a lot of this has to do with the right hiring, hiring alone will not do the trick. As such, continuous training to build capability and develop competencies is a must do! In sales, it is about managing and leading people – not an easy task when you are not doing the selling (or most of it) yourself.

I would cite as an example the close collaboration between the GCPL HR and the sales teams to continuously identify the competencies that the frontend salespeople need to work on as business evolves and becomes more complex. It is as an outcome of the same that we continuously roll out initiatives such as the 9-Box module for our distributor sales reps and the more recent EMBED initiative to improve analytical skills of our field team members.

It is often said in sales that a bad salesperson will only adversely impact one territory while a bad manager would impact a much larger geography.

Talent, once in place, needs to be continuously encouraged and motivated to deliver.  Compensation (including incentive) programs need to be devised in a manner that they are fair and transparent – rewarding what is directly attributable to the efforts and is measurable.

In addition, the right support and firepower need to be made available to the salesperson be it the deployment of technology (tools to help sell, providing actionable information or otherwise), apt administrative support and policies (to eliminate time spent in non-selling activities), forecasting tools and the logistical help required to help deliver the sales goals.

For us, the deployment of the sales portal (DRISHTI) was an important step in reducing the time spent by our team members in data collection and reporting. Alongside, our incentive plan, Abhilasha, rewards delivery on the identified business metrics which span both the end outcome and the levers which result in the same.

High performing sales organizations realize that talent must not only be recruited right, but also be developed, motivated and supported consistently.

5. Execution – the key to getting it done!

Unless the well-crafted strategy is converted into clear and actionable steps, it remains quite pointless.  As Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy state in their seminal work Execution – The discipline of getting things done, execution must be a core element of an organisation’s culture. Quite often the difference between a successful and a failed strategy lies in its execution.

For a salesforce to excel, it is imperative that it follows a systemic approach of questioning, analyzing the why and the how’s and follows through rigorously to achieve results.  It starts with the communication of expectations, setting up of ambitious but fair goals, following up on the right metrics through review and monitoring, putting a review cadence in place and holding members accountable.

“What you ask is what gets done” is a simple saying but serves one well when designing for the reviews that are intrinsic to getting goals met.

For example, Bharti Airtel (one of my previous organizations known to excel at Execution) had a system of a weekly review at the managerial level of the key sales parameters of new acquisitions and relative share while the marketing team was reviewed on the revenue generation through voice, data usage and value added services.  Given the dynamics of the Indian telecom space, the frontend team had taken this to a daily level, ensuring faster corrective action and decision making.

Meaningful performance reviews and ensuring accountability often differentiate between the successful and the not so successful companies.  Over 65% of the respondents from high performing organizations reported having a system to measure the salespersons on performance against less than 45% of respondents from the underperforming organizations, based on research by Steve Martin.

Given the extensive amount of data that is now available, analyzing and synthesizing information wisely can greatly aid execution.  Mastering how to use data and develop insights is key to selling more and selling better. You can use micro analysis to surface growth opportunities at a granular level.  Harvesting this data can greatly improve speed and improve decision making. A more data driven approach can help you avoid bad decisions.

And lastly, leaders would do well to remember that execution is the senior leader’s job even more than the person out in the field.

6. Creating a winning culture

As you put the science into practice and build a great salesforce, attention will need to be paid to ensuring that the right culture sets in – the culture of winning by focusing on and doing the right things!

What goes into creating such a culture?

I wouldn’t risk putting the variables into a mathematical equation but for me the key elements would be:

  • Consistent and repeated communication by the sales leaders about what the goals are and how they are to be delivered. Over-communication is better than doing it less
  • Collaborating: Technology, increasing demands from consumers and channel proliferation require sales to work more closer with other functions such as marketing. Don’t make the sales organization an island
  • Walking the talk by the leaders as they depict and demonstrate the behaviour and the actions they want the team to replicate
  • Building it through the incentive plan which must reinforce the metrics and the outcomes that you wish the team to deliver
  • Celebrating the successes in a manner that rewards and recognizes the right behaviour and outcomes. Success stories go a long way in ensuring replication of the desired behaviour!

7. An eye on the future

A great salesforce needs to balance the quarterly beat with a longer-term vision. While meeting the quarterly objectives, it is also important to think about what will drive success over a 2-3 year timeframe. For this, it must address the dual challenges of complacency and the risk of being disrupted in the fast-evolving world.

Easier said than done!  Especially when the team has tasted success and outdone itself.  The solution to this would lie in the response of the sales leaders to success. As they reward and recognize the success, they must deploy the right processes to identify potential improvement opportunities and ensure that the same are built in the next period plans. Have a forward perspective that is both strategic and tactical. Continuously scan the horizon, monitor trends, assess changes in consumer buying behaviour and invest ahead. Unlike perhaps in other functions, in sales, it is important to move fast.

The steps that we are taking towards developing and deploying trade promotion management in both general and modern trade, building the all new shopper insighting discipline and leveraging the power of big data through predictive analytics to aid front end selling are all for making the future brighter and more secure.

As the team adapts and improves, it must be ready to disrupt and reorganize itself if required, especially in these times where fast evolving technology is giving birth to new opportunities while making old business models redundant. While a team may not be the disruptor itself, it must be ready to be a fast follower and out execute others to repeat its successes.

The critical aspect is that the leaders must be open to and be on constant lookout for new ideas and practices and improvements, in order to continue to excel. Investing in small pilots and experimenting could well be the way to identify the way to future success. Being complacent is likely to make success elusive in the future.

It is my belief that a sales organization, which embeds these steps and builds in the necessary system to ensure that the 7 step practice is repeated, will find sustainable and consistent success.

This ends the piece. Honestly, this was much tougher than delivering the quarterly numbers. 🙂

Many thanks for Parveen for taking the time to write such an impactful piece. As we try to accelerate our growth and sharpen our differentiation, living up to these 7 principles will greatly help us.

As always, we welcome your perspectives.


  • Swati Verma says:

    I would like to add that the most important link in the entire sales process is the front line sales person. His/her enthusiasm, integrity and energy at work can create a great difference in the growth of the business. However, there are limitations to that:

    1. The job is physically demanding and therefore has a high attrition rate especially with women sales persons (in case of FMCG products)
    2. The community does not show great respect for field sales people. Therefore most graduates do MBA thinking that this will be a route to getting a comfortable desk job and the role would be to make fancy presentations and build strategies
    3. Opportunities for lateral movement from sales to marketing/supply chain/finance rarely exist within organisations

    If the organisation supports the team on these aspects, I am sure that if you ask a youngster what will be his/her dream job, he/she will say “To excel in Sales”.



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