Black Box Selling – lifting the lid.

If you’re wondering if this is something to do with Matthew Syed’s excellent book Black Box Thinking, it isn’t.

(Although it is an excellent book – add it to your reading/audio list.)

Talking specifically about sales – or whichever term you use for those people who are responsible for finding, retaining and maybe occasionally losing customers for your business – it is almost always the one area of an organisation where an absence of process severely limits the effectiveness of the function. (To be clear – we’re not talking about sales as an enquiry/order processing function but what happens between your representative meeting a prospective customer and securing an order.)

Typically a ‘salesperson’ will conduct themselves in a way that is comfortable and specific to them and they are managed in a similar fashion. Management look for results, some deliver, some don’t. The results are the outputs, the inputs are ‘leads’ and the bit in between is a black box. No one really knows what happens in there.

Low functioning sales ops

So many sales operations are running entirely on recruiting people who have a black box that is good enough to keep their job.  Occasionally a ‘good sales guy’ appears but the majority aren’t bad enough to fire but aren’t good enough to promote. Companies end up with a sales team comprised of people practising mediocrity for as long as they can. Of course they are decent people, they appear to be trying hard and looking busy but the results are acceptable not sparkling.

If there was a comparative index for sales performance most would score average to low. Management struggle to move beyond this because they have no way of opening up the Black Box and figuring out how to optimise the ‘input to output’ system.

Their approach comprises of some combination of trying to recruit the right people, firing their failures, leading from the front (superhero syndrome), investing in technology enhancements (CRM’s etc.) and randomly sending people on bits of skills training or a team building/motivational session in the hope that some of it might work.

In short they are focused on the result, not really on understanding the process that delivers the result.

Focus on the process.

If you managed something like a manufacturing operation in the same way you would be relying on skilled craftsmen to ‘make it like that’ and using the quality of the final product to determine if you needed to fire one of them and try your luck recruiting a new one. Not many companies would be viable on that basis.

To start to make a change and move beyond this mediocre state of affairs you need to introduce two things. Firstly, a process around which you can build your system (The simple N-M-A model- Need, Money, Authority) is a good place to start and secondly, adopt a developmental approach to your sales team.

The second point means that you need to become comfortable with coaching, mentoring and training your sales people. As a sales manager/director, it helps if you have the same, so find someone who can help you in the same way. It’s not an admission of failure to do this – most successful people already understand the value of it.

The process will provide a common standard against which you can communicate more effectively with your sales people – you need to cut through the subjectivity resulting from conversations like;

‘How was the meeting with A?’

‘Great, they were really interested and I need to send them a x/y/z by the end of the week.’

You should be qualifying your salespeople’s conversations in the same way they should be qualifying their prospects. The more you do this the greater the accountability of the individual.

The more you do the more you get.

The more you work around a sales process the more the benefits are amplified. For example, a common process leads to more in depth team discussions and helps the exchange of skills and techniques between team members. Your coaching conversations will identify the specific qualities that are effective in your salespeople, this in turn can be incorporated into your recruitment process, (what do you mean you don’t have one of those either?)

One thing to be aware of though is that the people in sales functions may not be naturally in tune with this approach. Their decision to choose a sales career may have been because they were  ‘good with people’, ‘action orientated’ or ‘not a detailed person’. All of which mean they prefer to get busy without too much attention being paid to what, why, where or how.

Attempts to qualify their approach can be met with resentment, suspicion and outright hostility – to them it represents a threat to their way of doing things or your confidence in them. If you get a bad case of that it’s a fair indication that you have a sales ego on your books, which is a whole separate issue.

If you are beginning to build a sales function or you anticipate being in that position in the next few years, don’t think it is too early to develop your sales process. As in any other aspect of your business building process from day one enables scalability and rapidly pays dividends as you grow.

If you are wondering if we could perhaps help you with that drop us a line at

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