Any advice for someone (me) in sales who fails to see how lean can help?
Dear Gemba Coach,
Our company has a long history of lean in manufacturing, but I work in the sales department. We have our own sales improvement method, and I fail to see how lean could help, but I’m under pressure to comply and participate in the lean program. Any advice?
Ah – advice on resisting (that’s easy: just don’t do it, it’ll pass), advice on how to do lean in sales (I’m not sure I know), or advice on how lean could apply to a sales department?
Let me say I completely understand your reluctance and will attempt to discuss this from a different angle. The definition of lean I learned from Toyota is “to make products, first, we make people.” In this case, we would be thinking about “to make sales, first, we make salespeople.”
And immediately we hit a snag and confusion in understanding lean. This brings us to three really, really hard questions:
- What is a good sale (as opposed to a bad one)?
- What does it mean to be a good salesperson?
- How can lean help develop better salespeople?
The guys who invented lean at Toyota (the Toyota Production System), were the same people who had learned to build cars from scratch, then built factories over paddy fields, then concluded they’d never be competitive with U.S. automakers because of their low volumes. They had to find some other way to be competitive – and the whole thing was unlocked when Taiichi Ohno came up with kanban (and, truth be told, when Eiji Toyoda figured out the “chief engineer” system in product development). To understand lean in sales, we need to first understand sales, then the sales process, and then, only then, how lean can support both.
First, Look at Ticked-Off Customers
Lean tools are nothing but a learning scaffolding to help people stretch themselves outside their comfort zone and learn new things, but too often lean specialists confuse the scaffolding with the building itself, and it all becomes absurd real fast.
What is a good sale? The core of Toyota’s strategy is “one-time customer, lifelong customer.” A good sale, in that sense, is one that will lead to a repeat sale, one where the customer will feel good about his or her purchase and come back for more. Obviously, this is not only dependent on the sales department since the value of what you sell really matters, but sales can assist by helping customers see how the product or service you sell actually fits their real-life needs.
The first step here would be to take a step back and look at customers we’ve sold to who are not happy with their purchase. I realize that this is not a popular exercise with a team of salespeople who, more than anything, need to be motivated and optimistic (Sure, nine have said “no” but the tenth will be the deal of the century). But that’s the starting point of lean thinking.
As an exercise, I’d take a page from Amazon’s book and look into how good your department is at consoling the people who come back and complain (You’ll never hear about those who are just not happy and drop the case altogether). The entry point to lean is to overinvest in the service and response department and link it to sales so that the sales team really understands what customers experience – without systematically throwing the stone at production and delivery.
So far, no “lean” is involved other than finding a way to discuss with the sales team cases of unhappy customers and figure out what is sales contribution to the unhappiness. Customers are pleased with themselves when they feel they’ve found a bargain (I’m a great purchaser) and pissed off when they figure out they’ve been sold a lemon (I’ve been suckered). What can we do to handle expectations in order to, in lean thinking:
Point towards the most advantageous features of the product to customers according to what we understand is their real need YET not oversell the product or service just in order to get them to sign on the dotted line – they’re going to have to live with the sale afterward.
Second, Look at What Good Salespeople Do
Which brings us to the second point. Once we have a clearer idea of “what is a good sale,” as well as “what is a bad one,” we can ask ourselves the question of the skills needed to babysit a good sale. Now, here we have a real mystery: on the one hand, sales techniques are all the same and known to all. On the other, a few salespeople always visibly outperform the rest. What is it they do?
Think about it this way: in production, most operators in Toyota are 20% to 30% more productive than their equivalent in any other production line. Are they more motivated? Maybe. Are they more skilled? Certainly. But when you look closely enough, you discover that they work with two hands at the same time as opposed to one at a time. It’s massively quicker. But 1/ it’s hard to learn and 2/ it has to be taught all the time.
The mystery is therefore to discover the equivalent micro skill in your own selling situation.
Once you’ve figured out what is the detailed thing star salespeople do the others don’t, you can start training everybody to this micro skills, but since it’s usually something hard to see, and that maybe the good salespersons don’t know about, you’ve got to be looking for it.
And this is where lean can help.
First, set up a kanban. A Toyota production line gives the impression that it’s mass production because all cars are processed in a conveyor queue, but the reality is that there are no two cars alike. Each car has a “kanban,” a unique identity card with its chassis, options, color, etc. that helps everyone truly build cars one by one.
Rather than look at the day’s sales opportunities and pick the most promising ones to move them along the process, create a visual line, like at a restaurant, that visualizes opportunities as they arrive – large and small, easy or hard. Customers are served one by one, in the order in which they arrive. This will, in all likelihood, be resisted by the team that will have found some internal system to attribute what to whom.
Then, for each sales opportunity, sketch a “kanban” – what is specific about this person, what are they looking for, what do we have in stock that would be a good match, and how are we going to get them over sales fright and establish trust. (We are all scared of talking to salespeople because they know all the tricks to get money out of our pockets and we don’t.)
And then sell. But …
Second, create a space to visualize and discuss abnormalities. Set up a regular meeting with the sales team to discuss cases that should have gone sweetly but then something happened to turn the customer off. Yes, I know what I’m asking, and yes, some teams love it and some teams hate it. The point of the kanban is not to let individual salespeople pick their favorite victims, and the point of discussing what went wrong is not to fix it immediately but to stretch our understanding of the sales conditions.
For instance, there’s such an emotional component to selling that we can’t ignore moods – the customer’s mood, the salesperson’s mood, the team’s mood, the day of the week mood, and so on. In exploring what are normal or abnormal conditions, we will stretch our exploration beyond the narrow one-to-one sales tunnel and look around: what is the context? who is the real decision maker? What are the green buttons and red buttons? What do we do or say that builds trust, or destroys it in one unhappy line, joke, form not filled in, etc.
Which leads us, third, to check our sales standards and best practices for these elusive micro-skills that distinguish smart salespeople from the rest. We know there’s a knack in it somewhere, we don’t know where, so the only way to look is to discuss cases one-by-one to see whether our known standards apply or not – or whether we’re completely missing the one thing that matters.
I have limited experience with sales, but the greatest salesman I know (he sells high- priced equipment) has told me he does essentially two things:
- Establishes a personal connection on a detail with the customer (anything, where they come from, what color they like, whatever). He does this by observing and never asking questions, never being intrusive.
- Understands that customers usually come in fixated on a product model because they think it solves a practical problem for them. Of course, they have other constraints that make this one product unpractical, if only price. He figures out what the problem they’re pinned on is and orients them to other solutions that better fit their several constraints, and gets them to pivot and switch to other models.
I honestly don’t know whether this is what actually makes him so good at selling – he’s a rather quiet guy, with a reserved demeanor, neither particularly smiling or chatty, and the opposite of the smarmy salesman you can imagine. But the fascinating part is that these two specific micro skills are not particularly highlighted in the company’s “how to” sales manuals and training. They’re in there but drowned in with everything else from how to sell financing to doing the proper paperwork for accounts. This is very context related – in another small company I know that sells to large corporations, the basic sales skill is knowing how to resist purchasers’ relentless pressure on price regardless of any other outcome consideration.
At this stage, fourth, kaizen team efforts can be really helpful to get the team to examine how they process both customers and paperwork (proposals, responses, etc.) and tackle issues one by one to forge a better team – the usual lean recommendation is one hour per week for the team to work on improving something in the way they work. The difficulty is to make sure they don’t take the path of least resistance and improve things for them, but truly focus on how they can hone their sales skills as a team – how they can help each other to better take care of customers. Kaizen is about looking for improvement potential, analyzing the current way we do things, coming up with new ideas and trying them until we forge, progressively a stronger culture.
Finally, fifth, find some ways to visualize successes and progress for the sales team, beyond objectives. Invent trophies. Sales is a rough job because, emotionally, it involves keeping up optimism in the face of people saying “no.” Visualizing progress is really important, or better, visualizing happy customers, testimonies etc. that nudge the team to look beyond “making the sale” to “creating a lifelong customer.”
Again, please remember my disclaimer that I’m not a sales expert, but as the CEOs I know look at lean as their strategies, in many companies, they’ve had to look into what happens in the sales department (often a “fortress”) and answer your very question for the sales teams. I believe though, the potential for lean is the same in sales as in everything else, but the trick is focusing on sales first, not just lean!
Is kanban relevant to office work?
Dear Gemba Coach,
I understand that kanban is an important part of lean, but I work in an office environment, and it’s hard to see how production orders on cardboard cards relate to improving project management – what am I missing?
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I read everywhere that in lean we should focus on process over results – does that mean we ignore budgets?
Dear Gemba Coach,
I read everywhere that in lean we should focus on process over results – does that mean that we need to ignore budgets altogether