By Doug Bartholomew
Having managed a global product line — and worked in manufacturing, R&D, product development, and supply chain management — during a career of more than two decades at General Motors and Delphi Corp., consultant Brent Wahba has a unique point of view on how organizations can most effectively solve problems. A specialist in lean and problem-solving strategies and techniques, he is the author of the book, The Fluff Cycle (And How to End it By Solving REAL Sales and Marketing Problems). Wahba , who teaches a workshop on Lean in Sales and Marketing, shared his ideas with LEI on how lean thinking and practice can be applied to sales and marketing.
LEI: Why sales and marketing?
Wahba: Sales and marketing is a very under-served part of the continuous improvement world. When trying to change the way a company works, sales and marketing has a lot of leverage in the organization. When you focus on improving sales and marketing processes, you can achieve some pretty big gains.
Many companies aren’t pushing lean beyond manufacturing, but they have sales and marketing problems and have a need for tools that will enable them to improve these processes.
LEI: How is lean in sales and marketing different from more traditional applications such as manufacturing?
Wahba: Most of the concepts are the same, but when it comes to the processes that are part of sales and marketing and how to improve them, there are some important differences. In lean, we constantly improve our processes, culture, capabilities, and tools so we can create and deliver more value to customers. We do that by constantly solving problems—which is no different whether we are manufacturing toasters, managing a hedge fund, or performing market research.
In lean manufacturing, we also follow a standardized, step-by-step method to guarantee that the output always meets the customers’ needs. Similarly, we can do this in sales and marketing by standardizing things such as managing sales orders, mailing catalogs, or forecasting sales. But for some sales and marketing processes, there are no guarantees we’re always going to make a successful sales pitch or valuable product innovation—even when we follow our best practices.
For instance, processes such as market research, market development, advertising, and selling require different problem-solving methods, including repeated cycles of learning, creative production, and influencing others’ behaviors using consumer psychology. Thankfully, these improvement techniques still line up with the scientific method, so they aren’t too difficult to learn and apply.
LEI: What is the scientific method, and how does it apply to sales and marketing?
Wahba: The scientific method consists of observing a phenomenon, creating a hypothesis about how it works, thoroughly testing that hypothesis, and then either capturing the learning if our model is correct, or trying again if we are wrong. Humans are actually born with this thinking process hard-wired into our brains, and we use it predominantly until we gain the language and memory skills to start memorizing facts.
We can apply the scientific method to sales and marketing to better understand what customers value, how to provide that value with products and services, and how to influence them to buy our products and services. We should also apply it more often to problem-solving—for example, when we are trying to figure out why a prospect isn’t calling us back, or why our really funny Super Bowl commercial hasn’t produced more sales. Instead, we tend to use the inaccurate “gut feel” and over-simplified mental models for how customers, competitors, and organizations really work. It takes a conscious effort to get back to basing most decisions on real data, but this is the only approach we know that really works.
LEI: Can you give an example of how a specific lean principle, such as customer pull, applies to sales and marketing? Isn’t sales and marketing in the business of pushing messages at prospects?
Wahba: Unfortunately, there is still a lot of the old “spray and pray” method of broadcasting message to customers and hoping for the best. “Pull” means we are going to provide what customers need—when, where, and how they need it. When we are selling, we don’t want to overburden customers by pitching when they aren’t ready to hear our messages or buy our wares, or even pitching the wrong products and services when they are ready. The customer journey that we always talk about is really a process. It’s our job in sales and marketing to find the best ways to align our internal processes with the customer’s pull or readiness.
When we do that we have a constant flow of useful knowledge back and forth between the customer and ourselves – influencing both sides to generate and purchase the most value at the right times. Where our conventional idea of pull doesn’t fit as cleanly, however, is when we have to forecast what customers will want in the future based on trends and latent needs or even when we try to influence customers into wanting something they have never seen or thought of – like the first microwave ovens. With all of our lean tools, techniques, and concepts, we always need to do what makes sense rather than treating them as universal laws.
LEI: In your book, The Fluff Cycle, you write that sales and marketing is a good place to begin a lean transformation. Why?
Wahba: I like to define lean as “delivering the most customer value while consuming the fewest resources.” Instead of just capturing and translating what customers value, sales and marketing is responsible for driving that knowledge as our strategy through the rest of the organization. This gives everyone else the right foundation for their own lean activities.
When we start the lean journey in manufacturing, those poor people have to perform their day jobs, plus work on improving their own processes, plus try to drive lean thinking to the other upstream corporate functions that continue to create more waste. That’s a very uphill battle.
But if we start in sales and marketing, we can make the lives of customers, strategic planners, R&D, product/service development, manufacturing, and service easier by giving them all some extra capacity and direction to start solving problems in their own processes. Sales and marketing is centrally located in this very complex system. In my opinion, it has more leverage to get things moving.
LEI: Where did the name of your book, The Fluff Cycle, come from?
Wahba: Back in the ’60’s when Life magazine ran an article about Jackie O’s spring hat collection, it was called a “fluff piece” – something interesting to the readers, but not very relevant to changing the world. We have the equivalent in the business world today – lots of authors and consultants talking about successful companies like Toyota or Apple or leaders like Jack Welch. It’s all very interesting but there is little that actually helps us and our companies become more successful because there are no magic formulas. We get stuck in a constant cycle of consuming fluff, not solving our real problems, and then moving on to find the next silver bullet. Unfortunately we then repeat the cycle with our own customers. If we can’t solve our problems, then we produce less valuable products and services, our customers aren’t satisfied, and they finally move on to find another supplier. My book is about organizations learning and solving their own problems so they can end the fluff cycle and produce more value.
LEI: Within sales and marketing, is there an especially good process to start a lean transformation?
Wahba: There is no specific process, but it should be one that is critical for the business to improve while also being realistic to accomplish. It could be improving how prospects are prioritized, determining which website landing page works the best, or mapping customers’ journeys to uncover better ways of influencing them. You need to peel back a few layers to find out what are your most pressing problems.
Even though lean is a proven way of thinking, it is new to a lot of people. It is critical that they immediately see the benefit of what they are working on and they are also successful at it so the new, lean patterns of thinking become automatic, unconscious behaviors. We all learn best by doing and by tagging our learning with positive emotions.
LEI: In your experience, are sales and marketing managers and executives receptive to using lean methods?
Wahba: Most see the value in it straight away. But they vary in how quick they are to adopt it. The sales and marketing groups that progress the fastest are already committed to making real improvements at all levels and aren’t afraid of a little science. Above all, lean has to be accepted as a means to solving some really important problems, and not just viewed as another blanket solution thrown on top of past initiatives. Our people have so much talent and so many good ideas, but they often get lost in our broken cultures and processes. When lean is adopted and truly supported from above, people feel empowered to effect change based on real data.
LEI: What does the lean in sales and marketing workshop focus on?
Wahba: The workshop is designed to address a market need. A lot of organizations struggle to apply lean to sales and marketing. But it’s not going to be “lean in 10 easy steps.” We’ll be focusing on how organizations can improve their problem-solving skills to deliver customer value more efficiently.
Brent Wahba is the author of The Fluff Cycle (And How To End It By Solving Real Sales & Marketing Problems) and the instructor of LEI’s workshops: Lean Fundamentals for Sales Organizations and Lean in Sales & Marketing (two days) .
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- An excerpt from The Fluff Cycle: “Half my advertising budget is wasted – trouble is, I don’t know which half.”