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Facts and Values: The Keys to Operational Excellence in Sales and Marketing

Feb 8, 2024

The leaders of B2B companies often face a conundrum in sales and marketing. Their products, services, and talented people solve customer problems daily. Their approaches to awareness, conversion, and retention make sense. They’ve tried to improve training, coaching, automation, incentives, and more. Often more than once!

And despite many attempts, growth and profitability are unsatisfactory.

Customers interact with websites, media, people in the channels, and service, not just sales. It is a system. Are the functions working together properly? Are customers’ experiences consistent? Is the lack of leads due to softness in the market, or poor marketing? Are salespeople being outsold, or overloaded with low-quality leads, or administrivia? Is lousy delivery performance due to production snags, or lack of clean orders, or something else?

If This Were a Manufacturing Problem …

We would apply problem-solving approaches[1] beginning with identification of evidence and data. This enables us to infer potential causes, which can be tested by experiment. With enough perseverance and time, problems get solved.

But this is sales, where opinions are more plentiful than facts.

  • Some on the sales team think prices are too high.
  • Others blame poor market conditions.
  • An executive wants better personality assessments.
  • Perhaps the CFO is pushing for a CRM to get a handle on costs.
  • Open a new market channel?
  • New products? Better sales training? Comp changes?

You have limited time and limited resources. Spend them wrong, and the business may get worse.

When I was first exposed to “process Improvement,” I had been a sales manager and sales trainer in multiple industries. The differences between manufacturing production and sales stood out to me. Sometimes we salespeople got to be heroes because we made our goals. At other times we didn’t make them, no matter how hard we worked. Yet the idea of gathering and analyzing data was dismissed.

  • “There’s no way to tell which half of the marketing budget is wasted.”
  • “Customers buy on emotions. You can’t predict that!”
  • “Salespeople’s value is in their personality. You can’t measure that!”
  • “Do you want salespeople analyzing things, or calling on customers?”

On the other hand, manufacturing production people talked about Six Sigma, Lean, and other approaches built around the Law of Rationality[1]:

“Conclusions ought to be justified by adequate evidence.”

Evidence and data enabled them to identify what created value, and what didn’t. Production lines were reengineered, drastically reducing lead time, work in process, and quality problems, not to mention cost.

Meanwhile, back in the sales department, the solution to our problems was always, “Make more calls!”, “Do more proposals!”, “Just work harder!” And we did work harder. And though improvement came from time to time, it was not sustainable.

Why couldn’t sales and marketing people agree on the causes of problems? Which problems are most important? Where are their causes located? If we can’t locate the causes of problems, what is the point?

My Spidey sense told me something was wrong. There had to be a way to do this.

So, if there was a way, what would it look like?

Applying the Law of Rationality to Sales and Marketing

Like any living thing, businesses face an alternative. Either you take actions that are consistent with the requirements of survival (life), or you suffer the consequences (death). Unfortunately, the difference – the identification of what is value and what isn’t – is not always clear to us.

Fortunately, we are capable of learning what constitutes “adequate evidence” whether we are talking about facts or values. Of course, I am speaking of the “scientific method,” a collection of guidelines for how to keep our minds in contact with reality.

The maturity of these approaches in manufacturing and the physical sciences makes it easy to jump into the axioms and tools that have been developed. However, working with sales teams is predominantly about working with people who are working with other people. And since we are dealing in a business context, we need guidelines enabling everyone to keep their minds in contact with reality.

We need a means of scrutinizing our thinking carefully. The fundamental pattern or cycle of rationality (also known as the Deming Management Cycle) is an excellent starting point:

  • Adapt based on causes and effects (Act)
  • Determine your objective, method, and measure (Plan), and
  • Experiment (Do)

This way of thinking is better understood in manufacturing production than it is in sales. That’s because the value created in sales is not physical: it takes place between someone else’s ears.

That doesn’t mean the value isn’t real. However, it does mean we need an explicit way to identify if value is created or not. Let’s dive into some examples of what that means for each of the stages of the Deming Cycle in sales and marketing.

Observe the Evidence (Study)

In sales teams, it is common to hear,

  • “The problem with our sales department is they need time and territory management training.”
  • “The problem with our sellers is they aren’t spending enough time bringing in new accounts.”

Did you spot the mistake?

Training is not a problem. It’s a potential solution. Lack of time spent on new accounts is not a problem. It’s a potential cause of a problem. These are merely possibilities. Accepting them without evidence is jumping to conclusions.

To make sustainable improvements, we need as much certainty as we can get. There may well be examples of questionable time management. Yet is that enough to zero in on it as “the problem?”

“Definitions are the guardian of rationality, the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration.” – Ayn Rand, Novelist, Philosopher

Remember, we are potentially talking about business life or death here. We need as much certainty as we can get. To identify the crucial facts and values we require, words must be tied precisely to our observations. Vague approximations, or “arbitrary constructs,” are not acceptable in science. We should not accept them either.

Let’s illustrate the value of this by eliminating the confusion around the word “problem.” Here is a simple exercise any sales leader can do:

Ask your team to complete the following sentence: “The problem with our sales department is …”

Chances are he will get a variety of answers. If he asks for the “problems,” there will be a wider range.  Some responses may be solutions disguised as problems, as above. Others may be narrow in scope. Some may point to another department. This is brainstorming. At this stage everyone’s opinion is to be respected.

He then says: “From now on, we’re going to define the term ‘problem’ this way: A problem is evidence or data we do not like.” 

We want to identify what we know, what we can actually observe. We want to avoid jumping to conclusions. Using the list we made, there are two tests:

  • Does the statement refer to evidence or data?

If not, can it be changed to do so?

  • Do we have, or could we, get the evidence or data the statement refers to?

If not, we are setting it aside.”

Since they came up with the statements, most of the salespeople will agree with them. Massaging the wording and prioritizing can be a longer conversation.

Secondly, the statements describing “evidence or data we do not like” (also known as undesirable results or effects) are closer to properly formed problem statements, which is the raw material needed for the next step: Inferring causes and effects.

Adapt Based on Causes and Effects (Act)

When the team examines the statements for similarities, patterns emerge. They can be organized into “affinity groups,” which simplifies understanding the overall system. Naming the affinity groups identifies the common element among them, which simplifies things. For example, here are some typical affinity group names:

  • Difficulty supporting old legacy products
  • Lack of data to prioritize accounts
  • Internal reports are inadequate or inaccurate
  • Quotes not delivered on time

At this stage there are several ways to identify cause-and-effect relationships. To illustrate what happens next, let’s suppose the team has decided it needs to start improving around lack of data to prioritize accounts. This is qualification criteria. And it is one of the biggest causes of sales problems, and one of the easiest to fix.

Suppose someone has offered the following “problem statement”: “Our people are spending too much time on the wrong accounts.”

This does not follow the “evidence or data we do not like” format described above. While considering this, the team hopefully makes a breakthrough: “I guess what we mean is, our people are not using the same standards to prioritize their accounts.”

Standards in sales are concretely specified characteristics used to evaluate sales opportunities. It is an illustration of how proper definitions provide evidence justifying our conclusions.

For background, sales lore offers many frameworks or theories of qualification. A common one is that a qualified prospect must have Budget, Need, Authority, and Timing (BANT). Taken at face value, it is difficult to argue with this formulation. In fact, it is so accepted many firms have codified it in their CRMs.

Unfortunately, BANT doesn’t usually improve close ratios or sales productivity.

Why? Because, it turns out, there is a lot to argue with about BANT.

Ask any seasoned salesperson, “Has a prospect ever told you …

  • They had budget, and then it was pulled?
  • They had authority, and then they asked someone else for approval?
  • They had need, and then more urgent needs superseded?
  • The timing was right, and then they encountered delays?”

The answer is probably yes to all four. You might be thinking, “Of course, but isn’t the salesperson the best judge of these?”

The word “judge” gives it away. BANT (and similar approaches) requires salespeople to make judgements, not observations. Judgements require specific kinds of evidence and data that BANT does not provide.

Salespeople are using their own judgements – as are managers who review the opportunities.   They may be based on experience with the specific prospect or different types of prospects.  They may be bent to what they think or know others want to see.  They may be influenced by hope or personal need.

In our scenario, we believe improving the data and method salespeople use to prioritize accounts will create the most improvement for the least effort. We’re now ready to plan this change.

Determine your objective, method, and measure (Plan)

  • Our objective: Improve salespeople’s productivity.
  • Our measures: Change in forecast accuracy, and close ratio.
  • Our method: The team standardizes qualification criteria around observable characteristics that (in their view) make prospects more or less likely to buy.

Standardizing the criteria required two steps:

First the team brainstorms the observable things they believe are crucial to a customer’s likelihood to buy. Second, arrange these criteria in simple check sheet format. The goal is to make it easy for salespeople to simply tell the truth about what they observe by ticking a box. For example[1]:

A. What are the drivers of the prospect’s or customer’s project?

  • Don’t know
  • Bottom-up initiative
  • Driven by customers (outside the company)
  • Driven by regulatory compliance needs
  • Top-down initiative

B. What is the prospect’s decision-making process?

  • Don’t know their decision-making process
  • We know only part of their decision-making process
  • The main contact is only one of the many people involved
  • A committee has been formed, and our contact has influence
  • Main contact is the decision-maker/signing authority

C. What is their technical environment/requirement?

  • Non-Windows server environment and not interested in hosting
  • Non-Windows server environment and open to hosting
  • Broadband Internet access, Windows server environment, and open to hosting
  • Require physical punch card/biometric reader
  • Don’t know

Getting to this type of list can take more than one discussion, depending on the complexity of the sales environment and the size of the organization. The key is to enable salespeople to record their observations simply by ticking boxes. Scores (from 0 to 4 in this example) convert the observations into a number.

This form of operational definition is a major step toward objectivity in sales management. There are two reasons for this:

  • Salespeople have created the instrument themselves.
  • They are a step closer to a state where everyone on the team can look at the same situation and make the same observations.

As a result, their observations count as evidence and data. They are now ready to implement – to use the check sheet to gather observations (often, for the first time in the sales organization’s history).

Experiment (Do)

Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins every time.” – W. Edwards Deming

The data are compiled into lists of their sales opportunities, sequenced by the qualification scores. When this is fed back to the sales team and discussed, several new things begin to happen.

  • First, the list becomes the best forecast indicator the firm has ever had (by far).[1] This is valuable to the organization, as well as salespeople individually.
  • Second, when their “best” opportunities rank lower than expected, or when deals fail to close when anticipated, the scores help tell the story.
  • Third, the granularity of the scoring system enables more precise account comparisons, helping salespeople learn how the information was gathered and what it implies.
  • Fourth, realizing they want better scores on these questions, salespeople begin planning their next interactions accordingly. Unwittingly, their behaviors begin to align. This stabilizes deal flow while increasing the value of the data being generated.
  • Fifth, experience with the questions (not to mention statistical analysis of the data) reveals ways the questions can be improved.

Measuring sales opportunities in this way profoundly improves the management system. Salespeople are no longer mimicking the words and behaviors they think others expect. Instead, they are gaining experience observing, analyzing, and experimenting. Over time, individuals and sales teams can answer questions like,

  • “Are we spending too much time on wrong accounts?”
  • “How strong is my coaching network in this account?”
  • “How urgent is my customer’s need?”

The ability of individuals to make judgements is massively improved. This is because rather than platitudes, the judgements are around specific characteristics unique to your industry and competitive advantages.

Further, the accumulating evidence helps executives identify the common, high-impact issues, which if solved, will elevate the performance of the entire business. All of these changes involve building private, internal company knowledge, a competitive advantage competitors cannot duplicate.

Facts and Values

“Our ability to solve problems is limited by our conception of what is feasible.” — Russell Ackoff

The sales teams we have described moved past the state of implicit or “tribal knowledge” and “talking past each other.” They achieved explicit, systemic knowledge of customer facts and values that sustainably improved organizational performance.

This does not happen if people are given “best practices” or “a sales process” to follow. Nor does improvement happen if the executives believe sales is a sort of “black box” – a subjective, unanalyzable world in which reason doesn’t apply. Nor can it happen by instructing sellers and marketers to “eliminate waste.”

Salespeople are not motivated by eliminating waste. They are motivated by what helps a customer buy now and pay more. Shouldn’t we all be motivated by that?

Instead, sustainable improvement happens if people are treated as independent, sovereign individuals motivated by their own interests and beliefs. They need to answer questions such as, “Why is change needed?”, “Why now?”, and “What’s in it for me?” And once these are established, they need support to observe, think, and experiment for themselves.

When we learn the scientific method in school, we learn to observe and control our mind’s behavior so as to keep in contact with reality. Self-awareness is just as valid when deciding if a math problem was done correctly as it is in observing whether the value behind an emotion we feel is legitimate. So long as our words and concepts are defined according to observable similarities and differences, knowledge of facts, as well as their value, is possible.

To use an analogy: “That bush over there has berries,” is a useless fact unless its value, “That kind of berry is good to eat” is also known. (And vice versa; knowing a berry is good to eat is useless unless such a bush is nearby.) Both types of propositions can be justified with adequate evidence. We have already related numerous facts that are of value to the sales organization, and indeed to the whole business.

The human mind cannot reason from implicit ideas. Clarifying problem statements and observable qualification criteria are only a few examples of how observations can make things explicit. By encouraging employee’s thinking and reasoning abilities, company leaders can help build an invaluable, if invisible, scaffolding of knowledge.

Operational Excellence, in all of its flavors, is proof that we can determine what we ought to do, based on what is. This applies to all productive work, and perhaps especially sales and marketing.

In my experience, giving sales and marketing people the opportunity to glean evidence and data they didn’t know they had goes a long way toward winning their hearts, as well as their minds. Once they realize how Sales Process Excellence works, they are excited to get to work on real sales problems. And their behaviors readily change accordingly.

About the Author

Michael Webb is the President of Sales Performance Consultants and is an internationally known author and management consultant. He brings data-driven management approaches to sales and marketing organizations. He worked in sales, sales training, and sales management in five industries before founding his consulting firm.

When exposed to production improvement methodologies (e.g., Six Sigma, and Lean) he saw parallels to B2B sales production. He pioneered ways of helping sales teams distinguish value from waste. He also created ways for sales teams to develop operational definitions. These enabled continuous improvement in sales productivity, forecast accuracy, and other metrics.

His approach recognizes the critical role beliefs play in the behaviors of sales and marketing people as well as customers. He engages front-line salespeople, managers, and executives as well as cross-functional teams.

His 2014 book, Sales Process Excellence earned the prestigious Shingo Research Award. His 2006 book Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way earned 4.5 stars on Amazon and sold more than 21 thousand copies. He is on the His articles range from sales quality and process to reducing waste and capitalizing on customer value. They draw on his experience working with direct and channel sales and marketing teams of large and small companies.

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