Why Are Enterprise Sales Teams Resistant to Agile?

To be fair, in my experience, sales teams have been resistant to process innovations as long as I remember. Plant operations, distribution networks, backoffice operations are unrecognizable from their 1990s counterparts, but sales funnels, pipeline management and key sales activity metrics barely changed in decades. While a plant manager from 1950s could not possibly run automated manufacturing operations or a robotic warehouse, a sales manager from the same era could arguable manage a current B2B salesforce. But not a B2C one. And that’s the point. Lean startups, agile sales and growth hacking emerged and thrived in a new sales paradigm while traditional enterprise sales carried on basically unchanged.

Having worked in the 1990s on Business Reengineering projects instigated by Michael Hammer’s research, most companies focused on core operations, manufacturing and backoffice. Not sales. The major award of the day was the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award than many companies doing reengineering also aspired to. Out of the 1000 possible points towards the award, sales processes did not have a single point assigned. Sales process excellence was not perceived to be important to customer quality.

In later years we’ve seen the same phenomenon with Six Sigma and Lean. You would be hard-pressed to find more than 5% of companies who considered sales processes for Lean or Six Sigma. After years of search, I can barely find success stories attributed to sales transformation and growth due to these projects outside some narrow areas of inside sales, call centers and mass marketing.

But lack of adoption of Agile in large enterprise selling remains a mystery. It is well aligned with some of the innovations, like measuring sales velocity and linearity. In fact a burn-down chart (or burn-up if you like) can be a much better linearity and velocity indicator than any sales ratio. Even software shops with strong agile development culture would use the same funnel and activity metrics their ancestors did. 6-9-month long sales funnels are to 4-week sales sprints like 18-month development waterfall methodologies to 2-week agile sprints.

Many sales teams carry 60% or more stalled pipeline and similar metrics yet still run sales plays that are months-long (full funnel) vs weeks-long (sprints). Time to change that. The good news is that salespeople are actually very innovative and creative when it comes to their deals. That is why the best salespeople do not follow ineffective sales processes or succeed in spite of them. Agile Sales could be a way to select a few sales teams, let them loose with shorter term sprints and deliver product (sales) early and often. And obliterate their quotas in the process.

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