Putting the Science in Sales Management

Sales management is the only business function where all the research and innovation has been exclusively the domain of businesses and not academics. Selling may be an art, but sales management is a science. Every other business function has extensive academic research and you can have advanced degrees in marketing, psychology and behavioral economics which are arguably less predictable than sales processes especially large scale enterprise selling. Yet there are less than 1% of universities with bachelor or masters degrees in sales management and only 1 of the top 100 colleges (Purdue). There are few Professors of Sales Management and very few PhDs. In fact, a recent Harvard Business School Review article argued for the need to treat sales management with the same scientific rigor as marketing, HR or other corporate functions studying interpersonal processes.

Any of us working with large enterprise sales teams know the level of sophistication, analytics, regression analysis and even machine learning that goes into anticipating human behavior. Not just predicting buying patterns of customers but also anticipating systemic mistakes of the sales force, like overusing certain tactics (product demonstrations) while avoiding others (business case development, board-level selling, etc). Great sales management understands that certain activities have higher correlation to closing than others and work for some customer segments in certain industries in certain economic cycles. They understand and measure the buying behavior of the given group of executives making a decision which would vary account by account. They analyze the recurring bias of overly optimistic or conservative sales teams and normalize based on past forecast performance.

Science of sales management can account for the sales velocity differences given the buyer’s executive power and the industry they operate in. They have big data sets knowing all their customer’s past purchases, competitive landscape, the client’s business pressures and business performance against their peers. All of these factors can provide predictive set of activities as next steps for the sales force with much higher propensity to close.

A scientific sales management team would not tell their sales force to “make more calls” to grow sales. They would tell them to “call customers A, D, F and Z offer to improve their in-store sales by 11% because historically those customers underperform their peers in that area and that they use an old technology that does not allow for sensor based traffic and e-commerce up-sell of in-store customers”. And they would do it based on the data they are tracking about customers, sales and the market.

We as a profession have all the data, analytics and AI we need to operate at this level and beyond. It is time for academia to catch up.

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.

Scrum Boards for Agile Sales

While more and more organizations want their sales teams to be agile, these initiatives settle in the familiar pattern of using tools invented for one function and force fit for another. And sales rarely fits anything overly structured. Most sales organizations don’t have consistent sales methodology and if there is one, process adherence is in the low double digits at best.

The process exceptions are mostly outside our control and therefore estimating tasks, sprints and completion time are very inconsistent. Great sales organizations close 30-40% of their deals. Basically working with 60-70% process waste. No other business function would survive with these waste levels. Sales operates with baseball odds where a consistent 33% hit rate is absolutely world class. That makes process adherence, linearity and forecast accuracy quite difficult.

As we settle in for our 6th year of using agile for sales (kanban), I worked with some teams inside and outside SAP on scrum for sales as well and there are now more proof-points and tools out there. Some of my thoughts on sales scrum vs sales kanban.

  • Simple kanban boards with basic agile flow are easier to implement and adhere to for sales teams starting out  (Backlog can be leads, Sprints are quarters or months, Todo, Pending and Done require no sales training)
  • Teaching sales teams product development scrum terms is not value added, especially because we want sales teams to be customer focused and not product focused. This one lesson we need to learn from Lean.
  • Most sales teams are well disciplined around sales stages (from lead to close) and those sales stages can be considered sprints and a 6-9-month sales cycle a major product release
  • Most sales organizations already measure deal time in stages, linearity and other predictive metrics. They are easy to implement in an agile board
  • Daily standups in sales are like watching paint dry. Things don’t move that fast. The sweet spot seems to be weekly and fortunately the weekly forecast calls can be expanded to have the structure of an agile standup. 15-minutes? Probably highly aspirational.
  • Sales teams may need a lot more cross-functional collaboration than dev teams. Having outside orgs participate in forecast (standup) calls, or even conducting meta-standups with customers and executive teams can be great. We learned a lot by having quarterly customer forecast meetings (QBRs).
  • Use tools that make the job easier. Sales folks who hate CRM still like kanban boards. We’ve used Trello for years and now see many new companies cater to the needs of agile sales, like Heresy.io.
  • Sales teams are virtual. Kanban boards, burndown charts, forecast standups and retrospectives all need to be virtual too. Great tools can make or break team communication.
  • Burndown charts are great to view sales linearity in a way that linearity percentages cannot possibly communicate.

Agile Sales – 4 Years On

After 4 Years of Agile Sales (LEAN as we called it) – there are many new learnings. Sticking to our focus on the standards of Lean Sales instead of some theoretical procedures, we can now take inventory of what worked at what didn’t so far. Today’s post is about what worked well. In a later post I’ll address innovation we are doing on things that did not work well or at all.
As a reminder here is the link to our original vision of how to set up your Sales Kanban.


Delivering on the WHY
The primary reason was to double the effectiveness of the team in terms of both pipeline and revenues per person as well as deal quality (net new vs existing customers). We definitely accomplished both objectives and that should now be table stakes.

Focus on customer value creation
We constantly validate our ideas with customers and shut down events, meetings and other activities that they do not see value in.  Same with the so-called “business value added” (i.e. internal) activities. We prioritize internal requests by how badly the other party needs our involvement and output.

Make the team’s work visible
Maybe a year late but we are getting close to where I thought we could be in a few months. There are practically no status updates except on our Kanban boards (Trello) and in our KPI systems (forecast). Most team members update their task lists, track their progress on a daily basis. There is a measurable difference in work output for those in our team that work in a Lean way vs those that do not.  We systematically eliminated many non-value added activities and projects and many team members routinely pivot on their project direction as a matter of business without requiring major reviews, offsites etc.
As a sales leader i can see 70-80% of activities, comment on bottlenecks, share best practices, intervene on bottlenecks. Given this is a completely dispersed virtual team with practically no face-time – I consider this the ultimate win

Limit the tasks you are juggling
Reducing WIP is forced through questioning what is adding value and by limiting available resources. Most of the teams simply do not have the resources for worthless projects and parallel activities

Measure your effectiveness
We keep the KPIs simple and focus it all on customer value add. Given we are in sales all activities are prioritized and measured in 3 categories:  1) deal origination (net new business) 2) deal influence (moving existing opportunities forward) 3) support (supporting internal teams). The percentage of time and revenue associated with each of these priorities are strictly measured against a predefined target allocation of pipeline and revenues. We did not do daily standups but our forecast calls were weekly standups of sort where we dealt with target effort, time and blockers.

Continously strive to improve
A lot of this actually happens as part of the work being visible and KPIs constantly reviewed.  We still do our version of Kaizen events in leadership offsites but the focus is less on strategic and tactical pivoting (which happens as a matter of daily business) but more on execution.


5 Hard Things to Get Right in Business Development

The advantage of attending large tech conferences with a mix of startups and big companies is that the views on business development vary by the experience of the BD team regardless whether the company is big or small. Quite a few enterprises are great at partnerships while many startups fail to successfully pivot from an established play to new ones. Some companies are outstanding at managing current business (sales and incremental product development) but have trouble implementing ideas for growth. Others are in a constant mode of ideation with shifting value propositions for both products and partnerships with inconsistent results.

I noticed some common threads among BD leaders who consider themselves successful by internal or customer standards vs those who do not. This is by no means a research based study, however this evolving shortlist I keep finding as a useful guide. Your insights are welcome.


(1) BD’s primary purpose is to launch new business models

BD teams should only exist for one reason: to develop new business models. A new model is needed when any element of the existing model needs to change.This could be new types of customer behaviors, new influences, new emerging channels or new revenue models that the business cannot effectively address with current capabilities. (A good definition of the elements of a business model can be found in Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas).

There is a universal confusion about the right role of business development. In some companies they are channel sales teams with non-quota targets, in others they are extensions of marketing teams targeting a new kind of buying influence or behavior. Sometimes R&D teams working on product integration with partners. Unless the current business model does not address customer needs or the external teams are not our usual partners, such responsibilities can be handled by current sales and marketing functions. Introducing new products, pricing or product features to existing customers or current development partners does NOT require business development teams.

However, if new buying influences, channels, revenue models surface that the sales/marketing teams cannot successfully engage, then a new BD team must be launched. At the same time the existing sales/channel and marketing teams should continue maximizing engagement and results from current relationships.

(2) Decide what role partnerships play in your growth

It is surprising how many companies are unclear about what is shifting in their competitive environment that needs new types of partnerships. Given limited resources it is always a key decision. These could be technology partnerships (cloud platform, joint development, licensing etc), marketing partnerships (co-branding, co-marketing) or sales partnerships (channel). Some may assume the product features introduced by the competition is the threat and begin engaging with developers (B2D). At the same time it is possible that the fundamental shift had to do with business model change and the competitor focused its value proposition to CROs (sales chiefs) who your firm does not cover instead of the CIO who your sales and marketing resources are engaging. Whenever CROs have more decision power or influence than your CIO customer over your products your business will be at risk, unless you develop ALL elements of the new business model (a new value proposition, a new channel, new revenue models, new partners, etc).

It is important to estimate the upside and cost of each type of potential partnership and start with the one the business sees highest potential in or the greater risk. For example if all your business relies on your Microsoft platform partnership and your competitors move to cloud or other platforms, how much revenue is at risk? If you make the same change how much more market share can you capture? At what cost? The same is the question for new types of influencers, decision makers. Make your best guess and start piloting. Pursue building the new partnership type with the greatest potential in terms your business sees it, e.g. revenue, risk, cost. Then pivot if needed (point below).

(3) Know when to pilot, when to standardize and when to scale

Most strategic plans and business models will be wrong. Deal with it. Therefore we need to start piloting the partnership option with the highest potential in our current business terms. Measure leading indicators of success like number of partner meetings, MOUs, pilot engagements, proofs of concepts. This is our pilot stage. We need to see some consistent responses from our partners on the pitch, the value proposition, the product/solution and the willingness for them to have POC projects. Set a timeline for our pilot stage. If our metrics do not improve it is time to go back to the drawing board. We need consistent feedback from 8-10 different customers from different  segments of our business before we can move on. But do not wait for 100 confirmations.

Once the partner feedback is consistent, we can move to a Standardization stage. This stage creates the actual business model that is repeatable and can be integrated into the core business. Decide what part of the offering, pitch and product can be standardized and what is not essential. Simplify and retest with the partners and customers. Run a period of tests with the standardized offering and measure the results. For example, standardize your first meeting deck, your pricing, your product APIs, etc.

If the new business model is stable, it can be handed over to the core business and let sales/marketing or R&D integrate it into their own offerings. The core business should be responsible for the Scale phase of any business model.

(4) Measure the right results and pivot often

Business development is NOT sales without quota. There need to be rigorous metrics in place to measure each of the above stages of business model development. There should be continuous improvement in whatever metrics we pick. If it is first meetings, there should be an uptrend. If it is POCs, signed partnership agreements, OEM agreements or API integrations, ditto. If the numbers do not improve then we need to pivot and find out what is happening. Which of our assumptions were wrong? Did something change in the market?

Adjust the game plan and try again. Experimentation and pivoting should have a time-box. If metrics do not improve with 2-3 pivots it may be time to move onto a different kind of partner, value proposition, pricing or product integration. It is key to remember that KPIs will move slower than in the fine-tuned core business. As a rule of thumb, if a core business makes course corrections every 2-3 quarters, business development should have a review cycle that matches that culture no matter how initial executive expectations were set. Prepare to be reviewed at the same cadence for success. Patience and what waiting period is normal for “things to succeed” seems ingrained in the culture. Be ready for it.

(5) Pick passionate teams with sales, product and networking skills

To pilot business models the BD team needs to have good balance of sales, product and networking skills. While a soft skill, networking is the most critical. The team will be working with new types of partners that our firm does not interact with or have a great track record with. Getting sustained access to them as we listen, hone our value proposition and work out our solution requires unique persistence and interpersonal skills. The same skill could be used internally as well. The BD team will need to network broad and deep in the company and its current partners and customers to garner the support for the ideas and suggested changes. The deep sales and product expertise can balance the enthusiasm with the realities of the existing of the core business and the knowledge of how things work and what can be successful.

Passion for the business model design should be a prerequisite. Pivoting a lot until the right model is found can be viewed as many small failures. And they are. It takes a certain team makeup to sustain enthusiasm in the early days to persist. Passion is also critical with partners and customers when we do not yet have all the answers, solutions or ideas. But have the commitment to bring it, no matter what.

The Art and Science of Managing Business Development

I’m at a global technology conference with hundreds of small and large companies. I connected with many of my business development peers from banks, technology companies and consulting firms to chat about how to run business development better.


Many companies are unclear about the role or the right measurement of business development and miss the opportunities for effectively launching new channels or new types of products. Business development should be the engine of business model development especially in fast moving businesses. No new or transformational strategy can be immediately unleashed on the core business and risk major disruptions in the customer or supplier base. Business development tries out the new channels, invents new sales and delivery processes and scales them until they prove to produce similar or superior results compared to the core business. As the great book, The Other Side of Innovation reminds us, core sales and operations do not develop new types of business and do not innovate. That is not their role. In companies where business development and innovation is well defined, funded and measured, there is a clear swim lane between market development for new solutions and for existing ones. The best innovators can maintain a high performing core business while encouraging an effective product and sales innovation culture. Great examples are Google X and IBM and several other tech companies. In technology the product lifecycles are measured in months vs years in consumer or pharma businesses and even longer in traditional manufacturing. Tech has no choice but innovate business models while shipping products.


Some executives refer to the basic sales conversions ratios, delivery metrics, customer retention rates as the “physics of the business“. Every great executive in any business should know their industry specific metrics like how many customer meetings typically lead to a qualified opportunity, what % of those will convert to revenues, what % of the customers will cancel contracts (attrition) and what percentage of customers have delivery problems. These are the scores to beat to outperform the competition or disrupt an industry. The primary role of new business models and therefore BD teams is to long term improve on the metrics that make up the physics of the business by introducing new products and new customer segments. If you are a startup, your base metrics may be that of your industry, or the industry you are trying to disrupt. If industry metrics do not exist, make some assumptions so you have a baseline.


Sometimes business development teams gets funded and released without clear goals and metrics. That is a recipe for failure. Superior business development should be measured with the same rigor as the core business but with different KPIs. The Pilot stage is early development of the business model where a lot of experimentation is encouraged. Metrics are purely feedback on the various assumptions the team is making. Scale stage is when the business model is ready to go and the focus is increasing the throughput.

Measuring the Pilot stage: ACTIVITIES

Initially BD will be experimenting in the new channels or solutions and should not be measured against the core business metrics. The scope of experiments will be limited either by customer segment, geography, type of contact, etc to minimize disruption in the core business. Pilot stage metrics should be activity oriented. You need to contact a certain number of target groups, expose them to your new message, prompt them to take a certain action, evaluate how those actions match expected results in the strategy, and many more. The metrics should align with expected steps in the future workflow (physics) of the business and should not be a random list. BD teams should have clear targets for each of these metrics that should be reviewed monthly or quarterly. These are not “performance reviews”. The goal of the review primarily is to pivot to a new set of assumptions and adjust the expectations. The BD team should have an agreement how long these iterations can happen. It typically takes 12-18 months to test a new business model across markets and solutions.

The BD team should stay in pilot stage until the metrics become predictable. For example, the % of leads converting to opportunities or revenues become more predictable. Similarly with other metrics like cost of lead conversions. Once metrics are predictable the team should move into SCALE stage.

Measuring the Scale stage: REVENUES

Once the BD team leaves the PILOT stage, it should expand the scope of the new business model to more customers / geographies. It should introduce metrics from the core business. It is expected that the new BD model will outperform certain metrics compared to the core, typically lead conversion and sales growth while underperform in other areas like cost of sales and customer retention. It needs to be understood that the business model is evolving and will not be as efficient as the core business for a while. However if BD does not outperform in some areas (like growth) it is questionable whether the model is sustainable. There should always be an edge in new business models compared to the core business, otherwise it is not worth the effort to change.

Ikigai Wisdom of a Shipping Magnate

I was traveling from Korea to China last week when I met the gentleman in this story. He has a dozen companies in trade and shipping based in Hong Kong. He described to me that his clients were from all over the world from Germany through China to South Africa. He joked that the sun never sets in his business and the emails never stop.
“We will all die with our inbox full”.

Predictably we ended up talking about managing time, keeping focus and producing results. I was especially curious as he ran his businesses as a family enterprise. How do you find the time? I showed him our kanban boards and we joked about carrying paper planners in the past. Then he got serious and spoke about Ikigai.

I had never met a person who managed their time based on Ikigai. For me it was more like a philosophy of life, keeping things in perspective, but certainly not a methodology. For him, it was guiding his daily priorities. After a long discussion his methodology boiled down to this:


  1. Keep a running list of projects and tasks as they occur to you  (like GTD)
  2. Every morning review the list and for each item ask the following:
    1. Am I skilled to handle this task?
    2. Am I excited to do this?
    3. Will I get paid to do it (or lose money if I don’t)?
    4. Will the world be a better place if I do it?
  3. If the answer is NO to the above, delete or ignore the task. 
  4. For the tasks that remain, prioritize them as follows:
    1. MUST DO  – Excited about, have the skills, will get paid for it
    2. SHOULD DOExcited about and the world will be better
    3. DO LATER  – Not exciting but have the skills and will get paid for it
    4. DELEGATENot exciting and don’t have the skills but paid to do it

I noticed I started asking myself more of his Ikigai questions.

70% Time Savings of Trello

I recently looked at 500 completed Trello cards and estimated processing time with the Kanban board and without it. For example, if a card had status updates over several weeks, we assumed that those updates would have happened with meetings or email updates without Trello. Similar approaches were taken for other tasks like event planning and customer followups. If there was no way of estimating the improvement, we conservatively assumed there was none.

This methodology gave us the following results. While it is not a full time/motion study, it gave us clear indication where the biggest impact of the kanban approach is.

The results assume the following 3 key criteria for all tasks and boards:

  • All team members collaborate on each other’s boards and tasks
  • Each card has a due date and owner(s) assigned
  • Each team member follows up on notifications or tasks due

Here are the savings we found:

  • Typical project status updates – up to 70% time saved
    ( Traditional project update meetings: 1 hour a week – Trello updates 5-10 minutes per week through comments and alerts) Assuming 100 project boards – 83 hours a week can be saved
  • Searching through email for contextual information – up to 60% time saved
    This is harder to quantify but finding all project or task related information is almost impossible in Outlook as it is conversation based and not project based- Typical search estimated at 10-12 hours a week, vs Trello search less than 1-2 hours a week as most information is project based – however multiple boards may need to be searched for related content
  • Finding reference documents – a wash
    Trello is not a better or worse repository of documents
  • Keeping people in the loop, managing overlapping tasksorder of magnitude. Traditional email or reporting systems have no easy way of showing what others are working on. In Trello I always know what everyone is doing, especially if the rule is that unless it is recorded in Trello it does not count.
    The capability is clearly there, but sometimes people do not record every action or forget to check for overlapping activities. This can be made easy through the many web services integrations with Trello (Zapier or IFTTT) and also through in-Trello automation through powerups like Butler. Will cover those in a later post.

The Illusion of a Personal Workflow

One of the biggest learnings after 5 years of personal kanban is that most people have no defined workflow at all. Or rather, they have incoming communication as an illusion of workflow. Most people are not paid to answer emails and chats, yet that is typically what constitutes work triggers for many.

Real workflow should start with what you are supposed to accomplish this year, month, week or day, what resources are needed for that and what communication is necessary at what stage. Then you can decide when to tap into emails, social media or Slack.

Many people are driven by the email workflow illusion. If you take emails away, some people have no idea what they are supposed to do. Defining the goals, weekly or daily targets (does not have to be a sprint) is critical in defining workflow. The Lean Kanban principles are helpful judging whether we have the right workflow for ourselves.

We should be able to answer these 5 questions at any time without a single meeting:

  • What are the key outcomes I am working on?
  • Which of these add value to the customers?
  • What are the key results my team members are working on?
  • Where do we need to collaborate?
  • How am I measuring the results of those tasks?

A good Kanban board should give you the answers to these.

The Magic of Trello Search Across Kanban Boards

We’ve been using Trello boards for 5 years now. Since our team members are scattered across the globe, keeping tabs on what everyone is working on can be complicated. Emails are rarely helping.

Following our LEAN principles, we all made all our work visible to others. Everyone is free to adapt Trello to their own workflow needs. Nowadays we have over 100 business and shared personal boards and no-one can be expected to check every one of them for items relevant to their own work or having a deadline.

A couple of simple tricks allow me and my team to stay on top of everything that is going on in minutes a day:

  • Add yourself to every card where you want to be notified of updates or deadlines. Add others to your cards if you want them to be notified.
  • Make sure tasks have a deadline
  • Use searches to find overlapping activities and deadlines for yourself or others
  • Make all your tasks visible to those who need to know.

In my daily workflow I follow the above rules and also use a couple of favorite Trello searches. These searches have saved me hours of searching for status updates, deadlines, documents and overlapping activities.

  • My most favorite search:   @me due:7  This single search allows me to see all activities where I have to finish something across hundreds of tasks on dozens of boards. I ether work on them or at least comment on the card – letting those waiting for me know when things will be done. A small step to eradicate the disease of endless corporate waiting loop.

There are a few other searches I use every day. Here is a list.