Sales Role Agility

It’s human nature to categorize things and people. It enables us to build models and constructs. It enables us to more easily deal with ambiguity, abstractions, and other things. Somehow things seem easier and clearer when everything has a box and everything is in its box.

We characterize and categorize sales people–putting the different types into boxes–hunters/farmers, lone wolves, consultative, connectors, challengers, relationship builders, conductors, builders, transactors, and so forth. Each has it’s own characteristics. Depending on the fashion of the times, or one’s biases, one is perceived as better than the other. Need to acquire new customers, an executive will say, “We need a sales force of hunters.” Launching a new company, we treasure the lone wolf. In driving insight we want to build sales organizations of Challengers.

The problem with categorization, many models or constructs is they represent an approximation of the real world at a point in time. But reality changes things, everything isn’t as clean, we can’t put everything into a box and construct the ideal sales person or ideal sales organization. Build an organization of challengers in a transaction focused buying environment, and you will drive customers (and your own company) crazy. Look at a complex buying cycle and you may need a “challenger” to get the customer committed to change, but then you may need a “hard worker” to work with the customer in the myriad of details of planning, risk assessment, evaluation through other parts of the sales cycle, and then in implementation, you may need someone who is more empathetic or “relationship” oriented to keep the customer moving forward. Have an unhappy customer and a “problem solver” approach might be most appropriate. (I’ll use the Challenger categories for many of the examples in this post).

Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson would say (At least I’ve heard Matt say), that sometimes Challengers display Hard Worker, Relationship Builder, Problem Solver or other characteristics. Or that a Problem Solver may display some Challenger characteristics.

So while these categories give us interesting models to look at developing our sales people and organizations, I think it’s important to consider another dimension to this issue—that is individual and organizational agility (nimbleness, flexibility).

Perhaps, while we may want a sales force that displays more of certain types of characteristic, say challenging, than others,what we may really need is sales people who are nimble or adaptable to the specific situation. The challenger may need to display more problem solving characteristics with certain customers or at certain points in the buying cycle. Or they may need to display more relationship builder characteristics.

So sales people who are agile or flexible–moving between roles as appropriate are probably more effective in addressing changing customer engagement expectations than those that are “hard-wired” into one category.

But it’s probably a very rare individual that can be equally good at all. We can train and develop people to improve their capabilities in each area, but it is probably unrealistic to expect large numbers of sales people to be agile in all roles.

But in looking at an organization, we have a lot more possibilities and flexibility in designing our organizations. Particularly when we consider, in complex B2B sales, sales success is more of a team sport than the result of a single individual contributor. We already know we the breadth of our solutions demands specialization, and teams of various specialists working together create a more effective overall organizational deployment model.

We may be better served (and more effectively engage our customers) by having teams composed characteristics. Perhaps teams composed of challengers, hard workers, problems solvers and relationship builders.

We might imagine the challenger inciting the customer to change, a problem solver or hard worker taking the lead in the tedium of evaluating alternatives, proving our superiority and so forth. At times, the challenger may need to re-engage, as might the others.

When we look at behavioral analysis, for example, Meyers Briggs type of analysis, we know the strongest and most effective teams have a mix of all the behavior types. That teams dominated by one behavior type, say drivers, are often very ineffective. But teams with all the behavior types complement the individual strength and weaknesses, performing at higher levels.

A more simple example–a composed exclusively of 9 pitchers won’t be very successful.

So perhaps we want to look at team and organizational design differently. Maybe it’s wrong to build an organization of just Challengers–as flexible as they may be as individuals, they still will revert to challenging behaviors. Likewise with problem solvers, hard workers, relationship builders and so forth.

We can’t build an organization of just one characteristic, because one size does not fit every customer buying situation. Maybe the highest performing organizations look building a set of complementary skills, and develop the organizational agility to put the right player in at the right time in the right situation.

While categorization is very helpful in looking at developing organizations and people, aligning with our strategies and customers, we can’t stop there. We also have to overlay role adaptability (within the individual and/or the organization), nimbleness and agility to maximize our ability to be most responsive in all customer situations.

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