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Transforming a national sales force in record time

Program rolled out in half the expected time helps increase sales conversion rates by 20 percent.

Challenge

A direct-service company’s commercial-business unit had to change the way its dispersed sales team operated.  With 20 area managers, 200 sales managers, and 2,000 sales representatives spread across North America, the group was struggling with high staff turnover and poor performance. Each year, for example, a third of the sales leads coming in through the call center—roughly 100,000—received no follow-up, largely because of weak management tools and processes.

Complicating matters was the urgency felt by the client’s senior leaders to raise sales quickly. They called McKinsey to help develop and implement the project in 6 months, even though a project like this ordinarily takes from 12 to 24 months.

Discovery

We worked with the client to review their recent history of sales improvement programs. Most had had mixed success, and some employees were understandably reluctant to attempt another complex change program.  Moreover, simply providing the right tools for the job would force neither quick nor lasting change in the way the client’s far-flung sales force operated.

The key discovery was that the required behavioral changes were so broad there was really no way for the top corporate team to lead this effort, as one might ordinarily do. Instead, the client had to work directly with the middle of the company’s sales hierarchy by identifying an appropriate group of area managers to take the lead in promoting change.

The critical component of this approach was in helping the client’s 20 area managers, who had a pivotal role in the company’s sales hierarchy, to become effective and committed leaders of change. We set up central “academies” where they learned to use new tools and processes, including standardized performance metrics, diagnostic reports, and a custom-designed tool to track and promote accountability for every sales lead that came in the door.

Once the managers had “graduated” from the academy, each of them simultaneously rolled the new tools and processes out, and helped sales managers and reps apply them. To ensure the changes would endure, we worked with the client to institute recurring, structured coaching sessions in which area managers used the performance tools to evaluate sales managers and pinpoint and address what was missing the mark.

Impact

By working intensively with the appropriate group of managers distributed across the organization, the client managed to transform its sales-force within the targeted time frame of 6 months. By the end of 12 months, the sales force had increased its lead-conversion rates by 20 percent. The number of self-generated leads, meanwhile, climbed 25 percent.

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