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Article|McKinsey Quarterly

Using your sales force to jump-start growth

There’s a reason it’s called a sales force. Here are four innovative ways companies can use their sales reps to drive growth.

April 2011 | byMaryanne Hancock, Homayoun Hatami, and Sunil Rayan

There’s no escaping the impact of the sales force on your company’s growth trajectory. This is the frontline group best placed to gain an intimate understanding of existing customers, to observe the forces at work in an industry, and to identify potential new business. During the past year, we interviewed about 100 sales executives around the world, across a range of industries, to identify the critical elements that distinguish true sales leaders from also-rans. This article highlights four intriguing ideas the executives described for leveraging the sales force to jump-start growth. Together, these suggestions offer practical insights for sales groups, as well as a starting point for discussions among CEOs and other senior managers hoping to get more from sales and marketing investments.

Look over the horizon

The sudden arrival of a truly disruptive technology—one that upends markets in ways few anticipate—presents obvious challenges to industry incumbents. Yet it’s also a huge growth opportunity. One supplier of parts to high-tech manufacturers has created a team of “speculative market analysts” to better identify the emergence of disruptive technologies and to predict their business implications. The team helps the company to position itself as a supplier that’s ahead of the curve and to enjoy superior sales growth while competitors scramble to catch up.

The full-time team cuts across all business units and draws on a variety of internal and external sources: the sales force provides insights into the technology initiatives of the company’s customers while continually pressing them for feedback about its shortcomings and the efforts of competitors. In addition, the team closely scrutinizes all reports from competitors and customers—easier said than done, given the sheer volume of market information emanating from countries such as China. It even fosters close ties with venture capital firms and provides up-and-coming companies with funding and “sweat equity” to convert innovative concepts into realities. Together, these efforts have helped the company’s sales force to get ahead of recent major disruptive trends, including the boom in tablet devices and e-readers, as well as the growing fields of LED lighting and solar technology. What’s more, the team’s efforts are generating an estimated annual return on investment that exceeds 12 percent.

Hunt and farm

It’s easy for organizations to fall into the habit of seeking sales growth only through existing customers. Even though the sales force is typically best placed to find and approach potential clients, individual reps may shun the uncomfortable task of cold-calling in favor of selling to customers they know well. Yet there’s only so much each customer can buy, so finding new business is critical for growth.

One large distributor of auto parts tried tackling this problem by separating these activities. Its sales leader designated some reps as “hunters,” who focused exclusively on finding new prospects, while “farmer” reps concentrated on existing customers. The model succeeded initially but later foundered as hunters became discouraged by the time and effort required for their relatively scant wins, as well as the perception that they were second-class citizens compared with farmers.

As attrition rates among hunter reps grew, the sales leader changed tack. To demonstrate the importance of finding new customers, he designated one day a month as a “hunting day,” when all reps would exclusively chase new prospects. The rest of the time, they could focus largely on existing customers. The result was astounding: in a single day, the company signed up as many new customers as it normally did in two months. Setting aside one day a month for hunting new business is now an ingrained part of the company’s sales practices.

Motivate with more than money

The basic remuneration model for sales reps is simple: a base salary offers security; commissions and bonuses provide incentives to perform. Most companies work endlessly to optimize the balance. Yet what if money isn’t the thing that actually matters most? One financial-services company tried all manner of compensation plans before determining that while carrots and sticks did influence the sales performance of its financial advisers and sales managers, the results were short-lived.

As the company explored alternatives, its sales leader observed something important: the most successful advisers often spoke passionately about the sense of fulfillment that came from helping clients realize their dreams. Fundamentally, that was why these men and women had become financial advisers. The realization that money was just one of the factors driving performance prompted the sales leader to work with managers and individual advisers to develop specific goals that would help the advisers feel they had genuinely helped customers. Maybe it was prioritizing quality over quantity by working more intensely with fewer clients. Perhaps advisers needed a wider range of financial products to ensure that they had all possible options to meet their clients’ investment goals. At the same time, the company identified and laid out steps for overcoming potential bottlenecks, such as a lack of coaching, training, financial-management tools, or appropriate products.

The company knows that money remains critical to its sales team but now recognizes the benefits of identifying other, deeper motivations. The attrition rate among financial advisers has fallen sharply, and they not only have become more successful at winning business but also have found that clients are entrusting more of their wealth with the company. These goals have been met with no increase in the compensation of advisers.

Boost sales without slashing prices

Companies experiencing flat or declining sales often elect to cut prices to spur demand. Yet sometimes, averages lie: a decline across a market doesn’t mean that all market segments are weakening. A North American logistics company learned this lesson the hard way when it empowered sales reps to lower prices to meet management’s goal of boosting volumes. Because the price guidelines were set without taking into account the competitive dynamics of each specific market segment, only some reps recouped the cost of the price cuts with higher volumes. The company’s overall competitive position deteriorated.

Top management decided to recalibrate its approach. The characteristics of each of the company’s various market segments varied wildly. Some were growing fast in the wake of continuing property construction, population influxes, and investment; others were flat-lining. The sales reps got new price and volume targets based on each segment’s characteristics. These targets incorporated metrics such as the economic growth rate in geographies where particular industries were heavy users of the company’s services, the strength of the company’s operational assets relative to those of its competitors, and whether the company was losing or gaining customers at accelerating or decelerating rates.

This granular view of each sales territory led to new sales approaches. In higher-growth markets with limited competition, sales reps aggressively sought new business and raised prices where possible. In declining markets with stiffer competition, reps were authorized to cut prices to prevent customers from defecting. This market-by-market roadmap allowed the company not only to reverse several years of declining market share but also to secure an overall average price increase of 3 percent.

About the authors

Maryanne Hancock is a principal in McKinsey’s Atlanta office, Homayoun Hatami is a principal in the Paris office, and Sunil Rayan is an associate principal in the New York office.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Maria Valdivieso de Uster and Jon Vander Ark to the development of this article.

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