Make no mistake: mergers are challenging. Even so, they can provide organizations with transformative possibilities. One of the biggest—the integration of sales forces—is central to ensuring revenue growth and driving the value that mergers promise but often fail to realize.
Yet integrating sales forces ranks among the hardest parts of a merger to execute—a fact not lost on senior executives (exhibit). Mergers generate anxiety inside and outside the companies involved, and competitors happily exploit such fears to woo star salespeople and poach customers. Nonetheless, savvy companies embrace the opportunity to build a new sales organization that is more than the sum of its parts.
Need for improvement
Respondents place a high priority on improving the skills and capabilities required to integrate sales operations after a merger.
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We have identified four steps essential to facilitating the successful integration of sales operations. At the top of the list: understanding the importance of sharing information about the integration process with customers and the sales force. Many companies take the opposite approach and are surprised when postmerger revenue fails to meet expectations. In addition, the combined sales team must quickly win prominent accounts to build momentum and generate internal confidence in the merger. The executives running the integration effort must also recognize that, as important as sales reps are, essential support people must be identified and retained. Finally, senior managers should review the merged portfolio of customers and make tough calls about those that are worth new investments and those that might be shed or given less attention.
Overall, we find that with careful planning and implementation, acquiring companies can revitalize not only their own organizations but also their relationships with customers (see sidebar, “A case study of rapid sales force integration”).
Some companies try to shield their customers from messy merger-related activities such as changes in organizational structures and roles, customer-engagement rules, and customer support. But our experience suggests that most customers are willing and even excited to help a merging organization reshape itself: they prefer to be involved with—rather than to be told, after the fact—what changes are being made. Mergers therefore give companies a chance to improve relationships with customers and to address their unfulfilled needs. Many organizations are loath to assume new commitments during a time of transition—they believe that management has enough issues to resolve without involving customers in the merger process. Yet such discussions are critical in determining what a merger can and can’t achieve and the role customers can play in shaping that outcome.
Leading companies therefore take an expansive view of their relationships with customers, discussing not only the details of the sales relationship—the nuts and bolts of what’s sold and bought, and at what prices—but also issues such as contracting, delivery, support, and even how often executives from both sides meet. Communicating openly and involving customers makes them feel that their needs and expectations are being addressed and turns them into a party to a merger’s success.
Consider what happened at a networking-equipment company that found that its customers were worried about its postmerger product road map—the schedule specifying product ranges, prices, release dates, and other such details. Competitors fed this anxiety by questioning which products the merged company would support after the integration, implying that there was too much uncertainly to do business with it. In response, the company quickly developed an integrated product road map before the merger even closed, so it could work with customers and launch a campaign to publicize its revamped product lineup as soon as the deal was completed.
That experience conveys another valuable lesson: involve salespeople in the integration process. Because most of them need to maintain a laser-like focus on revenue targets and compensation in order to succeed, many companies seek to protect them at this point so they can concentrate on customers and continue to make sales. The problem is that customers and salespeople react to ambiguity. Uncertainty about the organization’s structure, customer-engagement rules, product road map, or operational details can all slow revenue generation as customers spend time discussing the issues and planning for the worst. Without firm direction, salespeople trying to quiet these concerns may give answers that are ultimately inconsistent with the developing integration plan, so that the reps seem “out of the loop” or the organization looks unresponsive or plain incompetent. Sales reps also need reassurance about internal issues, such as how they will be compensated and who will cover which accounts. Otherwise, in the worst-case scenario, high performers may defect to competitors.
In short, ambiguity—not the distraction of integration itself—is the fundamental enemy. Best-practice acquirers define, as specifically as possible, how the merged organization will eventually look and the pace and timing of integration. They also carefully track progress. Managers can’t know all the answers, but they should describe their intentions and the criteria for decisions and commit themselves to answering the field’s questions according to a specific pace and timing. The sales integration process should be clearly tracked and closely monitored: that means following not only lagging indicators, such as revenue, but also leading indicators, such as the volume of training activity on new products, how long deals take to close, how often prices or contracts must be altered, sales attrition, and win–lose rates for customers previously serviced by both merging companies.
Build sales momentum
Best-practice integrators know that the first hundred days after a merger closes are critical to demonstrating its value and tangible benefits to the sales force, customers, and investors. These companies focus on winning a few critical large transactions early as “proof of concept” cases, using the full weight of the top team, product development, salespeople, and technical support. Sales of products identified as quick wins—those most easily sold to customers of both merging companies initially—provide an immediate, focused experience for the sales force. At the outset, sales performance incentives should be aimed at such transactions.
In the case of a semiconductor merger, for example, much of the deal’s value reflected the possibility of integrating products into a combined chip set. Because the merging companies persuaded a few key customers to commit themselves to this vision quickly, sales reps were reassured that the deal was sound and would help them succeed both in sales volumes and compensation. The early sales in turn spurred enthusiasm and generated revenue momentum among other customers as well.
One barrier to achieving this kind of early sales success is the time needed to bring together the merging companies’ back-office systems and processes—particularly IT and finance—a problem that can hamper the execution of orders. In our experience, the excitement around a typical deal lasts six to nine months, not enough time for operations and IT to deliver a strong, integrated foundation for sales systems and processes. The challenge of such long-term planning can put a deal’s early sales momentum at risk. Leading integrators must accept the reality that momentum and a seamless transition may require temporary plug-and-play solutions for IT and finance. These work-arounds ensure that the sales reps can make forecasts, enter joint orders, gain pricing approval, manage exceptions and orders that need to be expedited, and troubleshoot issues in sales crediting and compensation. Over the long term, there will be time to cherry-pick each company’s strongest processes, methodologies, and tools.
Look beyond sales reps
There is little argument that retaining the top talent of a sales force is critical, and it’s easy to use pure revenue statistics to decide who stays and who goes in any integration effort. Yet all organizations employ certain people whose contributions are less easily measured—but who are nevertheless the glue of a high-performing sales team.
Best-practice integrators identify these people and their place in the organization’s internal network and target them for retention. There may, for instance, be sales support staff with unique and specific technical expertise, in functional areas like IT and finance, for sales processing or approval. What’s more, in many start-ups and medium-sized enterprises, some people fill many roles. Organizations can map such an internal network by using a variety of techniques to ensure that the people who hold it together are retained. Otherwise, an overly rigid or out-of-touch HR process for categorizing employees risks losing the richness of these relationships.
Finally, companies must consider the sequence for unveiling the integrated sales unit and selecting staff for retention. Reorganizing the frontline sales staff and back-office support simultaneously, for example, can significantly disrupt customer service. Deferring changes in support functions until account coverage and related matters have been resolved may help ensure that customers are served without interruption.
Review your customer portfolio
Most sales organizations in a merger or acquisition focus on retaining all customers, regardless of expense. That’s natural, given the heightened awareness of competitors’ actions and the desire to show that a company is meeting its revenue expectations. Yet mergers provide an opportunity not only to refocus on the most important and promising customers but also to allocate resources to meet their needs more fully.
While altering long-standing customer relationships is never easy, best-practice integrators use the merger process to evaluate a portfolio critically. To ensure that they focus on the most profitable accounts, they examine the true cost—support activities as well as sales rep time—of serving various types of customers. They explore options to reallocate account resources, something that may mean reducing coverage for customers that receive top-tier service because of historical relationships rather than profitability. And they are willing to have difficult conversations with customers to discuss contracts, terms and conditions, pricing, and anything else that affects the profitability of accounts.
Sometimes, you must be willing to shed customers. A technology company, for example, acquired a smaller firm that had been using its engineering team as a quasi–sales force: customers had come to expect that it would customize products for them. Once the two organizations merged, the acquirer refocused the team back on core engineering. The decision cost some sales to smaller customers, but the net effect on profitability was more than offset by increased engineering productivity.
Integrating sales organizations is never easy. Yet companies can embrace the opportunity before them by involving customers and employees in the merger process, generating momentum by quickly winning key accounts, retaining critical staff, and serving the right customers in the right way. These steps, our experience shows, can ensure that the sales force helps rather than hinders a merger’s overall success.