Harnessing the Power of the Sales Force

Drive your innovation platformand increase sales by making use of your salespeople's front-line customer contact and thirst for new products

Certain fundamental tensions exist everywhere. In our personal lives it's "spend now or save for retirement?" In sports the question is often "bet it all on winning this year, or build for the long-term?"

It's no different in business. Do you give in to the temptation of immediate gratification—satisfying Wall Street for this quarter—or increase the research and development budget?

The tension is never more apparent than when trying to balance the innovation pipeline against the needs of your sales force to have something new to sell today.

Know Your Sales Force

We've done lots of work with companies that are sales-driven. Our first customer (nearly 20 years ago) was Superior Coffee & Foods—now part of Sara Lee (SLE). We've also helped Keebler create new products quarterly for Sam's Club (WMT) and Costco (COST) and worked with food-service and manufacturing giants driven by sales forces that have an insatiable desire for new products. Lately we've done a lot of work around agent-driven industries like life insurance. All of these experiences have made us acutely aware of the roles speed, ego, business models, instant results and inertia play in sales-driven cultures.

These are the things you need to remember about salespeople. They:

• Need almost immediate results• Get bored with ideas quickly, so they need a short-term pipeline• Become dependent on "innovation news" as a way to sell• "Eat their own young" if they are not busy or happy. We once worked with a company who had gone from have the best year in history to dysfunctional feuding because they lacked a pipeline of new things to sell.• Are numbers driven—sometimes to a fault—which isn't surprising since the best are often paid on commission.

The excellent news is the innovation bar can be set fairly low when it comes to satisfying what the sales force needs. Salespeople are often happy with evolution, not revolution:

• ShinyGlow cleaner with new packaging graphics• ShinyGlow cleaner with a new, resealable top• ShinyGlow cleaner in an applicator pen• ShinyGlow cleaner "now with static guard"• ShinyGlow cleaner in an easy-to-pour package• ShinyGlow cleaner with built-in sunshine softener

These types of ideas are usually easy to come up with and to execute, and are often created in response to a competitor's product. If the sales group likes these ideas, they tend to be successful because the salespeople work harder to make them a reality.

Sales Teams as Innovators

Salespeople are great innovation advocates. They get excited. They know a ton about your customers and their business. They'll fight for their own ideas and will them into success.

Here's the best news about salespeople: They often feel neglected. Not many companies do a good job of leveraging the excitement they show for your product. If you can harness what your sales team knows and the energy they bring, you will have a huge competitive advantage.

How do you do that? Here are five ideas:

• VOS. Voice-of-the-customer research is the cornerstone of new product development. In your case, voice-of-the-salesperson research is just as important. There are many techniques to regularly enlist the minds and hearts of your salespeople. Success criteria should come largely from them. Platforms should come largely from them. Ideas should come from them. For example, arm your sales force with Flip Video cameras or explorer journals. Ask them to capture competitive insights, opportunities, or what's on their wish lists. They see things out there that you should know about.

• Enlist the alpha influencers. Sales teams are like packs. There is an alpha. Actively tapping these influencers is amazingly powerful. Imagine having them present your (their) innovation pipeline. We recently used this technique and got a standing ovation from 200 insurance agents. They did not realize they were applauding their own new product and service ideas. (Or did they?) Planned and facilitated roundtables with sales alphas are a highly effective way of creating this type of buy-in and momentum.

• Create short-term and long-term pipeline tracks/projects. The goal is to help the sales team create their short-term innovation "fix" and sales goals while they envision what the future can and should look like. With their short-term needs addressed, we are free to help them create an exciting future via new products, services, and business models. Every meeting we review where we are in the short term vs. the long term and adjust the pipeline accordingly. An example would be to focus on their next two sell-in meetings with quick ideas. At the same time, work on ideas that are five years out.

• Make it fun. Why do all the marketing people get to come up with the ideas that others have to sell? Schedule regular, engaging, and fun brainstorming sessions. Use the insights your salespeople brought you in your VOS meetings to build innovation platforms. Let the world know that the sales group came up with the ideas. Give away innovation awards. You can plan and facilitate these quarterly meetings and more importantly, screen and prep the right alphas to be in them.

• Educate. Along the way, stop and inform the sales group about the techniques you are employing. Make them aware that the work you are doing together is critical. Help them build concepts. Share research findings with them. Make them appreciate the rigor that great ideas and their thoughts deserve.

We love working with salespeople. Companies that have learned how to use them to drive innovation are not only faster to market but more connected with their customers (and, of course, more successful).