The Very Best Intentions

There are times when an operations team can become overwhelmed by the volume or the difficulty of their work. They fall behind, and sometimes, they fail their clients or customers. To address these difficulties and shortcomings, some leader decides to acquire additional help by calling on their sales team to pitch in on the operational work, helping the operations team to catch up. They also ask—or allow—salespeople to do work that belongs to other roles, believing they are helping, when in fact, they are harming the organization. If you want a high-performing sales organization, you cannot take your sales team out of the field. Your intentions, as good as they may be, compromise your sales culture.

They Need Help. But What Kind?

The operations team has fallen behind in their work. They need more hands if they are going to stop falling behind and eventually catch up. The leaders decide to take the sales force out of the field and apply them as resources to ensure that the company doesn’t fail their clients and customers. The rationale that the operations team only requires the sales force’s help for a few weeks, and they believe they can live without the couple weeks of whatever it is salespeople do when they are selling. This is poor thinking and a poor decision, for several reasons.

Taking your sales force away from sales to do operational work means they are not creating new opportunities or working to capture the opportunities they have already created. The two weeks they spent in operations are lost to them forever; they literally cannot get the time back, and you have shortened their sales year. The opportunities they didn’t create may not be lost to them. Still, the timing of the acquisition of the opportunity is lost, as they have moved the sales cycle at least two weeks into the future, if you believe the salespeople will pick up right where they left off (more on this later). While the sales force is working in operations, they are not progressing their existing opportunities, pushing the deal into the future for both their client and their company.

As tempting as it may be to believe that pulling your sales team out of the field isn’t as harmful as failing the customer, you are creating a culture where the need for help continues in the future—and destroys your sales culture in the process.

What Are You Enabling

The fact that your operations team needs help is an indication that something is wrong. That something has nothing to do with the sales force, with the possible exception being the sales force promising clients delivery dates the operations team cannot meet. When an operations team needs help, it is a symptom that suggests that they are under-resourced, have poor processes that prevent their success, have inadequate talent, are being poorly led, or some combination of these things.

If the operations team is lacking the resources they need, backfilling those roles with salespeople doesn’t solve that problem. Instead, it shifts the problem from operations to sales. Operations has been made whole, but the organization has now given up selling as a priority, while leaving operations no better resourced than before, and no better prepared for the future. If the operations team doesn’t have processes in place to allow them to execute for their clients, temporarily providing them salespeople is a response that does nothing to improve their efficiencies. Permitting poor execution due to a lack of people or processes to go unaddressed only causes more trouble in the future.

Following the logic and the rallying cry that everyone needs to work as a team, should we then pull people in operations and accounting and Human Resources and marketing to make cold calls and sales calls when the sales force falls behind on their numbers, reducing the number of people available to run those areas of the business?

Whatever variety of problem that gives rise to the idea that is pulling salespeople out of a sales role to do operational work, those problems belong to the operation team’s leadership, as well as executive leadership. None of this is to say salespeople have no role to play, something we’ll look at in a few paragraphs.

What You Are Teaching Your Sales Force?

When you ask your salespeople to stop selling and to assume operational duties, you destroy their effectiveness and infect them with weak beliefs and future excuses. You also allow the rest of your organization to believe that your salespeople don’t really work and have much free time available for other tasks, a self-fulling prophecy that all but ensures the destruction of a sales culture.

One of the first things that occurs to a salesperson when their operations team fails their clients is that they should stop selling. Failing one client isn’t made better by failing a second client because the operations team is overwhelmed with work. Later, the failures of operations become an excuse for poor sales results. In deals with a longer sales cycle, the opportunities they don’t create now are deals they won’t have ninety days from now. The last thing you want to do if you are building and maintaining a high-performing sales force is create the idea that there are times they should not be selling.

Once a salesperson is asked to do operational work as a way to keep their major client, you have given them a form of tacit approval to do all kinds of tasks that have nothing to do with sales. The client needs something, and they ask the salesperson for help. Because you confused them about their role and the value they create for the client and their company, you find the salesperson following up on orders, pulling reports, retyping invoices, and becoming a glorified customer service representative (and lessening their role in the process).

By moving salespeople into operational roles, you make it more likely they do work that belongs to someone else in the organization, and you increase the likelihood they struggle to reach their goals. It’s challenging enough to build value creators who can create and win clients without confusing them about their role and the value you expect them to create for your clients.

What Should the Sales Force Do Instead?

In The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need, I wrote about Accountability. If you are a salesperson, you own the outcomes you sell your client. You do not, however, own all the transactions necessary to deliver those outcomes. Just like the operations team isn’t responsible for creating and winning opportunities, the sales team isn’t responsible for doing the work of operations. They are, however, accountable to their clients, and they must be good team members to the rest of the business.

The sales force can—and must—work with their client to adjust delivery dates or to come up with some creative way to mitigate the execution problems. They can keep the client updated on the progress of improving things, and staying in close enough communication to prevent losing the client. They can also work with other clients to change delivery dates or go-live dates to give the operations team a little breathing room. If you want a culture of high-performing salespeople, you have to build that culture by helping them become value creators, consultative salespeople, and someone their clients recognize as a trusted advisor. That means they need to be engaged in execution from a strategic perspective, not from a transactional perspective.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. As a sales leader, you should help your operations team get the help they need to execute and protect your sales culture from being harmed by dragging salespeople into roles that belong to others.

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