Agile Sales: The Next Frontier of Business Agility

 

Key Takeaways:

We recently sat down with two seasoned Agile sales practitioners, Lauren Lee and Anthony Coppedge to understand how Agile - a way of working originally created for software development - is dramatically shifting the way companies approach sales.

Anthony leads Agile Transformation for IBM’s Global Digital Sales, where he’s developed an Agile Sales model for enterprise and develops Agile sales capabilities around the world.

Lauren is also a leader in Global Agile Sales and Marketing who cut her teeth at tech companies in Silicon Valley and ran Agility for Sales and Consumer Experience at Drinkworks, an Anheiser-Busch and Keurig startup. In her most recent role, Lauren implemented Agile ways of working for Global Sales and Marketing teams at Poly, a Plantronics company currently being acquired by HP.

Together, their years of experience brought tremendous insights into how Agile sales can be implemented in all kinds of teams.

What is Agile Sales and Why is it Important?

Lauren quote

To understand Agile, compare how software was created and delivered at the end of the 20th century with how it’s done today. Years went by in between major releases. Contrast that to today where your smart phone’s apps are updated weekly, daily or even hourly without you even being aware. That happens because of how software is built today using Agile.

This article takes a look at how the values and principles of Agile have since been deconstructed and applied to sales. By the end of this article, you should be able to answer these questions:

  • Should you be using Agile in your sales process?
  • What challenges can you expect in implementing Agile in sales?
  • And, what exactly does Agile sales look like in practice?

Many people have heard the term ‘Agile’ and assumed it refers to a single, narrow methodology. But when Agile was first coined and codified in 2001, it was not defined as a methodology at all.

"Agile is a mindset, where teams are aligned on a singular set of priorities and utilize transparency, inspection, and adaptation to drive continuous improvement." - Lauren Lee

Agile sales may be better defined by what it’s not. In contrast to the more individualistic competition in a traditional sales organization, Agile says “we’re better together than apart.” Even if salespeople work on their own, there’s a rising tide that raises all boats by spreading both what’s working and highlighing what’s not so issues can be addressed and solved.

In practice, this means moving away from ‘everyone for themselves’ thinking into something more collaborative, with insights moving up from salespeople to leadership in order to help shape broader strategies. Beyond that shift, Agile sales involves visualizing the highest value work, ruthlessly eliminating non-revenue generating activities, and continuously improving through deliberate feedback loops.

Ultimately, the best litmus test for when an organization truly has an Agile sales team is that they’re outcome-focused, client-centric, and data-driven.

 

“Leads aren’t just people with a pulse.” - Anthony Coppedge

For example, a B2B salesperson needs to generate leads. Often, this means finding anyone in order to achieve a quota. In Agile sales, this means finding people who genuinely value what you value. When you do that, you’re solving a pain or addressing an opportunity for growth. The customer wins because you’re focused on their outcome.

In B2C eCommerce, a salesperson needs to understand market changes as they happen to bring the right products to the right customer through contextual marketing and real-time competitive positioning. This requires a learning-centric mindset, reviewing sales outcomes daily and testing new marketing tactics to learn faster than the competition.

So with Agile, you shouldn’t be paying salespeople to create leads, they should be there to deliver value by identifying who would align with that. If price is the focus, it’s a race to the bottom. If value is the focus, then price is almost secondary.

What’s driving sales towards Agile?

Organizations need to understand their prospects and clients better and Agile provides an effective way to do this.

Lauren pointed out that while many companies are moving towards Agile sales, it’s a misnomer to say this is new. What’s new is that Agile is only now catching fire within the industry. In a world where prices can change by the hour and new software features can arrive daily, it’s no surprise that sellers and sales organizations need faster ways to respond. Sales needs to be able to test, learn, and pivot faster than ever with the help of marketing, channel management, and pricing. 

That's where Agile teams play best: aligning on a clear, specific goal. This is also where traditional sales fumble. They will focus on 'iconic campaigns' build around annual goals and quarterly metrics. But then the world shifts and companies with 6 month-long review processes have been left in the dust for short, iterative, test-and-learn campaigns created by empowered teams who can respond to the market as it's changing and don't require executive signoff before going to market.

What does the Agile sales process look like?

Based on his experience in Agile sales at IBM, Anthony broke down four ways he’s defined their process:

  1. Be outcome-focused. 
  2. Be client-centric.
  3. Be data-driven.
  4. Aggregate feedback to make qualitative data quantitative.

Let’s break down each of these elements with input from both interviewees:

1. Be outcome-focused. 

The activity isn’t the point, the outcome is the point. 

In practice, this means getting managers to stop using activity metrics (making a specific number of calls or sending a certain quantity of emails) to measure progress towards acheiving a quota.

Of course, this data is still tracked in an Agile sales organization, but activity measurements are only used to understand what’s working or not. This data can help us improve outcomes, but shouldn’t be end goals.

Outcomes are far more important than outputs.

One story clearly illustrates point in action. An inbound sales representative came to Anthony excited to share their activity metrics. The rep thought he was “being Agile,” but when asked how he was visualizing his process to improve on it, the seller proudly talked about making 200 calls a week for two weeks in a row. 

When Anthony asked him about how many leads had come from those calls, the answer was zero. “While I appreciate your diligence, we don’t pay you to make phone calls but to generate leads, “ Anthony coached, “so while you will need to make calls, the phone calls are not the point but merely one of the methods of connecting with prospects.”

Another example was when an eCommerce team proudly presented to Lauren in a Sprint Review that they had deployed an up-sell service for a few of their consumer products. They were planning to add this to a handful more products in the next sprint as part of their goal to increase revenue.

When the team thought through it, they had been focused on the mechanics of getting the service deployed and hadn't set early indicators to learn whether they had actually provided value to the customer. "Setting a target for success will validate whether the service is adding value," Lauren explained. "Then we can quickly scale what works and pivot on the messaging of what doesn't."

2. Be client-centric.

“Alignment isn’t about command and control, it’s about understanding what’s working, what people need.” - Anthony Coppedge

In many sales organizations, managers try to force behavior changes in employees. However, psychology and sociology research has shown that behavior modification is only as effective as the consistent pressure to inspect and measure compliance. 

The moment a new method or a new manager comes along, the old compliance will quickly fall away. The incentive for compliance is tied to the compensation structure, but when behavior modification is required to make a quota, the sales reps will only comply as often as it affects their paycheck.

Solving this problem means turning to some psychology, namely that when a person’s mind is changed, their behavior will follow. “It’s like the Diet industry,” Anthony explained. “Isn’t it ironic that the Diet industry is built on recurring revenue? If diet programs truly worked to permanently change people’s behaviors, it wouldn’t be recurring revenue. But it is a recurring revenue industry precisely because it’s not meant to change someone’s thinking about food but to instead provide a revenue stream that keeps the person hooked on consistently altering their normal behavior.” 

The mindset shift away from activity measurement to outcome measurement is what leads to truly changed behaviors.

3. Be data-driven.

“You can always tell a story with a spreadsheet that doesn’t correspond to reality.” - Anthony Coppedge

The key thing to remember is that data is vital, but you can’t treat it as infallible. Collect data, analyze it, and use it to drive your decisions, but be realistic about how it can be manipulated.

"If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything." - Ronald Coase, Nobel Laureate 

Leaders, managers, and sellers love good data when it helps them solve a problem or create a better opportunity. In Sales, the data from tools and systems measuring awareness, engagement, utilization, conversion, and adoption is immense. Agile sales helps sellers realize how to use this data to prioritize the work they do, measure the outcomes from that work, and deprioritize work that doesn’t add value.

Anthony shared an example where a team identified how a bug in ordering software led to slow-downs in the client being able to access the software and in being able to generate invoices, which all culminated in the sellers acting as support agents to solve the issue manually when it happened.

This team was able to share the significance of this issue by visualizing the waste so their manager could raise the issue and get it solved. From start to finish, the entire process took less than three weeks because up until then no one had realized the high cost and impact of the bug.

Another example came from when Lauren coached a team responsible for driving consumer product sales through retail and eTail channels. When the team needed a way to understand what bottom-funnel marketing campaigns were getting the highest ROI, they created and tracked unique discount codes for each channel and campaign, reviewing the results daily. The team was able to quickly divert cash to the best channels, doubling their ROAS (Return On Advertising Spend) in the critical holiday selling period.

4. Aggregate feedback to make qualitative data quantitative.

In traditional sales, the focus is almost exclusively on quantitative data. But with Agile, sales benefits from qualitative data as well. Using surveys, polls, and conversation insights from team retrospectives helps gather data and identify what’s causing the issues as well as to share what’s working across reps, teams, and even the wider organization.

In one example, Anthony took the data from 26 teams and captured their feedback. Using a tool the teams were already using to capture their needs, issues, ideas, and suggestions, Anthony pulled together 1,013 individual feedback requests from sellers over the course of a year and used the Watson Natural Language Processor to look for patterns. 

The result? Quantifiable insights that led to substantial changes in the areas where sellers were losing the most productivity or could gain the most advantage for their prospects and clients.

Make sure you move quickly and adapt

Outside of the four elements mentioned above, it’s critical to ensure your sales process includes more frequent reviews and adjustments to processes. Most sales organizations create detailed quarterly or even yearly sales plans which are implemented from the top down. Using more frequent reviews enables you to pivot in days or weeks instead of months or quarters.

Part of what makes Agile work so well in sales is the focus on visualizing work priority, flow of work, and measuring outcomes instead of outputs. It’s the visualization of this process and the weekly or bi-weekly reflection by the sellers that provides a model where symptoms are identified so root cause can be addressed.

In an Agile sales environment, the data, insights, and prioritization of creating and delivering value result in faster go-to-market pivots and have a measurable impact on the ultimate business KPI and client results.

Which Agile framework should you use?

In short, the one that works best for you. There are many ways to apply Agile methodology to sales. Determining which framework you should use will depend on the resources and size of your organization.

In fact, this is a case where Anthony and Lauren’s different experiences implementing Agile brought up two unique approaches. Lauren’s experience has largely focused on cases where the priority was getting teams into an Agile mindset and having common language and resources to reference when companies have limited resources.

In this context, she finds it useful to start with the Scrum framework and not deviate too much from it simply because it enables everyone to speak a common language.

With his experience in a larger company with more resources, Anthony looks at models instead of frameworks. By creating and modifying models to be more aligned with the realities of the work and team types, he can more easily adapt them to unique situations.

Whether you try a specific framework or go for a hybrid approach, just remember that Agile isn’t a framework, it’s an approach. In other words, there are lots of ways to be Agile in a sales environment, so find what works for you.

An Example of Agile Sales in Action

Working at the product startup Drinkworks, Lauren described their sales and marketing teams working out of a “war room” every day in order to meet their goals for the Christmas holiday. Their goal was to sell a specific number of units but it was up to them to get there.

She described intense (and fun) brainstorming sessions in which their teams came up with and implemented all kinds of wild ideas. What made this process Agile was the freedom they were given and the fact that the executive team was right there with them acting as support.

It’s something she saw as the epitome of cross-functional Agile teams. They had buy-in from executives and full creative freedom to achieve their goals. She attributes that to their success. Lauren has seen sales teams given this kind of space to get creative doubling revenue as a result.

The Challenges of Implementing Agile in Sales

Getting the right education and training

When implementing Agile sales, it helps to begin with education. This means training the executive team in Agile, ensuring all stakeholders and teams relevant to achieving sales goals, even supply and finance, have alignment. Agile training also helps get everyone on the same page in terms of language and how you’ll work together.

qualitative

Actually implementing Agile sales usually begins with the product owner (often the business owner) setting a goal (most often a revenue target) which gets broken down by week or by customer. 

Then, the product owner provides ideation around where sales opportunities are, while the Agile sales team reviews their metrics to find additional opportunities for revenue growth. To meet the goals, the teams escalate any resource needs to stakeholders.

But you also need to be thinking about those goals themselves. Financial goals and profit margins are byproducts of clearly delivering client and prospect value. While businesses need to hit revenue numbers, what they need more is to learn how to increase value for clients and prospects - and rapidly, in changing market conditions - so that the prioritized effort is focused on the outcomes rather than the outputs of a metric.

Handling dependencies

Another key challenge is the reality that Agile sales teams are much more dependent on non-sales people to achieve their value, such as product availability, marketing relevancy, and competitive pricing. Therefore, it helps to to create empowered cross-functional teams outside of just sales in order to enable their success.

Getting incentives right

Then there’s the challenge of shifting incentives from revenue to creating client value. Agile’s benefits come from teams having the flexibility to focus on quality over quantity so the speed of delivery improves from a culture of shared learning, which ends up creating higher quantity with quality outcomes over time. 

This can create tension within organizations not used to setting high-level goals and allowing sales teams to figure out how to achieve them on their own, but this is why it’s so critical to have cross-functional teams with the same set of goals so everyone can move together in the same direction. 

Anthony has also found it helpful to create a training and implementation program that shares expertise from those doing the work as part of the real-time case studies for those new to Agile sales.

Managers in Agile sales

The final challenge to mention is the unique role managers have in Agile sales. Instead of inspecting, commanding, and controlling, they need to seek to understand and serve their sales teams. Managers focus on two main parts of their role: removing impediments and skilling up the people in their span of care. 

That’s a full-time job because you always need to understand why something is or isn’t moving and have both the relational equity and time to commit to this servant-leader model.

Why is the Future Agile Sales with Agile Marketing?

It’s clear that Agile sales is going to continue to grow, further enabling sales teams to be successful as support functions also adopt Agile mindsets.

Lauren also sees a shift back towards long-term planning in response to the incorrect notion many have that you can’t do so while being Agile. In practice, this may be something like sales teams looking forward a few quarters to determine some big fish they want to catch, how to respond to upcoming product changes, etc.

Ultimately, Agile will continue its spread to Sales because it tends to spread within organizations before it spreads to en entire industry, as illustrated by author Geoffrey Moore in his best-selling book, “Crossing the Chasm”. 

This is particularly important because for Agile sales to thrive they need to work closely with supply, pricing, marketing, and other teams. So seeing those functions adopt Agile practices alongside Sales is a good sign.

All that is to say, according to Anthony, Lauren, and everyone here at AgileSherpas, the future of Agile sales is bright!Blog Article CTA - LW Landing Page