Business Leader Perspective – John Kirkham – In search of the holy grail

5 minute read


I had the pleasure of meeting recently with John Kirkham, Ex EVP Global Sales at Open Text. He has some enlightened views on how companies can best deliver improved sales performance. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will notice some philosophical alignment. He was recently interviewed in a Business Leader Perspective context, and I’m happy to share the output of that interview.

In search of the Holy Grail
Three decades of building and rebuilding enterprise sales teams in the IT sector, on both sides of the pond, has been a challenging and at times extraordinarily frustrating experience. My pursuit of the holy grail of sustained and consistent growth in sales performance has proved very elusive. You would think by now any experienced, self-respecting sales leader should have all the answers. In reality, this is far from the truth. The average life cycle of a Sales VP in a US software company is now only about eighteen months.
Too many organizations in our industry make major dents in their business results as a result of experiencing totally unacceptable attrition levels in their sales teams. This has caused the demise of many a good sales leader. Attempts to clone the high performers in the sales team, who consistently deliver a disproportionately high percentage of revenues, generally fail leaving many organizations very exposed if these individuals jump ship.
Time For Difference?
So what do we need to do differently? One thing is for sure the old sales training paradigm of reliance at great cost on intensive classroom based workshops or boot camps (whatever you want to call them) on key skills such as opportunity and account management isn’t the answer. It’s the sustainability that gets you. Traditional sales training offered by a plethora of companies at best have a short term impact before people revert to their old habits. One off training initiatives do not deliver a long term change in behaviour.
Many organizations in the interest of cracking it have made major investments in CRM systems in the expectation that they will deliver improved sales performance. Can we hand on heart say that they have delivered what it said on the tin? That’s not to say that implementation of an effective CRM system isn’t fundamental to any sales driven organization but don’t confuse increased visibility on activity and greater control of the sales process with improved quality of execution. It’s this which at the end of the day is essential if we are going to enhance sales performance long term.
Leadership Coaching: In my view the one consistent characteristic of a high performance team, which delivers sales excellence and differentiates itself from its competitors, is the quality of sales leadership and their ability to embed best practice throughout the sales organization. Not just the direct team but also pre sales, telesales, professional services and customer support. Yes, a key to achieving this is implementing a methodology that works for your business. However I would argue that unless there is sufficient bandwidth within the leadership team to spend time developing the individual skills necessary to deliver sales excellence it will be an elusive goal. Coaching is the name of the game (sound familiar sports fans?) and too few organizations take it seriously. It is the glue which makes training initiatives succeed and the absence of it makes them fail. I don’t care which CRM system or sales methodology you have adopted you cannot expect a serious improvement in sales execution without making this investment. Perhaps a key indicator that organizations are failing to step up to the plate is the alarming statistic that ramp up times for new entrants into the sales team have actually gone up over the last five years!
But I hear a plaintive cry “That’s all very well but we don’t have the internal resources. Those individuals including sales management capable of imparting the skills needed within the team are too busy on the coal face trying to deliver the numbers.” Have you ever figured out how much management time is spent endlessly validating opportunities and reviewing forecasts trying to figure out the real number for the quarter? Just think of the benefit of shifting deal inspection from sales management to the account executive requiring them to address sales methodology questions at the point of entry.
By implementing a Sales Performance Automation platform, which combines proven sales methodology and processes with the ability to provide the sales team with access to what they need when they need it whether it be objection handling, competitive analysis, account plans, best practices or effective on demand sales training, valuable time can be released for sales management to coach, brainstorm and strategize key opportunities. Shifting time spent on inspection to time spent on performance improvement is fundamental to sales effectiveness. If you feel you still don’t have the bandwidth work with an organization which has a team of experienced sales professionals who have the experience to deliver the coaching support your team needs.
We all know we have to do things differently. Taking these steps is a small price to pay when you consider the investment you have already made in your people and the tools and methodologies to support them.



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