The Salesforce - a potent source of innovation
In today’s dynamic business environments, organisations must adapt to change quickly or die out. A potent source of organisational innovativeness can be the firm’s salesforce, which has the greatest exposure to customer needs and fluctuating market trends. To leverage their ability to drive innovation in the organisation, sales managers need to stimulate salespersons intellectually and integrate the sales function with other organisational functions.
50% of the Fortune 500 from 1999 had disappeared from the list just ten years later. Not all entities perished, many were acquired, merged or split up into smaller companies. There is thus a more than 50% chance that a company that is thriving today is unlikely to exist in ten years’ time. And in many cases, where a company was consigned to the history pages, the management was reluctant to innovate or act on in-house innovations.
In today’s dynamic environment, businesses must innovate or die. An essential factor that determines a firm’s ability to cope with change is organisational innovativeness. Salespeople, who are at the forefront of customer interaction, are in a unique position to contribute to organisational innovativeness. They have the means to develop important insights regarding changing customer demands and market conditions. However, without a process to harness their potential as innovation drivers, this potential is wasted. A study, therefore, tries to answer the question: How can firms drive organisational innovativeness and firm performance through sales management?
The study found that sales managers are critical to developing a salesforce’s innovation orientation. They set the tone for sales operations, and when they stimulate their salespersons intellectually, they can create a culture of innovative thinking throughout the salesforce and the organisation. This leads to an increase in organisational innovativeness, and ultimately to its ability to adapt to the fluctuating business environment. Moreover, manager intellectual stimulation also boosts sales, which leads to increased top and bottom lines.
The study also found that this positive relationship between the salesforce and organisational innovativeness is affected by the degree to which the sales team is integrated within the firm. Salespersons interact with customers, R&D teams, marketing, accounting and finance, as well as IT in order to provide solutions that best meet customer needs. The greater the collaboration between the sales team and the other departments, the higher the innovation resulting from manager intellectual stimulation.
Manager intellectual stimulation starts with sales managers realising that good ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation, and that salespersons have the necessary exposure to understand customer needs well. They can stimulate their employees intellectually by fostering a climate of cooperation and joint problem solving, and by encouraging employees to use their knowledge and experience of customers to question known assumptions, to look at problems related to customer needs (and other areas) differently, and to approach situations in new ways.
Additionally, sales managers can foster closer working relationships between sales and other departments by involving salespersons in discussions about the broader strategies of the organisation. This can include discussions on product pitches, positioning, highlighting features, or segmentation. They can bring salespersons with good ideas together with marketing and product teams to leverage their new thoughts into better products and services.
Further, they can organise shopfloor visits (in manufacturing setups) and introductions to different organisational functions for sales representatives to give them a holistic idea of the organisation’s operations and the challenges it faces. This can not only help sales employees feel more integrated into the firm but also allow them to think “big picture” when coming up with new ideas.
At a broader level, to integrate sales with other teams, sales managers can co-locate the sales function with other functions. As employees from various teams interact in a casual setting, there is a high likelihood that they will get to know each other and understand each other’s jobs and functions. Incorporating measures that stimulate salespersons’ innovative thinking and integrate sales with other functions just might give an organisation the edge it needs to survive in today’s “change or die” environment.