Steven's Blog

The Senior-Level Salesman Who Won’t Change

For many companies in Japan, markets and strategic priorities have changed faster than the way senior sales staff do things. The target customers, industries, ways of selling and delivering value must change if the company is to thrive. Yet so many CEOs of companies in Japan lament about senior salespeople who cling to the past. This includes Japanese leaders of Japanese companies, not just non-Japanese leaders of non-Japanese companies.

While fears are frequently exaggerated or unfounded, CEOs often hesitate to push too hard, as they don’t want to damage important relationships with key customers which they view as owned by the salesman. At the same time, it is impossible to address change among junior sales staff while senior sales staff is recalcitrant. Efforts at training junior staff are doomed to fail. And so we are at an impasse, where improving on current ways yields little in terms of results, and doing things in a new way is impossible.

I have written before that performance gaps have only three causes:

  1. I don’t know how to…
  2. I don’t want to…
  3. Even if I wanted to, I can’t!

Number One is addressed by teaching people “how to…” Number Three is about removing structural impediments. However, it is Number Two that is the hardest to address because neither teaching nor restructuring processes address the cause. The senior salesman who won’t change is frequently a “don’t want to” problem, and to address it you must understand the motivation.

Many senior salespeople in Japan have built their careers through experience and building a network of relationships with customers. They view their value in terms of the customers they know, and their familiarity with an industry. Many sales organizations in Japan do little in terms of training. Few have any formal sales methods or processes. Junior salespeople are expected to learn only by imitating those who have gone before them. As such, the senior salesman also views his value not so much in that he knows sales process, but rather that he IS the sales process.

However, the reality is that sales not merely a network of contacts, but rather a profession, and a noble one at that!

There are principles, methods, and practices that work regardless of the product or industry. Click To Tweet

A competent sales professional is capable of being in successful in any industry, and you have likely met good salespeople who have worked in many different sales roles successfully.

A strategic change that makes an imperative of selling into new industries and markets, developing prospects from scratch, and selling new types of products and services can be highly threatening to a senior salesman who sees his entire value as based on who he knows now, what he sells now, where he sells it now, and how long he has been doing the same. All at once, he sees the edifice of his career built up over decades as razed. His network is no longer valued. His industry and product knowledge is no longer relevant. His ways are no longer the paradigm for all those junior to him.

His informal status suffers a demotion. In fact, he may view himself as suddenly lowered to the same level as freshman sales staff with a clean slate, only his slate of course has been wiped. Now he must learn and advance anew like the others, only he may be closer in years to retirement than they may be in years spent in the company. Who would not feel threatened?

A frightened senior sales person may have value of which he or she may be unaware. Practices that they may have considered industry or product specific may be applicable elsewhere. These can be brought out and documented for others to learn from. More importantly, a senior salesman has a possible leadership role. He is already viewed as a paradigm. More junior sales people will still look to him for guidance. However, the paradigm of behavior should be one of openness to learning new things, taking risks and going for new opportunities, and not letting fear of failure get the better of you.

A senior salesman need not see the edifice of his career razed, but he does need to renovate. You can help with that. Start by working with the senior sales staff and sales managers first before attempting to train all staff together. Build sales principles, processes, tools, and methods together with the leaders first. Document the sales methodology so it can be shared, taught and improved. Decide with the leaders together how to roll out the new methodology to staff, how to teach it, how to hold staff accountable for using it, and how to practice and improve it regularly. Make the senior sales leaders partners in change strategic change, whether managers with staff or informal leaders to whom others look up because of seniority. Address the “I don’t want to” concerns in this way.

Not every senior salesman will want to change despite your best efforts to appeal to his self-interest. That cannot be helped. However, in my experience, most will change if approached in the way I described above. This gives you your best option, which is certainly better than simply giving up on your veteran sales staff, or compromising strategic objectives.


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