Total Sales: abandon process compliance and embrace a flexible approach

Holland's Total Football
Holland’s Total Football Strategy

Even if you are not an avid football (soccer) fan you might have heard of the term ‘total football‘. If not, it is a revolutionary tactical theory of football in which any outfield player (i.e. not including the goalkeeper!) can take over the role of any other player in the team. So if a player moves out of position he is immediately replaced by another from his team. This strategy (and mindset) made Ajax one of the most successful teams of the 1970’s and still drives Barcelona’s (and many other clubs’) success today.

Before Total Football, teams typically hoofed the ball up the pitch into the opposition’s box in the hope their star striker could get a foot to it and slot it into the back of the net. The other 10 players on the pitch are there for defence and to feed the ball.

This traditional football strategy reflects how many companies manage their sales efforts today. As described in the HBR article ‘Dismantling the Sales Machine‘, most companies rely on process driven sales strategies, typified by activity metrics and tried and tested set sales pitches, designed to help their sales team members replicate the approach of their star performers.

The reality is that in today’s competitive and fast moving environment, with longer sales cycles, smarter competition and almost total transparency provided by the internet, this brute force sales tactic is no longer efficient or even relevant. To compete it is necessary to adopt a flexible strategy that allows us to be agile and adjust quickly to market forces. I have taken some key strategies and tactics that make Total Football so effective and compared them to what I believe should be best practice in sales. Whether you enjoy football or not, I hope you find the lessons learned useful!

Each player is vital to overall success
The first and most important lesson we need to learn from Total Football is that the whole team needs to work as one unit. If there is one player who doesn’t understand the concept it will leave gaping holes that can easily be taken advantage of.

Likewise, companies need to get their teams to understand that everyone in the organisation is a salesperson. From the receptionist, who is the first voice people hear to the accounts department following up late payments, everyone is influencing the next sale. A great sales team can be let down by poor implementation and overselling can lead to poor delivery. Therefore everyone needs to understand why you sell what you sell, who the key accounts are and what the overall sales strategy is. Everyone should also share in the success (and rewards) of sales. This is the only way you will get everyone involved and excited about the next big deal.

Fluid and interchangeable team structure
Essential to the successful implementation of Total Football is the flexibility of the individual members to play different roles and fluidity of the team to adapt to their opponents. 

 As a company it is all too tempting to stick to a winning formula, wheeling out the same team for the important pitches under the premise that ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’. This is how organisations become victims of their own success as it prevents the team from developing. The star players become over-confident and too comfortable, loosing touch with their changing audience and market; new members of the team pick up old vices and are unable to breathe the necessary fresh air into the existing processes to avoid them going stale. To avoid this, companies need to create sales teams made up of sales as well as operational/delivery staff, where individuals are interchangeable and the team structure is fluid, constantly adapting itself to the requirements of each client meeting, pitch and presentation.

Share the ball (collaboration)
Although Total Football teams have their star players (Ajax, biggest exponents of Total Football, had Cruijff!) but no player can be bigger than the team itself. The attackers have to work just as hard to defend as the defence is required to support the attackers. Most importantly they have to work together as a team, rather than play as individuals.

In sales organisations it is very tempting to focus most of the attention on the star performer. As the star performer, it is equally tempting to get carried away with your own success (and frustrated by the lack of success of others). To gain long-lasting success, organisations need to encourage their team to work together and pool their resources. Common goals and performance rewards help unite the team but often it requires a change in mindset. Companies need to create an ‘inclusive’ environment, where star players train, accompany and are responsible for the new salespeople. No one goes it alone. It is good to maintain a healthy level of competitiveness (as it is the fuel that drives good salespeople) but by having a team and mentoring mentality the momentum will be positive and long-lasting.

Understand your opponent
A team that plays a flexible positioning system needs to understand their opponents, how they play as a team and who they need to cover at all costs. The team adapts their tactics (and players) to each opponent.

In the past, customers looked to the salesperson for guidance and advise. However, thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet, today’s buyer is often very well, if not too well, informed. This means that salespeople need to be much more prepared, become adaptive and creative in their sales. They need to gain an understanding of their customer’s needs and challenge them intelligently on their preconceived ideas. Very often it requires the resourcefulness to identify and approach different stakeholders in the same organisation to get to the real decision maker. Today’s successful salespeople need to do the research; understand the requirements (and interests) of the person they are meeting and adapt their pitch accordingly; provide insights and bring knowledge to the meeting; and offer unexpected solutions. This is essential part of what is called Insight Selling (here is a great article on Insight Selling). 

Practice makes perfect
One of the more recent exponents of Total Football is former Arsenal superstar Dennis Bergkamp. He was once told by Johan Cruijf that if you have to run to catch up with the ball you have started running too late. Subsequently Dennis trained incessantly to developed a sixth sense of where the ball would would end up and ensure he was there.

We don’t train enough in sales. Most salespeople, if they were lucky, were given a little bit of training and mentoring but most have largely been left to their own devices. It is generally seen as a waste of time because most salespeople think they are already perfect. How many times have you practised your cold calls on your colleagues? How many times have your role-played sales presentations? How often do you brainstorm with colleagues in how you could improve? Even more concerning, how much time did you allow for running through that vital sales pitch? I am pretty confident that most people would answer: not enough. Practice makes perfect!…And it allows you to build that invaluable sixth sense.

Total Management
In Total Football it is essential that the manager has a holistic view and in-depth understanding of every player’s ability and performance at all times.

Sadly in sales it is typical that salespeople are managed at a distance and from behind a desk through scorecards, activity metrics and monthly reviews or, if you are lucky, weekly sales meetings. When it is noticed that targets will be missed it is generally too late to do anything about it. Individuals are managed by extremes, through praise (when they win a deal) and criticism (when they have missed a target).

In my opinion, Total Sales requires total involvement. A sales manager (or director) needs to be aware of exactly what is going on within his or her team at all times. This requires constant dialogue, providing encouragement, advise and support based on their hands-on experience. It is a great way (if not the only way) to command respect, anticipate and reverse setbacks and missed targets, as well as get direct feedback on the effectiveness of the sales approach. In my last football analogy of this post, it doesn’t mean a successful sales manager needs to actually play in every game but they always need to be on the sidelines rather than in the directors box.

Remember, everyone is a salesperson!

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