Changes in sales personnel – the risk of losing knowledge and customers

In many organizations the personnel that work for the company change rapidly. Changes might be so common that it’s hard to even remember the names of the people who retired or decided to change jobs, just in this quarter. These kind of companies tend to depend more on processes and functions, than on people with names. In smaller and more traditional companies people are not easily interchangeable. If someone leaves, people will remember the person, and notice the hole they left in the team. There is a certain difference between being a resource and a human being.

Strong individuals with long careers can be extremely valuable, when it comes to building relationships and trust with customers. If you have worked with someone for 20 years, there’s probably a unique feeling of mutual trust. That trust is something that cannot be passed on to your apprentice overnight. Often your biggest strength is your biggest weakness: Valuable and experienced people bring you a lot of business, but can also create a strong dependency on individuals. From a company perspective, this represents a risk of losing valuable information and tacit knowledge. It can also be a remarkable risk to lose customers, especially if not handled properly. It should be no surprise that many key customer relationships may suffer when people change.

Here are some things you can do to enhance sharing of knowledge, and to lower the risk in moments of personnel changes in your sales team.

1. Accurate data in all systems. When it comes to putting information into CRM, order-delivery or billing systems there are few sales people who scream out of excitement. This often results in inaccurate, insufficient or no data in the systems. The reasons are very human. If the cost for us is higher than the experienced reward, we tend not to do it. From a company continuance point of view, this is naturally everything but good. In order to support data accuracy, you can:

a. Define shared practices for inputting data into the systems. This makes it clearer what exactly to document and in what form. The other advantage is that it makes the data more usable, which supports the feeling that there is value in inputting data.

b. Prioritize end user experience, especially when you invest in software. Unfortunately, many CRM-systems are implemented for management and controller purposes. If the primary purpose of a software is to create reports for directors, it probably does not respond perfectly to what the sales team would need in order to sell more. Good software makes it possible to get the job done, great software does most of the work for you.

c. Train people in new tools. Companies tend to invest less than enough in training and support for new sales tools and systems. The need for continuous training also rise from people not wanting to admit that they don’t know what to do. You should never blame someone for not being good at using software, but you should make it easier for them to accept help. Best-practices about how roll out sales software successfully here.

2. Defined practices and ways of working. Many companies that are highly dependent on certain individuals don’t often have a clear “our way of doing things”. It is often more likely that every person in sales have worked out a way that works for them, and has probably not worried much about what others do and how. The problem is that, if there is no systematic way of doing things, then there are no good-practices that the company owns. For a company this means, that there is no tacit knowledge stored in the ways of working.

Side note: Making sales more systematic does not necessary mean following a strict sales process. Every sales organization needs to choose the amount of structure they require depending on the complexity of the businesses they are in.

3. Time and encouragement for people to talk to each other. It is becoming a bit of a pest, that people don’t have time to talk to each other about work matters at work. This is much the result of too much focus on execution and efficiency. The need to do things is so dominant, that there is hardly no time to think. People often don’t have time to discuss how and why something was done, but only what was done and what were the results. This simply means that sharing best-practices, learnings and insights are an uncommon courtesy. Two very obvious solutions can be found:

I. Arrange face-to-face meetings or development days, where people present encountered failures and success stories. Create moments where people have the possibility to share and discuss with others what they have learned and experienced.

II.  Arrange unofficial shared time that has no formal agenda. This gives people the possibility to talk to each other about whatever is on their mind. This helps in the purpose of sharing knowledge, insights and information, but also gives the option to solve minor disagreements and misunderstandings. One key thing is that it should be a long enough time span if possible, since people first tend to talk about things that don’t really matter. At 3XO we try our best to have a day like this, every 6 weeks. We call this a Day of Open Discussion, or just DOD.

When it comes to unexpected changes in the team you can prepare yourself by creating practices that support sharing of knowledge and insights and routine documenting of information. When it comes to retirement you often do your company a service, if you can hire the new person early on. This gives your team enough time to pass on customer relationships and tacit knowledge. Money is always an issue when hiring new people, but losing key customers and vital market insight is a much bigger one.