Be ready for pushback, bring the facts, and make them feel heard (talk sales)
The more experience you have with change management initiatives, the more familiar you’re likely to be with the difficulty of communicating and staging these initiatives with your sales organization. In this two part article we’ll discuss some proven methods for getting your sales partners on board with you: we’ll talk about timing, content, lines of influence — and we’ll show how these techniques can maximize your upside, and mitigate serious risks. Part One focuses on a simple but effective structure for communications; in Part Two, we’ll dig deeper into communication style and how the right content and tone can help you…close the deal.
Congratulations: You’ve Decided to Innovate!
Whether the new project you’ve undertaken is broad and transformational, or a significant but essential upgrade, your team deserves a hand for taking those first steps. Change is always difficult, and especially so for operational roles, such as supply chain or customer service, where risk is often feared more than new successes are sought & celebrated.
There are many linked steps for executing a successful project, and in large enterprises, change management always sits at the top of that entire list. This privileged position has been earned through hard experience. Because as everyone who’s been around the block a few times knows: no matter how good the solution is, if you can’t get adoption — across the entire spectrum of affected parties — then the entire project can get stalled or abandoned.
We’ve made several of our own recommendations for effective change management, but one of the biggest keys is getting key stakeholders on-board. Broad alignment is certainly the goal, but the truth is, some stakeholders matter more than others — and some are, historically, tougher to bring on board. Let’s find out why…
Meet Your Toughest Stakeholder
There are very few things (many would say nothing) more important to a business than revenue. Sales people feel that pressure like a living presence, and the good ones also understand how to use it as leverage. That’s why there’s no stakeholder more influential (and fickle) than your friends in Sales. It’s also why almost any project that poses a risk for interrupting their flow, tends to be greeted with skepticism by the sales team.
Even operational projects, demanding resources and time but operating “behind the scenes,” will be questioned aggressively by the sales organization. They tend to view this kind of work as elective, and that brings about a focus on any potential downside (especially any chance of lost sales!) — while upside is usually filed under “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Now, to be fair, we’ve all seen plenty of ambitious projects go awry. And selling isn’t easy. Every good salesperson has their rhythm — a set of methods and processes that have been tested and proven to work. (Otherwise they wouldn’t be on the team…right?) Of course, nobody wants their rhythm broken — but for sales personnel, disruption is even more personal: because it can also lead to lost commissions. As a result, the sales team is incentivized to pushback on change — and revenue being revenue…the business is equally incentivized to listen.
That doesn’t mean that change still can’t happen — of course it obviously does — so how is it that change-makers make their way through these roiling waters? …More specifically: how do the good ones do it?
Messaging to Sales Requires Resolve
Communication is inherently tricky, but even more so when people’s incomes are on the line. You can have the best intentions, even tell the sales team early about this great project you have in mind, and how it will benefit them — and you may still get shut down before you get started.
Actually, the potential for pushback is one of the major reasons people tend to slow-walk project news: but if you end up telling sales late, or just prior to going live, you’ve all but guaranteed they’ll try to stop you in your tracks. “Why didn’t you tell us about this?” might be the nicest words you hear. Good sales people know how to connect narrative, emotion, and decision-making — and they won’t hesitate to use these super-powers to put a stop to a project they see as a distraction.
So the key is figuring out a way to break it slowly – and steadily. We call that “progressive communication.”
What Does Progressive Communication Look Like?
Progresssive communication begins with buy-in at the top, a resolved leadership group, and a plan. The idea is to make sure your project communication gains momentum in a way that makes the project’s success look and feel like a foregone conclusion – something that’s also steadily gaining momentum. One way to think about it is that your project communications are the clothes your project wears in public.
You can start the communication at a high-level, focused on benefit, then add-on detail, coupled with messaging for specific benefit(s). Here’s a good three “touch” approach that provides the bare necessities for this messaging approach:
Touch 1: Introduce the project, tied to a problem you will solve and benefits to be gained
Touch 2: Introduce the specifics of the solution and a timeline of engagement
Touch 3: Remind just prior to enacting engagement, and continue with benefit messaging
We can see how this structure works through a sample talk track:
For Touch 1, as soon as you’re considering a project, let sales leadership know: “Hi John, remember that issue, XYZ, you were complaining about? Well, we’re looking at some options to address it. I’ll keep you posted.” Keep the message very light and casual. No big asks. Nothing big to see here. Something is taking shape and it looks like it just might work…
As you define the project’s scope, send Touch 2, a note with some more detail: “Hi John, good news about XYZ, we’ve managed to get a project plan in place, and we’ve even selected a partner to help us out. The test project will start next week and your team should start seeing results by the end of the quarter. I’ve pasted some information links below. Let me know if you have any questions.” Again, you’re being informative; not asking for permission, but sharing just enough information that the Sales team could choose to speak up if they had concerns. You also want to make sure you reference the original problem that was discussed: establish that through-line of problem / solution and keep it front and center.
Touch 3 is where things can get a little spicy. The project has been tested, and you’re ready to go live. Even if the changes to sales are only minor, you might expect to receive a few complaints. Here is when it’s better to be proactive and initiate engagement: “Hi John, we’ve completed testing of the new process, and the results are quite positive (see summary below). I’m setting up time to take your leadership team through the changes, and then we can run some informational sessions for your team. Attached is a summary of the benefits your team can expect to receive. We look forward to walking you through the changes and answering any questions your team may have.”
You’re asking for input, still able to act on it of course — but by now, the project is riding down the rails: you’ve even got some results to prove the benefits. Sure, it’s still possible for sales to shut you down, but more difficult at this point, especially when key objectives have been hit, and (perhaps) there’s more benefit to come. Also, since you’ve communicated with Sales about what was happening, at least twice before — they’re likely to be more circumspect about throwing the brake.
Executive Support is Key
We save it for last even though it’s almost always good to get it first: because even the best change management program can be sunk without it. We speak, of course, of executive support — and there’s no substitute for C-level sponsors. Put a detailed plan and ROI together, and get your C’s on-board: CEO, CIO, CFO, COO…. the more C and Senior Exec support the better. Give your sponsors detailed updates throughout the project, and keep them apprised (even cc’d) on all your communications with sales.
That’s the basic structure and flow for solid project launch communications, focused on the special needs of the sales team. And these models have proven their worth on many occasions. Note also that the many defective variances to this flow: on-off communications; all-at-once communications; no-communications; no-specifics communications; communications to everybody but sales…rarely (if ever) make the grade.
In our next entry, we’ll move on from structure and talk a bit more about style, substance, and follow-through, as we move from the What to the How of change management communication with our friends in sales.