The sales profession has been left behind. Countless books and articles have been written about fostering creativity amongst engineers, product developers, and office staff -- but almost no efforts have been made at getting salespeople to think creatively. It's left a gaping hole in most firms' efforts to gain a strategic advantage. No strategy can be fully developed if the primary customer-facing employees -- the salespeople -- don't adjust their skills and tactics to fully exploit that strategy. That's where creativity comes in. Why would companies work so hard to find a market niche or advantageous product position only to continue selling their goods in the same old ways? To succeed in modern evolving markets, a sales professional must be able to adapt, evolve, and be creative in the way they pursue opportunities. If your salespeople are simply copying what they did at their last job -- or what your competitors are already doing -- then you've already lost any advantage you might have had in your sales channel.

At many companies, the sales department is a mystery staffed by hard-charging cowboys unaccountable in any way except their quota number. The idea of managing this group of revenue counters to think creatively seems almost bizarre. Perhaps even a useless distraction. After all, as long as the sales targets are being met, who cares about creative sales thinking? The fact is, meeting sales numbers is important -- but concentrating only on the short term can actually blind a company to emerging opportunities.

Management Complicity

It's not entirely the fault of the salespeople themselves. Innovative companies are famous for encouraging engineering staff to experiment with new ideas and forgiving them when pet projects fail, but even in this environment, salespeople still often have their feet held to the fire trying to meet quota. With no let-up in the pressure, most salespeople find that there's no time for new thinking. At this point, the Pareto Principle (80% of a companies' revenue comes from 20% of its customers) typically takes over, causing salespeople to concentrate the bulk of their efforts on a few large accounts. Once this trend manifests itself, 80% of your opportunities, including new potential markets and emerging accounts, are effectively ignored. While these smaller revenue targets may seem insignificant today, they encompass the bulk of a company's growth potential. Focusing only on monthly or quarterly numbers without allowing leeway to explore new sales avenues is no different than focusing only on existing profitable products and ignoring the research, development, and innovation efforts necessary to maintain a competitive product line.

Consider the case of Dell Inc. Earlier in its history, Dell sold computers through retail channels. The company had good success, but it only became the leading computer manufacturer after Dell's management took the bold step of abandoning retail sales for direct sales. The move ensured Dell's position and established its reputation for the operational efficiency of its build-to-order model. But for anyone trying to increase sales, the idea of walking away from established shelf space in national chains such as Best Buy and CompUSA usually seems suicidal. However, that's exactly what Dell did. While their competitors battled it out in the stores, Dell created a new and strategically advantageous position by adopting an innovative sales model and aligning the rest of the company to exploit that model.

The Root of Sales Slog

So how can you tell if your sales strategy needs a jolt of creativity? Two common ideas if overused reveal a sales department has become rigid: "A.B.C." and "this worked before." A.B.C. -- Always Be Calling! To the uninitiated, this is the mantra of a good salesperson (and the key catchphrase of the salesman's movie, "Glengarry Glen Ross"). Many managers often look for the loudest, most abrasive candidate available and assume his aggressive behavior will translate into more sales. It might. Active prospecting will continue to be an important part of most sales positions, to be sure. But blind devotion to hard selling is more often the sign of a sales manager who is inexperienced or has been unable to think creatively and adapt to more strategic techniques. It doesn't take a genius to see that harassing people over the phone is not the best way to build long lasting customer relationships. Unless you are in a quick sell, low value, business, A.B.C. thinking has serious limits when building an enduring and loyal customer base.

While A.B.C. thinking often shows up in junior-level sales managers, "this worked before" seems to affect sales executives at every level. I once worked with a VP of sales who had impeccable credentials and a proven record at managing a billion-dollar sales team. In spite of this, he completely failed in his efforts to increase the sales of an $18 million-a-year 100 person shop. In this particular situation, the VP was accustomed to selling IBM, and not much else. So when it came time to sell other products, he applied the IBM way - even though the process and positioning required to sell these other products was quite different and had very little to do with his experience at Big Blue. What the VP, and many others like him, didn't understand is that what worked before couldn't simply be reapplied to the new environment. Senior sales executives often need to be reminded of the old investor's warning, "past performance is not a guarantee of future success."

Making Everyone a "Creative"

Fortunately, many of the techniques used to drive creative product teams can be applied to sales teams as well. Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS -- a company famous for its egalitarian and innovative management -- likes to point out that everyone is a "creative." That is, everyone in the company can contribute to new ideas and thinking. But sales people have to be able to listen. The nature of the sales profession often draws type-A personalities who don't want to hear anything from anybody. But even a top salesperson under pressure to make their numbers can benefit from an outside perspective. Research into group decision-making shows that simply having someone, even someone less knowledgeable, ask "what if" questions, usually results in better overall solutions. Tap into the resources of non-sales personnel and you may find some of the best ideas come from outside of the department.

Take "Sales" Beyond the Team

Along similar lines of considering everyone a "creative" why not make everyone a salesperson? Companies with large employee bases should recognize that all of their employees have a vested interest in seeing the company succeed. Why not leverage that base to reach more people? Ford recently offered all of its employees a per-vehicle bonus for referrals that resulted in a sale. To get an idea of the scope of this reach, consider that Ford has 325,000 full-time employees.

The New, Creative Team

If we seriously want to encourage our salespeople to think creatively and look for alternative ways of selling, then we must treat them as we would a creative team. Managers can challenge members of their sales team to find a new approach or target segment per month or quarter. Alternatively, several days per month can be set aside for emerging opportunities. Programs such as 3M's 15% rule (employees at 3M are encouraged to spend 15% of their time on non-core work projects) can easily be offered to sales personnel. But most importantly we must allow them to pursue new -- possibly dead end -- targets without penalty, even if this means giving sales reps temporary quota reductions in exchange for time spent pursuing unexplored channels. The negative consequences of rigid sales thinking are every bit as damaging to a company as rigidity in the managerial, operational, or research and development departments. We operate in twenty-first century markets and work hard to develop cutting edge products. Don't let an old sales strategy allow your efforts go to waste.