Drive Results by Selling Change

Lou Schachter and Rick Cheatham

You have built a beautiful business. But lately, waves of change are slowly eroding its base. Until now you have held back the damage by reinforcing the foundation. Then one day the realization hits you: you must move the whole structure, or it will be swept away like a sandcastle on the beach.

For so many of us, that is precisely how it feels when the market for what our company sells stops growing. Or when a newly emerged competitor releases an offering that is beginning to transform the marketplace. Sometimes the trouble occurs because our customers are changing. The customers may be confronting a shock in their own market and are less able to make their traditional purchases. Or the customers’ buying behaviors are changing.  

The drivers of change can also be positive. A new, more attractive segment of customers might be emerging. Our colleagues in engineering or product development may be ready to release some major innovations. We may have discovered that a few of our salespeople have become very successful selling in a different way, or to different buyers, or to different types of companies.

Whatever the cause, the moment will come. How you respond will determine your personal success, that of your customers, and to a great extent that of your company.

A number of books and papers have provided models for how companies’ go-to-market approaches must adapt to change. We propose a simple model, where a company is in a shift from selling a lot of X and a little bit of something new called Y . . . to a lot of Y and much less of the X legacy offering.

X and Y can be what you sell or how you sell. What you sell may be shifting to radically new products or to radically new services. How you sell may involve new types of customers, new types of buyers within existing customer organizations, or new, fundamentally different selling approaches.

Initially a company is selling a lot of X and a little bit of Y. Over time, if the strategy works, the idea is that the share of Y gets bigger. At the end, there comes a point when Y is no longer the new thing. Z emerges, and the process repeats itself.

Now let’s look at how salespeople change as a result of a shift from selling X to selling Y. Let’s start with what people think happens.

In the beginning, we have a few people selling Y, while most people are selling X. Then, the conventional wisdom says, over time you get more of your X salespeople to sell Y. And at the end, before the cycle repeats, some of them start to sell Z.

Based on this model, sales leaders see it as their job to get more salespeople to sell Y more quickly. And that is hard. People resist change, especially big change. Typically, most salespeople who are told (or even taught) to start selling Y revert fairly quickly to selling X, as they always did. Sales leaders become frustrated by their inability to drive the shift they need. They often begin to wonder if they need new salespeople. They initiate an effort to recruit Y salespeople, often at great expense, and begin to let go X salespeople who can’t make the shift to Y, which is also expensive.

Salespeople can be tremendously frustrated. Often executive discussions about a shift from X to Y can take months. Once a decision is reached, the leaders, who have had a significant period of time to consider and accept the change, now expect salespeople to commit to it fully as soon as it is announced. Typically, salespeople, who have heard many big announcements over the years, wait things out to see if the change will stick, since so many before it have not.

Sales managers are often stuck in the middle between sales representatives who resist the change from X to Y and executives who insist upon it. The sales managers, themselves, often have mixed feelings about the new approach and are torn between being candid about their doubts and feeling an obligation to display confidence about the new direction.

There is a better way. Driving a sales transformation—or even just being part of one— gets a whole lot easier when you realize the model above is not accurate. The shift from selling X to selling Y is not a binary event, where you turn off X and turn on Y. Thinking it’s like a switch is what creates frustration for so many sales leaders and what creates resistance from salespeople and confusion in sales managers.

What really happens is that in the beginning, we have a very few people selling purely Y, while most people are selling X, and a few are selling a combination we’ll refer to as XY. That is, they are continuing to sell X while also selling Y.

The recognition of the XY combination is the key to understanding sales transformation. Over time, salespeople do shift to selling Y exclusively. But they only do that after a period of selling both X and Y simultaneously.

The most critical element of making a sales transformation successful is describing what it looks like to sell X and Y at the same time or to sell XY combinations. It is not, as most sales leaders wrongly assume today, simply defining Y and how to sell it. Nor is it getting people to switch from X to Y. The key is getting them to switch from selling only X to selling X and Y at the same time. If you don’t get this transition right, you won’t see the later stages. You’ll likely be looking for a new job. If you do get it right, the later stages will take care of themselves.

Lou Schachter is managing director of the global Sales Practice at BTS, a global professional services firm supporting world leading businesses with strategy execution, leadership development and sales transformation. Rick Cheathamleads the sales practice at BTS for the United States. This article is excerpted from “Selling Vision: The X→XY→Y Formula for Driving Results by Selling Change” and reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill (Copyright 2016).