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Management by Serving Suggestion: How to Guarantee Sales Development Non-performance

“Management by Serving Suggestion” is a phrase that jumped off my tongue at the end of a visit to one of our customers, who will remain anonymous for obvious reasons. I was trying to capture what it was that bothered me so much about how they treated their sales development team.

As far as we could tell, the attitude was: “Our SDRs are smart people, hired out of good schools, who won’t tolerate being told how to do their job; let’s just give them some tools and a goal and let them figure it out.”

In some sense, this is management. It has something to do with working through others. Certainly, the process of selecting new team members had a lot of steps and perhaps even some rigor. (Although, I must note that there was almost zero selection for the ability to have a coherent phone conversation.) And the SDRs seemed pretty happy doing research most of the day, calling and leaving an occasional voicemail, and striving for their “touch” goals every day. With regard to setting actual meetings for account executives, the less said the better. (In that saying, “less” matches “doing less” rather nicely.)

A Disastrous Portion

With regard to use of common tools, techniques, workflows, and quality assurance processes, well, that’s where the Serving Suggestion concept reigned supreme. For ConnectAndSell’s product Lightning, which lets an SDR simply click a button and talk to a targeted decision maker in a couple of minutes, Management by Serving Suggestion is disastrous.

Why? Isn’t it OK if each SDR uses their set of tools that fits their skills and work habits? Given how hard it is to hire even semi-qualified SDRs, and given that there are lots of ways to secure a meeting — emails, inbound calls, voicemail call-backs, and even occasional outbound calls — who really cares? And anyway, the good SDRs get promoted to be AEs so fast that what’s the point of standardizing on a tool set? Let’s just make the tools available, like snacks and ping-pong tables, and let our SDRs graze on them according to their tastes.

What’s Your Goal?

To me, it breaks down like this:

  • If your goal is to recruit SDRs as a farm team of future AEs, then Management by Serving Suggestion is probably your path of least resistance, and it has the charm of guaranteeing dismal performance for the bulk of the team while easily identifying your future star AEs. (Hint: They are the only ones who can figure out ConnectAndSell’s Lightning on their own.)
  • If your goal is to systematically fill the top of the funnel with a consistent flow of high-quality meetings that turn into opportunities, Management by Serving Suggestion effectively guarantees that you will fail — and that’s not the guarantee you are looking for.

Why? The answer lies in the word “systematically” in the previous sentence. A “system” — in this case, “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method” — depends fundamentally on the tools that are selected, designed in, and provisioned to get the job done.

Imagine a factory that makes tires. Would you want to trust your life to those tires if you found out that one production line uses a state-of-the-art machine to shape the tire, making sure that the sidewalls are of uniform thickness and strength, and another production line consists of a guy with a sharp knife, a pile of rubber, and a lot of enthusiasm? And would you want to trust your company’s future to a choice made by the factory workers (specialized tire-making machine vs. do-it-myself with hand tools)?

A System Is Essential

The fact that it is more difficult to manufacture a high-quality sales meeting makes it more, not less, essential that we manufacture meetings with a system, not merely a collection of serving suggestions. Interestingly, it turns out that even if our goal is to manufacture good AEs, not meetings, we are still better off inducting them into a system rather than a village of enthusiastic amateurs each following their own star. The best AEs are themselves team players who insist on repeatable processes that can only be defined and executed within a system.

Hence, my conclusion: Management by Serving Suggestion is a path-of-least-resistance approach that feels like it solves the problem of hiring scarce SDRs, not a way of maximizing high-quality output at a cost that works for the business. In other words, a cop-out, like feeding your kids exclusively on fast food because they insist on it.

The alternative — building a sales system — requires that management choose tools and then standardize the consistent usage of them so that the tools fit their sales system design. In a competitive world, systems rule; so I am hopeful that Management By Serving Suggestion will turn out to be a passing fad that was driven by easy money, now fading away, and will be driven away by competitors who embrace a systematic approach to the most important part of their business: the top of their sales funnel.