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Guest opinion: In defence of the defined sales process

Author: Piers Trenear-Thomas, consultant and Lean Auto Retail coach

"In the July 2014 issue of AM, Professor Jim Saker advanced a view that having a standard sales process, which he likened to Frederick Taylors “scientific management”, was inappropriate in a modern car showroom.

He compared a defined sales process to a production line and commented that customers these days are looking for a more personalised experience.

He further commented, quite rightly, that over-supervision not only demotivates sales people, but also restricts how they are able to react to the customer.

The example provided in support of the commentary was the requirement, driven by a manufacturer “rule”,  to offer a test drive, whether the customer wanted one or not.

He concluded that if you did not hire high quality people, you were forced to deskill the job and monitor heavily. But if you did hire good quality people it should be enough to ask them simply to focus on delivering the experience that the customer now expected.

The drive of the article seems, on the face of it, entirely reasonable.

The trouble is that it fails to explore the very real difference between a standard process and the mechanical approach of Taylorism and also the difference between mindless rules and the discipline and thoughtfulness required to design and implement an effective process.

We are all, however experienced and skilled, affected by the impulse to leap to conclusions. In fact, the more experienced we are, the more likely we are to tend to conclude quickly, on the basis that we have seen it all before, what sort of buyer is in front of us and how they are likely to react. Therefore the more important it is to have a disciplined process and to follow it.

This does not mean that each element has to be completed in a set order or to a script.

A good process is one that begins with a clearly defined customer purpose and a clearly defined business purpose – what are we trying to achieve for the customer and for the business – and these purposes must be congruent. It should then be broken down into all the identifiable steps that are required to deliver the purposes.

Each of those steps should be further described in terms of the key detail, including the tips and tricks that help it to work. Finally each of those key points must be defined in terms of the reason why they are key.

That detailed description represents the best way we currently know how to do the job.

It is a method that is understood and agreed by all (that’s why the purpose and the reasons why are so important).

“It is our current standard.”

If it is the best way we currently know how, why would you want to do it another way?

It is the standard, as agreed by everyone involved. If and when someone finds a better way, that becomes the new standard.

The transition process must be managed otherwise we have anarchy. But change it must, because continuous improvement is at the heart of competitive advantage, but it is also a human necessity – wanting to learn and do better is in our DNA.

The process I have just described is highly specified, but it is also highly flexible and adaptive.

Entirely unlike Taylorism and mass production.

Likening such a process to McDonalds burger production or Amazon’s version of time and motion is grossly misleading.

The drift of the article is a little like Taylorism itself. Frederick Winslow Taylor conceived of a principle that on the face of it seems pretty reasonable. Prof Saker defines it well in the first paragraph of his article.

However, when Taylor tried to prove his principle he ran into trouble. He did not involve the people in his study and as soon as he put his stop-watch on them, they began to behave differently.

Taylor was not the sort of man to be daunted by this.

He manufactured the results that would prove his theory and lived off the fame and fortune that this brought him. It was only recently that a curious researcher dug into the facts and found that there were none that supported Taylor’s so called real life examples.

Prof Saker is right to assert that a mindless standard is just that – mindless – and will not only demotivate staff but will also not deliver the required result.

However, a standard process, defined by the people who do the job, and improved constantly is far from mindless.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not theory, but a distillation of the practice that has made one company in particular richer than most of its competitors added together.

There are real facts available to show that this sort of process is hugely effective compared with the freeform process that Prof Saker appears to be advocating. It is far too often the case that perfectly good people, operating without a discipline, omit key steps and fail to discover key facts.

Therefore, despite apparently giving the customer a really nice warm cuddly experience, they fail to sell them the car they really want (and therefore fail to retain the customer when they later reflect on the outcome).

And fail to deliver the business purpose of a profitable and repeatable transaction.

In defence of Prof Saker’s position, there are far too many examples of third party imposed ‘standards’ of the test drive requirement variety he mentions.

Standards that have a reasonable start point – test drives sell cars – but lack the necessary context of the ‘reason why’ the suggestion should be made.

However, the fault is not in the existence of a standard method, it is in the construction and instruction of it."

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