barriers to sales

Small and medium businesses usually struggle with the challenge of scaling their sales efforts. Most start with a group or network who know them, and their expertise, and are happy to use their services,  but what next?

How do they build from the small base of the founders network?

Often someone on staff is turned into a ‘salesman’ usually reluctantly, or someone is hired who claims to have intimate knowledge of the market niche, and left to their own devices with little direction or discipline. Neither option works very well, and usually comes with a litany of hidden costs and problems.

Following are 6 of the biggest barriers I have encountered over the years that cause the greatest headaches.

  1. Compensation.

How you pay a salesperson is always front and centre, and is often a witches brew of trouble and unintended consequences. The default is usually a base plus some commission, depending on the business and its circumstances, but is often not the best option.

Within considerations about the compensation plan, there are a number of subsidiary questions that need to be asked.

  • What behaviour are you motivating for? Is the objective new customer acquisition, retention of existing customers to reduce churn, increases in share of wallet of existing customers? Whatever it is, it makes sense to manage the compensation towards that objective.
  • What are the capabilities of the personnel? Not that are they nice people, but are they able to deliver what is being asked. Sales people like all people have a range of behaviours and capabilities. In my experience an important axis of sales performance is what I call the “hunter/gatherer index”. Very simply, ‘hunters’ get their kicks from the chase, identifying an opportunity and chasing it down, once caught they move on. By contrast the “gatherers” tend to stay close to home and what they are familiar with, nurturing what they know without putting themselves at “risk” by inviting a “No”. Most sales organisations need a mix.
  • What is the mix of behaviour drivers in the sales force? Here hides the minefield. People are motivated by different things to different degrees. In general once the basics are covered, and people consider that they are being “fairly” compensated, the absolute amount drops down the list of behaviour drivers. However, some are motivated more by money than others, some react to targets and thresholds differently to others, and some prefer non cash rewards more than others. However, everyone responds to acknowledgement of effort and achievement, this is deep in our DNA. In the absence of acknowledgement, the importance of the absolute amount of money paid increases geometrically.
  • How easily understood and ‘gamed’ is the compensation plan? I have yet to see a compensation plan that will not be gamed by at least some sales staff, and that includes senior sales management staff. The answer to this is almost always simplicity and transparency, the simpler the plan is the better, and the more transparent the plan the better.
  • Hunter Vs annuity is a common problem. A customer who was sold ages ago, is a loyal and repeat customer, yet the commissions paid for sales to him are the same as commissions on sales to a new customer that took time sweat and tears to prospect, research, engage and convert. Why? One is hard, challenging work, one is akin to babysitting. Flat rate commissions alone rarely work for this reason.
  1. Alignment.

Unfortunately this word has become a bit of a cliché. “Sales” has an inherently short term meaning for most, conditioned as we are by our experience, and the recognition that sales is about “closing”.  Almost every sales training course I have seen has a module about the close and how important it is, which is not in dispute, but the standard tactics to generate a close by any means are inherently about “NOW” and is unfortunate. In most cases thinking beyond the transaction on the table currently pays great dividends. The key is to ensure that the effort is in every case  aligned with the objectives and strategies of the organisation. It is surprising to me just how often there is a misalignment between what the board room wants to happen, and what is actually happening at the coal face.

  1. Induction

How often have I seen a new hire in sales being given a quick tour of the factory, being given a folder with product specs and prices, and a list of customers in the territory, the keys to the car and sent off into the wild blue.

Nowhere near enough. Not even remotely enough, even to be selling paper clips to blind men.


  1. Direction & governance

Managing a sales function is often like herding cats. It takes a combination of the carrot and stick motivation, as well as directing and mentoring the individuals and the group. The last thing you should allow to happen is “set and forget”.

There are a few things that can help with a bit of consideration.


  • Defining the roles of sales people is crucial. Some people are naturally hunters, they want to be out there chasing, the thrill is in the chase, once caught, they get quickly bored. However, we often have these people doing administrative stuff that may be necessary, but that the hunter salesperson does badly. The converse is also true. Why do we think some-one who is a “nurturer” by nature is going to be happy and perform in a role that requires hunting?
  • Sales management is not sales. Too often we promote our best salesman to be sales manager, only to find the results are lousy, and neither party is happy. Many valuable sales professionals fail to be managers, they do not make the jump. In my experience the most common cause of the failure of a good sales person to be a good sales manager comes from 3 sources:

(a)      The new sales manager wants to “keep his hand in”, so keeps an account or territory so as well as being the manager, he is the sales competitor to the rest of the sales team.

(b)      The second reason is the tendency to micro manage the sales force, to get them to do things the way that was successful for them as a sales person, rather than being a coach, mentor and manager.

(c)     Inadequate leadership being directed towards the new sales manager. In most growing SME’s this is almost a given, as the “Boss” is usually very functionally oriented, not having had a lot of exposure to sales, so in effect is learning on the job as much as the new sales manager is.

  1. Customer relationships

Building relationships with customers is like building any other sort of personal relationship. It takes time, effort, and commitment, as well as there being strong mutual benefit as the foundation. However, unlike personal relationships, B2B sales relationships almost always involve multiple people in the customer organisation, and a procurement process that needs to be administered. Mapping out these relationships and processes in some sort of sales plan is essential, and for the small group of strategically important customers, those who will generate the 80% of the profits of the future, it should be an exacting  process. I usually call this process ‘SKAP’ for Strategic Key Account Planning, but the importance is in the development of a process by which to manage the allocation of resources across the tasks of paying the bills today, as well as into the future.

  1. The sales model

The choice of sales model is simply a function of the business model, but differing models require differing selling infrastructure and capabilities and collateral and marketing material.

Selling to distributors is a different animal to selling to end users. The former is usually interested only in margin, and what you as the principal are going to assist them to move stock, whereas selling direct is about delivering value to the end customer. When you identify these challenges in your business, we should have a coffee and come up with a plan.


Don’t ever forget that the success of the business depends on the ability of the sales function to deliver, and everyone in the business makes a contribution to the sale.