Agile Selling: Look Beyond the Buzzword

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Agile is one of those words. You know what I’m talking about. It’s one of those words that pop up in discussions related to business management and process improvement.

Develop an agile culture by developing lean methodologies and focusing on value delivered to the customer.

This type of word is usually coined in the context of some management guru’s book offering to guide your business to the promised land of profits and market dominance. Then, suddenly the word starts to appear in mission and vision statements, and it’s associated with success by any metric related to any process.

This does not mean that agility is not a worthy goal; it simply means that you must be careful of how you define agile for your business.

The Agile Methodology

Historically, agile, the agile method and agility were associated with software development. Software development is a challenging process to manage.

Software development teams, left on their own, can quickly lose focus, fall victim to scope creep, overpromise capabilities and lose sight of customer needs. Unmanaged projects will devolve into a sort of limbo of continuous, never-ending development as more features are thrown into the developmental mix.

The industry developed the agile methodology as a project-management methodology to address several specific needs. These include keeping the development process focused on delivering value to the customer, establishing a clear and defined product vision related to capabilities, establishing a realistic delivery schedule, maximizing effectiveness and fostering a collaborative atmosphere among the assorted elements that make up the development team.

Agility for Other Business Processes

Obviously, agility has beneficial application beyond software development. For manufacturers, agility is quite desirable, and for selling organizations, agility is highly valued as well. But, what does agility mean in these two contexts?

In the general business context, agility means responsiveness to change. An agile organization is able to quickly perceive changes in its business environment and quickly react to those changes in a constructive manner.

Jack Welch put it this way, “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” A competitive advantage is why you want to foster agility within your manufacturing or selling organization.

Becoming Agile

Agility does not come in a box. You can’t buy an application that makes your organization agile. You should also be careful about “embracing” agile as a litmus test for ideas or a cure-all for all problems in your organization.

Too many excellent management techniques, selling methodologies and/or process improvement plans have failed because the people involved develop a blinding “religious” fervor for the strategy that suppresses their valuable and critical tribal knowledge about their unique business and its rules, axioms and essential truths.

These “blinded by the light” adherents obsess about rules and specific tactics while ignoring problems they are perfectly capable of addressing.

Develop an agile culture by developing lean methodologies and focusing on value defined in the context of value delivered to the customer. Here are some examples.

Becoming Customer-Centric

For manufacturers, being customer-centric is all about producing products that customers want and need and delivering them in a manner consistent with their requirements. Designing products loaded with lots of add-on functionality or bundled features do not add value, they add cost. Seek input from customers regarding product design and improvement.

In the selling organization, customer centricity is fostered through guided selling techniques that provide high-value information to the prospect about your product, but in the context of how it addresses the customer’s needs.

Applications like CRM and CPQ enhance the collaborative efforts of Product Development, Marketing and Sales by helping the organization isolate specific product and solution messaging to a relevant audience.

Product options and configuration alternatives are tied to specific customer needs, regulatory requirements and functional priorities specified by the customer.

Establishing Priorities

Manufacturers should establish priorities based on market demand, production planning and scheduling and make-to-promise commitments. Quality, both in terms of product quality and process quality, is defined in terms of customer value delivered. Collaboration is key to establishing priorities understood and embraced across the breadth of the manufacturing organization.

For the selling organization, priorities should reflect how Sales can help the customer achieve success. Guided selling helps sales teams do this by constantly looking at and confirming what the customer needs and wants. Those factors drive what products, configurations and pricing are offered and proposed by Sales. Applications such as CPQ provide this capability through interactive scripted interviews that define the actual product offered.

The Agile Culture

Some organizations may establish agility teams, but this should not be seen as a requirement for developing an agile culture. There are specific hallmarks of agility that should be evident within the processes and structure of the organization.

  • Documentation or statement of what agility means to the organization. This should be developed collaboratively within the elements of the manufacturing and selling organization responsible for executing processes related to making and selling product. Agility should be manifested in a measurable way, and resulting improvements should be documented. The process itself may be documented as well.
  • Accountability is critical to organizations that are serious about improving processes. The focus of accountability is not to identify who is to blame for failure but to find the person who is able to best articulate the case for needed change.
  • Risk management is also handled collaboratively and should be based on measurable, definable elements. Good data is the basis of good decision-making both in manufacturing and selling. Finance, IT, Operations, Marketing and Sales all have a place at this table.
  • Conflict resolution should not be an incidental or informal process. It also should not always require shutting down the product line or other drastic measures. Managers should be able to establish discussion forums for conflicting parties. Everyone should be able to offer alternatives, and decisions should be made quickly. Once made, they should be implemented.

Agility for manufacturers and sellers is the ability to sense, quantify and react to an everchanging market. Success comes to those organizations that can move with deliberate speed to address those changes in a positive way while maintaining focus on contributing to their customer’s success.

Becoming agile is all about getting into the mindset of being responsive to your customer.

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