End of the Line for Sales Management Truisms

by: Issues: May/June 2019. Tags: IBJ Insights and Marketing. Categories: Marketing.
Three non-parallel lines

Since salespeople are a key conduit of revenue for many organizations, sales managers have the unenviable job of perpetually trying to improve their team’s performance. As a result, sales managers strive to hire people with the right skill sets and then provide appropriate motivation, training, evaluation, and compensation programs.

We normally label these attributes and programs as either “good” or “bad” for performance. For example, providing sales training is considered good, while hiring arrogant salespeople is considered bad. But to truly understand the drivers and inhibitors of a sales team’s performance, a more nuanced view may be needed. After all, favourable attributes and sales practices can be too much of a good thing, proving detrimental in some circumstances.

As Jason Pierce and Herman Aguinis point out in “The Too-Much-of-a-Good-Thing Effect in Management,” linear relationships may now be the exception rather than the rule. Relationships between key drivers or inhibitors and the sales team’s performance are more likely to follow a non-linear pattern, where diminishing or negative returns are realized. On a graph, the diminishing returns curve rises and then levels off; the negative returns curve rises and then falls.

In terms of diminishing returns, performance drivers are helpful up to a given point, after which higher levels of the driver do not increase performance. For example, a certain number of training hours improves salesperson performance, but additional training may have no impact, which becomes an unnecessary expense. In terms of negative returns, increasing the driver can eventually cause performance to drop, rather than leveling off. Too much sales training can lead to boredom, causing the learner to disengage and underperform.

“Some ostensibly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sales performance associations may prove less evident when construed using non-linear thinking.”

We can question the validity of various sales management truisms if we view them in a non-linear light. Some ostensibly “good” or “bad” sales performance associations may prove less evident when construed using non-linear thinking. To illustrate this premise, let’s look at four common statements using linear logic, sales management realities, and non-linear rationales for comparison.

Sales Management Truism 1: Use of customer relationship management (CRM) technology improves a sales representative’s performance.

Linear Logic: CRM technology helps the sales representative become more efficient, by automating time-consuming sales tasks, and more effective, by focusing on higher-value customers and upselling opportunities.

Sales Management Reality: Use of CRM technology improves sales performance at low and medium levels, but decreases sales performance at high levels. At an inflection point, use of CRM technology begins to exhibit unfavourable results, as discovered by Ahearne, Srinivasan, and Weinstein.

Non-linear Rationale: High-level use of CRM technology occurs at the expense of other necessary sales-related activities, resulting in lower performance than moderate levels of use.

Sales Management Truism 2: The more customer-oriented a sales representative is, the better.

Linear Logic: As markets consolidate and competition intensifies, customers have become increasingly demanding of sales teams. Sales representatives who are customer-oriented have the best interests of their customers in mind and provide the best customer service. As such, hiring and training highly customer-oriented sales representatives will meet customers’ demanding expectations and increase the sales team’s performance.

Sales Management Reality: Customer orientation improves salesperson performance up to a point. However, at high levels, it actually decreases performance, as found by Homburg, Müller, and Klarmann.

Non-linear Rationale: Customer orientation is valuable in that it can result in superior understanding of customer needs and higher perceptions of salesperson and sales organization value. However, customer-oriented behaviours are time-intensive and can force sales representatives to make sacrifices in other important performance-driving activities, such as prospecting and servicing other accounts.

Sales Management Truism 3: Give salespeople more product lines to sell and they will sell more products.

Linear Logic: The more product lines sales representatives carry, the more able they are to meet their customers’ heterogeneous needs, increase cross-selling opportunities, and choose among products to adjust to marketplace changes.

Sales Management Reality: Product line breadth is beneficial to the salesperson up to a point. At high levels, it is actually detrimental to sales performance.

Non-linear Rationale: Along with the espoused benefits of a sales representative carrying many product lines, there are corresponding costs. Handling a plethora of product lines can make it difficult to explain each product and provide effective responses to customer questions, which can result in stress, confusion, and diminished sales performance.

Sales Management Truism 4: Role stress has a negative impact on the sales representative’s performance.

Linear Logic: Sales representatives find role ambiguity (i.e., uncertainty about how to perform) and role conflict (i.e., incompatible demands among role stakeholders) discouraging. Role stressors can deplete psychological resources and reduce performance levels.

Sales Management Reality: Salesperson performance is maximized at a medium level of role ambiguity and role conflict, whereas high and low levels of role ambiguity result in lower performance levels, as shown by Vincent Onyemah.

Non-linear Rationale: Stressors are generally considered a negative factor. However, some stress can actually be beneficial. Positive stress (or eustress) can prevent complacency and apathy in a sales representative, whereas negative stress (or distress) has a deleterious impact, as discovered by Jagdip Singh. Therefore, a moderate level of stress, rather than very low or very high levels, is optimal for performance.

These four glimpses into the behaviours, orientations, opportunities, and challenges of sales representatives only skim the surface of how non-linear thinking is disrupting sales management. As non-linear viewpoints proliferate in the sales management domain, outmoded linear relationship concepts may lose any relevance.

J. Pierce and H. Aguinis, “The Too-Much-of-a-Good-Thing Effect in Management,” Journal of Management, 2013, 2, pp. 313-338.
J. Johnson, “Nonlinear Analyses in Sales Research: Theoretical Bases and Analytical Considerations for Polynomial Models,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 2014, 4, pp. 302-317.
M. Ahearne, N. Srinivasan and L. Weinstein, “Effect of Technology on Sales Performance: Progressing from Technology Acceptance to Technology Usage and Consequence,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 2004, 4, pp. 297-310.
C. Homburg, M. Müller and M. Klarmann, “When Should the Customer Really Be King? On the Optimum Level of Salesperson Customer Orientation in Sales Encounters,” Journal of Marketing, 2011, 2, pp. 55-74.
J. Johnson and R. Sohi, “The Curvilinear and Conditional Effects of Product Line Breadth on Salesperson Performance, Role Stress, and Job Satisfaction,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 2014, 1, pp. 71-89.
V. Onyemah, “Role Ambiguity, Role Conflict, and Performance: Empirical Evidence of an Inverted-U Relationship,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 2008, 3, pp. 299-314.
J. Singh, “Striking a Balance in Boundary-Spanning Positions: An Investigation of Some Unconventional Influences of Role Stressors and Job Characteristics on Job Outcomes of Salespeople,” Journal of Marketing, 1998, 3, pp. 69-86.

About the Author

Jeff S. Johnson is Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management, Henry W. Bloch School of Management, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Contact johnsonjs@umkc.edu.

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