HP announced in March that it was combining its printer and personal computer businesses. According to CEO Meg Whitman, "The result will be a faster, more streamlined, performance-driven HP that is customer focused." But that remains to be seen.
The merging of the two businesses is a reversal for HP. In 2005, HP split off the printer business from the personal computer business, dissolved the Customer Solutions Group (CSG) which was a sales and marketing organization that cut across product categories, and pushed selling responsibilities down to the product business units. The goal was to give each business unit greater control of its sales process, and in former CEO Mark Hurd's words, to "perform better — for our customers and partners."
The choice — to build a sales organization around customers or products — has vexed every company with a diverse product portfolio. It's not uncommon for a firm such as HP to vacillate between the two structures. And switching structures is not always a recipe for success.
Let's rewind the clock to 2005 at HP, before the CSG was eliminated. Most likely, those responsible for the success of specific products (say printers) were often at odds with the CSG. The words in the air may have been something like "Printers bring in the profits, and our products are not getting enough attention" or "The CSG people want customer control, but we have the product expertise." And from the CSG sales team, we can imagine the feelings, "We are trying to do the best for HP and for customers. The printing people are not being team players."
Especially when performance lags, people in any sales structure see and feel the disadvantages and stresses that their structure creates. But they often see only the benefits of the structure that they are not operating in. The alternative looks enticing. Unreasonably so.
HP's dilemma illustrates one of many two-edged swords of sales management. These swords are reasonable choices that sales leaders make that have a sharp beneficial edge, but the very nature of the benefit is tied to another sharp edge that has drawbacks. Unless the undesirable edge is dulled, the choice cannot work.
Consider a choice like the one HP made recently to organize its sales force by customer rather than by product.
- The beneficial edge: Salespeople can understand the customer's total business, can cross-sell and provide solutions (not just products), and can act as business partners rather than vendors for their customers.
- The undesirable edge: Salespeople will have less product expertise and focus. And it will be difficult for the company to control how much effort each product gets.
- Dulling the undesirable edge: The company could create product specialists to assist customer managers (although this would add costs and coordination needs, and would work only if salespeople and the culture were team-oriented). It could also use performance management and incentives to manage effort allocation.
Sales is full of such double-edged swords. For example:
- If you hire mostly experienced people, they will become productive rapidly. But they will come with their own ways to do things and may have trouble fitting into the new environment.
- If you drive a structured sales process through the organization, things will be more transparent and organized, and coordination across people will be easier. But out of the box thinking will be diminished, and managers might use the defined structure to micro-manage their people.
- If you give salespeople customer ownership and pay them mostly through commissions, you will attract independent, aggressive salespeople and encourage a performance-oriented culture. But this will discourage teamwork and create a brittle relationship based mostly on money.
The effective sales leader recognizes the two edges of each of these (and other) choices. He or she works to sharpen and leverage the good edge, while dulling the impact of the other edge. The overly optimistic leader who sees the benefits of only one choice will lead his or her sales force into peril!
We have offered a few examples of double-edged swords of sales management. There are many, many more. Do add to our list, and tell us how you leverage the edge you want, and blunt the one you don't.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Harvard Business Publishing. Reprinted with permission.
This blog originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/05/the_double_edged_sword_of_sale.html.