Innovation in the Real World:
A Guide for Sales Managers
If you’ve been in sales for any length of time, you may have heard sales leaders and executives discuss innovation.
In meetings and leadership seminars, “innovation” is the secret sauce or magic ingredient that an organization needs in order to achieve success.
But, while everyone talks about innovation and the difficulties surrounding it, it’s rare that any company takes the time to truly define it.
So, what does innovation actually mean?
Merriam-Webster defines innovation in the following way:
- A new idea, method, or device: NOVELTY
- The introduction of something new
In the context of business, not so much. For many organizations, “innovation” is something of a buzzword because no company wants to deal with sweeping changes within their organization that could upset existing processes.
In this scenario, innovation might best be defined as: Changes within the existing corporate framework that generate measurable, scalable results.
Because radical change is typically off the table, you’ll need to consider how best to innovate within your own department or team. Your options may include:
- Optimizing existing processes and workflows
- Developing new ways to train or motivate team members
- Delivering a better experience for workers/customers
Small tweaks and changes are often more effective in a corporate scenario because they take place within the existing framework established by the company and can be implemented with very little oversight.
These processes are also easy to measure and compare — something that is critical to your success as an innovator.
By operating within the company’s guidelines and providing measurable results, you’re making it easy for any success you create within your team to scale across your organization.
For example: A more efficient process that fits within the company’s guidelines can easily be scaled across multiple teams to generate exponential growth within the organization.
By innovating in this way, you’re adding value to the company that can be adopted, codified, and replicated — all without rocking the boat.
The ability to produce scaleable results is the hallmark of true innovation for most process-driven companies. If you manage to improve the efficiency and performance of your entire sales team but can’t explain how you achieved those results, you haven’t really innovated.
While you might earn great marks for leadership and coaching on your next performance review, you haven’t delivered something truly actionable at scale.
Innovation & Risk
Most companies have a set of policies or guidelines that define how they operate. While that may be beneficial to the company as a whole, these established rules may actively resist or prohibit change within the organization. And for good reason.
Depending on your source, somewhere between of new product innovations fail.
These aren’t internal, process driven innovations. These are programs and initiatives that have had millions of dollars invested in them only to fall by the wayside for any number of reasons.
As a sales manager, the innovations that you need to undertake aren't as risky, but they can still incur loss from time investment. A company’s natural aversion to failure and profit loss can be an obstacle you need to overcome when deploying new ideas across your team.
This is a problem for innovators, because innovation requires creativity, which is never a certain or straightforward process.
Failure while innovating is the cost of doing business. True innovation doesn’t happen without it.
Before introducing innovative ideas within your organization, take some time to understand how the company manages risk, where leadership may be open to truly innovative ideas, and how you can introduce those concepts in ways that aren’t met with immediate resistance.
This is a real challenge. According to a study by PA Consulting, only about 28% of business leaders said they were innovating enough to generate revenue or measurable growth; meanwhile, research suggests that 54% of businesses reject the very disruptive ideas that could lead to their greatest success.
of business leaders said they were innovating enough to generate revenue or measurable growth.
of businesses reject the very disruptive ideas that could lead to their greatest success.
There’s no way around it: Innovation is a terrifying necessity — and everyone is afraid.
If you’ve been with your company for a while, you may already have a strong understanding of the internal politics within your organization.
If you’re new, taking the time to understand how innovation is received within your company is critical to your success.
Why Innovate At All?
Given the pressures and politics involved, you might ask yourself if the pursuit of innovation is worth it.
Why even innovate at all? If organizations are so resistant to change and have the data to back up how often innovations fail, why should you spend time trying to find innovative solutions to operational problems?
Simple: Valuable innovation is necessary to the future success of any organization.
Think about it.
Existing company processes can only get so efficient before an innovative change is needed.
Salespeople can only take so many calls in a day. You can optimize your IVR, provide additional training, add coaching and call monitoring to ensure that conversations are helpful and efficient, and more — but there is a point where the ROI for streamlining just doesn’t make sense anymore.
Innovation — on both micro and macro levels — is necessary for the company to secure its future as the world changes. Sometimes, it has to happen rapidly.
And, because innovation is necessary, every organization has a need for leaders who know how to innovate well.
For sales managers, creating an innovative process can lead to valuable promotions, lucrative bonuses, lower daily stress, and more time to focus on correcting dysfunctional teams.
Companies will always need innovative solutions for their problems, and they need exceptional leaders within the organization to develop those ideas.
That’s where you come in.
Innovating with Teams
So far, we’ve discussed how critical innovations are key to corporate success.
Let’s take a quick step back to consider what innovations may mean to your direct reports and other subordinates who are affected when sales leaders attempt to create effective change.
Because “innovation” is such a buzzword, it’s easy for ambitious leaders to misinterpret this concept as a metrics-driven initiative rather than a results-driven process.
Remember our working definition: Innovation is a change within the existing corporate framework that generates measurable, scalable results.
But the key word is “results,” not “metrics.”
All too often, managers decide to chase numbers in order to provide evidence for their idea, rather than allowing that innovative change to deliver results on its own. For employees, this usually results in a huge push for numbers and extra scrutiny around metrics.
It’s a fine line that often boils down to intent, and it’s easy to confuse one priority for another. Here’s an example of an innovative process being implemented for the right reasons:
In Episode 2 of the Sales Games Podcast, veteran sales consultant Lindsay Lehane explains that her favorite game to play at work is sales bingo. It’s easy to deploy, can be tweaked to fit the mood of the team, and doesn’t have to be all about the numbers.
Lehane’s goal with sales bingo isn’t to push people toward a numbers-driven result. It’s to allow team members to engage with customers and with one another in a fun and interesting way.
With that in mind, Lehane creates “silly, but goal-oriented” boxes on her bingo cards. This could include everything from making 15 dials to scheduling a meeting, or saying specific phrases during a phone conversation.
But the key point of distinction is clear: Lehane isn’t implementing a sales game in order to impact a specific metric or result. She’s doing it to motivate her team and give them the chance to have a little fun.
The result is a happier and more engaged team. The metrics are a byproduct of that result.
Let’s break down this example a little more.
The innovation here isn’t actually the sales game that Lehane is using to engage with the team. The real innovation is the way that Lehane is changing how her team engages with their role. By adding silly goals and objectives, she’s shaking things up and changing the state of play for her team.
While sales games and reward programs certainly have their place, these programs and initiatives aren’t standalone innovations. They are tools designed to make innovative ideas successful.
Driving for numbers can maximize stress, destroy culture, and push workers to their absolute limit. Considering that account management roles are regularly rated as high-stress jobs, adding additional pressure is unlikely to be an effective way forward.
As a sales leader, you can protect your team from this pitfall by avoiding the temptation to innovate on the margins. Rather than pursuing ideas that may only generate a marginal increase in results (1% - 3%), focus on ideas that are likely to generate a greater return on investment.
If your innovation is just to pour gas on processes that already exist, you’re more likely to drive your team toward burnout than produce long-term, lasting results.
At the end of the day, true innovation changes the output for your people, how they work, and what motivates them to get the job done.
Let’s talk about other ways to create successful innovations.
In the previous chapter, we used the following definition to define innovation:
For many sales managers and leaders working in lockstep with upper management, this definition makes a ton of sense because drastic changes and radical innovations are often met with heavy resistance at higher levels.
But even if you can’t walk in and change everything overnight, there are a variety of great ways to innovate within your organization without stepping out of bounds.
Remember: True innovation is about embracing mindsets and methodologies that change the output for your people, how they work, and what motivates them to get the job done.
It’s not about chasing metrics and numbers. While you can and should use those to track your progress, innovation should be a people-first, results-driven process.
Here are a few ideas to help you get started.
Reward Habits, Not Numbers
Most companies use metric-based incentives to inspire and motivate employees.
This usually materializes in the form of a contest or competition where the representative with the highest sales of a particular item (or highest weekly sales total) wins a prize.
The prize can be anything. Usually, it’s a gift card or a similar reward. Some teams with added leeway might allow the winner to take a few hours off the phone or take a paid afternoon off.
Either way, the high performer wins.
This is great for competitive players within the organization who are already high performers. For everyone else, this kind of incentive plan is a nonstarter.
Because lower-level performers — the members of your team who you would most like to motivate — know that they’ll never win the prize.
Think about it. In most sales organizations, numbers are always a top priority. If you create a metrics-driven incentive, all you’ve done is reinforce the importance of that goal.
As you might expect, representatives who are already performing well in their role are likely to win because all they have to do is keep doing what’s already working for them.
Because you haven’t changed the state of play or the way your reps engage with their role, why would it be any different?
All of this changes when you start rewarding habits, rather than numbers.
Rather than pointing reps toward a number, train your team to develop strong habits that will help them achieve better results and reward those behaviors.
Not only does this change the terms of engagement; it also gives underperformers the training that they need in order to improve, as well as an incentive to complete it.
Here are two ideas for a habits-driven initiative:
There are an unlimited number of opportunities to incentivize training and reinforce strong habits using the same rewards-based tools that you already have at your disposal.
By moving away from output-based incentives and more toward effort-based or cross-training opportunities, you can motivate and reinforce your team based on their unique needs.
This is also key to the long-term health and success of your organization. In many sales environments, underperformers are often ignored until they are terminated or vacate their position.
I do not believe there is any such thing as a 'B-player' or a mediocre human being. Everyone can be excellent at something. That's very different from saying anyone can be good at anything — definitely not true. And this brings me to the people who juist aren't that good at a job, or are treading water.
Sadly, lots of people never find work they are truly excellent at because they stay in the wrong job so long that any change would require a step or two backward.
Not every sales rep will be successful, and some may simply not be a good fit for the role. But they still may be able to bring something of value to the company.
By cross-training your team and encouraging growth through best practices and good habits, you can determine how team members can improve, find where they excel, and help them continue to thrive and grow.
Use New & Existing Technologies
While this strategy may be “played out” in some organizations, using technology to improve workflows and processes can create better results for your team.
Many (but not all!) of the innovations where you might use technology fall into the category of “efficiency optimizations.” Whether you change a workflow or invent a new process, you’re ultimately using a new system to increase results.
Depending on your existing corporate policies, it may be difficult to innovate by introducing new technology solutions. If your company restricts new technologies or mandates the use of in-house only software tools, switching to new systems may be out of the question.
But, at the same time, many companies have acquired and forgotten about the tools that they have at their disposal.
Website chatbots are a great example of this problem. In a survey with Accenture, 57% of business respondents surveyed believe that chatbots can deliver a large return on investment for minimal effort.
But, when Drift, a leader in online chat platforms, tested the chat response time for 433 companies, only 7% (32 companies) responded within the first five minutes and over half (55%) didn’t respond within five business days.
Only 32 of 433 companies responded in less than 5 minutes
Over half of the companies didn't respond within 5 business days
That’s insane! These companies have a tool designed to facilitate rapid customer engagement and maximize ROI through automation — and they aren’t even using it.
Before attempting to integrate entirely new software or technology solutions, check to see if any of your existing tools are underutilized and see if it’s possible to take advantage of that gap.
If that’s the case, is there anything you can use to improve existing processes or workflows?
If not, that’s okay — but it’s a good place to start.
Acquiring New Solutions
Sometimes, bringing in new technology is the best way forward.
New hardware can drastically improve workflows. It’s why design firms buy high-end, design-heavy workstations and replace them every few years. The mechanical slowdown that occurs as the machine ages ultimately adds more time to production and ends up cutting into the bottom line.
By the same token, new software can empower you to automate existing processes or engage with employees in a completely different way. New solutions are coming out all the time.
If you’ve got the budget and the leeway to acquire new technology solutions, you may be able to innovate in this area. First, you’ll need to determine what kind of solution works best for you.
Do you need to refresh existing products or try something entirely new?
For example, according to TOPO, nearly every company uses a CRM for sales, but only about 18% of companies use incentive management tools to manage incentive programs and scale them across their organization.
With the right technology, you can codify tribal processes and ensure that your innovations are easy to deploy across your entire organization. That way, when you find that solution that creates 10x output from a single person, it’s easy to scale out to other teams.
Don’t forget! When implementing a new technology, remember that it’s still important to document processes and track productivity metrics for early adopters. Whether you use A/B testing, screen tracking, or some other kind of reporting methodology to gather data, be sure to keep track of your experience and your results!
Change the Culture
Without a doubt, sales leaders have major influence over their team culture. In many cases, team culture may even be more important than company culture because it most closely reflects the team member’s daily experience.
Everyone has heard horror stories of employees who worked for terrible organizations but stayed because good leaders insulated their team from bad policies and gave them the tools to succeed.
As a sales manager and leader within your organization, you have the ability to define culture on a team or departmental level. While the core business principles and the overarching company philosophy may play some role, your actions and attitudes have a direct impact on the people working under you.
That’s critical, because culture is among the most important (and most frustrating) aspects of employee development and long-term satisfaction.
Meanwhile, 35% of workers in the US have said that they’d turn down a perfect job match if the corporate culture clashed with their ideals.
Managing culture takes coordination on the part of the sales leader, who has to come up with a framework and ideology that team members will buy into.
To do this, create the ideals that embody the team you want to portray and reflect the value that you want your team to produce. Define those goals and those values, then work to reinforce them across your team.
Choose leaders and cheerleaders within your organization who represent those values and ideals. Hire in talent that matches the goals and principles you’re trying to represent. Play games to put your people in the right mindset, and adopt evaluative metrics that reflect those philosophies.
It may take time and some deep conversations in order to establish this mindset, which is why this kind of team-based innovation may feel slow and far less defined than other methods.
Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.
Innovate around the values, mindsets, and ideals that create an effective sales team, and work to spread that culture across your organization.
How to Innovate
No matter how you describe it, innovation isn’t easy.
Even if you have an end goal in mind, like we talked about in the previous section, discovering a process to achieve that goal might feel overwhelming.
The solution to staying in control is simple: Take it slow.
For leaders who want to jump right in and start driving for results, taking the time to create a structured process can be the hardest part. But it’s essential to your success.
Without a goal in place, along with a method to achieve it, you’re essentially gambling with your time. If you achieve results, you may not know how you got there. Or, perhaps, you could have reached your goal but failed because you didn’t know what steps to take in order to reach it.
When you gamble with your time, you may be placing a bet you can’t cover. Even if you’re sure you can win, be careful that you can live with what you lose.
In our case, we may not be able to live with the loss. To create measurable, scalable results that are truly innovative, we need the full package.
This section will provide a loose guide to help you discover and execute opportunities for innovation while still abiding by company policies and frameworks.
Figure Out Where To Innovate
As you’ve probably guessed, some areas of your organization will be more open to innovation than others.
If you’re the sales manager for a startup or a new product, you may have far more leeway to reinvent processes than your counterpart in a century-old corporation. Well-established companies with long-established teams have encoded processes that may be resistant to change.
In this step, you’ll need to take a close look at your team and figure out where you should innovate.
Do this by examining existing processes, reviewing team metrics, and asking questions about current policies before you attempt to innovate in a specific area.
But you don’t have to come up with innovative ideas by yourself. Do some research. Listen to industry experts. Challenge the processes your team uses against external data.
For example, it’s been proven that selling as a team — adding multiple participants from the seller organization to a call — increases the likelihood of a close by 258%.
Is this something where you can innovate? Maybe. It depends on availability across your team and neighboring departments. You may not need to pack a call with additional salespeople. Instead, you might need a customer success agent or a product expert who is willing to jump on the call and help your rep overcome customer objections.
Use external sales data and market trends to find a wedge opportunity where you can make a change, then examine your internal resources and see what options are available.
In many cases, you may lack the resources or the influence to create true, innovative change.
That’s okay. Jot those ideas down for later and keep looking until you find something that makes sense for your team.
Define Metrics for Success
In many ways, determining which metrics that you want to target when you make changes may seem like the easiest part of the innovation game.
If you come up with a process that affects customer satisfaction, the most logical option might be to simply monitor your customer metrics and see if the change you made moves the needle.
If the tracked metric goes up when you make changes, your plan is a success, right?
Maybe; maybe not. The mistake that many would-be innovators make is choosing a metric that’s far too broad to determine team effectiveness.
Think about how many steps there are in your sales process and how many reps you have who are working the phones and making calls. Some have good weeks and bad weeks. Sometimes, deals that take weeks or months to close finally materialize.
And all of these factors influence your weekly numbers and sales-oriented KPIs.
Especially in larger organizations, there may be far too many variables to truly determine whether your initiative has a measurable impact on team success unless you spend time gathering data in a way that proves your case and demonstrates how the change impacted the greater whole.
Consider this: When top sales reps hear an objection, they ask questions to clarify that objection 54% of the time, compared with just 31% for average reps.
When top sales reps hear an objection, they ask questions to clarify that objection 54% of the time, compared with just 31% for average reps.
A very simple innovation plan might be to simply share this stat, talk up the importance of questioning objections, and drilling the team on tactics they can use to tackle the objections that they hear.
But if, after all of that work, you simply monitor metrics like deals closed and dollars won, you won’t gain a complete understanding of how this innovation affected the process as a whole. You won’t even know how well your new techniques were implemented and whether or not reps are following those newly established behaviors.
To really know and understand the impact of your innovation, you have to dig down into the numbers. Monitor calls. Find objections. Check percentiles. Measure success.
Once you have that specific information, you can use it to demonstrate how your process impacted a much larger goal or metric. Without that fundamental data, it’s much harder to prove the value behind your innovation.
And trust us: We know that detail-oriented number crunching isn’t big or bold or sexy. It might not seem like the kind of work that helps you win any awards.
But measuring the right metric is essential to success.
Establish Your Approach
Before you discuss changes with your team, take a minute to establish your approach and figure out what you need in order to accomplish your goals.
After you know where you’d like to innovate and what metrics you’d like to target, you’ll need to figure out how to get there.
What tools, techniques, or technologies do you need to create success in this area? Do you need new hardware or software? Does your team need to be trained in a new way?
How will you deliver the necessary information and equipment to facilitate lasting change across your team?
As a sales leader, this is one of the most important things you can do to help your team succeed. But, if you’ve never done this before, it can feel like a daunting task.
Think about this: At some point in your career, you’ve probably been through a bad product launch or a poorly driven brand initiative.
In these scenarios, employees are often left with more questions than answers. Customers are confused or frustrated, and support teams are forced to handle extreme call volumes with limited documentation or information.
Every company, even well-established brands, have a gaff every now and then — but that failure almost always comes back to the lack of an established approach.
The organization knew what it wanted to do, and it had an idea of what success should look like. But, somewhere along the way, wires got crossed and the resources needed to execute weren’t fully established.
In the resulting chaos and confused messaging, employees lacked the resources needed to properly move product, help customers, and generate revenue.
If you’re unprepared when you launch your initiative (no matter how small), it can happen to you. Take the time you need to determine every aspect of your approach — from start to finish — before you go live.
Implement & Experiment
When everything is ready for launch, pick a day that doesn’t coincide with any other company initiatives (product launches, team events, all-hands meetings, etc.) and roll out your innovation to the rest of the team.
Explain the reason for the change, what changes you want to make, and why they matter to the team. Get as much buy-in from your team members as possible during the earliest stages of your launch, and try to gather momentum for the idea.
As you might expect, some initiatives are easier to deploy than others. Replacing an representative’s entire workstation with brand new equipment is much easier than retraining your team on a new way to handle sales calls.
Give people the methodology behind the change and supply them with the resources they need to fully execute your vision. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to take a step back and allow your team some time to get comfortable with the changes.
In the meantime, start recording results. Gather data and compare your actual results with your expected outcomes. Once you have that baseline, gather feedback and experiment. A/B test minor tweaks and solutions across the team as your innovation evolves.
Over the course of a few weeks, your innovation will adapt under the stress of real-world use. That’s completely natural. In some organizations, it’s even expected.
Refer back to your initial goals and data. Check to see if the changes that you made are moving the needle in the right direction.
If not, reevaluate and move the initiative in another direction. You might experience some growing pains during the experimentation phase, but that’s expected. Innovation isn’t easy, and no plan is perfect.
Examine Results & Scale Up
Ideally, any innovative change you make within your organization should start small.
Remember: Most organizations aren’t interested in radical changes, especially if they happen all at once and with no supporting data.
By starting small, you have a greater opportunity to control the outcome of your experiment and gather the information necessary to prove your process.
Once your innovation has been in place for an extended period, examine the data and review the results.
Asking all these questions and more will help you develop a better understanding of the true impact behind your innovation.
Once you have the required information, you’ll need to determine whether to abandon the project or try to scale it up.
If you try to scale across the organization, you’ll likely need to make the case to other sales leaders and executives within your company. Here, your metrics and data will play a key role in acquiring the buy-in necessary for wide-scale implementation.
You may also choose to abandon the innovation or, if deployment is too complicated, keep those initiatives internal to your own team. In many cases, choosing not to scale may be entirely outside of your control.
If the company isn’t willing to make an investment in the tools or training needed for effective deployment, or if leadership feels that the solution is too hands-on or time-consuming to implement, it may not move forward.
But, at the end of the day, your team will have a proven process or new technology that sets them apart from other teams. Enough of those tweaks and changes may be enough to put your team among the top performers.
Start Innovating Today
Effective innovation isn’t easy, especially in a corporate environment where sales leaders have limited resources to create lasting change.
But it’s not impossible.
Remember: To succeed in hyper-competitive fields, companies need real innovation that changes the output for their people, how they work, and what motivates them to get the job done.
Whether you need to optimize workflows, train your team members in an entirely new way, or adapt technology solutions that help you increase team motivation, the tools exist to help your team improve.
As a leader looking to innovate, it’s up to you to build the system that helps your team succeed.
We hope you found the information and resources in this guide helpful. In our next guide, we’ll discuss how you can use one particularly underused tool — incentive programs — to boost motivation and increase employee engagement.
Until next time, good luck — and happy innovating!
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