In It Together: Building and Maintaining a Sales Advisory Council from the Ground Up
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If businesses are living, breathing organisms, then organizational health care is necessary to ensure survival.
Internal advisory councils are the company equivalent of a medical checkup. Such councils can provide invaluable insight to help improve both functional processes and cultural nervous systems, offering advice on everything from employee satisfaction to ground-level industry roadblocks.
Yet, as Forrester reported in 2020, many B2B organizations spend an inordinate amount of time gathering feedback from customers, but fail to supplement this intel with “vital” input from internal teams––or, more specifically, from sales teams.
These organizations are missing out on a huge opportunity, to put it mildly.
Sales advisory councils (SACs) can play a pivotal role in the business landscape. These panels provide a cross-functional perspective on the daily comings and goings of sales activity. They allow big-picture thinkers and C-suite stakeholders to get an intimate view of “street” functions and challenges affecting salespeople out in the field. As a result, SACs can facilitate better products, more effective training techniques, and greater team alignments.
“We really use [rep councils] as advisors to our programming to make sure that they’re keeping us honest to what’s actually happening in their world,” said Brittany Manopello, director of sales enablement at Glassdoor.
To help with this, here is a comprehensive beginner’s guide to building and sustaining a successful SAC.
Remember: A great advisory council is an ongoing investment––not a one-and-done deal. The following should be looked at simply as a jumping-off point for a company practice that, ideally, should last an organizational lifetime.
Give Everyone a Voice
Gathering information in business can be a highly skewed process. Many organizations look to executives and managers for their opinions, but sometimes overlook feedback from sales reps on the ground.
Still, internal sales intel can be critical to speeding up growth and maintaining continuity of operations. For example, advisory boards can help avoid corporate office “group-think”: the kind of culture that’s great for general brainstorming, but less great at grasping the more detailed implications of real-world sales. By including “everyday” salespeople (each with different skill sets, performance histories, tenures, etc.) in company conversations, organizations can experience a dramatic decrease in rep turnover, which in turn can help improve efficiency and productivity over time.
“I like to have a mix of high performers and maybe greener members or even low performers just to get their perspective,” said Jennifer Robinson, director of sales enablement at Proxyclick. “The one thing that they need to have in common is the confidence to speak up and to maybe go against the grain and disagree with the rest of the group.”
The takeaway here is that everyone––even the newest members of the lowest tiers––should have a platform to offer feedback. Executives might have more experience and bigger reputations to their names, but they won’t be able to provide real-time observations regarding what’s happening at training sessions, on calls, during sales pitches, or inside buyer inboxes. This kind of information can have a massive impact on how organizations do business, but it can only be found on the front lines, which is why sales reps of all backgrounds must have a seat at the table.
Bottom-up SAC representation can also go a long way toward inspiring cultural goodwill. Indeed, one Forrester account manager recently cited her company’s SAC policy as a refreshing change of pace that made her feel like a true contributor, saying that their voice really mattered.
It’s important to make sure the SAC isn’t limited to top-performing segments or to sales teams solely within the enablement team’s home country. Many SACs are split over several global regions, which means separate councils for separate markets like EMEA, APAC, and the Americas. Spreading the SAC infrastructure out in this way helps ensure everyone from all sectors is equally represented. It also gives stakeholders a panoramic view of sales struggles and successes across all markets and activities.
“Every region will have every segment represented so that we can have a really broad view over what is happening on that street level, across all the segments and all the regions,” said Robinson.
But the advantages don’t end there.
Global meetings, in which all regional SACs meet face-to-face in the same room (or virtual space), can also serve enablement well. These company-wide gatherings are critical in that they can highlight the similarities among international teams, such as shared challenges and victories, which can help foster a sense of community on a broader scale.
This type of communal atmosphere can be encouraged in any organization, no matter the size. Whether an organization has segmented regional markets or disparate teams operating in a single country, state, or city, enablement can always benefit from an SAC that’s “global” in scope.
Encourage Interactive Feedback
Here’s a not-so-secret fact about internal feedback: it tends to focus on feelings rather than concrete observation. But while feelings are definitely crucial, such as in the case of cultural goodwill mentioned above, they may not get enablement very far in terms of lasting positive change.
Instead, prioritize feedback that hones in on experience rather than personal preference. Once enablement has onboarded the SAC members, think about shifting temperature gauging techniques from the theoretical to the actual. Rather than inquiring about a specific tool by asking, “Did you like it?,” consider transitioning to something more like, “How did you use it?” or “Was it effective?” This move can help recalibrate seller insight so it’s less thought-driven and more accomplishment-driven, meaning the overarching goals can be mapped out more clearly––which, in turn, means enablement can achieve them more easily.
“What we’re doing is going to the council and saying, ‘This is what the data shows, how do you want us to proceed and what things do you want us to make sure that we do first,’” said Steve Maxwell, senior director of field enablement at Cloudera. “When you do that, it’s easier to get that buy-in too.”
Granted, this kind of active engagement is hard to sustain. If some SAC representatives aren’t all that forthcoming, sometimes an interactive solution can help. Virtual annotation tools, for example, can often spark a useful exchange of ideas. Because these tools exist in a digital environment, they can help sidestep feelings of shyness or reluctance and can empower SAC members (particularly those in lower-level positions) to speak up. Plus, in a post-pandemic world that depends on virtual communications, digital interplay has become all but indispensable.
Create a Safe Space
Social and emotional safety in the SAC workspace should always be enablement’s chief concern. In building out the council, bear in mind that being outspoken can carry very real professional consequences and that sales team members––especially those lower on the company pyramid––might harbor legitimate fears about being completely honest with their colleagues upstream.
It’s essential all SAC members have confidence their opinions and anonymity will be protected. Without this confidence, enablement won’t be able to gather any real intelligence, and the practice will be at a virtual standstill.
Here are a few simple tips for gaining and maintaining SAC trust:
- Begin by being authentic and honest yourself. If enablement practitioners are able to put all their cards on the table, the SAC will likely be inspired to do the same.
- Let enablement’s intentions be known. Telegraph to SAC members that enablement won’t repeat their names should they wish to bring certain complaints or challenges to light.
- Make enablement a reliable go-between. Establish enablement as a dependable conduit for sales team members, managers, and C-suite stakeholders.
- Above all, be respectful. Be clear that enablement will always respect all personal and professional boundaries.
A well-rounded SAC will require a lot more than just the basics listed here. But a commitment to letting voices be heard at all levels and across all segments is undoubtedly where enablement needs to begin. From there, practitioners should take steps to cultivate a safe environment founded on constructive criticism and meaningful interaction.
One of the enduring lessons of 2020 is that a 360° view of business practices is key to company survival. As such, SACs have now emerged as a fundamental component of operations, particularly for businesses that want to live to fight another decade. Just remember, enablement and salespeople are always in it together, and a sales advisory council is a strategic way to foster productive collaboration.