Once upon a time, there lived a salesperson called Generalist. Generalist was capable of doing a bit of everything in sales at her company, and she’d enjoyed a very long and successful career selling the company’s complete product line across a broad range of customer types. All was good for Generalist and her peers, because customers looked at them as product experts who could help connect the company’s capabilities to its customers’ business needs. But then things started to change.

Customers became much smarter about Generalist’s products, and they were more inquiring about technical specifications and practical uses. They were more demanding, and she spent much of her time preparing herself for complex conversations – both within her company and with prospects. And then one day it finally happened…

Generalist’s office began to hire salespeople called ‘Specialist.’ These new sales reps were product specialists, industry specialists, strategic account managers, as well as various other types of sales reps with narrower job descriptions. Their knowledge was only inches wide but miles deep, and they collaborated extensively to meet customer demands. Enabled by CRM and communications technology, they functioned like a single virtual salesperson, swarming around customers to satisfy their every need. Generalist felt out of place and began to wonder… Should she become a Specialist too?

If you’ve been in sales for more than a few years, you know that this story is not a fairy tale – it’s the recent history of sales. Specialization within sales forces took place as customers began to demand more expertise in the sales process and the sales forces decided to focus some of its sellers on specific customers or products. At first glance, this made total sense – respond to customer needs and increase the effectiveness of your sales force. But, there are two unintended consequences that can be quite troublesome to the selling company.

First, if you’re a sales manager, you’re probably aware that dividing the sales force into specialized bits and pieces creates an underappreciated burden… on you. If you have only one type of sales rep reporting to you, then you can treat all of your sales reps pretty much the same way. In other words, you can have similar conversations, use the same set of metrics, deploy one set of tools, etc. It’s a very efficient management style. BUT, if you have different types of reps reporting to you — say territory managers and strategic account managers — then the management task becomes exponentially more complicated.

To manage the territory reps, you might spend a lot of time helping your sellers prioritize their time by concentrating on the customers and prospects with the highest potential. You might measure things like the Number of Prospecting Calls or the Number of New Opportunities uncovered each month. And you might use tools such as territory maps or tiered customer lists.

But with strategic account managers who have only a few accounts you might spend more time helping them understand the landscape of their major accounts. Instead of Number of Prospecting Calls, you might measure things such as the Number of Product Lines Sold or Share-of-Wallet inside those accounts. And the account plan might be the tool of choice for that particular role, not a territory plan.

You can see how the world of sales managers becomes distractingly complex when there are multiple specialists reporting to them. If they do the right thing and manage each sales role uniquely, they have to zig and zag their way through the week, constantly shifting their mindset from mining territories to growing accounts. Or in a time-constrained world, desperate managers might choose to apply a single management approach to both selling roles, which would be a disservice to one or both of the selling populations.

And here’s the second unintended consequence of sales role specialization: It puts an additional burden on a company’s sales enablement professionals, because they have to prepare sales managers adequately to handle the different management challenges.

Most sales manager training fails to account for the differentiated management of these specialist sales roles – it focuses on developing generic or ‘universal’ management skills. While there are definitely skills that are universal to all sales managers (like conducting a collaborative coaching call), those skills are insufficient for today’s sales forces… Sophistication is required. The same applies to reporting and tools that support more sophisticated sales management. For example, Number of Prospecting Calls and Share-of-Wallet might reside on the same management report, but should they? Why not provide unique reporting for unique roles? One-size-fits-all sales enablement often produces one-size-fits-none sales management.

So the happy fairy tale of the sales Generalist has become the new reality of the sales Specialists… and we’re never going back to a world where less demanding customers will accept less sophisticated sales forces. But that’s okay. As long as sales managers and sales enablement professionals can help their sales forces adapt to this new reality, we’ll all live happily ever after.

About the Author

Jason Jordan is a founding partner of Vantage Point Performance, a global sales management training and development firm, and co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code. Jordan is a recognized thought leader in the domain of business-to-business sales and teaches sales and sales management at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. For more information, visit www.vantagepointperformance.com.

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