Sales leadership insights from  Venkatesh Vijayaraghavan, Director & CEO at Cavinkare’s largest SBU, the FMCG vertical. Venky identifies and pursues CavinKare’s strategic and innovative growth priorities through innovation [R&D), brand-building, and building a passionate go-to-market team. Prior to joining CavinKare Venky was CEO – AP & Telangana at Bharti Airtel and has extensive experience across Sales Strategy, Marketing, and Business Leadership. In this chat with Anant Sood and Suneel Aiyar, he offers his unique perspective on how organizations are using behavior insights to meet new sales challenges and drive productivity.

Sales as a Strategic Function

Anant: As a business leader, do you see a difference in challenges sales face today than it did 10 years ago? 

Venky: I think the core of sales in terms of behavior & relationships does not change even though parts of the businesses have moved to electronic or digital or e-commerce. But from an overall perspective, general trade or modern trade channels, the basics of sales need to be the same. In fact, they need far more emphasis in a hyper-competitive scenario.

Looking at it from a sales leadership perspective, there are some very marked differences that you see between the challenges today and a decade ago.

Earlier sales was looked at as an execution arm – executing something designed by marketing or the strategic functions. But today sales has become a strategic function.

This shift is happening for two purposes. One, is being able to increase your reach which is becoming far more strategic in nature than just being an execution plan. Second, the ability of the team to ensure that you get a profitable market share. That is a role that sales plays a little more strongly today than it could in the past.

Sales leadership and data orientation

While the portfolio and the importance of brands continues to increase, these two elements of sales as a function are becoming more strategic in nature. Linked to these elements, therefore is data orientation and the ability to run business by data.

Erstwhile sales leadership, sales approaches, even as late as a couple of decades ago, could have been on the basis of relationships, on the basis of pushing distributors, getting them to run it for you etc. But today, it’s critical that sales leadership understands data orientation and has the ability to dissect the data to increase opportunities.

For e.g. I can’t leverage Micromarketing, a big strategic lever, unless my sales team understands the data orientation clearly. Especially in a country like India – where we have 14 clusters, 15 clusters – we call it ‘winning in many Indias’. The orientation of sales needs to completely change.

Redefining Roles – Sales Reps

Anant: Large organizations like yours have vast reach already, in terms of reaching the consumer directly and mindshare, if you will. In this case, do you see the role of the sales rep reducing given that reach is no longer person-dependent?

Venky: I have a mixed reaction to that. The reality is, yes, that is happening. It’d be remiss of me to say that’s not the case.

Let’s restrict this discussion to India, for a moment. We know India is a country of multiple opportunities. You can never fit it into one single business model, whether it’s urban versus rural or urban versus semi-urban. The behavioral patterns of these geographies are very different, the aspirations of these geographies are different.

Yes, with the advent of technology and the ability to reach consumers directly, a significant portion of the business is getting shifted towards that model. The pandemic accelerated that adoption process.

But it is an extra opportunity for companies, not the predominant opportunity. I think the three channels will co-exist. The modalities of the three channels will coexist and therefore the importance of sales reps in some parts of the business will continue to be as important as they were.

“Sales facilitates brand visibility”

The element of pull is becoming even more pronounced today with hyper-competition. Brands need to be able to convince consumers to buy. But what is important is for the brand to be visible, to be available. Even for an e-commerce brand for that matter, the basics of visibility do not go away. It is important that it is visible to the consumer and available at an arm’s reach to the consumer.

And that is what sales will continue to facilitate, whether in the form of direct-to-consumer or in the form of general-trade-led intermediaries. I think that part of the business does not change.

Facilitation of availability, facilitation of reach, and being able to actually have the brand being visible in the front is something that sales continue to do.

Redefining Roles – Sales Supervisors

Suneel: If sales reps today have the adequate skill and cognitive capacity to understand what works and what doesn’t work, does the role of the supervisor change?

Venky: It changes, to a great extent. He or she is expected to be able to spot the opportunities and the exceptions very clearly rather than just seeing the overall numbers. It is about the ability to be able to spot the gaps that are happening on execution. Where is it happening? When is it happening? And therefore, the input matrices that you need to be able to attack to get that behavior corrected or that output corrected.

We want to focus on the inputs, on the gap areas and enable the teams to be coached on how to close those gaps.

It is no longer about just demonstrating capability alone, which was a large part of sales organizations in yesteryears. You go to the market, you demonstrate how to do a sale, you demonstrate how to fix it; that still continues.

In addition to that, as a sales leader you’re expected to be able to tell the person, “Boss, this is what you’re doing wrong. If you correct it this way, it can happen much better.” And that is enabled by data and technology. It’s a very clear change that’s happening.

“The role of sales critical for adoption of tech”

The second is because of the advent of this digital adoption, a lot of our training programs are becoming more virtual today. It doesn’t need to be on the field alone.

For example, distributors were not used to sitting in front of zoom and talking. But today they spend a predetermined time slot every week on zoom with the sales leaders in the regions, discussing the performance. The distributors are actually given data saying, “In your territory, you think you’re doing well. In this set of geographies or in these specific clusters, you’re not doing well. Do you have a problem with this particular salesman or do you have a problem with the market per se? What are your issues?”

So, the types of conversations that are happening are actually changing. And my view is many good companies have adopted this before. Tech is enabling this change even faster. To an extent, I would say tech is actually breaking the barrier for a lot of small companies.

What used to be the bastion of a large company in terms of execution excellence today, probably the smaller companies and the midsize companies can leapfrog that with the help of technology.

Therefore, the role of the sales there also becomes very critical for the adoption of these things to be able to drive it faster.

Training and Coaching Sales Teams

Suneel: Have you seen a shift in the training, coaching, and development of the salesforce? 

Venky: The profile of a sales guy has clear mandates today that were not there before.

I wouldn’t have imagined interviewing a sales guy and asking, “Do you understand Excel?” My conversations are also changing with people.

There is definitely an expectation and a skill up-gradation that is happening at certain levels including the executive on the field. The executive on the field today operates a smartphone. So, as much as he likes to look at OTTs etc., he is also expected to understand how to operate salesforce automation tools and how to fill it in.

What we are trying to do is only make it as simple as possible for him or her, but the need for them to appreciate the technology is very clear. That’s a big difference in terms of expectations at every level.

At a leadership level, we are very clear that it is not about coming and telling us numbers.

We want to understand the inputs that are leading to these numbers. To understand those inputs, you need to understand data. You need to say specifics like in Madhya Pradesh, this program works or this sort of an approach works, in Bihar, this works, in UP this works, in Tamil Nadu, this works.

I would say the ability to understand data, driven and simplified by technology, is a pre-requirement for most of the sales guys, today.

Lead Indicators for Sales Leadership

Anant: With the rise of new ways of interaction and new ways of running a market, are lead indicators and data around your sales teams gaining more prominence in decision-making from a sales leadership level? 

Venky: Yes, definitely. One area is the day-to-day management of decisions, the empowerment that you can give to teams below. Today, as long as I have my data stack right and as long as I have the right data built-in, my ability to take a risk is a little higher because it’s not hazy anymore. My front-end today is far more empowered to be able to make decisions on the go. They are able to make decisions, which they believe are good for the region or for the organization, as long as it’s backed by a certain logic and data, and that data is visible to everybody.

The second is the way sales guys are evaluated. I can see that very clearly changing because we’re moving away from output-based matrices to input-based matrices. I am therefore able to evaluate them very clearly and objectively to say, “Listen, it is not about just the overall output alone. What has been your effort? What has been the way you’ve been able to shape the market?”

“Inputs lead to better output”

This is happening for two reasons.  One reason is a belief that input leads to better output. The second is that the person-dependency goes away and the process takes over completely. That’s the hallmark of a good sales organization. In the earlier years, there were certain gaps in that because some of the organizations were hugely personality-dependent.

Anant: Have the lead-lag indicators of your team and its performance started to inform some of your decisions or are they playing a bigger role, in terms of the individual?

Venky: Yes, it has begun and, in my view, it would be a matter of time before it becomes a part of the performance evaluation system. Because at the end of the day, you have the right set of information available for you to evaluate people both behaviorally as well as from the output. So, to that extent, evaluation of people and leadership styles also gets impacted far more when you move in this direction. And these are things that you can very clearly see.

There are certain leaders, who are not comfortable talking about inputs to you. They say, “why do you want to discuss with me? You just tell me what you want. I’ll get it done. What’s the big deal?” But it doesn’t happen that way. We need to understand what he is doing. Whether it is right or wrong or whether it is long-term or not.

Top Sales Performers vs Most Improved

Suneel: During the reward-recognition process, top performers tend to get recognized while those who improve don’t. Do you think sales leadership needs to keep the middle performers – those who improve  – consistently motivated?

Venky: I think there are two parts to it. One is your delivery has a certain financial incentive to it, which you don’t tamper with beyond a point. Performance linked to financial incentives is largely based on the framework you set on inputs and outputs for top performance.

However, if you find somebody not being able to live this whole spirit of process orientation, data orientation, input-based approaches, they will probably lose out in the long run. Other people who do this well get rewarded in terms of a long-term impact, either by way of recognition, by way of leadership positions, or by way of faster traction.

There are some people who are the top performers. You need them. You’ll have some of those people who have their own ways of doing it as long as there’s no long-term damage, let them do it the way they want to do it. There is a large part of the organization, which will follow the way you want them to do it. That stays.

“Growth independent of Current Delivery”

Performances get recognized by short-term incentives. But long-term growth and long-term opportunities are clearly based on consistent performance exhibited, the exhibition of the required maturity of process orientation and ability to understand data, and the ability to lead large teams without much abruption.

In today’s scenario, in a world of social media access to so many people, being autocratic is passe. With the opportunities available for people today, it is not feasible for you to be an autocratic leader.

Some of these elements come together to say, ‘growth independent of current delivery’. That’s a demarcation many organizations have done based on behavior exhibited and capabilities demonstrated.

Managing Behaviors

Anant: Do you see managing behaviors of the organization becoming more critical to converting management intents and strategies into action?

Venky: Yes, it’s a very critical part, more so as we move forward. I would say organizational thinking needs to get translated into a strategy that gets translated into a plan. We follow a simple process where we say it’s about a business model, a philosophy of a business model. Then it is about strategy. It is then about structure, process and people. If I get these elements right, I get my business right. Today for all of these elements to happen, people are the base. And behavior, therefore, becomes far more critical today to be influenced and made consistent with what the organization thinks and values.

Behavioral management becomes far more critical as we move forward right from the bottom to the top. And tech plays a large role in this as well.

As a leader at the top, I need to have a view of the bottom while ensuring that what we think at the top is actually translated down the line. And that there’s a feedback mechanism that comes back again to reshape the thinking at the top.

“Behavioral management key to get strategy and vision translated”

What is happening in this process is the organization is becoming more open and transparent. That’s a big change that is happening today. When it becomes transparent, you know behaviors that are not in line with what they should be. Therefore correcting those behaviors, managing those behaviors will also start happening.

I see behavioral management across levels as a key part of getting your strategy and vision translated into the right execution plan on the ground. I think we’re underestimating the strength that tech and data are bringing to the softer elements of businesses.

Anant: Looking ahead, would you predict having a ‘Chief Behavioral Officer in your organization?

Venky: My belief is that it is already happening. In my company, if I were to say, I am probably one amongst the Chief Behavioral officers. There are many other people but one of my important actions is to enabling this across organizations. And you build it across with people. I wouldn’t see it as an individual role. Every part of the organizational leadership will have this as a part of that core. And we will also be in a position to measure that very clearly and objectively.

Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash