In conversation with Gautam Mazumdar

A senior professional from the Insurance Industry, Gautam Mazumdar used to consult with Willis Towers Watson. Previously in management at HDFC Ergo, he was instrumental in setting up what is now known as Maruti insurance while being with Maruti. Gautam is deeply interested in behavior science. In conversation with Anant Sood, on the changes in the sales process, sales rep expectations and how to manage by exception and use AI and behavior science to bridge the gap between data and action.


Anant: Have you seen a shift, in the last few decades, in how line managers are managing their field force or office-based teams? 

Gautam: Firstly, staff functions, like HR processes, are slowly getting less important as companies look to outsource some of them to experts.

The span of control has gone up – teams have become flatter. So instead of 10 people reporting to you, you have maybe 50. 

Periodic intervention in a team player’s life has to become constant, every day and consistent regardless of other changes.

The third thing that is happening is the change in team structures – frontline turnover, team manager getting changed. These are the disruptions teams are encountering.

It all comes back to what is the role of team leader. He is required to go and get his hands dirty if he has to, but that is not really his job. His job is not to look at CRM reports and analytics reports of 50 people, make sense of it and then figure out, “What do I need to do?” We talk of the reflective brain and the intuitive brain. These days there’s no time to reflect and act – if you do that, then you’ve missed something else. It’s like we’ve compressed time and it’s getting shorter and shorter.

The other reality that has now come in with WFH is that even the visual eye contact is gone. 

What follows is that periodic intervention in a team player’s life has to become constant, every day and consistent regardless of whether the manager changes or not. Motivation and daily oversight are what a team manager basically does.

Good managers motivate

A: Have you seen any changes in the sales process itself – the way companies reach out to customers?

G: There’s a lot of information made available now, especially product information for a high-value purchase. The digital process has added a new dimension. The media, the internet – this has given people more access to product information.

The scale of competition has gone up, practically in every sector. When we grew up, it was all public sector. So, there is a change from the way sales used to happen then vis-a-vis now.

Because of the competition, features that used to be add-ons are now bundled in as free. For instance, we started with cars that had AC as an optional feature. Now you don’t pay anything extra for AC or power-steering. Product sophistication has taken place.

The scale of competition has gone up. Product sophistication has taken place. So, there is a change from the way sales used to happen then vis-a-vis now.

A: In this context, has the role of the sales rep changed?

G: Yes. Because he has to be much more knowledgeable about the product, about the competition, about the issues that customers may face after-sales. There must be an awareness of all this – because there is competition and there are other choices available. When you had Hindustan Motors and Fiat, it didn’t really matter. But now, all that has changed.


A: Do you see a dramatic change in what a sales rep used to do earlier versus what they have to do now? 

G: I wish it had. The reality is that sales today has become such a big push – it’s a sell-at-any-cost syndrome that has come in. People start a discussion by offering discounts. That’s the easiest way to sell – bring down the price. People have lost the selling technique. People have lost knowing how to bring out the nuances of product A versus product B. They focus on “it’s the cheapest”.

People have lost the selling technique.  The quality of knowledge – about your product, your competitors’ product – has seen a massive drop, except in the case of tech products.

The quality of knowledge – about your product, your competitors’ product – has seen a massive drop, except in the case of tech products.

A: Has the definition of a ‘good’ sales rep changed from earlier to now? 

G: A good sales rep used to be anybody who put in the effort, because there was hardly any competition. Now, effort alone isn’t enough, because a hundred others are putting in that kind of effort. The question has become – how disciplined are you and how supportive is your company?

Plan and execute - good management

Ultimately you have finite time and a lot of things to do – so you need to be methodical, plan and know how to prioritize or you’ll end up expending unnecessary energy.

The other thing that I see missing in sales reps these days is the ability to listen. Everybody is transactional. In fact, some team leaders gripe about people who ask too many questions. You need to have a leader who cultivates that kind of behavior – of asking questions and bringing your own thoughts to the table.

A: How do you see managers’ roles changing? What behavior was considered ‘good’ for bosses earlier versus now? 

G: Good bosses are those who can remove your pain points. Likewise, good bosses are those who can manage by exception. Not get into all the details, but focus on what is important.

Good bosses are those who can manage by exception…focus on what is important.

It’s important not to get distracted by distortion. If there is a noise, look at that. You will always hear noises in the background – ignore the murmurs, focus only on the loud noises. It’s a remarkable way to find out what kind of middle-level leadership you have, what kind of cultural change you need to initiate. You have to be magnanimous enough to accept failure sometimes.

That’s important because the manager, too, has finite time and many people, given the increasing span of control.

Data overload hampers managers

A: We often hear of sales managers, teams getting overwhelmed with too much data. What are your thoughts about this?

G: There is too much data, and the same data is going to everybody. I overheard a psychiatrist on TV talk about epidemics, pandemics, and infodemics – the latter is what will kill us all. There is a global trend of too much data.

Teams are getting data on things that don’t impact their function. Too much of this data is becoming a distraction. Not just that, often the data is not available in a form that converts into usable action. What is the point of data if it doesn’t tell you what it means and what it therefore implies?

A: Talking about new technology, what have been some of the most impactful technologies that affected the way sales reps work? 

G: One of the things that has made an immense impact is the ability to communicate so easily and so freely. This has brought down costs, reduced the need to travel, and helped save resources.

As for AI and ML, I think this is just the beginning.

A technology catering to sales rep productivity should make it easy to disseminate information to people in one team – information around daily tasks and the top priorities of the team, particularly those that affect customer service.

A: What do you think has been the response of insurance companies to behavior and Nudge Theory? For instance, Swiss Re has a behavior lab that they have set up solely to figure out behavior interventions, etc. 

G: Studying behavioral aspects of a customer, your user, is definitely going to become important. E.g. technologies like pay-as-you-drive telematics – how would law enforcement look at it, how would parents look at it, how would employers look at it, what would encourage them?

We need to look into the human mind, figure out what motivates and what doesn’t, what pleases and what doesn’t, what encourages and what discourages. There is a definite realization that no two individuals are the same. Now, what will you do with that realization? How far will you go with it? How are you going to look at this dimension?

I would say behavior must become central in organizations and in how teams get managed.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash