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by John Guaspari

One Size Does Not Fit All
Is your Six Sigma sales technique defective?

In a recent straw poll with which I was involved, this question was posed: "Which function in your organization is least likely to buy in to a Six Sigma initiative?" The returns were pretty close to unanimous, and their general tone was best captured by one sardonically eloquent response: "Those bozos in sales."

So the questions arise: Why in the name of all that is critical to quality do salespeople resist? Why in the name of marauding Black Belts everywhere is there such nonstandard deviation when it comes to gaining their buy-in? What in the name of Vilfredo Pareto has gotten into them?

It's simple. The language of Six Sigma, shot through with references to defects, variability and root causes of problems, is inimical to a successful sales mentality. What motivates salespeople is, in a word, winning. In their world view, the bumps along the road aren't the variables in their job; they're the essence of it.

At an intellectual level, a salesperson might say: "I can see where having a defect-free quote process would be good. And I suppose that driving out variability from communications with field service reps makes sense. But those sure aren't 'A items' to me." Why not? Because what moves salespeople to action is the idea of winning the order, and then winning the next one, and then the next one. Put another way, your sales force will worry about defect reduction when there's no more winning left to be done.

Another problem: Salespeople tend not to be imbued with the need to "think process"--the heart of Six Sigma. They do care about the efficiency, productivity and, ultimately, the success of the business. It's just that they're responsive to different kinds of stimuli than their colleagues in, say, manufacturing.

"But," goes the argument, "everyone has to participate in Six Sigma. Too bad if salespeople don't want to think about defects or process." Seems sensible--after all, it's only saying that everybody should be treated equally. Too bad it's exactly wrong. You might even say that it's highly (and ironically) defective. It's an example of poor sales practice (which is also ironic: If your goal is to get real buy-in to Six Sigma, then you've got some selling to do).

A basic sales tenet is that one size does not fit all. The sales task has a lot less to do with a Lomanesque smile and a shine than it does with identifying the areas of convergence between what you have to offer and what a particular customer wants and/or needs. Why do you suppose that the quality disciplines, the source of Six Sigma's intellectual DNA, have taken root so much more deeply in the manufacturing arena than in sales? Because the language and modes of thought that accompany quality--efficiency and waste and statistical analyses and process--were already there (maybe latently, but nonetheless there) in those people who turned to careers in manufacturing. There was convergence between the job and what naturally moves people to action.

Ask whoever is responsible for quality/Six Sigma in your organization: "What's the biggest challenge you face--the hard stuff or the soft stuff? Understanding and applying the techniques, or getting people to engage with a satisfactory degree of passion and fervor?" I guarantee they'll say it's the soft stuff, the buy-in part.

So you have quality people who are good at the application of Six Sigma but less good at getting people to buy in to what they have to offer. And you have salespeople who are good at getting people to buy in to what they have to offer but less good at Six Sigma. As the saying goes, you can't have it both ways. If you really want to treat everybody equally, you have to accept the fact that either salespeople aren't such bozos after all, or your quality people aren't totally bereft of bozodom themselves.

None of this suggests that the sales department should get a pass when it comes to Six Sigma. The principles are sound, the tools work and the techniques should be employed. But none of that will happen without buy-in, and that calls for an approach tailored to the specific needs that drive salespeople's behavior.

It's got to be about helping them win, not helping you check off another item on your Six Sigma implementation to-do list; about helping them be more effective at sorting the real prospects from the tire-kickers; about helping them be better at listening to (and truly hearing) their customers; about helping them better understand just exactly where their offerings and their customers' wants/needs converge; about helping them be better at framing the myriad assumptions that will, like it or not, inform the entire selling process; about, ultimately, helping them be more successful at getting customers to give them their money.

In short, Six Sigma has to be about winning. And if it is, it will help you win their hearts and minds--and compliance.

Come to think of it, that basic sales tenet might be more applicable here than just about anyplace else: Before subjecting your sales people to a thorough Six Sigmoidoscopy, remember that one size most definitely does not fit all.

About the author

John Guaspari is founding principal of Deep Customer Connections Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consulting firm. His newest book is Switched-On Quality: How to Tap Into the Energy Needed for Fuller and Deeper Buy-In (Paton Press, 2002). E-mail him at john. guaspari@deepcustomerconnections.com.

This article is adapted from an article originally appearing in the September/ October edition of Across the Board, the magazine of The Conference Board.