Question: How to confront overselling practices in the sales department?

I work for a Silicon Valley based ERP consulting company as the head of implementation. My team is responsible for transitioning new clients from their legacy systems to our ERP solutions.

I find that our sales people frequently overpromise new clients on what we can provide for them. While I am used to sales exaggeration to win new clients, our sales team takes it to a whole new level. This culture of overpromising has found its way to my division, because of our natural reluctance to contradict our sales team. This leads to serious client dissatisfaction and turnover, and friction with downstream teams.

What is the best way for me to raise the flag, and reverse this culture of miscommunication without antagonizing the head of sales? He is a president of the company, whose hard to achieve monthly sales quotas may be partially to blame for this sales culture.


8 Expert Insights

1. I make a very clear distinction in my book - Overpromise and Overdeliver: Designing and Delivering Extraordinary Customer Experiences that promising something you CANNOT deliver is LYING. Lying destroys customer trust and company value. Overpromising is promising something unique  that only you can deliver.

2. There needs to be a clear "Scope of Work" or similar document that is reviewed first by your sales person WITH the implementation team before it goes to the customer to sign. You (or someone on your team) should also meet with the customer to review the Scope of Work before the customer signs off on the contract. That way everyone is clear about what will and will not be done and what capabilities they can expect from the software. You might want to draft a master document to make it easier on the sales team and easier for you to gain acceptance from them. After all, they lose, or they should, if the implementation does not go well, and they need ecstatic customers as referral sources and for additional sales opportunities.

3. Ensure that the sales teams know what is possible and what is not and what is "extra" or "custom" work for your team that can be added to the contract for additional revenue and commissions and quota for them. This may be an education or training issue.

4. Most importantly, realize that there is a line between what is possible and what is "impossible" (or might require programing or custom work). YOU WANT YOUR SALES TEAM TO SELL EVERYTHING THEY CAN right up to the very edge of that line. In fact, you want them dancing all over that line because those are the incremental sales that make the difference between growth and exponential growth, the difference between just another company and a Silicon Valley superstar that goes public making everyone rich, including you and your team!

5. You and everyone in your company must read Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado both by Geoffrey Moore. It is critical to know where you are in the cycle and what your "customizing and exceptions" strategy is AS A COMPANY.

6. Lastly, this is all about the relationships and the close communication that you have with the sales team. Both of you are responsible for delighted customers and company growth. You need to work together as partners in success. There is no "us and them" in the most successful companies. There will always be a natural tension between the departments because the sales team rightly wants every single sale possible and your team needs implementable projects. If both departments understand the natural tension, call it out and work together, you will be very successful.

7. As was stated earlier, incentives must also be aligned...

As for the best way to bring this to the attention of the CEO/ Sales Leader...

Do all of your homework first. You have gotten a lot of very sound advice. Take the advice and get those things done.

Then, make an appointment with the CEO for 30-60 minutes to discuss it. To begin the meeting say, "I need your help and opinions on something. I've been doing some research on the natural tension between sales and implementation. Here are the books I've read and the advice I've gotten from subject matter experts who see this situation all the time. Here is what I have done so far and what I have learned. What are your thoughts on this?"

Start a dialog and let him know that you want every possible sale, but not the ones that cost the company its profit. This is an important dialog and it is an issue that will take some time to work itself out.

When you are ready, the customer conversation should go like this. "Ms. Customer, during the sales process, many questions are asked and answered by different people and departments in both companies and many implied commitments are made.

The goal of this meeting is to discuss ALL commitments made and make each of them EXPLICIT. That is, we want to spell out, in this document, in plain English EVERY commitment that we are making to you and your company to ensure that we can and will fulfill those commitments on time and on budget. We've made a very long list of what we believe are the commitments we're making to you. We are going to deliver everything on this list.

If there is ANYTHING missing from this list, now is the time to add it because after we have an agreement, additional commitments will incur additional charges. We also want to make sure that our software will meet all of your needs, so this is our last check to ensure that you've communicated fully all of your needs and that we've checked it with the implementation team to ensure we can deliver everything you expect.

Are you ready to get started on the list?"

What you are facing is not uncommon. In building a business there are stages it will go through. When you get past the early struggles as your company has it goes through fun. It is about revenue generation-it is give the customer what they want- processes do not matter-signing up customers is the name of the game.

Then the company gets into whitewater and the fun stage has ended. What happens next is the company begins to lose customers. It must now put processes in place including sales but the struggle is the President is responsible for creating the situation. He or she must admit and change it. This may not be easy.

The stages I speak of can be found in the book Predictable Success by Les McKeown I would suggest you get the book and read it. You will quickly realize what stage you are in and the issues. I would then offer to the President the book and let him or her you recognized the stage you are in or headed towards know that you are concerned. Let him or her know you want the company to be more successful.

I would NOT tell him or her sales is the problem and you must stop them from over promising. Instead let him or her come to the conclusion. This book is the key for self discovery and action.

Best of Luck.

As others have remarked, you're describing a pretty typical polarization in organizations.  Finding common ground will be key.

In addition to Rick's great comments and reading list,  I see a wave of people realizing that trust-based selling is critical to having the kinds of strategic partnerships most high-tech companies yearn for, especially as they mature.  So you have to be able to deliver on what you promise (at the very least, relative to your competitors).  For more evidence/reading on this, see Charlie Green's Trust-Based Selling and Dan Pink's To Sell is Human

But, as I've remarked to others, you won't succeed if you approach this as "convincing" someone--you win/they lose.  One way to find a common ground might be to explore this issue experimentally--ultimately get both parties in the room with a focus on the outcomes you want and open questions that will lead both teams to an answer.  You might even do A/B experiments with different sales approaches.

There's a lot of good advice here.

Two other thoughts:

- See if it's possible for some of the sales people to spend some time in your department so they experience the outcomes of what they have created.  Cross-fertilization like this is a healthy thing in any company.

- When we run customer focus programs I always try to get a customer in as part of the workshop to say what it's like to be a customer; I've seen people break down in tears when they hear from the horse's mouth the negative effects they have been creating when they thought they had been doing so well.

I think that Mr. Jardin's comments about "skin in the game" are headed in a good direction. This is a common problem, really a universal problem with sales people.

I would amend Mr. Jardin's suggestion to focus more on the sale manager's compensation. If you go after individual sales person's compensation they will complain loudly that they cannot be held responsible for lost customers because they are not in control of the implementation phase. "It's those guys down the food chain who are screwing up".  Make this a sales management problem for the sales manager. He or she will figure out methods to control the overselling if they see that their compensation will be negatively effected by unhappy or lost customers.

This can be really frustrating for departments who have to "pick up the pieces" from over-promising since you aren't able to deliver what the customer has been told to expect. I suggest the following approaches:

1. What kind of relationships have you and your team members fostered with individual sales people? Having good relationships with them will allow you to understand what is going on for them, such as pressures to make quota, and for you to help them learn about the challenges their behaviors are causing you and your team.

2. Can you quantify the cost of the problem? Yes, they are making quota, but what is it costing the company in employee turnover and client dissatisfaction? By building a quantified business case, you will have a better chance of getting the attention of the head of sales.

I hope that gives you some ideas!!

All good advice above. My only add would be to form a customer team that serves all disciplines and functions within the company. By having a collaborative team no stone will be unturned. You will have complete transparency within the company and hopefully no surprises to the customer.