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Sales as a Complex System — The importance of Micro vs Macro Sales

Earth from far away

Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to do a fair bit of public speaking and mentoring covering sales-related topics all over Europe. I’ve delivered keynotes at conferences from Germany to Bulgaria, held office hours with VC-backed startups in Poland and Portugal, mentored early stage startups in Estonia, done workshops in London, you name it. It has been a unique and eye-opening experience, allowing me to to get a much deeper understanding of how tech startups (across a wide range of verticals) approach building, and scaling Sales.

There is one thing that all of the companies I’ve seen share, regardless of geography, stage or vertical:

They are doing it wrong!

It all boils down to a pretty simple, but fundamental mistake — their mental picture of Sales is wrong. Naturally, if your foundations are “shaky”, scaling becomes very, very hard indeed.

When I think about Sales, I tend to distinguish between two very different (yet interrelated) disciplines. I refer to those two disciplines as Micro and Macro Sales.

macro sales vs micro sales - diagram

By Micro Sales I mean the part of sales associated with single factors and effects of individual sales performance — e.g. improving cold email conversion rates; asking more effective open-ended questions; tightening prospecting and lead qualification, conducting better demos; etc. In other words, everything associated with optimising individual rep performance. This is what nine out of ten sales professionals think of when they hear “Sales”. And this is not surprising at all. Pick any sales book published in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and even 2000’s, and that’s all you’ll hear about. You are looking at multiple generations of salespeople primed to think about Sales in a certain way; Sales is an individual endeavour and in order for you to be successful, you need to form these 25 sales habits, or follow these 100 top sales strategies, etc. And while there is certainly a lot of merit in thinking of sales on a Micro level, this leads to a very dangerous pitfall — Thinking that building and running a successful Sales organisation equates to:

Individual Rep Optimisation x n

  • *n being the number of sales reps in the company

This approach simply does not work and it does not work for a very good reason. Sales teams/organisations are a complex system and as Nassim Taleb nicely puts it:

“The first thing one learns about complex systems is that they are not a sum of body parts: a system is a collection of interactions, not an addition of individual responses.”

The above justifies the adoption of a slightly different framework. One that places equal importance on Micro as it does on Macro Sales.

Macro Sales is the part of sales concerned with the overall health of the sales organisation, or in other words, how to optimise performance on a team/office/company wide level (which as pointed out above is not the mere sum of individual reps’ performances). Good sales teams get Micro Sales right, great sales teams nail both Micro & Macro.

Getting Sales on a macro level right however does not happen overnight . It’s a long and hard process that you need to commit to and start consciously working towards. The earlier you commit to it, the better. And boy…does it pay off when you get it right! We were absolutely fanatical about optimising sales on a Macro level at Stack Overflow. All the work I did in/and around Agile Sales was geared towards making sure that any successful strategies discovered and leveraged by one rep, could be effectively shared with, and subsequently adopted by the rest of the team, thus making the entire sales organisation a better version of itself.

Optimising sales on a Macro level is at the heart of what we do at Heresy and I’ll soon be posting more on the subject. In particular I’ll be writing extensively about the Agile Sales/Heresy methodology. Stand by for more.