If You Want Transformation, Don’t Forget the Intangibles

Culture (per Merriam-Webster) is defined as the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization 

Culture is hard to characterize, hard to measure and hard to change. Therefore, it often gets ignored on the list of levers to pull when transforming a sales organization. Compensation plans, territory models, customer segmentation approaches, coverage models, and channel choices are all constantly debated and analyzed under a microscope. But culture is usually allowed to exist as is, regardless of whether it is helping to promote or to hinder the targeted sales strategies.

When thinking about the culture in your organization, consider what kinds of behavior are being rewarded: Who is being promoted, what words are used in corporate communications, what kinds of situations cause alarm bells to go off and what do leaders talk about?

In our recent World-Class Sales Practices Study, we used this last question as a way to consider cultures. We asked almost 1,300 sales organizations what their senior leadership talked about. What language and topics were most prevalent in their organization? What items were more common in meeting agendas? The choices were:

  • Discussion about adhering to designed processes or improving processes (Process Culture)
  • Team sales numbers, quotas, wins, business unit revenues (Sales Culture)
  • Post-sale interactions and relationships, customer satisfaction scores (Service Culture)
  • Customer journey, managing touchpoints, cross-functional relationship support, experience measures (Customer Experience/CX culture)


It may not matter, as long as there is alignment.

We then checked for any notable differences in results between the various culture types. Generally speaking, cultures that were more customer experience-oriented outperformed process-oriented cultures, with more narrowly focused sales/service cultures landing in between.

The differences were not so stark as to declare this a definitive trend by any means. While there is a slight trend associated with the more customer-oriented cultures, it should be noted that there were highly successful organizations in each. However, it is certainly worth a conversation. And unfortunately, that conversation too often gets neglected in sales, and instead relegated to the realm of human resources.

What is perhaps more important than the type of culture is alignment to a particular kind of culture. You will likely be familiar with the quote, typically attributed to Peter Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

(At CSO Insights, we like to say breakfast, lunch AND dinner!) A myriad of examples of real examples come to mind illustrating this common hurdle:

  • A large financial services organization wanted to move to a “sales culture” and a fee-based business model. However, the word “sales” was so culturally toxic that they had to keep coming up with euphemisms for it. There are only so many ways to say sales, without saying “sales.” As a result, the legacy culture remained and sales got buried so deep as a concept that it eventually died on the vine.
  • A manufacturing organization wished to move to more of a service culture (in order to expand post-sales implementation revenues). Unfortunately, they collected absolutely no voice-of-customer data. You can’t build your value proposition around service without customer insights.
  • A large retail organization tried to become a customer-experience oriented culture. However, everyone knew that the way to climb the corporate ladder into increasingly higher empowered positions was through the operations side of the business.
  • A small startup knew they needed to be more process focused to become scalable and move up into a more mature business. Yet they kept their hiring profile for sellers focused on highly entrepreneurial sellers who were positively allergic to structure.


In each case, the issue was not so much the strategy chosen; it was the misalignment between what they said they wanted their culture to reflect and the actions they actually took, the behaviors they rewarded, the language leaders used, etc.

Questions to ask:

  • What is the culture within your enterprise organization?
  • What evidence do you have that supports this? What are you seeing in your daily work?
  • How would customers describe your culture? What would make them say this?
  • Is there a tight alignment between your language, leadership, incentive reward programs, succession planning, corporate legends and heroes? What does it tell you about your culture?
  • Does your culture make sales transformation easier or harder?


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