Sales Driven Organizations

Pretty much every place I’ve ever worked has been a self-described “sales-driven” organization. For the longest time I thought that term was nothing more than a buzz phrase to explain that we as a company rely on gaining sales in order to survive and thrive. My reaction was always “Yeah no kidding, EVERY company is a sales-driven company! Thats what business IS!”

Now at my older and (arguably wiser) age, I understand that “sales-driven” is very much a distinct philosophy and corporate/cultural mindset. Some variations of how its defined depend on which Google search result you click on, but for the most part all the same basic idea of what it means.

My question for you all is for those of you who work or have worked at such a company, what do you see as the pros and cons of the “sales-driven” culture, both generally and also how it relates to designers.

My interpretation is Sales Driven + Reactionary with no real roadmap or brand positioning

It is very difficult to break a company of this, but many companies are not sales driven.

One thing is if you look at the companies that most aspire to be, they tend not to be sales driven.

Nike is an obvious example of a brand driven company
Apple is an example of of an design/engineering driven company
Sonos is a technology driven company

Sales Driven + Reactionary with no real roadmap or brand positioning

Well put Yo = that is definitely one of the Cons for me (and I think for designers in general). I love to hear about life inside companies that are not just reactionary to whatever their salespeople think the client wants.

I happen to work in an industry that is populated exclusively by companies that operate as sales-driven organizations, but I don’t know that it HAS to be that way. A different model would be tough to implement, but if it could be done I think it would really shake things up in an otherwise stagnant industry.

One of our sales guys told me over lunch that he didn’t understand what the hell our department - R&D - were doing. We didn’t NEED to do product development. All we needed to do was to do the same things our competitors did, only cheaper. I take it he wasn’t happy at work, he moved on. I hope he landed in a sales driven company. I’m glad I didn’t.

edit: some time ago there was a great article linked here detailing the Adidas/Puma history. Dig into that for examples of what Design driven VS Sales driven entails.

engio -

I’ll piggyback off of your post by saying that the sales guy you had that lunch with is a pretty classic example of what is found in my industry. Pretty much every company I’ve ever worked at or come into contact with in the POP Display business considers its salespeople to be the actual “talent”. All other creative professionals in the organization merely serve as support for that “talent”.

And yes I intentionally put the word “talent” in quotes when its in reference to salespeople - rarely are they the people that should be leading the charge, yet they usually are.

That strategy = going out of business. If each competitor does that, the price goes to zero.

Look at Starbucks. They took a $.50 beverage most Americans got at a gas station nd made it $4.50. They didn’t do that with sales, they did that with design (say what you want about their burnt coffee)

Usually when a sales guy says something like that to me my response is “great idea, I came up with an awesome way to reduce our price and costs, fire the entire sales department. Turns out you can place orders on our website.” Usually ends the conversation.

Most companies only see spikes in sales around product launches. So suggesting cutting product development in most cases should be akin to a fireable offense from the point of view of an investor.

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Interesting thread.

I would say that I’ve worked in 3 different organizations: design as art, inertial and sales-driven. Here are my definitions:

design as art: the company has a small commodity market cornered which financed the owner to do some designs regardless of sales and profitability.

Inertial: the company is the biggest in their very small industry. Shear inertia mantains sales as no one in the industry is coming out with new product, nor flooding the market with sales people or ads. It helps that this industry is sheltered from international competition (by its small size and geographically compact area) and it would be destroyed within months if it were exposed.

Sales driven: Sell whatever you got. The sale part is so important that I joke that it is speed to PO instead of speed to market.

The thing I like most about the sales driven organization is that you get a lot of different designs into the market and you get a lot of sales data back about what works and what doesn’t. The difficult part is that no one is researching or looking far ahead. NPD decisions come down to personal preference and seem random. Brand building and quality take a back seat. Ironically, some products that would likely succeed at a higher price point (because they have an enormous value, but a small potential market) fail because they are sold at a lower price.

As for changing these organizations…I don’t think it’s possible. Some of them are resilient. They will face a limit to growth, but if they are privately held, that may not be a problem.

I think it the definition will depend on the type of sales too.

Sure, anyone can argue that Apple is a innovation-driven company, but I can make a case that it is sales-driven. I’ll use my current location as an example.

There is no doubt that we are a sales-driven company. It is said by the board, CEO and all management. The VP of NPD makes no bones about it. And the salesforce is well compensated. We differ from Apple in that sense as our salesforce does direct sales whereas Apple is going through the distribution chain.

So back to us. We are focused on organic growth. While we will milk the cash cow, that is no way to create growth in a mature market. I’d say most companies in a mature market will get 2-3% growth being focused purely on sales. But where we differ is the sales generated by NPD. That is where we are able to maintain double-digit growth for over a decade (probably jinxed 2016 with that comment). We are committed to innovation (new and has impact, blue water, whatever you want to call it). We are a sales-driven company driven by innovation.

Sure, you can argue that is possibly the tail wagging the dog, but our culture is still sales. As a matter of fact, the VP of NPD came from sales. And it shows why I don’t think I’d ever be a great VP or CEO, I don’t have that natural sales ability to build the necessary relationships to sell innovation to those who don’t think it “matters”. Selling innovation to the company is sales. Jobs had the ability to sell innovation to the company, making Apple a sales driven company. If he didn’t have that sales-ability, Apple would be a small niche player and not the juggernaut it is.

iab: I think the difference for me is that a sales driven organization will never put anything ahead of sales. It sounds like your company might be that way with the cash cows, but the NPD is focused on longer term bets. Sales driven companies will prioritize their projects based on speed to revenue versus other goals like long term growth, building proprietary technology or the brand.

iab: as for being a great manager, I think any personality can become one. I don’t think Jony Ive is a great sales person. He comes across as an introverted geek who is detail oriented. That made him a great design director because he was actually focused on product. Many sales people make horrible directors because they want to spend 90% of the day chasing leads and selling. They don’t focus on research, communicating that research to the dev. team, ensuring that the design work is at a high level.

Mind you, I’m talking in generalities. I think everyone has the capacity to adapt. However, that requires time which managers don’t often have.

Back to what I was saying, it depends on the type of sales. Our NPD group also works on quick-hits, but long-term growth are still sales. So you can be a sales-driven org on the short-term and you can be a sales-driven org on the long-term too.

I would agree that most companies focus on the short, we happen to be a sales-driven org with a focus on the long game.

I’d agree.

But he’d make a bad CEO. I also think if he were in a culture outside of Apple, he’d be a bad VP. He does not need to get buy in from sales, marketing, RA/QA, accounting, customer service, manufacturing and any other group to what he is selling at Apple. Apples culture has that built in. That is not the case in 99% of the other organizations out there.

So yes, I think my ability to direct NPD within the group is fine. The ability to do the same outside of NPD requires a different skill set. That is where I know I am lacking.

I’m a manager who believes to lift a person’s strengths and avoid their weaknesses.

I feel the same way!

Having to do the directing outside of the group, it is a harsh transition. I have to state things in non design, non product terms. But it has been a great learning.

iab, your sales driven organization sounds very different from other sales driven organizations I’ve worked with/for. For example, when I transitioned from Nike to Converse. Converse was a company pulling itself out of bankruptcy when Nike bought it and a few of us came over to help with the reset. It was very much a sales driven organization out of necessity to survive. It was hard to ween off that behavior though that was whatever the retailer says goes. The retailer was coming from a sense of what worked the last 6 months and we were pushing out toward what WILL happen in the next 6 months and what cane we MAKE happen in the next 24. Very different thinking that in my experience a sales team struggles with. And I totally understand why, they are focused on selling things we have now in the warehouse. That is where they are needed. By the time they want the product NPD is developing, the window to make it on time has already passed, so we have to take calculated risks and extrapolate from the known data points.

Maybe so. It could be to our compensation structure. The sales force receives a significantly higher commission on new sales over retentions. While our older cash cows may increase 2-5% annually, NPD products under 5-years-old typically have a growth of 20%-30%. Kind of a no-brainer in what they will pull out of their sales bag first.

Not to say our old products languish. But those need 'new" market over “existing” market.


How does your company decide which new areas to pursue when it comes to the R&D and “blue sky” stuff? Who steers that ship? How much input does design have when it comes to which avenues to go down and which new product ideas to work on?

When I think of “sales-driven” organizations, my experience has most definitely been in line with what Yo has said: The sales team screams “Fire!” and everybody else scrambles to put it out. All day every day is simply reacting to the latest short-term opportunity for a purchase order (commission for the sale steam).

That would do it. And I think something similar was done where I worked as well which helped the transition. Instead of new stuff being an “awe man, now I got to learn stuff” it became “new stuff? gimme gimme”

skyarrow, the steering of our ship is done by us. We can be completely autonomous, like a consultancy with a single client. We could be in a different state for that matter, but it’s nice to have manufacturing and the other departments downstairs, they are a great resource.

For ideas, we follow the 100/5/1 rule. For every 100 ideas, we will sink resources into 5 of them expecting 1 of those to launch. Ideas, or more accurately, problems, come straight from the customer as we have our own marketing group within NPD. They are in the field 80% of the time. Problems come from the clinician, posters at trade shows or scholarly papers. We do have a selection criteria to narrow from 100 to the 5.

Those 5 projects running at any given time are what we call franchise products, new to us and (mostly) new to the world blue-sky kind of stuff. With the 5 projects, we can launch a completely new thing every 1-2 years. I will say our sales department can put a hold on a launch if they choose. While it is rare, the sales force can have too much new stuff in the bag. If one of those items generates significantly more revenue, the others won’t get pulled out of the bag.

In addition to launching franchise products, we also fill in product lines. A “bariatric” size, or something. Those make it easier to sell as the customer only needs one stop to buy what they need instead of going to different vendors. We tend to have copycats (that gets around our IP, we are big on that) within 6-12 months of a franchise launch. We typically have 2-3 product line filler launches per year.

As for “design”, specifically look and feel, we are in the medical industry, not a necessity. Also, our products command a 70%-90% market share. Upper management did not make look and feel a priority as they didn’t need to. Our competitors don’t either.

But upper management is also not opposed to it and do see it as a competitive advantage. My hiring and the hiring of some “new” folks have changed the course. When the others on different projects see what we produce, they want to get in on the bandwagon. Slow to turnaround, but we are getting there.

iab: Sounds like a great opportunity!