Building a BPO sales team in today’s market – a waste of time?


You know we'll deliver everything in those 80 slides…

One of the major gripes at the recent HfS 50 Executive Council summit was the issue sourcing executives have with their provider account managers – “they just don’t understand our business” was the common cry.

So who better to lament the woes of lost sales pursuits than HfS Research Fellow and industry agitator Deborah Kops…

Building a BPO sales team

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about how buyers whether the current parlor game of stealing sales guys from competitors really moves the revenue dial very far in light of the way clients buy business process outsourcing. Seems to me everyone is out there desperately looking for sales superstars. Do they exist? Is it worth the time and effort to find them, only to be disappointed at least half the time? Shouldn’t the industry be more focused on attracting the right solutions team, rather than assembling a sales team that’s hit or miss?

If you’re like me, you get at least a call a week from a search consultant desperate to find a crackerjack sales guy. This paragon should have a great rolodex, deep domain knowledge (retail and media seem to be awfully popular these days), a W-2 that confirms his track record, happy to travel 90% of the time, a global point of view (read:  can sell offshore delivery and be culturally sensitive to legacy ownership) and  willing to take a low base, say  $150,000 with “a lot of upside.” Nothing less will suffice. And if the search consultant is told to reach for the stars, the successful candidate should bring a decade or more of industry or white shoe consulting experience, have a book of business ready to sign, and be viewed as an industry thought leader.

Let’s get real; the industry has very few salespeople who come even close to this profile. And those who do are either very happy with, or so aligned (read: shackled by commission payouts) with their current employer that only frustration with management, or the enticement of a better brand in conjunction with the promise of megabucks will induce them to move.

Yet providers continue to play the get the sales guy game, creating a class of what one of my good search consultant friends terms ‘mercenaries,’ who have neither produced much tangible revenue (but talk a good game), nor have stayed in an organization long enough to make an indelible impact on the company’s fortunes. Failing to attract a superstar, or get their hands on a mercenary, providers seem to settle for candidates who need on-the-job training, or come from other business sectors, say ITO or software sales, hoping against hope that they’ll magically become business process super salesmen overnight.

Is the effort to build a sales team in light of the dearth available talent misguided? What do the buyers really think about being barraged by sales guys with the wrong skills? Have you ever met with a corporate sourcing leader who pulls out a pile of cards, representing almost every one of the outsourcing majors and minors, then grouses about the fact that he/she often  wastes x hours watching a sales guy wend his way through an 80 page deck that looks very much like all the others? I’ve heard the whinging, and had the pleasure myself; I’ve unfortunately seen some very good providers mentally struck off a buyer’s list because someone with an excess of confidence but no problem solving skills–and carrying a quota— is playing the sales funnel game, making 100 calls to possibly get one deal.

But does a program based upon canvassing activities really result in sales?  Let’s be honest—aren’t most sales based upon a potent platform combining brand, the right level of executive management attention,  so-called “chemistry” and the right solution? Even if the sales guy is good, if he doesn’t have this platform behind him, he most likely won’t win the business. Conversely, if the sales guy is inexperienced, won’t he be a deterrent to a sale even backed by the right brand and delivery capability?

This is not to say that buyers don’t want to spend time with an experienced sales person.  I don’t know a buyer who will say he’s wasting his time talking to someone who brings deep understanding of the client’s particular function or domain, and is expert at synthesizing what he knows to come up with a range of solutions. Sales in the BPO industry are not based on PowerPoints, golf, and fancy dinners, but real thought leadership and problem-solving skills.

I suspect provider executive management knows full well that only a few sales people are able to move the dial; in fact, I know they do. Over a few drinks, I’ve had more than a few senior leaders privately admit that building an effective BPO sales team is very much a hit-or-miss proposition, and that when it comes to closing the deal, it’s not the efforts of a few eager blokes; rather it comes down to factors such as brand, executive commitment, value for money, and track record that tip the opportunity into the closed column.

Is there an alternative to playing the build the sales team game? Certainly brand is critical to the sale, but like Rome it’s not built in a day, or even in a year, and can’t impact a quarterly reporting cycle or two.   So it begs the question: in an industry where the differentiator is purportedly a superior solution, be it more technology-enabled, insight-rich, client-centric, or cost-effective, why aren’t the phones ringing off the hook searching for superlative solutions guys–folks who can walk, talk, figure out ways to smite cost and promote efficiencies, and create enterprise value at a single bound? Why does the typical BPO org chart segregate sales and solutions when the solution is the sale? Wouldn’t providers be better served if they lusted after solutions guys that have the same polish, consultative and relationship skills as the sales guys?

The Bottom-line: Put the solutions expert at the front of the sales pursuit, not the sales guys

Deborah Kops, HfS Research Fellow

Deborah Kops, Research Fellow, HfS Research

Shouldn’t the solutions guys be put front and center, making the first call to the clients?  Why are they often  left toiling in the proverbial back room, doing the heavy lifting,  only to be put in front of the client when there’s the potential of a deal?  Why does the sales guy get the glory—and the commission—when it is the solution that sells?  Is there something wrong with this picture?

So the next time you award…or close…an outsourcing deal, think about who and what really got the deal done? Was it a “can’t go wrong brand?” Or the right level attention from the senior-most management? Was there a chemistry that radio’d “I can really work effectively with these guys”? Most likely, it was down to a solution that checked all the boxes? Chances are it was not the antics of an inexperienced sales guy.

Posted in : Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), IT Outsourcing / IT Services



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  1. A little over simplified, but it is true that a good solution helps wins deals. The Sales guys job is effectively testing the solution with the client throughout the sales process, refining and ensuring needs are met.

  2. Deborah,

    Great article. The main problem here is that most of the outsourcers have adopted a similar mentality to selling BPO that they did ITO. Lots of golf outings and boondoggles in Palm Springs with the CIO always did the trick, as there really wasn’t anything to differentiate suppliers when it comes down to developer rates and server prices. The decision processes in BPO on the client side often involve many more people and a much more detailed understanding of complex processes and the client’s business and politics. Consensus skills and real domain knowledge require – as you rightly point out – solution experts and other executives with real consultative expertise,


  3. Deborah,
    Fantastic article, Very thought provoking – not the least is the headlines SOL (Shouting Out Loud!!), read me read me. 🙂 I partially concur with your Bottom Line. We need to build sales teams by investing in talent, training and mentoring and incentivising the correct behaviour.
    “figure out ways to smite cost and promote efficiencies, and create enterprise value at a single bound” can only come when we move off the solutions (imagine the oft picturised glamorous door-to-door sales man who brings out a catalogue of solutions for the customer to choose from – don’t we hate to buy from such self conscious glorified slick talkers) and understand the customer’s requirements first before we even suggest a solution to them. Every customer’s situations is unique just like everyone else.
    “a chemistry that radio’d “I can really work effectively with these guys”?” can only happen when one has got the business issues, challenges and the subsequent proposition right. That comes from not only relationships built, capability and experience, brands supported (remember each one of us sales standing in front of customer is a brand in ourselves too), but also putting the story for their customers together the way they want it.
    And it may be over simplistic to say that remove the sales guy and put the solution guy in.
    How about creating and incentivising the whole organizations where we develop everyone to sell. It starts with moving off the solution, understanding the customer, build the value proposition, solution the requirements, and then seal it with brand commitment, executive relationships and Value for Money.

  4. Thanks Mike, Kieran and Bithin for commenting. you rightly point out that sales is a more complex process than what the industry makes it out to be. But the purpose of the article is to get our industry to think about that complexity–and start the debate as to how to better connect with potential buyers. Fundamentally, as Kieran points out, BPO is a different animal–it is more invasive into the business and requires a different sell. How should that sell be structured? i posit that the industry is talent poor when it comes to sales, and the current crop of young bucks are soime way from being effective for their firms.

  5. Deborah! Excellent article. This (“Sales guy who has no clue about solution”) is true across 80-90% industries, but very on-point in BPO. So, would it make more sense for BPO providers to nurture future sale stars from their delivery/solution side of the house?? Instead of spending gazillion dollars recruiting mercenaries, BPO firms would be wise to take a “strategy’ page of their own playbook and invest in HIPO from consulting/delivery arm, build a long term career path (read: tie them down with long term compensation plans), and equip them with sales skills. Food for thought…

  6. Walter, i wish the industry could follow your advice. But we’re a conservative bunch, and we don’t think out of the box as easily as we should. when the modus operandi is to hire someone who worked for a competitor–with a W-2 to show. And the consultative guys are dying off, leaving the industry to folks who are used to running factories, not consultative selling. So i fear we are not going to get much change in the short term.

  7. The rainmaker is a dying myth right out of Mad Men. Until that fallacy disappears sales reps will be persona non grata in large complex sales (BPO).

    Operational experts always make the best sales facilitators, as long as they are consultative. That means training.

    Sales reps can be consultative and operationally knowledgeable. That means salary (not commission) and greater job security.

    Both these sales approaches need senior exec commitment where it counts: time and money.

    Until then, it’s churn and burn and more of the same.

  8. i really agree with the same, as i did for my process i made a three level aproach to tackle the same and i am getting the best response possible, it depends upon the process manager or operations how they simplify the process and break it up so that it is easily digested by on and all ,

  9. What a ridiculous article. it started off well by talking about a problem of hiring good sales people and expecting them to perform miracles and then meandered into the realm of the ridiculous, with a pit stop at absurdity. Ms. Kops – a sale in this business is made by ensuring a number of moving parts spin in sync and a well oiled machine is presented to the client to buy. You can have the best sales personality or the best solution in the world; but by itself in isolation; they dont make a sale. All these moving parts and more not only have to come together for the solution; but for the sale. So net-net; dont start the new age version of “is the sales team more valuable than the manufacturing team” debate. Those days are over.

  10. thanks Ash, for your opinion. I don’t see that we have much divergence here; if you read the article again, you’ll see several points, namely, a good sales guy is like gold; there are not enough of the good ones in today’s market; and don’t expect the sales guy alone to make the sale–it’s a solution and branding sale as well.

  11. Deborah, your article as well intended and in some cases makes a good argument really misses the mark. The sales rep always take the heat. The reality is there are many moving parts to the sale and it takes a village to land big BPO deals. More BPO companies suffer from inadequate leadership, mediocre marketing, to your point missing the whole solution architect role and they commonly fumble around with weak value propositions and fight internally to protect margins rather that focusing on their operations and challenging them to innovate to build margin. There is plenty of blame to go around. Sourcing is putting out ‘me too’ RFP’s so structured that BPO companies have challenges differentiating themselves in the market place. They need to step up their game. How about sharing intimate details of their current environment, stop leading the solution and let BPO companies arrive with compelling solutions that move the needle. As a parting shot, I meet too many arm chair quarter backs who think they can sell better that the sale reps. Most often they can be found in consultants or in management. Thanks for firing me up this morning

  12. Glad to have gotten your energy levels up. I don’t think we disagree in the main. A good salesman is always consultative–see my post “Where have all the consultants gone?” in fact, the BPO industry was arguably founded by consultants–Andersen Consulting as it was, PW, Tasco (E&Y)….What i am referring to is the current crop of neophytes who have little client and solutions skills, and see the sale as a cover the earth exercise.

  13. Nice article. Like any service provider, one must have a clear message, defined channels of distribution, and skillful messengers.

    We have all of this at OpenPro Back Office Service Solutions, We are built on top of the leading open source based ERP application in the market. The rest of the market for outsourcing is without a foundation and most will disappear eventually when pricing becomes competitive.

    We seek sales people. If there are any sales distribution groups out there we would be happy to work with them.

  14. The Article is the Reality and simply perfect analysis of current situation. Only Solution enablement drives sales for any sector…

  15. I thought this article started off on point in terms of what Companies expect to hire. I’ve gotten calls from recruiters looking to hire someone with a 20 million dollar funnel and pay a low base with all the comp coming on the come. Also, I find it funny that BPO sales guys working for smaller BPO providers get no respect. They do not have the brand or budget behind them to sell and yet they have to compete but like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.
    Then the article starts to diverge. The sales guy in BPO is like the quarterback. He gets all the blame and probably too much credit. It takes everyone blocking and tackling to win the game. I also thought this article showed little respect or understanding for the sales process. I have been a Product Manager, a SME, and a sales guy. The sales guy can do everything right and still lose, it is not easy and unless you have walked in the sales guys shoes and carried the number on your head, you don’t know what it is like.

  16. Deb

    Its like a car salesman. He knows the functionality and the clear points of differentiation. However ask him about the difference between a disc and a drum and he will go all mum. Having said that the solution guy is not a sales chap. He cannot and does not have the skill set to open doors, does not have the gift of the gab and therefore cannot be the one to carry on the sale. A lot of people have talked about the sale being made up of many parts and i completely agree. The solution guy is not bothered by cost, the cash flows and the accounting procedures. The sales guy on the other hand is very clear on what comes in, what is the margin, the working capital etc which is a must to many of the processing units

    I have seen solutions guy pitch to customers on the beauty of their solution, but can never understand the cost of the deal. A lot of the deals do go on for a long period of time. Its blow hot, blow cold for the BPO industry and the sales guy has the patience to push forward and leave his foot of the pedal. The solution guy thinks of how to keep the car at 80mph

    Its a combination of these guys that is needed for a sale. One still needs to invest in both these guys, but if you find a salesy solution guy or a solution architect based sales guy then you are lucky

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