Sales Operations and the Beginner's Mind

Sep 19, 2018

Now hold on, before you skim past this and comment that I missed the Zen rush of the 80s and 90s by a couple decades just take a moment to hear me out. This is a simplified precept of adhering to the concept of the beginner’s mind, and why it is an important piece in our ever evolving and rapidly changing world. This includes business and economics, and in this post I will discuss its benefits in the area of sales operations.

Sales operations in itself is a bit of an enigma to most who are not mired deep within it. Whenever someone asks me the “so what do you do” question in a get-to-know-you session, I have to pause and think about what this person might know about my industry or profession. More than likely, if this person hasn’t been in sales or marketing in the last 5 years they will have zero to little understanding of what I am about to respond with. Heck, you can ask 5 professionals within this space today and they’ll give you varying details of their daily scope. Let’s start with a simple statement that most can get right off the bat of “I help define, automate and analyze sales related processes to ensure we’re meeting growth goals of the business.” This more often than not elicits a response of a brief nod and question-statement of “so you’re in sales…?” Hmm… let’s try that again. This is where the beginner’s mind starts to come into play.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The beginner’s mind is a phrase used in Zen Buddhism. About a year ago I started to read “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, a popular Zen teacher who helped start the wave of Zen teachings in the United States. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew that I wanted to learn about Zen. I am a child of the ’90s era Chicago Bulls, and I figured that Phil Jackson couldn’t be the only Zen Master I could learn from. I was able to connect with the teachings and philosophies within the book from the very beginning. At that time, I was starting a familiar role, but with a new company in an industry I was not an expert in that was founded in a country on the other side of the world, so the simple phrase of “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” resonated within me during my morning commute. It has stuck with me thereafter. It continues to be a part of my daily practice as I am in a similar situation to what I found myself a year ago, unemployed due to relocation and looking to join an interesting organization with admirable goals. Yet in my discussions with companies, many seem to miss this aspect and expect a complete, foolproof plan from an experienced professional such as myself.

I try to adhere to the beginner’s mind in many experiences. To be stifled in routine and closed off to anything new even during the familiar begets you a journey that leads you to the same place, in both the physical and mental state. This is fine for many as you can zone out, get your time to relax, unwind, decouple from the world for a bit and let the routine take hold. But in business, and the arena of sales (and marketing), just repeating what you think is cached in history doesn’t mean you’re doing the right things and positioning yourself for success. In today’s world of sales in particular you are missing out on the one thing that makes you most successful: your customer. Your potential customer is always changing because the world they also happen to inhabit is in a state of flux the likes of which humanity has never encountered. Yet in the face of all of this change, in rapid deployment of software enhancements, of instant news updates, notifications bombarding your phone and laptop from a variety of communication apps all while you’re watching the quarter slip by and come to an end (we’re at the end of Q3 people!), companies still expect a particular formula when it comes to operationalizing sales process, systems, and forecasting. Here’s why they’re (mostly) wrong.

The types of companies that are interested in me, and who in turn I am interested in, are ones who have a need due to their recent growth. They have been doing well, their product has proven itself in an industry or they have carved a nice niche for themselves. It is at this point of growth where sustainability and repetition of process becomes their focus. How can we repeat this success? We need to do things the exact same way yet make them better at the same time and change the world while we’re at it. Well that doesn’t quite work.

The best way to control a process is to observe, and let the process act itself out. Show me what you are doing, for that is the only way I will begin to understand how you are doing it. In many conversations I am asked to lay out a process of what I will do in 30 days, or 90 days, or 120 days once I am on board. I say, without much effect, that I will observe and I will learn and I will react with appropriate action. But wait, they say, you’re the expert, there has to be some standard process involved, some success you’ll carry forward. Yes, I reply, the expertise comes with observation and understanding of who you are, who your people are, and how you do business. The success is already there, otherwise there would be no room to hire a new person such as myself, or bring on new technology to place upon your stack, or require best practices in data collection and analysis for forecasting. You are already there. What is needed is a beginner’s mind to capture that magic once again and apply it forward every day.

The beginner’s mind in this sense is to take an expert level issue or problem, and to tackle it with the newness of a beginner. Think about when you were a novice at something that you are now proficient in. Do you remember the eagerness you showed? What about the feeling of accomplishment and clarity when an abstract topic started to become defined? The moment you are a beginner is the moment when your eyes and mind are open to all suggestions, all paths to success. At this beginner state you pause no thoughts, but you follow them through to the point where something blocks your path. Once you are at that blockade you begin to think of ways around it, or through it. The experience is new even as the concepts to put it together are an expansion of what you already are. The same is true with sales operations. Think about a QBR. Its intent is to review what has transpired in the quarter before you, to review with your leaders and peers your successes and opportunities, and to collaborate with one another to understand a potential way for success. 60% of sales people do not make their quota, so the opportunities are in great supply. If these people continue on with their expert minds and continue to do what they think is the right thing on their own, never wavering, never accepting a new perspective, then they will fail. What was once a successful trek does not mean the exact steps will carry you to the same destination. There are factors involved that every sale must get to in order to be successful, but the path is not always the same.

So how are we as sales operations professionals to sell ourselves if this is the case? If I am saying that the path is never the same, does that not fly in the face of a sales process or need for data cleanliness? No. A process is in place that must be adhered to as a guide. The Zen master must still practice meditation, must still sit in a particular posture. It is once that master’s thoughts have slipped and have become distracted that they use their meditation and pose to bring them back to a center. Such is the way of a sales process. Distractions happen. Budgets change, your buying authority leaves, a project takes a backseat and your services are no longer needed this quarter. A competitor might show up on their radar. These things happen. What must happen afterward is the act of approaching it with a beginner’s mind once more. Take note of what has happened, accept it, and focus again on the process. To approach a failed opportunity with the same process as before will bring you to frustration as you attempt to untangle yourself from the past. With time, these practices become second nature, just like the sales process we work to implement, and which we train on changes as we learn more of our successes and opportunities.

I often have to remind the teams I support that I am not there to make their lives miserable, but I require certain pieces in place in order to learn what is happening to best serve our interests. I count on the team to be experts in their craft. With being an expert comes the aspect of constant learning. In today’s sales cycles, you must be empathetic and understand the perspective of the buyer not only in what you’re selling being able to solve their problem, but also assist them in curating a process to complete the deal. This forces you to be in the beginner’s mind, as it forces me to as well. Should I stay in the expert’s mind, I stop the sales team’s thoughts on what is working and not working. The same goes for the sales team and their potential customer, as well as the customer in understanding what the pros and cons are to the particular product we are selling. The moment we lose our ability to stay in the beginner’s mind when something new arises is the moment that our expertise is hindered. Let’s grow together. Once we understand we know nothing is the moment where we can learn everything.