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Agile and Sales: Reflections on My First Scrum Sales Team

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Agile and Sales: Reflections on My First Scrum Sales Team

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Originally authored by Erik Kristfelt

After working as a sales manager at two different Agile organizations I am often asked if sales can be Agile, and if so, how is it implemented?

At my previous company, several departments chose to align with the development team’s 2-week sprints/builds.  The marketing department started using a Kanban/Scrum approach, and it made sense as the marketing goals naturally aligned with the builds and releases.  But would a Kanban/Scrum approach make sense for the Sales team? And if it makes sense, where should we start?

Step 1: Training:  It is important for the teams to be trained on Agile/Scrum so that they understand the methodology and the goals.  It can help everyone if the sales team begins to gain a better understanding of the development cycle.  One challenge we faced was determining how to set-up our teams. Typically, sales professionals are viewed as individual contributors and not part of a team.  We found that management had more challenges moving to a team approach than the sales professionals.  Successful sales people are accustomed to working within a team given today’s complex sales models — which mean working with everyone from sales engineers to consultants to management and even Legal teams.  Most individual contributors realize that this is the reality of today’s business.

Step 2: Stand up:  Stand ups allow teams to adapt and react quickly to how the process is working for customers and external teams.  Stand ups are a natural for sales teams; most sales people are impatient and like short meetings that are to the point, and that can help them resolve problems and focus on accomplishments.  At my former company, if a particular impediment was outside the scope of the sales team, we might invite members from other teams to attend the next stand up. Our sales people hated being required to listen to others dig into their own issues, so moving longer discussions to “post meeting” status was popular among our sales people.

Step 3: Sprints and Retrospectives:  For sales, the sprint cycle may be much longer than recommended for a typical development team, but it’s important for sales managers to follow the sprint structure. Sales teams often work on monthly goals, so that’s how we set up our sprints–much longer than a development sprint– but a period of time that made sense for our goals. We could determine what we accomplished the previous month, review impediments that were not resolved, and determine our goals for the upcoming month/quarter.  These types of reviews are very natural for sales teams; although a step that many skip in the busy day-to-day pursuit of closing deals.

Step 4: Re-interpreting Product Backlog:  Our team implemented an EPIC board (Customers) and Tasks were set up as “backlog items” with a “pending”, “in-progress”, or “completed” status. Suddenly, the entire sales and sales management team had a clear visual for the enormity of tasks during the iteration.  Velocity (or, in this case, expected sales per iteration) was available for inspection and adaption.  This approach allowed the sales team to focus on their workload, and it helped minimize distractions from management. Even the engineering teams would walk by the boards and understand what was going on with accounts and opportunities.

Challenges to Agile Sales Models:

Switching to Agile wasn’t easy on the management team. How would they hold individual sales people responsible?  How would they compensate each sales rep?  What if someone on the team wasn’t making enough calls? Many executives thought the stand up meetings would be too short to accomplish all of their weekly goals.

The company I worked for set up a true sales scrum team with monthly iterations.  The teams hit the goals set up by management, and for 6 months we iterated and worked as a Scrum Sales Team. From a sales attainment perspective, it was the most successful the team had ever been.

For reasons I still fail to understand, the company restructured itself, and the Scrum Sales Teams were eliminated, but not before we realized the power of Agile within sales.  It was the first time that entire teams reached quotas assigned to the company, as opposed to just individual sales contributors.  Onboarding and ramping up new reps happened more quickly; most likely due to interfacing with successful senior reps.

Lessons Learned:

By following the steps in Scrum, management learned that sales can lend itself easily to an Agile environment.  Individuals found that this shared work model led to more consistent revenue and compensation in addition to a more even workload.  No longer did the “sales stars” work much harder than everyone else.  Each team member focused on his/her own domain expertise.

While we found it difficult to find “Renaissance sales people”, we were able to create the perfect sales person by matching skills, or by filling voids by marrying strengths and weaknesses of individuals within every given team.

Scrum also allowed a better quality of life:  Sales teams had time to enjoy vacation or family time because the team could step in to support customers while any single member was away.  Our teams were self-managing, and the sales manager acted like a Product Owner as opposed to a Scrum Master.

Let me know your thoughts and experiences implementing an Agile sales model.


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