Are Your Salespeople Order Takers or Problem Solvers?

We recently had a series of conversations with sales training leaders in the learning and talent management space about their perceived lack of support for strategic initiatives within their organizations.

These sales training leaders were frustrated because they wanted to have more direct involvement in strategic initiatives, launch more proactive programs, and acquire more funding for what they felt mattered most. Unfortunately, others (ahem, sales leaders) handcuffed them from a "seat at the table."

So, naturally, the sales training leaders believed they weren't involved enough to move the needle on performance. While training leaders have a lot of value to offer, and most believe their executive team believes in them, for some reason, they aren’t allowed to make long-lasting impacts. In essence, they were treated like a tactical line function instead of a strategic enabler to the business.

To these training leaders, the challenge moved beyond getting a seat at the table to the very heart of their role in leading their teams and down to a single thought-provoking question:

“How do we stop fielding such reactive requests and increase the perceived value contribution of our function to our executive team?”

This issue is a big challenge for sales training leaders because perceptions often drive expectations, and expectations often drive the scope of their role. For example, if buyers perceive salespeople as an order taker, those buyers will expect them to take orders, and further, they will also believe they should have the staff and funding to crank out the same orders as last year -- faster.

While sales leaders might indeed be saying, “We know what we need!” and then placing an order with the sales training function (Ding! Ding!). The question is -- what’s the opposite of this order entry perception by sales and more importantly, what does it look like to not be an order taker?

Well, for starters, instead of sales leaders placing an order with the sales training team, sales managers would set up a meeting to engage those leaders with a key question. Something like:

“Given the problem we are experiencing, what do you think we should do?”

And that’s the opposite of being perceived as an order taker. Quick mirror moment for sales training leaders: how many times have they asked the sales training function, “what do you think?” in the last 12 months? If the answer is “zero,” then that training team has a perception problem that they need to address.

While shifting the perspective of sales leadership is essential, what’s more important is an awareness and a mindset that problems are complex and becoming increasingly difficult to solve. For example, how can one single department (like marketing or customer service, or operations) REALLY solve the business problem of driving organic growth set forth by CEOs -- all by themselves? Or, how can a single executive mandate the solution to a problem with the supply chain team? Or, how can the launch of that new product be accomplished in a few meetings around a conference room table?

All this (and in far too many cases) nobody is asking what the Sales Management and Leadership team needs to be successful. This situation creates an order-taking mentality by Sales Managers who would rather not "deal with their internal people."

  • What sales leaders often lack is clarity of the root-cause problems they need to solve in the first place. Due to the fast-moving and tactical nature of selling, sales managers tend to focus on symptoms and not root causes because they are execution-minded and action-oriented and living in the "what have you done for me lately world of their customers.

  • On the other side of the equation, sales training leaders don’t have the business acumen and haven't developed the approaches they need to help executives tackle root cause problems. They tend to think in terms of deliverables, not working to address the problem over time.

So between the two groups, it’s difficult for each group to put the finger on the exact problem that they need to solve, and there aren’t many techniques or approaches to help them work together to develop people-centric approaches to tackling root cause problems. Put another way, successfully tackling business problems is a journey, not a training course.

Figure 1: Differing perspectives leads to impasse

In today’s business environment, there are many business problems to address. For example, CEOs want to improve financial performance, increase effectiveness, scale new ways of working across the organization, or improve efficiency in their core operations. When looking to engage others in tackling these problems, both sales leaders and training leaders often struggle with defining a course of action.

From a training perspective, it’s easy to go into “order taking” mode with such daunting business problems.

Below is a table that shows the difference in perspective to help sales leaders and sales training teams assess if they're currently participating in an order taking or a problem-solving relationship. These philosophies are essential to understand because they will directly impact how the sales training team interacts, engages, or sets expectations with a line of business leaders and executives.

Figure 2: The difference between order taking and problem-solving

To be successful, both sales training leaders and sales leaders need to embrace, study, and understand the reality that exists fully. And quite frankly, sometimes sales leaders don’t have clear ways of explaining the challenges they are having (they can explain what it "looks like" but not the root cause).

At the same time, sales training leaders need to provide more support in navigating business challenges (they can understand sales terminology but not the levers to pull from a people perspective). Both parties (Training Leaders and Sales Leaders), have to work together to come to a shared philosophy and perspective about the problems they're working together to solve.

What is that reality?

  • Both parties don’t know the answer or what’s needed down the road– Why?: Well, If this is a complex problem – then both groups need to agree that they need to try to figure out. If they had all the answers they needed, then they would have solved the problem already. Both groups need to help by "working together to solve it" rather than jumping to an answer.

  • Both parties probably don’t need a fully detailed project plan – Why? Both groups don’t likely know all the details of what needs to happen next week. With that said, someone probably does need to show high-level timelines and show milestones so the team can stay on track. But how do you project manage something you can't "solution?"

  • Both parties need to engage consistently throughout the relationship – Why? Solving a complex problem requires much detail. Both parties can’t start fully engaging in that detail and then switch to a “keep each other updated” engagement level if they want to work together to solve the problem.

  • Both parties need a partner (in each other) who can think things through with us, and execute tactically – Why? With complex problems, both parties need to buy into the vision and then work together to execute. They likely have high expectations of what each other needs to deliver to be successful in solving the problem.

  • Both parties need to be comfortable to iterate as they go, to emerge to the solution they are creating– Why? With complex problems, each group is buying into their ability to help figure it out. Each group needs to collaborate and suggest ways to move forward without over-burdening each other

  • Both parties need each other to be creative.– Why? The whole team needs to understand the type of work they expect to put out in the course of figuring out the problem. For example, if they can’t meet that expectation of quality, then they should talk about it. They also need to work together to make sure they aren’t settling for the lowest common denominator.

About Growth Matters

Growth Matters is an international business founded in 2011. This consulting and services organization focusses on the development and practice of sales management and sales enablement. Our team of world-renowned experts spans the globe enabling businesses to improve sales conversations through services and solutions aligned to sales strategy. Charlotte, NC (USA) is the headquarter of our Americas operation. With dedicated offices in South Africa (EMEA), and Sydney (APAC), we regularly facilitate senior-level workshops in 17+ cities and countries. For more information on equipping sales managers, and aligning to sales leadership, contact the Growth Matters team at

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