Marginal Gains revisited: refocusing towards Critical Gains in sales process improvement
August 9, 2021
Andy Cook

However history judges the legacy of David Brailsford’s leadership of cycling’s Team Sky (now Ineos Grenadiers), it is certainly the case that Brailsford’s philosophy of “marginal gains” was discussed widely in business leadership circles over the past decade.

The proliferation and uptake of the marginal gains concept owes much to its simplicity and transferability. Brailsford argued that, by identifying and improving every factor that contributed to performance in the activity of riding a bicycle, breakthrough improvements could be achieved. Even a 1% improvement, if sustained and built upon, was worthwhile. Team Sky’s achievements in the early 2010s were certainly remarkable. And if this approach worked for cycling, why could it not be applied to business processes?

Better Faster Growth has worked on sales processes with clients for whom the marginal gains approach has resonated. And, in principle, there is much we would support in this approach:

  • ensuring the scope of an improvement initiative considers the end-to-end process
  • long-listing all types of potential improvement, both incremental and transformational, and
  • making small and iterative changes where these can be put in place rapidly.

But we have always taken the view that there are limits to the effectiveness and applicability of the marginal gains approach to sales process improvement. Team Sky’s achievements were only realised with very substantial investment, well beyond the scale of funding received by other cycling teams at the time, and required several years to come to fruition. It is also arguable that a company’s sales activities can be more dynamic, complex and multifaceted than the highly-focused, win-or-lose nature of performance cycling.

In reality, sales teams will often identify more improvement opportunities than they have attention or capacity to pursue, and improvement initiatives on tight budgets typically need to demonstrate quick wins as well as long-term gains. And, of course, making 1% improvements is folly if they are made to things that do not contribute to sales objectives.

Rather than taking a “marginal gains” approach, we recommend focusing on “critical gains”, the areas of the process which, if improved, impact improvement most. Our experience is that these critical gains can be found by asking the right questions of each step in the sales process:

Finding the right prospects

Do you regularly review the prospect landscape and score leads (e.g. by sector, size, potential etc.) to ensure scarce hunting resources are appropriately focused?

Winning the customer

Do you measure key leading indicators (meetings and calls, opportunities, conversion rates etc.) regularly and constantly take steps to improve across the sales force?

Setting up/on-boarding

Are customers brought on board as quickly as possible with other key departments involved well in advance of on-boarding?

Growing the customer

Do you understand the full potential of each customer, especially where they may also source from competitors? Do you fully understand their own growth drivers?

Retaining the customer

Do you measure retention rates? Do you engage with other internal departments so that account managers are never ‘caught out’ unexpectedly by a dissatisfied customer?

Winning back lost customers

Do you have a process in place for winning back lost customers (some of your warmest leads) and engage them frequently?

To identify critical gains, the place to start is end-to-end performance measurement. Many sales leaders know exactly where things stand with sales and customers but not all can speak fluently about profitability. And leading indicators are sometimes ignored until the sales fail to materialise – and that is often too late.

The appeal of the marginal gains philosophy is clear but it has always been rather a blunt instrument. Surely it is better to pursue sales improvement with the cunning of the fox rather than the relentlessness and stubbornness of a donkey?

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