Brute Force Sales

I used to believe that any sales problem can usually be solved – if not best solved – by brute force sales strategies. Programmers call brute force algorithm a very general problem-solving technique that consists of systematically enumerating all possible candidates for the solution and checking whether each candidate satisfies the problem’s statement.

A brute-force algorithm to find the divisors of a natural number n would enumerate all integers from 1 to the square root of n, and check whether each of them divides n without remainder. A brute-force approach for the eight queens puzzle would examine all possible arrangements of 8 pieces on the 64-square chessboard, and, for each arrangement, check whether each (queen) piece can attack any other.

While a brute-force search is simple to implement, and will always find a solution if it exists, its cost is proportional to the number of candidate solutions – which in many practical problems tends to grow very quickly as the size of the problem increases. Therefore, brute-force search is typically used when the problem size is limited, or when there are problem-specific heuristics that can be used to reduce the set of candidate solutions to a manageable size. The method is also used when the simplicity of implementation is more important than speed.

In real life sales, brute force is usually used not when the simplicity of implementation matters more than speed or when the problem is constrained to few variables, but rather when urgency or lack of resources occur. Do you have too many boxes of product ACME in the warehouse? Brute force sales through discounting will do the trick. Did you run out of marketing budget for product X? Brute force sales with your oldest, best sales rep will do the trick? Is this market down in sales and you need a quick pick me up? Brute force sales with your sales manager and watch the numbers grow!

Or not…

I am beginning to see that brute force sales are – just as in programming – a limited tool for your sales strategy. It works in a limited set of occasions when short-term results will help alleviate short-term problems. But it will never help streamline structural problems of your overall sales or company strategy.

I have seen it many times. Companies believe they can push for ever higher sales targets pushing promotions, discounting, or just sending their best sales reps to lunch with accounts and execute sales through sheer courage. It works the first or second time, but managers begin to puzzle after the third time why the diminishing returns. The surprise is that managers keep insisting on brute force sales despite its ineffectiveness long-term.

Do not get me wrong, I know that salespeople need to continuously push for sales. I do it all the time, and I use brute force sales now and then. The case is I know how and when to use it in an effective way. The brute sales force will not solve a major category or product problem. If your product became obsolete brute sales force will not help. No matter how hard you push, you will never be able to sell 3 ½ inch diskettes. No matter how hard you try, some brands lose their positioning and appeal and the target consumer moves on to another. Then it becomes a marketing problem, an innovation problem, an advertising problem, but not one that can be solved thru brute force. It’s not about attacking the symptoms, but rather truly overcoming the illness.

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