Why Some Sales Strategies Succeed While Others Struggle


  • The sales strategy is the design to win deals. It shows how to win customers and drives the win plan for each sale opportunity
  • Research shows that sales strategies most often fail based on one or more of eight reasons. Resolving these obstacles will improve your strategy and win more deals.
  • Each strategic error can be systemically remedied with a proven framework or remediation method.
Johnny Grow Revenue Growth Consulting

Why Isn't my Sales Strategy Working?

A ten-year research study by Harvard Business School found that companies with clearly defined and well-articulated sales strategies on average outperformed competitors by 332% in sales, 304% in profits and 883% in total shareholder returns.

Those numbers are compelling and show the upside of a successful sales strategy. However, a plethora of other research shows that successful sales strategies are not the norm. To understand why they fail, and how those errors can be avoided, we investigated this topic in this year's Sales Excellence Report.

Here are the top 8 reasons sales strategies fail.

Sales Strategy Failure Reasons

The top 8 reasons sales strategies fail and the Best Practices so they don't.

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The strategy is not strategic

Sales managers often believe strategies fall short because sellers fail to use them correctly or at all. Research shows that's not entirely true. They most often fall short because they fail to include the essential elements of a sales strategy.

The challenge is magnified when the company's unique value proposition is not unique. Or the company's competitive advantages are not that competitive. Or the strategy is built on aspirational capabilities and not the company's core competencies. Or the company's differentiation is similarly cited by competitors. Or the company's touted benefits are just not that important to buyers. In short, the company is out of touch with what customers most want and how they stack up. The inevitable consequence is a commoditized sales experience.

That's why a strategy must stem from customer insights, and Voice of the Customer (VOC) programs and evolve by analyzing opportunity wins and losses. Customers are not homogenous so understanding what they most want and how they perceive the company is best done by persona or customer segment.


Strategy is confused with tactics

So what separates a strategy from a tactic? Strategy is customer facing. Tactics tend to be behind the scenes, such as internal processes or projects. Here's some tell tales.

If the selling effort shifts where you put your resources, it's more likely a strategy. If it shifts what resources do, it's more likely a tactic. Strategy is accomplished holistically. Tactics can often be accomplished standalone or piecemeal.

When tactics are confused as strategy, the strategy becomes watered down and performance will disappoint.


Failed roll out

The research shows that when a sales strategy fails, there is often a disconnect between those that created it and those that received it. The problem is exacerbated when selling strategies are created in an upper management vacuum and without input from sellers.

Reps do not fulfill selling strategies if they do not understand them or believe they will work. Getting participation in the early stages of development is the best way to mitigate these issues.

Reps will similarly ignore the strategy if they believe it is an annual administrative exercise and not a continuous process. Selling strategies kicked off at the beginning of the year, but fail to include frequent measurements, and implement course corrections as needed, are simply forgotten and not revisited.

Similarly, strategies that fail to hold sellers accountable have no vested owners. To succeed, the strategy must cascade to each individual seller with measurable and time-bound goals. Without clear accountability, the strategy is doomed at rollout.


The strategy is standalone

By itself the strategy is a design to win deals. To be effective, that design must be integrated with other selling methods, processes and tools. The strategy becomes actionable in the sales process and sale methodology.

In fact, the selling strategy, process and methodology build upon each other and are often referred to as the sales trifecta. The strategy transitions from design to execution when it morphs into the sale opportunity win plan.

Additional integration should occur in your Sales Playbook and CRM system.


Failed execution

Strategy is choosing; execution is doing. Unfortunately, execution is the Achilles heel of strategy because so many things can go wrong. Organizational restructures, leadership changes, and competing priorities are but a few unforeseen events that can stop a selling strategy in its tracks. As Mike Tyson said, "Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the mouth."

To keep momentum and achieve success, strategic execution must be institutionalized with supporting processes, regular coaching, review cadence, the right metrics and accountable resource performance measurements (with incentives). As the adage says, what gets measured gets done.


Failure to improve

96% of survey participants that did not achieve their revenue goals also advised that they do not have a working process of institutionalized sales learning. This high correlation is not a coincidence.

Only 16% of survey respondents measure, analyze and improve their selling strategies during the period and from period to period (usually year to year). While that figure was made up almost entirely of the Best-in-Class performers, it was one of the lowest overall points in the survey.

A lack of introspection conceals failures, makes it difficult or impossible to implement course corrections and leaves selling strategy progress impotent. A lack of learning followed with infrequent process improvement leaves the company less relevant to customers.


Resistance to change

Unless your selling strategy is introducing change, you're just doing more of the same. And you can't achieve transformation without incurring change. However, for many companies, embracing change is not the norm and is a difficult journey.

Transformation requires a culture with a willingness to 'let go to grow'. To let go of sacred cows, old habits, the status quo, business as usual and the fear of change. To stop defending the past and build for the future.

That can be a tall order so an organizational change management (OCM) program will help. A change management program systemically shifts an organization from a current state to a defined future state while mitigating productivity loss during the transition, creating an environment for sustained change and gaining the benefits of change more quickly.

Most failed strategies are accompanied by a group of reps that chose not to get on board. Sometimes they are bolstered by top producers that lead the resistance. A change management program is your best tool to ensure the team understands how they personally benefit and that resistance to change will not delay or derail objectives.


Misaligned strategy

A selling strategy cannot succeed solely from within the sales department. To get the best odds for success it must align with corporate, product and marketing strategies.

Failure to directly support the company's strategic plan will render the selling strategy irrelevant. Poor integration with marketing will negatively impact branding, messaging and lead generation. Now that buyers complete about two-thirds of their purchase journey before contacting sellers, it's near impossible for sales to be successful without tight marketing integration.

Failure to coordinate business processes across all business units will create process fragmentation, disparate data siloes and hamper technology automation.

The best selling strategies are architected and implemented holistically. They frequently align departments or functions with divisions or lines of business both horizontally and vertically. They also share performance measures that most contribute the company's overall success.