The committed innovator: An interview with Salesforce’s Simon Mulcahy

Here is an excerpt from an interview of Simon Mulcahy by Eric Roth for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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The cloud software provider’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer discusses how Salesforce’s innovation process creates distinctive buying experiences.
This episode of the Inside the Strategy Room podcast, with Simon Mulcahy, is part of the Committed Innovator series, which includes interviews with leading innovators around the world. Past interviews include Beth Comstock, former GE vice chair, Kevin O’Leary, investor and entrepreneur, and Nigel Hughes, head of R&D and innovation at Kellogg Company.Mulcahy spoke with McKinsey senior partner Erik Roth, who leads the Firm’s innovation work globally. This is an edited transcript of the discussion. You can listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.Erik Roth: One of the questions that executives ask frequently given the pandemic is, what does the sales force of the future really look like? We’re all in our homes “Zoom-ing” all around the world digitally and sales are happening, but mostly virtually.Simon Mulcahy: In the world of B2B, COVID-19 has really impacted travel, so now every engagement is digital. It’s kind of all inside sales, frankly. You can make a fairly strong argument that field sales is dead. A big part of it is that now you can bring the “A-team” to every call, whereas before you couldn’t because they were all traveling and their time was limited.Roth: So in a world where you can have the best sales call every single time, how are companies thinking about innovating their sales force?

Mulcahy: It’s almost like everybody’s now in sales, and we all need to do better at it, which, in a digital world, means you need better technology at everybody’s fingertips. Salespeople need to be much better at orchestrating the full power of the organization to where it needs to be—better questioning skills, listening skills, even just that first interaction needs to be fundamentally better. You need to get the basics right, and it needs to be a live account plan across the company, but ultimately, you still need that steward who’s going to orchestrate the full power of the company toward that account.

Every organization is going to leverage digital, so that alone is not enough. You need information faster; you need to be able to service your customers in a way that you’ve never been able to.

Roth: If I’m a CEO and I’m realizing that the things I thought were important in sales—being there in person—are no longer happening because my sales teams are basically all digital, how should I think about reconceptualizing or innovating my sales teams to think about what the future should look like?

Mulcahy: It’s not like the future suddenly appeared in our laps as a result of COVID-19. I think a lot of organizations were already proving out best practices that are significantly more digital already. The most effective sales organizations that are doing incredibly well now see their salespeople not as people who do the selling, but rather one important high-touch orchestrator of the full power of the company toward the customer. The salesperson is kind of like the quarterback in that sense. And they need to be augmented like never before, with the full support of the marketing organization, the service organization, and the product organization; and they need to be able to effectively invoke the best efforts from those organizations to support their customers’ needs as they go through the sales cycle.

Roth: Can companies reinvent themselves from the sales force back?

Mulcahy: Absolutely. It starts first with just making sure that every person in the company, not just the salesperson, has the right tools. Can everybody see a single view of the customer? And then, how do you enable the salesperson to be able to wave a flag saying, “Hey, I need help over here now,” that results immediately in the right people flowing toward them? And then over and above that, there’s a lot of culture and collaboration that you need to instill in your whole organization. Salespeople themselves are developing new skills on that front.

Roth: What does the new salesperson look like? I can imagine, given all the collaboration with digital tools you’re describing, that the ability to synthesize information and activate it could be a really, really important skill set that may not be resident in every salesperson today.

Mulcahy: That is such a great point. The killer salesperson of today and certainly tomorrow asks really powerful questions, and is a really great listener, first and foremost. And then after that, they’re a great storyteller. The reason for this is that what’s being sold is also changing. If you go back even before COVID-19, there was a trend of industries getting closer and closer to the customer. For example, banking has been moving toward AI-enhanced automated financial coaches, and healthcare has been moving toward helping you solve your long-term health issues, and car companies have been moving toward mobility services. This is not just selling widgets anymore.

Roth: So it’s almost like the augmented salesperson is the salesperson with these new skills that we have to really look for?

Mulcahy: Yes, absolutely. If you’re just thinking about it as a salesperson, you’re missing half the picture. The point is, how does your whole organization create amazing buying experiences? In the past, you’d look at the world through the lens of, “I’ve got this great product.” Now, I need to create an amazing distribution engine to sell it. Today we need to flip the binoculars around and ask, “How do I create amazing buying experiences?” You need amazing salespeople to do that, and then they need to be augmented. But you also need to be able to channel the full power of your whole organization to those selling moments as well.

Roth: Often when we’re doing innovation work, the innovation processes are really at the front end of the funnel—ideate, select the concept, test and learn, develop it, then throw it over the over the fence to marketing. But given what you just said, how do we flip that model on its head so that the customer shapes the innovation process, the value propositions, and the buying experiences?

Mulcahy: One of the challenges is that people think that innovation is limited to product development. It actually starts much earlier, almost going right upstream to the customer’s need. Do you understand who the customer is? Have you segmented the customer to really understand who they are, what their needs are, and how you as a company can solve them with your products? But also, have you created a buying experience that makes it as easy as possible for them to get their job done? That might include your products, but it might also include your services and even the relationships that you have with other ecosystem players. So then you start to redesign everything from that point of view. Your product is just one part of the whole system that you’re innovating.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Simon Mulcahy is executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Erik Roth is a senior partner based in McKinsey’s Stamford, Connecticut, office.


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