Sales transformation: one manager’s success against all odds

Tuesday, May 10 2016

You can’t help but admire SAP sales manager Paul Devlin’s guts. Out in Dubai facing the most desperate challenge of his career, against all odds and with his team complaining that the job was impossible, the genial Glaswegian pulled off one of the most stellar examples of sales transformation of recent times.

What’s more, he did it on his own initiative, not on company orders. His methods were developed from his own research, not from a manual. And to prove it was not a fluke, he has repeated his phenomenal success twice since, in different market environments.


Paul Devlin

“It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the people who worked with me and put their heart and soul into making it happen. I was just the guy that conducted the orchestra,” he insisted at today’s APS seminar on Sales Transformation – a remark that should be taken with some salt.

The challenge Devlin faced was to sell a new analytics product, at a non-negotiable price point, into a market whose life blood was haggling and where the rival product had near 100% saturation. Arab clients, anxious not to lose face by admitting ignorance, were unmoved and for four months, sales were zero. “It was torture,” he admits.

To this situation, Glasgow Celtic fan Devlin brought a desire to help his staff, a passionate belief in the power of coaching, and the fruits of his own MSc research on leading sales transformation – which suggested that sales people completely distrusted their managers, and had never been coached.

His first move was to ask each of his team to record some basic data. How many face to face meetings in a week? Who with? How many of their accounts did they visit?

If they protested, he pointed out that if Lionel Messi didn’t mind playing with monitors in his boots so that his coaches could analyse his performance, then they could fill in a few spreadsheet cells.

He discovered that each was averaging a measly three meetings, entirely at chief information officer (CIO) level, rather than with financial or business leaders. Only around eight of their 30 accounts – the ones deemed low-hanging fruit – were getting regular visits.

Devlin did not turn this data over to his bosses, which he says would have destroyed any chance of winning trust. Instead, he used it to coach each sales person one-to-one. He got them to explain their data. He asked them how they could improve, and how he could help.

His golden rules were never to tell anyone what to do, never to compare them with a colleague, and never to discuss corporate statistics like pipeline or revenue in coaching, only their own data.

Suspicion usually waned and trust started to build by the third session, says Devlin. Soon, sales people were diagnosing their own problems. As the virtuous cycle took hold, morale built, sales started to flow, and previously hard-nosed, “coin-operated” staff began to enjoy their jobs rather than plotting to leave.

Within six months, the doubters who opted out at the start begged Devlin to be coached.

After 18 months, when sales had hit $42m and word was out, Devlin was having to turn away high-achievers from other departments who wanted him to mentor them, and fending off pleas to extend coaching to his staff’s personal lives.

“Each of you can start the transformation today, but it has to come from you,” Devlin told today’s audience of sales leaders.

“When trust increases, and they understand you are there to get them over the line, it fundamentally changes they way they operate.”

Further information: Paul Devlin, SAP Ariba general manager EMEA/MEE,, @devlinp.

The Association of Professional Sales is the leading community for sales professionals. We are building standards, diversity and education. Click here to join us.