Sales teams can be as useful as TV remote controls even while helplessly taking a lot of unfair pressure. That can be one of the reassuring lessons for marketers from The Habit of Winning by Prakash Iyer (

“It was the summer of 1987. The battlefield: Andhra Pradesh. The war: Rin versus Nirma. At stake: Market share leadership in India's largest detergent bar market,” begins the narrative in a chapter titled, ‘Of sales teams and remote controls.'

The author recounts how Rin — a blockbuster brand of Lever, immortalised by some of the most memorable ad campaigns such as Bhala uski kameez meri kameez se safed kaise? (‘How is his shirt whiter than mine?') — was facing a silent revolution in the marketplace, from a low-priced, value-for-money yellow detergent bar. “Offering more (20 per cent extra) for less (almost 50 per cent off the price of the market leader), the Nirma bar was changing the rules of the game.”

Countermeasures go in vain

When, as a result, Rin sales plummeted and sales teams found themselves falling short of their monthly targets, what did the brand managers do? They unleashed attractive deep-discount trade schemes to load up the retailer, informs Iyer. “These schemes had worked well for several years but in the face of the Nirma onslaught, retailers didn't quite bite the extra discount. Sales continued to dip.”

Another countermeasure that the company came up with was to organise innovative, attractive sales force contests to reward the stars because in the past, legends had been created when salespeople beat their targets, to win not just a few grams of gold or a holiday trip but honour and glory, as the author reminisces. Alas, this tactic too did not work ‘against the Nirma juggernaut.'

Pitiably, however, the sales team came under a lot of internal pressure, one learns, what with execution being questioned and, experienced, star salespeople put on the mat! Also, as the book chronicles, distributors found themselves saddled with increasing inventory.

Rues Iyer that instead of rethinking the brand strategy or revisiting the marketing mix, and responding smartly to the changed competitive scenario, the spotlight stayed on the hapless sales system. “Seems the thinking in headquarters was somewhat like this: ‘The sales guys have just gotten lazy. Let's put some pressure, let's crack the whip, results will follow…'”

When the channel does not change

In the author's view, the typical response of blaming execution when things go wrong is no different from the way we handle the TV remote. For months, the remote does all that you order it to, be it switching channels, muting the telly, adjusting volume and so on; but one day, when the channel does not change, we tend to press the button harder, point it in the TV's direction, move closer to the screen, slam it, or hit it against the palm.

Rather than pressing the remote so much that it calls it quits, what we needed to do was change the battery, reasons Iyer. “It's like that with sales teams too. When targets are missed, the sales system comes under pressure. If you press harder, they will crack up. And leave.”

To managers, therefore, the author's advice is to pause for a while before pressing the buttons harder when the star sales team is missing targets regularly. Question your strategy, he counsels.

For, that is what Lever finally did. “They unleashed a new brand, Wheel detergent bar, at a lower price point, to take Nirma head-on. Both Rin and Wheel flourished. The Nirma juggernaut was halted. And the Lever folks lived happily ever after!”

Educative collection of anecdotes for the aspiring manager.