The gap between top sales performers and the rest is often at its widest in the most complex B2B sales environments – research by the authors of the “Challenger Sale” suggested that there can be as much as a 3-fold difference in performance between the 10% or so of top sales performance and the average. The gap from top to bottom hardly bears thinking about.
Many CEOs and sales leaders recognise the problem. The gap is partly explained by attitude and aptitude – qualities that are hard to train into people that do not possess them in the first place. But a significant part of the gap can be explained by learned behaviours that every competent sales person could take advantage of.
There are many ways of tackling this problem, but seeking to recruit a sales team exclusively comprised of superstars tends not to be a winning strategy, for a whole bunch of reasons. As one very experienced sales leader remarked “Eagles Don’t Flock”. That’s without taking into account the ability of pigeon sales people to present themselves at interview as top-of-the-food-chain raptors.
The more realistic approach suggests that we should instead seek to systematically elevate the performance of already competent and capable sales people by surrounding them with a structure that makes the best use of their talents. In this article, I’d like to offer 3 strategies for achieving exactly that.
1: Targeting the Right Opportunities
If you had to start anywhere in a sales performance improvement programme, this would probably the place. The average sales person is capable of wasting enormous amounts of energy chasing opportunities they have no realistic chance of winning – either because the prospect never saw the issue as being important enough to drive action, because the organisation was never actually likely to ever buy from them, or because their contact was never likely to have the authority to act.
If there’s one thing that sets top sales performers apart from the rest, it’s their ability to accurately qualify opportunities early, and to focus all their attention on the current deals they have a realistic chance of closing and on the issues, organisations and stakeholders that represent their best chances of building tomorrow’s pipeline.
Targeting the right opportunities starts with targeting the right issues: prospects will always have far more issues than they can possibly afford to deal with in the near term.
It’s important that we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs at play here: Interesting issues may well cause the prospect to engage with you – but may not go any further.
Important issues are likely to be evaluated with some seriousness – but may still result in a decision to stick with the status quo. It’s only the truly compelling, high-priority issues that are guaranteed to cause the prospect to take action. Of course, not all issues start as compelling, and some interesting and important issues are capable of being elevated to “must do” status.
Top sales performers have too much respect for their own time to waste it on opportunities that are going nowhere. They have the ability to discriminate between winnable deals and the rest at an early stage, and they have the confidence to qualify out early. We need to encapsulate the process by which they come to these conclusions in a form that every sales person can use.
These factors are typically much more refined than simplistic size, sector and location considerations – embracing surprisingly observable structural, behavioural and situation characteristics. We need to capture these in checklists that every sales person feels confident in using. A client that adopted this approach qualified out half of the pipeline early – but the win rate for the rest rocketed.
2: High-Impact Sales Interactions
The goal of every sales interaction must surely be to have an impact: to learn something new, convey something interesting, qualify an opportunity, or persuade the prospect to agree to an advance. Unfortunately, research by Forrester and others has consistently found that more than 4 out of 5 sales interactions fail to achieve any of these objectives.
Today’s most effective sales people know that their time – and their prospect’s time – is too valuable to be wasted in this way. They achieve advances by shaping the prospects buying vision, creating value in every sales customer conversation and establishing compelling reasons to act. They give as much as they get, and they know better than to subject their prospects to a tedious “20 questions” routine.
Influencing the prospect’s agenda early in the process proves to be critical: another piece of Forrester research found that 3 out of 4 buying decisions went to the vendor that first helped to shape the vision of a solution. Top sales people have learned that the essential skill here is to sell the need for change before they attempt to sell their solution.
There’s a natural evolution in the prospect’s mindset from “Why Change?” to “What to?” and then “Why You?” Sales people who rush ahead too quickly to the “why us” argument often find themselves in a sales process that has no substantial foundations.
It should be obvious that leading with your products isn’t going to make much headway in complex B2B sales. Leading with the problem and then leading towards your solution is far more effective. But to accomplish this, all sales people need to have the confidence to have business-issue led conversations that arouse the prospect’s curiosity and make them want to learn more.
We need to shift the training balance from a product-centric approach to a problem-centric approach. Distilling what top sales people do naturally into a series of talking points (and coaching them on how to use them) can contribute a significant amount getting us there.
3: Equipping Every Member of the Sales Team to Win
This it where it all needs to come together: we need to equip every member of the sales team with the confidence and capability to conduct winning conversations that either persuade the prospect to agree some sort of advance or help the sales person to recognize that there isn’t an opportunity there after all, and politely move on to something more promising.
In some of the most effective companies I’ve worked with, the product marketing teams think of themselves as problem marketing teams, focusing first on the issues that their solutions are best positioned to solve.
Playbooks can play a tremendously valuable role in capturing the winning habits of top sales performers and making them available to all – and let’s not ignore the role that a well implemented CRM system (most aren’t) can have in guiding sales behavior.
Technology can have a pivotal role in enabling more effective sales behaviors – not just the obvious CRM and Mobile Playbook solutions, but also investments in sales analytics. In fact, I’ve come to regard sales analytics as having the potential to become a breakthrough solution in bridging the performance gap between the best and the rest.
So there we have it: three strategies that by themselves or (better) in combination have the potential to bridge the sales performance gap that exists in so many sales organizations. But I’m sure that I’ve missed a bunch of other effective strategies. What’s worked for your organization?