6 sales best practices


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Selling is a complex discipline involving many kinds of activities. Some are customer-facing (e.g., making a presentation). Others are background activities (e.g., researching the customer). In that complex array of activities there are innumerable qualities that make someone a top performer. Some are simply the minimum standard, or “ticket to the dance”, like being on time or good written and verbal communication skills. Then there are “soft skills,” – those things which can be described as innate to the sales person such as a strong work ethic or a high energy level. The, “soft skills” are most appropriately considered as hiring criteria.

This analysis focuses on six best practices which can be observed and then trained and developed across a sales force.

Best Practice 1: Understands and develops customer needs

This first best practice is the ability of the sales person to identify potential problem areas the customer is experiencing. Implied in this best practice is the ability to ask questions which cause the customer to think about problem areas and the ability to listen to what the customer says about these problem areas.

The research also indicates that top performing sellers are able to discriminate between general problems and those needs which the customer has the urgency to take action to resolve.

Best Practice 2: Understands the customer’s business

Understanding the customer goes beyond Best Practice 1. It is more than simply asking questions about customer needs. Top sales performers develop a comprehensive understanding of the customer’s business: What are the trends impacting their customers market or industry? How do these trends impact the customer’s strategic direction? Who are the key players in the customer’s organization? Who are the customer’s competitors and how do they threaten the customer? Top sales performers not only rely on asking their customer to gain these insights; they also invest time to research it themselves.

As a sub-best practice, top sales performers leverage this knowledge. They incorporate it in their strategic approach. For instance, understanding the financial impact a given procedure might have on the customer’s ability to meet its mission, can help them frame their discussions about how a new solution creates a competitive advantage for the customer.

Best Practice 3: Develops trust in the customer relationship

The research is unanimous about the importance of trust. Top performing sales people work hard at building and maintaining trust with their customers. Getting there is a litany of those things you would expect in this category. Trusted sellers tell the truth; they are candid. Trusted sellers are concerned about the customer. They are responsive to complaints, problems, and expressed needs of the customer. They return phone calls in a timely manner. They do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. Moreover, they know what their organization and its products and services can do. They do not try to do what they cannot do. They under-promise and over-deliver.

Best Practice 4: Leverages resources

Top performing sellers are expert resource brokers. They have extensive knowledge of their own organization’s capabilities, products, and services, enabling them to bring together the right combination of resources to address customer requirements. Today, being an expert broker has become a necessity because solving customer problems has become more and more complicated. The best sales people know their capabilities and how they “fit” – for helping the customer drive business results. They also rely on others to deliver on that “fit”. Sometimes, they draw on resources within their organization. At other times, they even partner with other vendors.

Best Practice 5: Manages the long sales cycle

Sales top performers realize they are in a long sales cycle. Having one good sales call, while perhaps a cause for some cheering, does not win the game. They know that success comes over the long haul and involves stringing together a series of successful interactions with the customer. So, top sales performers are constantly looking to the next step. Their goal in each customer interaction is to move the sale forward, sometimes yard-by-yard and sometimes inch-by-inch.

Best Practice 6: Manages the competitive threat

Top performers are aware of the interplay of competitors. Top performers use tools to help them and their organization understand the competitive situation. Whether it is through SWOT analyses, value matrices or other means, they invest time and energy understanding who their competition is and how to manage them. They then put this knowledge into practice when they are face-to-face with the customer. Most importantly they keep their eye on the ball – the customer.

Richard Ruff
For more than 30 years Richard Ruff has worked with the Fortune 1000 to craft sales training programs that make a difference. Working with market leaders Dick has learned that today's great sales force significantly differs from yesterday. So, Sales Momentum offers firms effective sales training programs affordably priced. Dick is the co-author of Parlez-Vous Business, to help sales people have smart business conversations with customers, and the Sales Training Connection.


  1. #2 (understanding the customer's business) and #3 (building trust) are intricately related. Edelman's 2011 Trust Barometer indicates that trust levels in the U.S. are abysmally low. Credentialed spokespersons generate the most trust—with academics and technical experts being the most credible. This—and the fact that buyers are more educated than ever—puts the pressure on sales professionals to function as experts on their prospects' businesses. In many cases, this will require more than identifying a prospect's problem and articulating how your product/service solves that problem. Understanding that prospect's strategy—what s/he is doing and why, how the business delivers differentiated value to its customers—is growing in importance, especially in tech sales, where there is a number of diverse influencers on a purchase. Note: The views expressed in this posting are my own; they do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of Hoover's.


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