Developing the potential of talented salespeople

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War for Talent coverIn my previous article - “hiring salespeople with talent” - I explored the challenges involved in making good sales hires. In this article - first published in the International Journal of Sales Transformation - I now want to explore more of the implications.Now I want to shift attention to some of the key things we need to do if we are to fully develop the potential of the talented salespeople that we have just hired.

You might not be surprised to learn that I believe that this involves understanding each salesperson’s attitudes, behaviours, and competencies in the context of our expectations for the role that we expect them to fulfil - as well as the future roles that we anticipate they might take on as they grow and develop.

Just as there is no such thing as a completely “perfect sale” (at least I have never observed one in any complex B2B sales environment), I believe that there is no such thing as a completely “perfect salesperson”. There is always the potential for improvement in any salesperson. Indeed, I’d suggest that a personal commitment to continuing self-development is one of the defining attributes of a top salesperson...

But, of course, managers can’t and shouldn’t simply rely on each individual salesperson’s commitment to personal self-development. We have a responsibility to guide their development. Some of this, of course, will come in the form of training programmes that are offered to our sales community as a whole. But the greatest impact will almost always come from our personalised coaching activities with each individual salesperson.

Assessing our salespeople and sales managers

Unfortunately, we’ll struggle to target our coaching efforts if we don’t properly understand the current attitudes, behaviours, and competencies of each of our salespeople. That’s where the evidence-based assessments I referred to in my article on hiring can prove so useful. As well as evaluating potential new hires, I believe that there’s an overwhelming case for assessing our existing salespeople and managers as the foundation for our coaching and development activities.

This gives us a set of personalised benchmarks which allow us to identify and agree each salesperson’s key priorities for individual development. Whilst the precise blend of desired characteristics will vary from role to role, Objective Management Group’s research has identified a handful of universal attitudes that define the coachability and potential of every salesperson.

The proven attributes of top salespeople

These common qualities - the foundational platform upon which development depends - include desire, commitment, outlook, motivation, and the willingness to take responsibility. OMG’s analysis of over 2 million salespeople has also identified the salesperson’s need for approval (perhaps best described as the determination to be respected rather than the need to be liked) as one of the most important factors - top performing salespeople tell the customer what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear.

Whilst these may at first appear to be soft or squidgy qualities they are, in fact, all measurable using the right evidence-based sales assessments - and they can all be developed through effective coaching if both parties are willing, particularly if you are able to constructively confront the salesperson with evidence, rather than sharing your personal opinion on the matter.

Other observable attitudes and behaviours that directly impact sales confidence and performance include the salesperson’s ability to stay in the moment rather than be distracted, their comfort in discussing money issues and their ability to handle and recover from rejection. Most of us suffer from self-limiting beliefs that can hold us back, and the same is true of every salesperson - unless they have a coach who can identify, confront, and address them.

Coaching for attitude, behaviour and competence

I’ve deliberately invested time in highlighting the importance of coaching for attitude and behaviour when establishing evidence-based development plans for salespeople but coaching for competence is of course just as important - it’s just that it is always that much more effective when based on a solid platform of positive attitudes and behaviours.

If positive attitudes and behaviours are somewhat universal, the relative importance of key competencies often varies from one role to another. Drawing upon some of the examples in my previous article, these might include: is the role focused on new business or account management? Are we looking for hunters or farmers? Are salespeople expected to find their own opportunities, or respond to leads? How much initiative do we need our salespeople to apply - or do we expect them to “follow our process”?

Universal key sales competencies

Based on our answers to the above, we’ll probably conclude that the following competencies are more or less important to each role:

  • Their effective use of social selling
  • Their ability to make the most of both virtual and face-to-face selling
  • Their ability to qualify opportunities consistently and accurately
  • Their presentational skills and effectiveness
  • Their ability to develop constructive relationships
  • Their ability to reach and engage decision-makers
  • Their ability to sell consultatively, and to establish meaningful value
  • Their ability to negotiate effectively and emerge with a win-win outcome
  • Their willingness to follow our defined sales process or framework

You can probably think of more, but I hope you’ll agree that the above is a good starting-point when it comes to assessing and developing sales competencies. When I assess sales organisations on behalf of clients, we typically find that some of these competencies would benefit from team-wide training initiatives and others are more specific to particular roles or individuals.

Training alone won't drive lasting change

If you decide that a training-led approach is appropriate for a particular competence or group of competencies, and if you’ve ever undertaken or led a training programme, you’ll probably have observed that training without reinforcement tends to have a minimal lasting effect on performance. If all we do is to put our salespeople on training courses without carefully designed reinforcement through coaching, tools, and process, we shouldn’t be surprised to conclude that our investment of time and money has been wasted.

Assuming that we’ve made intelligent, evidence-based hiring decisions in the first place, then whether or not these people succeed in their roles is primary down to our ability to develop their talent and help them reach their potential. Unlike the shrinking minority of CEOs that I still occasionally come across, I have never been a believer in simply “hiring the right people and letting them get on with it”.

Persistence and determination

Developing the potential of our salespeople is a relentless and ongoing process. It starts with hiring people with the attitudes, behaviours, and competencies to succeed in the first place. It requires that we understand the attitudes, behaviours, and competencies of our existing salespeople and sales managers. It depends on our seeking out evidence and not relying on assumption or supposition. And it requires the same qualities of persistence and determination that we expect to see in our salespeople.

It clearly can’t be accomplished through training alone. It needs a blend of structured training and personalised coaching. And it will fail without the necessary reinforcement and follow-up.

So, I’ll leave you with one last thought: if reinforcement and follow-up are so important, wouldn’t it be better to start with your sales managers and leaders, and to ensure that you have the right people in place to perform these critical roles and that you have fully equipped them to get the very best out of their people?

You can learn about OMG’s sales assessment criteria here: http://stats.objectivemanagement.com/498. And if you’d like to find out more, please book some time here: https://www.inflexion-point.com/book-a-call.

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