What have you learned from your top sales performers?


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What is it that your top sales performers do better than anyone else? Part of the explanation may, of course, be simply that they are more naturally talented, or have a greater emotional intelligence when it comes to decoding complex sales relationships.

But they will also have accumulated a set of winning habits and behaviours that the rest of your sales team could benefit from. And your ability to leverage that learning could make all the difference when it comes to achieving or exceeding your revenue goals.

As Miller Heiman’s 2013 sales best practices report points out, the ability to leverage the best practices of top performers to improve everyone else is one of the factors that most starkly separates world-class sales organisations from their also-ran competitors.

Don’t just ask – observe

According to Miller Heiman’s research, world-class sales organisations are more than 4 times more likely to have a formal programme in place to observe and capture these winning behaviours and embed them into sales training and enablement programmes.

If you ask your top performers what they do differently, you may well find that some of them fall into the “unconsciously competent” category. You’ll have to observe their behaviours as well as ask them what they do. But the effort will be worthwhile.

Customer empathy and personal resource allocation

I’ve worked with a number of clients to help them understand these winning behaviours, and two factors seem to stand out above all the others: first, the top performing sales people display a level of empathy with their customers that is often deficient in the average sales person.

Second, the successful sales people are far more efficient in allocating their own time to different sales opportunities. They qualify much more rigorously, and have a clear objective in mind for every customer interaction. As a consequence, they are often also much more effective in choosing when and how to call in other company resources to support them.

Interestingly, the top sales performers did not necessarily have superior product knowledge to their colleagues – but they understood much better (and communicated much more effectively) how their organisation’s capabilities could be used to address their prospect’s most important and urgent challenges.

Why change, why now, and – only then – why us

In fact, unlike their over-exuberant colleagues – who tended to propose their solution far too early – the top performers typically invested much more time in determining whether there was a real case for change (or whether one could be built) and whether their current contacts had the power to make change happen before they made any form of pitch or proposal.

They sought to establish that a compelling case for change could be established before they invested their time (or that of their colleagues) in a detailed discussion of their product or service offering. By spending quality discovery time at the start of the sales cycle, and being selective about which opportunities to pursue, they shortened their time-to-close and dramatically improved win rates – because they were focused on opportunities that were winnable.

Training won’t solve this by itself

Conventional sales training won’t by itself close the gap between top sales performers and the rest – and I’m sure this is why traditional training approaches have such a poor success rate in changing behaviour.

Creating a sales playbook that incorporates the winning habits and behaviours of your top performers – and then embedding the principles into the day-to-day coaching and mentoring provided by managers – seems to deliver far better results.

What’s in a playbook?

The contents vary from company to company – but most playbooks incorporate ideal customer and key stakeholder profiles (also known as “buyer personas”), an appreciation of the customer’s likely key issues, challenges and trigger events, a set of effective qualifying criteria, and proven responses to frequently asked yet tough-to-answer questions.

Effective playbooks show how the customer’s most pressing challenges can be connected with the vendor’s most powerful capabilities, and why the customer should care. They include provably effective stories and anecdotes that equip the sales person to create empathy and develop trust.

And, of course, they need to be continually refined in the light of the latest learning, backed by appropriate training, coaching and mentoring, and reinforced by sales managers in their day-to-day dealings with their teams.

Of course, creating and maintaining a playbook requires far more commitment and effort than despatching sales people on an annual training course for a few days. But the world-class organisations identified by Miller Heiman have already recognised this – and it’s showing in their results. Can you afford not to invest in creating a winning habits playbook for your own organisation?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


  1. Bob: I agree completely that learning from top sales performers is mission-critical for companies. Too few companies bother finding out. Some think they already know. Others attempt to perform the project internally, but they miss a key finding I have consistently uncovered as an outside services provider: top performers eschew any edict from the “management playbook” that they consider detrimental to selling.

    It’s understandable that a top performer would hesitate to share that with a boss. But top performers have confidence that they are better off filtering what management pushes onto the sales team. They quickly separate what’s valuable and useful, and what’s not, and they have no problem saying “I’m not doing that.” Something that less experienced, less confident salespeople have a harder time doing.

    I agree too that empathy is important, but the “playbook” can become its enemy. Keeping to often-formulaic playbook rules can become the salesperson’s overarching goal, and management reinforces the behavior by rewarding them for it. But the top producers I’ve worked with rarely ascribe their success to adherence to management rules. Rather, they focus on creating the best outcome for customers, and concentrate their efforts on that.

  2. Andy, this is a great point that I too have witnessed (and practiced) during my time in sales.

    Sales methodologies attempt to create a standard way of getting the sale. I’ve learned from sales training but never felt it was a “formula” for success. Each rep needs to take the training and use the methodology that fits.

    So what does separate the winners from losers? I think you nailed it with this:

    Rather, they focus on creating the best outcome for customers, and concentrate their efforts on that.

    Focusing on customer outcomes is the key to long-term success, but it may not endear a rep to management in the short term. Especially if doing means not following the rules or not selling something the rep has been told to sell, because it’s not the right solution.

    What this says to me is that top performance will never be something that can be programmed into reps, regardless of how much money is spent on sales training or technology. Instead, focus on hiring and retaining reps who are customer advocates and have the courage to say “no.”

    I still remember a sales rep “Joe” I bought a car from several years ago. Here’s an excerpt from my post Sell More by Showing Your Customers Some Love!:

    When I asked Joe about his sales philosophy, he explained that he tries to treat his customers “like guests” in his home: be accommodating, respectful and appreciative. He says his number one priority is to make the customer happy, because “the only thing they never forget is how you make them feel.”

    What about making money? Joe believes that if you take care of the customer, the money will take care of itself. He doesn’t pay attention to dealer bonuses or incentive programs, yet still finishes in the top one percent of new car dealer sales reps nationally, making about five times the industry average.


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