How complete is your sales success system? When we ask that question of most sales leaders and sales learning and development professionals, we’re usually met with a quizzical look followed by an explanation of adopting best-in-class sales process, methods, content or the latest selling fad. A pretty standard response to a purposely ambiguous question. Sometimes the response is “what do you mean how complete is our sales success system?” Good question, let’s explore it.
In my experience, the sales performance industry and sales organisations in general place an undue amount of emphasis sales processes or method (both of which are important) – at the expense of the two other critical elements of an effective and enduring sales success system; specifically philosophy and execution.
An effective sequence actually looks like this: Philosophy + Process + Method + Execution
Philosophy (why do we?)
When was the last time you had a conversation with your sales force and asked them what their purpose was? Most sales leaders and salespeople will respond with “my job is to make quota” or “sell more [insert product or service name here].” The reality is that most sales organisations haven’t taken the time to fully explore, understand and communicate what their ‘purpose’ is, little wonder their salespeople have little else to focus their energies on other than making sales.
It’s assumed that the role of the sales person is just to sell more and more of the company's products and/or services. And way too many poor to average performers grudgingly accept this definition and run with it. I say grudgingly because, the problem is, this mindset violates the innate human need we all have to form relationships, have meaning in our work, make a difference, and to grow. And at a conscious or subconscious level, salespeople know that simply ‘selling more stuff’ falls well short of satisfying those needs. And so their results are inconsistent because these conflicting beliefs and unfulfilling experiences sabotage their own success.
Top performers on the other hand develop their own internal purpose-drivers so that the way they think and behave feels congruent and confident. They reframe the way they see themselves to be ‘business improvement specialists’ or ‘trusted business advisors’ whose role is to create and deliver terrific results and outcomes for customers. In this way they give themselves permission to ask the tough questions that need to be asked - because it’s in the customer’s best interest. In doing so they build credibility, establish trust, create value AND get the sale at the same time. Both the seller and the buyer win. Their confidence comes from within and many more sales organisations would do well to emulate their mindset and philosophy and make selling and doing business with purpose an explicit part of how they define the role of every salesperson.
Leading brands who have worked to reframe the role of salesperson and made the purpose or ‘intent’ of the salesperson clear in customer conversations have achieved transformational sales and business results. In fact research from the EY Beacon Institute and Harvard Business School shows that companies that lead with purpose are 202% more likely to be profitable.
Process (what to do?)
Unfortunately process tends to be internally focused. It doesn’t arm the sales force with the conversation and communication skills that are needed to identify, uncover and create customer value. Following the steps of a sales process alone is woefully insufficient, representing little more than table stakes.
Method (how to?)
Method can give sellers the conversation and communication skills to diagnose, qualify and create value by sharing insights and re-framing how the customers perceives a problem or opportunity - when done well that is. However, in reality this often falls short, leaving the customer feeling as if something has been done ‘to’ them versus ‘with’ them and salespeople who lack the confidence and capability to have a customer centered business conversation, don’t ask the tough, need to be asked questions that create rapport, establish credibility, and build trust with the buyer. Clearly method alone doesn’t serve buyer or seller either.
Being congruent certainly helps sales people to have the internal confidence to create and have value creating customer conversations. And yet for them to grow and get better over time they need to practice and master new skills through deliberate practice. Many sales organisations lack the framework for institutionalising deliberate practice.
Here’s our approach. Based on our work with tens of thousands of salespeople and many of the world’s leading sales and service driven organisations over more than 20-years, we know it helps to build a culture of continuous growth and sustained execution:
1. Choose Your Audience
Normally when companies try to address a sales capability gap, they focus on salespeople to the exclusion of everyone else. In reality, the salesforce is only one subset of your audience. The first element of the formula, then, is to select your audience vertically: Include not only the salespeople, but also those whom they report to, and the people they in turn report to. It sounds obvious, but 99 times out of 100, companies miss this.
2. Define Your Target
Don’t try to take on 50 things at once. If you could hit one or two targets, which ones would really make a difference? Again, this may sound obvious, but if you go into any company and ask what they’re trying to get out of a current sales improvement program, you’re likely to get as many different answers as the number of people you talk to. We’ve found that when the effort has a clear and memorable theme, it takes on a driving force: “We will land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade.” We like to see targets expressed as “X to Y by when.” Notice that President Kennedy expressed the goal in this form. When you give the effort a clear context - “increase gross margin from 33% to 35% by December 31st” - you have a common rallying cry that inspires each individual’s effort.
3. Design the Training
Imagine if an admissions nurse, an operating room nurse, and a surgeon were all sent to the same training. It would make no sense, because they all have different jobs. While they share some knowledge in common, they each need specific information to play their role. In the same way, because Audience Selection gives you at least two (or more) different audiences, your training design must be reflective of each audience and each role. We’ve found that training is most effective when it simplifies what people are asked to learn to achieve the target. The principal is to teach no more than needed, but leave out nothing that matters. It’s also critical to focus on the leaders - not just the individual contributors - because it is the leaders who are the advocates and keepers of the sales culture. Companies frequently miss this point. Often, front line managers aren’t even alerted to the training and have no idea that their people are involved. You can get all of the other elements right, but without engaging your sales leaders, the formula will fail.
4. Engaged Execution
You can’t train for a marathon in a weekend, and you can’t learn a musical instrument in a single lesson. Getting good at anything is a journey. That’s why the execution phase is critical. With sales managers continually overstretched, the execution must be expertly designed so that it’s easy for them to do, and spaced over time. This is the step where the leaders really take charge and drive the process. When sales leaders become convinced that life will be better using the new way of engaging, and there is a system designed for use by their team, that’s when they say, “This is my program.” And that’s when they get engaged and the seas part. We have found that the best way to accelerate this process is to design simple coaching exercises intended to get the targeted results. This way sales managers are doing what they value - advancing sales opportunities. Nothing drives execution more than people doing what they value.
5. Measure Results, Rinse and Repeat
Step 5 is where the systems calibration takes place: Did you achieve the target you set in Step 2? “We intended to get around the track in less than four minutes. Well, it took us four and a half.” But as important as it is to measure progress, if you’re not going to use what you’ve learned to refine and reengage, then there’s no point. What needs to happen in order to carve off that half of a minute? That kind of critical information can result from the process. That’s why this step requires what we call “Rinse and Repeat” - refining and reengaging in the process. And that’s the fundamental paradigm shift that today’s sales organisations need to make.
So, how complete is your sales system? Do you have all 4 elements of Philosophy + Process + Method + Execution in place?
Image Credit: The Matrix movie, Warner Bros, 1999