In interview after interview (over 150 of them) with sales executives, what we hear consistently, in terms of the repeated mistakes salespeople make on sales calls is:
- Too much talking
- Not asking the right questions at the right time
- Inability to communicate persuasive competitive advantages
- Not using the best approach to close for next steps
Interestingly, we’ve heard this now for decades. Despite all the improvements in technology and efficiencies when it comes to selling, sales executives still observe these 4 key mistakes happening repeatedly when salespeople interact with prospects and customers.
We’ve included some relevant thoughts in this article on coaching and talking too much on sales calls from Daniel M. Oehler, Vice President Sales and Marketing, RelaDyne, LLC and Glenn M. Wirick, EVP Sales & Marketing, Pegasus Solutions.
Why don’t companies fix this?
The primary reason is it takes PRACTICE to eliminate these mistakes. Let’s look first at what doesn’t break these bad habits:
- Pipeline Analysis
- Adjusting incentives
- Extensive analysis of numbers and data
- Sharing success stories from other top performers
- Going over goals, rewards, consequences
- Debriefing a previous call
- Strategizing how to approach the next call
All these activities are great and necessary elements of sales management, but they don’t impact the classic bad habits much at all. And the truth is, when most sales managers think of sales coaching, this is what they tend to do.
The right kind of practice is the only way to build the kind of communication habits needed on live sales calls under pressure. It’s the same kind of practice elite athletes need to prepare for competition. Sales calls are a form of real competition.
Dan Oehler sums up well the challenge companies face when it comes to creating time and effort around coaching…
The biggest challenge for frontline sales managers is to eliminate clutter and have the ability to spend most of their time on coaching and honing the skills of their salespeople. -Dan Oehler, VP Sales and Marketing, RelaDyne, LLC Click To Tweet
“The biggest challenge for frontline sales managers is to eliminate clutter and have the ability to spend most of their time on coaching and honing the skills of their salespeople.”
What to practice
The communication elements that come into play on sales calls vary somewhat from industry to industry. Obviously, a B2C short transactional sale like deciding on what cable package to purchase is quite different from selling multi million dollar enterprise software where a dozen or more decision influencers are involved. Nonetheless, these 10 core elements of the sales and influence process are pretty consistent from industry to industry and are usually where the practice should focus.
- A brief, effective introduction of yourself
- Setting the agenda
- Using a summary of previous interactions
- Asking relevant, open ended questions
- Using insights to position more assertive questions
- Listening and taking useful notes
- Summarizing what’s been learned in discovery
- Tight, concise competitive advantages and differentiating factors
- Game changing big ideas and solutions communicated concisely
- Success stories to set up closing suggestions
These are the 10 things you can actually practice with a salesperson and these are the keys to breaking the 4 bad habits. Let’s be clear one more time:
- Talking about what to do is not practice
- Talking about what a salesperson just did on a sales call is not practice
- Talking about what top performers do on sales calls is not practice
- Sharing heroic stories of how it should be done is not practice
Selling, at least the interactive element, is a verbal skill. There is a time and place for strategic coaching on territory, pipeline, deal analysis… but that’s not practice. It takes repetition, correction, repetition and more correction to get into the practice zone. Salespeople get into verbal habits and patterns they become comfortable with, even when those habits don’t work. Salespeople HATE to feel awkward on sales calls and when a new verbal skill is introduced as an option, if that new skill feels awkward or uncomfortable, they will typically avoid it. Practice is what makes a new verbal skill feel more comfortable than the old approach which is the key to using new skills to get better results.There's a principle that comes from what I learned from a piano teacher long time ago, which is; it's not just practice, it's good practice. --Glenn M. Wirick, EVP Sales & Marketing, Pegasus Solutions Click To Tweet
Glenn gets to the core of what kind of practice generates the right results…
“There’s a principle that comes from what I learned from a piano teacher long time ago, which is; it’s not just practice, it’s good practice. If all you do is play the piano over and over and over you will learn bad habits. Good practice is getting the scale right and then replicate that repetitively, not just running your fingers up and down. When I think about good practice in selling, it’s more than just role-playing which is a valuable exercise, but it’s really, what’s the best way to handle that objection? Let’s practice that over and over and over.”
Elements of practice
We’ve found there are 5 important elements to an effective practice session, which are very similar to how elite athletes train and learn:
- See and hear fantastic demonstrations of the new skill to be learned
- Review the fundamentals that underpin that great demonstration
- Generally, preparing a written guide for the first practice attempts is helpful
- Back and forth practice with a practice coach that reinforces and corrects
- Continued practice until the new skill becomes comfortable and effective
“There is a reason Tiger Woods still practiced 8 hours a day even when he was the best player out there.”
Start with competitive advantages
After decades of experimenting and testing with thousands of salespeople from many of the best sales teams around the world, we’ve found that the best place to start, if you want to start the practice habit, is with competitive advantages or differentiating factors.
- When salespeople don’t have 5-7 really good competitive advantages they can communicate quickly and concisely, they tend to talk too much
- Learning to use competitive advantages with great open ended questions is one of the best habits to get into to create more questions and listening
- Most salespeople, when asked what are your 5 core competitive advantages, simply wing it and improvise. This creates too much talking.
Interestingly, when we start a new training project with most of the companies we’ve worked with, we always ask for a written or recorded list of their 5-7 most critical competitive advantages and/or differentiating factors. Rarely do most most sales organizations have these and it’s generally the place to start. It’s nearly impossible to practice verbal skills if you don’t have the information to be communicated in a well organized, easy to learn format. This is critical.
If I was to randomly call 100 salespeople around the country from different companies and ask them to email me a list they already have, of their 5-7 most critical competitive advantages, I’d bet a considerable amount that less than 5 would have them. This is a HUGE opportunity to take the sales team to the next level.
Here’s an example of a well organized list of competitive advantages from a digital ad agency. They are organized the right way, which is in response to an obvious question any prospect would have:
Question - What makes you better or different from other digital marketing firms?
- White Glove Service - All clients have access to an on demand service team that works 24/7. That you call/email/chat and get real-time answers to any questions or mobilize action if there is ever a problem day or night.
- Expert Teams - Every client has a team of 3 specific individuals, each with unique roles.
- Insatiable Testing - A hallmark of every campaign we run is that we test at least one new concept every single month. No matter how successful the campaign is we are constantly coming up with ideas and testing those ideas in a organized and systematic way. Every test has predetermined success criteria that will allow us to give it a thumbs up or down...keeping your account moving forward.
- Open Book Referrals - We treat every client the same way, so much so, that when you are contemplating working with us, we’ll give you a list of every company we have worked with (current and past) and allow you to call anyone of them to discuss us. It’s part of our commitment to transparency and we think you’ll find the same experience with each client.
Potential open-ended questions
- What is most important to you when it comes to how you work with your Digital Marketing agency partner?
- What are you currently testing today that you think has a strong potential substantially move your marketing efforts forward?
With this kind of format, it’s relatively easy for salespeople to learn the competitive advantages so they can then practice verbalizing them. Notice how part of the format is suggested open-ended questions. Getting salespeople into the habit of asking great questions after they communicate short bursts of helpful information is one of the keys to breaking the talking too much habit.
Ideally, along with this format, the practice coach can give live or recorded demonstrations of responding to questions with compact, effective competitive advantages that ALWAYS lead to a conversation opening question.
How much repetition is needed?
We’ve found, from running thousands of practice sessions, it takes at least 10 rounds of repetition with a single question before you start to see the awkwardness go away and confident and conversational communication start to take hold. If sales managers just worked on these 5 questions, over and over, they’d make huge gains in terms of the communication skills of their sales team:
- What makes you better or different from your competitors?
- What do your best customers tell you they prefer about buying from you?
- When you say your company is better at service, what do you mean by that?
- Why should I give you an appointment to talk to me about your company?
- Why should I change when I’m happy with my current provider/supplier?
There are many ways to set this up, but, in general, these are the 5 questions most salespeople need to be able to answer with absolutely fantastic, tight, concise answers, built around core relevant differentiating factors that always end with a relevant open-ended question.
“Practicing is like boot camp for military. They put those people under so much pressure that when the bullets fly for real, reactions become second nature…”
Salespeople need a Practice Coach!
The reason elite athletes improve so steadily is because they have coaches that help them practice. When a new coach is hired to fix a losing team, the first thing they will generally look at is how training and practice sessions are being run. That’s where they start in terms of building a winning team.
Some companies find that outsourcing practice coaching is a more practical way to solve this problem than to try and convert all front line sales managers into practice coaches. It’s a unique skill that most sales managers just don’t have. This can be done with internal training resources dedicated to this kind of ongoing weekly practice or it can be outsourced to a company that specializes in this, like SalesGym.
Bottom line is you have three options:
- Teach and manage front line sales managers to practice coach (very difficult to do)
- Hire and train dedicated practice coaches as part of your internal sales training team
- Outsource this important activity to a company that is already fantastic at it
If you choose, however, the option of continuing to allow a culture where little, or no practice occurs, then you can be 100% sure that your sales team will continue to make these 4 core mistakes on a high percentage of sales calls which will result in many missed opportunities and significant lost revenues.
Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect. A great practice coach changes everything.
Glenn accurately describes how better listening and less talking leads to bigger deals.
“Typically, I see sales reps who are only able to bring in smaller deals are not as proficient at listening. These reps then tend not to drive impact and wrap it up with really strong next steps that resonate with the client and keep the client engaged. It’s a big ongoing challenge to improve salespeople’s focus and skill sets around listening for impact and delivering messages and next steps that drive urgency with the prospect.”
The SalesGym is a research, consulting, and training company that works with and learns from sales teams all over the world and has refined a coaching and training process that trains sales teams the way elite athletes are trained. More insights and articles from us can be found on our RESOURCES PAGE.