- Research Interviews
Top Performers & the Challenger Mindset: An Interview with Alyssa Merwin
At SalesGym, we interview dozens of leading sales executives every year to find out new thinking and trends on top performers, coaching, and building better sales teams. In a recent interview with Alyssa Merwin, Vice President at LinkedIn, she shared some fascinating insights into how top performers think and sell and how sales managers can have greater impact on middle performers that need help.
Early in the interview, Alyssa brought up how critical confidence is to the way salespeople interact with customers…
One of the characteristics of a top performer is a lack of self-consciousness. They’re confident and they have a predisposition to honestly speak their mind. They're comfortable guiding the conversation. -Alyssa Merwin, Vice President at LinkedIn Click To Tweet
“One of the characteristics of a top performer is a lack of self-consciousness. They’re confident and they have a predisposition to honestly speak their mind. They’re comfortable guiding the conversation. They’re not afraid to share knowledge and opinions, whether it’s with customers or coworkers or their boss, and they’re not easily embarrassed.”
Alyssa then shed some light on how this confidence impacts a salesperson’s ability to apply the more assertive, insight-led, Challenger approach…
“When a salesperson is comfortable in their own skin, they have confidence and conviction and tend to display some of the characteristics of the Challenger mindset. Additionally, top performers tend to be genuinely curious. On the flip side, often, we’ll see reps only ask a couple of discovery questions, probing just enough to get a hook then launch into a pitch. That’s very different from someone who genuinely wants to understand what the customer’s challenges are and cares about helping to solve the problem. These reps come to the table with a mindset of, ‘I truly I want to be a student of your business so that I can help prescribe the right solution’, versus, ‘I’m engaging with you enough to be dangerous and then I’m going to push my own agenda.”
What we’ve found, on projects where we’re helping companies train and coach their people to execute the Challenger model, is that the biggest risk occurs with salespeople that don’t have well developed interpersonal skills and a strong sense of the appropriate self-awareness, which are subsets of the big picture EQ (Emotional Intelligence) dimension. When they attempt more assertive, insight driven selling approaches, they often do it in a way that lowers or even fractures rapport when they don’t have the interpersonal flexibility needed, so it creates a lot of awkwardness.
Alyssa has observed that there is a real sweet spot of skills needed to be more assertive on sales calls…
“If you’ve got the EQ, confidence, and natural curiosity, you’ve got a nice trifecta: the ability to really understand the customer, be cognizant of when you’re pushing or asking too much vs. just enough, and know when it’s the right time to change course.”
More assertive selling starts with a better agenda
A question we get a lot from sales managers is how do you teach sales teams to get good at more assertive, challenger style selling? The ancient Lao Tzu proverb… “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is good advice. The first step in a sales interaction is to communicate an effective agenda that allows a more insight driven approach. In testing salespeople we work with, we find less than 50%, even from some great companies, know how to set a truly customer focused agenda that can easily springboard into a more assertive approach. Less than 50%! Alyssa commented to us how important it is to coach salespeople on this essential foundational skill…
“A lot of coaching can be spent on incredibly basic skills like setting an effective agenda, which many reps don’t do. While basic, if done well it allows reps to manage and take control of the conversation. Without a clear agenda, it becomes very challenging to know how to take back control when the conversation is going off track.”
How to coach for a more assertive agenda
- Ask your salesperson to identify an upcoming call, on the calendar, that really needs some insight-led selling magic
- With that person in mind, the salesperson then identifies the realistic, achievable stretch and fallback desired outcomes for that call
- Next, they determine what the decision maker(s) wants to get out of the interaction
- Then they prepare the agenda they will use to kickoff that call
- Finally, they verbally deliver that agenda to the sales manager EXACTLY as they would to that prospect … not a discussion of the agenda, an actual rehearsal
The agenda serves as a reference point to get control of the steering wheel when needed. A lot of sales managers assume, because the concept of an agenda is so obvious, that their people are good at it. From observation and testing, we’ve found this is not the case. Many salespeople fail to start calls with a good agenda because taking control like that feels awkward to them. Sometimes, their agendas are focused on what’s important to them, the seller, and not really focused on what’s important to the decision maker. This is why rehearsing and coaching is so critical when it comes to agendas.
After the agenda, focus on better questions and listening
There is absolutely no bad selling habit that hurts results more than too much talking with poor questioning and listening. Starting calls with better agendas can really help, but this is a habit that is so pervasive, it needs constant attention and effort from sales managers to break and replace. Alyssa sheds some light on this problem…
It’s in those moments of silence that given the opportunity, customers will often share critical information that can take a deal in a different direction. -Alyssa Merwin, Vice President at LinkedIn Click To Tweet
“One reason reps talk too much is that they are generally uncomfortable with silence. However, there can be these wonderful moments in a conversation where a rep really hits on something powerful and the customer is about to open up, instead they often monologue because they are not comfortable with silence, and they miss a big opportunity. It’s in those moments of silence that given the opportunity, customers will often share critical information that can take a deal in a different direction.”
In other articles, we’ll spend significant time on this problem, but, in general, it takes a lot of practice and rehearsal to first make salespeople aware of how much they’re talking and then second, to get their skills at communicating to a point where they can be targeted and concise under pressure.
Sales management means practice & coaching
Alyssa reminds us of the importance of the basics that are so often overlooked in terms of what happens when effective practice with a good sales coach doesn’t happen often enough…
“Salespeople end up practicing on the customer or the prospect far more often than they should. The best reps, like athletes, will run through an entire meeting, out loud, in front of a mirror, all the way through to close and signed contract. Then, when they are in the conversation, it is not their first time doing it. That’s what the best people do while they’re learning to be great.”
Just as athletes learn best by first observing the right way to perform a new move or skill and then practicing, reviewing performance and practicing again, salespeople need this same type of skills focused practice and coaching.
“There’s a really important mix between showing someone what great looks like and sitting on the sidelines and letting them fumble and learn for themselves and then coaching them afterward. Coaching is something that tends to skew a lot more towards, ‘I’m just going to be a silent observer and then coach you afterwards.’ In reality, it is really hard to go back and replay the clock where both the rep and the manager can accurately recall what happened. Unless you’re recording the conversation, that’s really challenging to rely on as your primary way of coaching. We often need to model what “great” looks like and then find a healthy balance of coaching and showing.”
In summary, top performers practice more and the best sales managers find ways to practice and rehearse with their salespeople so they aren’t doing trial and error learning on live sales calls.
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.
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