While doing research for a new book, in early 2017, we interviewed 150 top Sales Executives from large and mid-sized companies, managing sales teams of 100-15,000. All-in-all, these Sales Executives managed over 180,000 Sales People. We asked them a number of questions to better understand what trends they were seeing in their sales organizations and about selling in general. They had a lot to say about how much they had spent on CRM technology and how frustrating it was that, for the most part, Sales People hated it. They had strong opinions about the changing generational trends in work ethic and how the good old-fashioned virtue of self-motivation is the primary determinant of success, for the most part.
The main focus of the interview was, however, to get their perspective on what causes and prevents success on sales teams, large and small. Interestingly, 97% of them, without any hesitation, volunteered that the number one problem, when it comes to building top performing sales teams, is poor front line sales coaching.
…said the #1 weakness in sales organizations is front-line sales coaching
It wasn’t from lack of trying. Most lamented they had spent huge amounts of money training Sales Managers on coaching and building sales enablement systems to support them, but when they dug in and looked to see what was really happening, they found that effective sales coaching simply wasn’t present. Some of the thoughts they shared included:
“We really tried hard and, don’t get me wrong, we’re not giving up, but Sales Managers are very resistant to sales coaching. They tell us they don’t have the time to do it but when we analyze where their time actually goes, we know they could do it if they prioritized it.”
”Most of our Sales Managers think sales coaching is going over pipeline reports, goals and putting pressure on the metrics. But that’s not the kind of coaching that really moves the needle, at least not in our sales organization”
“We have a lot of new Sales People coming into our organization every year and after new hire training, we find Sales Managers rarely have the patience and ongoing training skills to reinforce and build their selling skills. At some point, and too early in my opinion, it becomes sink or swim and that’s more a shortcoming of Sales Managers than a lack of desire to succeed with the Sales People. It’s a very frustrating problem.”
“We have 3 Sales Managers in our company that get fantastic results year after year and when we study what they do different, it’s amazingly simple. They practice selling with their people all the time … in meetings, on ride-alongs … on the phone. They drill, practice and practice more. It’s not rocket science, but it’s hard to get the other 35 Sales Managers we have to follow their example.”
…said that over half the people in their sales organization, including Sales Managers, could not verbally deliver a persuasive value proposition about their company’s competitive advantages.
When we asked these executives what they observed when they watched their people selling in the field, the most obvious weakness they observed was their over focus on product features and an inability to communicate a value proposition that got to the bigger picture of what value their company truly brought to the table. Most were disappointed that traditional big event sales training had failed to solve this problem.
“We’ve spent millions on our sales team over the last 5 years and if I get on the phone and call 10 sales people and ask them what our company does and why it matters to our customers, I’ll get 10 completely different answers and at least half of them will sound exactly like all of our competitors … nothing that differentiates us at all.”
Verbal Sales Fluency is a Difficult Skill to Acquire
What we found after spending thousands of hours with sales teams in training and coaching sessions and listening to them on sales calls is that knowing what to say and being able to say it are two completely different things. Just as when we stand at the tee and look down the fairway we KNOW we should hit the ball solid and down the middle, that doesn’t mean we can do it. The same is true when it comes to communicating a powerful sales message. We call that SALES FLUENCY. It’s the ability to put into words a powerful, concise answer to the most obvious questions that is memorable and differentiates you from the competition. Questions like:
- What does your company do and why does it matter?
- What differentiates you from your competitors?
- Why should I change from my current supplier when I’m happy with what I’m getting from them?
- Why should I schedule time to meet with you?
Truly, these are obvious questions, but more often than not, Sales People are mediocre in their responses, when these are the questions they should absolutely crush and knock out of the park. One of the reasons they get into bad verbal habits is related to the lack of sales coaching these executives mentioned in our survey. Just like we need constant practice to stay strong in many areas, we need practice in the verbal art of selling and all too often, coaching focuses primarily on technology, pipelines and goals.
What These Executives Would Like to See More of From Their Salespeople…
In each interview, we went over in depth what these executives would like to see their sales teams doing more on sales calls and interactions with prospects and customers.
…said their sales people were not effective when it came to really challenging prospects and customers and pushing back in an effective way on their biases or beliefs that were causing poor buying decisions
We found the concepts from Challenger Selling, often called insights-led selling, has had a big impact on the thinking of a lot of Sales Executives. Nearly all the Sales Executives we spoke with agreed that in today’s market, consultative selling isn’t enough and they just don’t see their sales teams pressing hard enough to really ask the tough questions and challenge the thinking of their prospects and customers.
“What I see is a lot of questions and listening on sales calls, but I don’t see the really critical, tough questions we need to ask to help the customers see their challenges and needs in a new way. We focus way too much on basic wants and needs and that’s often not enough to get customers to switch to us.”
“I’d like to see our people ask tougher questions. I know we leave a lot of business on the table because we’re reluctant to ask deeper, more probing questions that could change the thinking of our target customers.”
So, What To Do About It…
“What works, at least in our company, is more practice and rehearsing for big sales calls. Since we changed the focus of our Sales Management training to focus more on skills development, we’re seeing more of our average performers step up. They’re responding better to this kind of management than just more pressure and incentives…” was one suggestion we heard.
From thousands of project days spent working with Sales Teams, what we find works best in terms of moving more of the average performers up the ladder into top performer status boils down to several key things:
- First, you have to figure out what top performers are doing differently that is transferable to the rest of the team. Personality and personal motivation factors are not transferable but what they are saying on sales calls is. It’s critical to understand their approach and make it visible to others.
- Test your sales team. Ask them to answer fundamental questions about your company, value proposition, competitive advantages and core solutions that separate you from your competitors. Capture the approach of your top performers and challenge the rest of the team to take their verbal sales fluency to the next level. Don’t accept mediocrity when it comes to sales messaging.
- Thinking of training as a once or twice a year event is probably a mistake for most companies. Training needs to be built into the weekly fabric of how Sales Managers and Trainers interact with the Sales Team.
- Every Sales Organization should have a short list, say 15-20, of absolutely fantastic questions that are published to the sales team that represent the kind of questions they should be asking on sales calls. Too often, Salespeople wing it when it comes to questions and, as a result, it causes them to talk too much which is what customers complain about most.
- Get better at measuring the minutes Sales People spend with high capacity buyers. Often, they spend more time with lower capacity buyers because they’re easier to get to and cause less anxiety. Nothing will increase sales results faster than simply spending more time with the highest potential buyers in your territory.
The Founders of the SalesGym have been working with large and small sales teams for over 30 years. If you’re interested in our perspective on how to rapidly create more top performers in your organization, contact Michael St. Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org.