As a recent McKinsey article points out, as much as half of a company’s value creation rests with its sales force. Their findings confirm what many other researchers have also found - that the sales experience is a top factor when it comes to buying decisions.
But there’s a perhaps unexpected twist: McKinsey’s study also shows that top performing sales organisations pay as much attention to the rep experience as they do the customer experience: in other words, they treat their sales people like customers…
There are many more valuable takeaways in the McKinsey report than I can possibly hope to cover in this relatively short blog: I strongly recommend that you review the full article. I want to draw your attention here to a few of the most profound findings, and offer my take on the appropriate responses and actions.
THE SALES PERFORMANCE GAP IS A TALENT GAP
Firstly, there is a growing gap between top sales performers and the rest. The difference is at its greatest in complex B2B sales environments, where it is not unusual for performance to vary by a factor of six or seven times between the top tier and the bottom.
This is fundamentally a talent management problem. Even when organisations can identify who their top performers are, they often struggle to understand what sets them apart. They fail to identify the key characteristics, skills and behaviours that characterise their most effective sales people.
Some of the gap can clearly be ascribed to innate capabilities - something I’ll return to when we consider the hiring process. But in my experience a significant element of the performance gap is actually related to learned behaviours - and these winning habits, if they can be understood, can be replicated.
If we can identify these behaviours - you can think of them in simple terms as what the top sales performers have learned that they need to know, do and avoid at each stage of the buying process - then we can train, equip and coach the “willing middle” to adopt them, in the confidence that their performance will improve accordingly.
DEVELOPING THE “WILLING MIDDLE”
It’s probably worth explaining what we mean by the willing middle: after you exclude the top and bottom performing tiers, the majority of the sales force sits somewhere in between. A sub-set of this group (the “willing middle”) is open to the idea of learning from the best. They have the clear potential to improve.
The opposite part of this tier (the “unwilling middle”) are either unwilling or unable to change. Assuming that we've made reasonable efforts to educate them, the obvious conclusion is that these people are bad hires without the potential for improvement, and their unsatisfactory performance means that - along with the persistent bottom performers - they are best persuaded that their careers should go in a different direction.
Our skills development programmes will have the greatest impact when they are focused on making it as easy as possible for the willing middle to embrace the top performers' winning habits. And when our induction programmes equip our new hires to quickly adopt these same winning habits, we give them the best possible foundation for success.
But that, of course, assumes we’re actually hiring the right people in the first place…
HIRING PEOPLE WITH WINNING POTENTIAL
If we haven’t identified the common characteristics a top sales person in our particular sales environment, we’re likely to make more bad hires than good ones. And in most sales environments, factors like attitude, aptitude and ability turn out to be far more reliable predictors of future success than experience.
Traditional hiring approaches - which have often focused too much on experience because it’s the easiest thing to assess from a combination of CV and interview - often fail to pay the appropriate attention to attitude, aptitude or ability, because it takes an effort to assess these factors.
But with the widespread availability of well-proven assessment tools - backed by a growing army of experienced consultants who have the ability to interpret them - there can never be an excuse for failing to understand the common characteristics of our existing top performers, or for not testing new candidates against these critical success factors. The cost and consequences of failure is simply too high.
If we’re to fully develop the potential of talented sales people, a one-approach-suits-everyone training programme probably isn’t going to deliver the results that we are looking for. We have to recognise that different people may have different development needs, and will react in different ways to different training methodologies.
In particular, we have to acknowledge the pivotal role that first-line sales managers play in developing the capabilities of every member of their team. We can’t sit back and expect the learning and development department (assuming we have one) to carry the burden of skills development on their own.
What we need is an adaptive training programme that leverages a variety of delivery methods combined with a programme targeted at sales managers that equips and enables them to fulfil this vital role of continual personalised feedback, coaching and development.
This is not a trivial commitment. But the consequences of failing to treat our sales people as customers are far more significant, far more expensive, and far more damaging.
So - what's your experience?
Here’s the link to the original McKinsey article again.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales and the Founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, home of the Value Selling System®. Following a successful career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and corporates, Bob now works with a growing client base of tech-based B2B-focused scale-up businesses, equipping and enabling them to systematically create, capture and justify their unique business value in every customer interaction.