Sales Performance—Creating a Repeatable Pathway to Success

How do you get your ‘mediocre’ sales reps to be ‘great’? The key is having a repeatable system that you can execute. This article helps you to identify the skills and behaviors needed to turn knowledge into gold-star sales performance. Once you’ve identified the path to success, you can create sales competency models to unlock the potential of every person on your team.

What’s the difference between a good salesperson and a great one? When we talk about improving sales performance, we often refer to “moving up the middle.” Most sales teams have a few top performers, a few who are struggling, and more who are steady, reliable, but unexceptional performers— “the middle.”

How do we move up the middle and improve sales performance from good to great? You may think the answer is training. Training focuses on ensuring sales reps have the knowledge and skills to do their jobs, but it can’t make them perform their job well. So, let’s talk about how we get salespeople from knowledge to performance and how we measure it.

Steven Kerr’s Folly—and How to Avoid It

It’s been nearly 50 years since Ohio State University scholar, Steven Kerr wrote his classic article “On the Folly of Rewarding ‘A’ While Hoping for ‘B’.” Even back then, Kerr ruminated on the way businesses undercut their own goals by claiming they want a certain type of behavior while rewarding and encouraging a completely different set of behaviors.

Kerr’s folly is on full display in many sales organizations today. Many sales teams are rewarded for ‘A’ (good sales numbers) while hoping for ‘B’ (scalable and sustainable sales growth). This is because most sales leaders are focused on measuring sales and revenue—not tracking the process they follow to get there. If you don’t understand the process a good salesperson uses to succeed, you can’t replicate it.

Use Metrics to Impact Future Sales Performance Levels

In terms of measurement, there are leading and lagging indicators. Lagging indicators are big picture metrics—how much did we sell, how many new markets did we enter, how many products did we launch? These are extremely meaningful metrics, but they are called lagging indicators for a reason: they take a long time to move, and they are the result of other things that we do. Those other things are leading indicators.

Leading Indicators are metrics you can measure in the short term, so you can determine if you’re on the right path. Are salespeople properly applying selling processes? Calling on the right prospects? Putting together good pre-call plans and executing those plans? Responding to customer questions appropriately? Part of the challenge is that many organizations don’t measure leading indicators, or even identify what they are. And that’s a problem because executing on your leading indicators is going to give you a pretty good idea of how your lagging indicators are going to turn out. If you don’t like your leading indicators, odds are good you won’t like your lagging indicators either.

Sales Leaders are the Fulcrum of Change

Training does not drive sales performance—leaders do. Training provides salespeople with the knowledge and skills to succeed, whereas leaders drive the behaviors of success. Here are a few basic rules that help sales leaders drive measurable business impact:

  • Equip your sales managers to be great leaders. In many organizations, the highest performing salespeople are promoted to sales leaders. However, not all high-performing salespeople make the best leaders. Selling and sales leadership require two different skill sets. Salespeople often succeed through their own unique talents, while sales leaders succeed through the unique talents of their teams. If you’re going to promote your top salespeople, make sure you equip them with the skills to lead.
  • Coach, coach, and coach some more.  Sales use so many sports metaphors, it’s surprising that coaching often takes a back seat. Part of that is the organization’s obsession with sales numbers. Of course, sales numbers are important but think of sales numbers as the scoreboard in a football game. You don’t win the game by focusing on the numbers on the scoreboard (as important as they are); you win the game by focusing on what the players on the field are doing.

    Sales coaching is about constantly reinforcing the appropriate behaviors. Part of that is making sure that salespeople understand what behaviors are required to be successful. Part of this is observing the salespeople in action and helping them to hone their skills until they are performing them consistently. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but one that pays off in the long run.

    The coach of a football team can do a lot to help their team win, but a coach can’t pick up a football and run it into the end zone. He must trust his players to do that. Sales leaders may have responsibility for their teams’ numbers each quarter, but they can’t close those deals themselves. They have to build a team that can execute a strategy, and coach that team to consistently achieve excellent performance.

  • Focus on behavior. You get what you measure. It’s easy to measure your sales team based on their book of business but remember that their book of business is the result of their behavior. One of the most important things a leader can do is set clear expectations as to the behavior they expect and observe and provide feedback on that behavior. This requires a leader to set expectations on behavior.

The Problem with Sales Competency Models

There are two problems with sales competency models. The first problem is that too often, sales competency models are generic documents that are never looked at. The second problem is that sometimes they don’t exist at all.

Competency models aren’t solutions, they’re roadmaps. They tell your salesforce what they need to be able to do to succeed. They tell your training team what skills are needed to drive new behaviors. And if you plan to measure leading indicators, they tell you which near-term behaviors to measure to determine if you’re likely to have long-term success. Can you imagine starting out a journey without a roadmap? Yet that is exactly what organizations without sales competency models are doing.

As the great thinker, Lewis Carroll once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Creating competency models may sound complicated, but it’s really quite simple. The magic of the competency model isn’t the model itself, but the process of creating a model. “What skills and behaviors drive sales in our organization?” is a question that can strike fear into the heart of even the most tenured sales leader, because it forces us to actually think about and codify the behaviors we want to see. Words like “drive” and “hunger” are evocative, but they aren’t competencies. When building competency models, think about what a sales leader would actually witness a top performer doing. That gives you the basis for teaching other people how to engage in successful behaviors that drive sales.

Building a Pathway to Measurable Impact

The pathway to measurable impact isn’t difficult, but it requires some honest work to implement:

  1. Have a sales competency model that helps you understand what salespeople need to do to succeed. This provides sales leaders with the behaviors they need to coach and fine-tune their professional development efforts to make sure the skills and behaviors you are training to are relevant.
  • Engage sales leadership to reinforce skills and behaviors and drive accountability. Salespeople don’t just perform based on training; they act based on what their leaders encourage, reinforce, and evaluate. Training your sales team is just the first step. Action requires leadership.
  • Measure leading indicators, including:
    • Engagement, so you can determine if skills are being acquired
    • Behavior change, especially through the observation of leaders
  • Determine the correlation between behavior change and sales success. What behavior and activities are most likely to deliver sales results? How do you get everyone aligned and practicing those behaviors? If you’re not getting the results you want, look back at your process.

In Summary

Sales transformation doesn’t happen by focusing on where you’ve been—you need to look at where you’re going. Successful sales teams have a clear pathway to success. Sales leaders must identify the skills and behaviors necessary for success and make sure their sales team is prepared to use those behaviors. Measurement is key to knowing if your team is actually using those behaviors. Football teams win games by employing strategy, practicing that strategy, and consistently employing that strategy on the field. Sales teams work the same way: identify the path to success, create competency models that define the skills and behaviors that lead to success, and ensure everybody follows that path.

There will always be superstars who excel despite everything else because of their remarkable talents. But if the goal is to “move up the middle,” we need a reliable process, and a learning, reinforcement, and coaching strategy to unlock the potential of every other person on your team.

Did you know that sales teams with effective coaching recognize 28% higher win rates. Get the definitive guide to Sales Leadership.

Rich Mesch

Rich Mesch has been working in the performance improvement space for over 30 years. An ideator and creator, he works with some of the world’s largest companies to solve business challenges by improving human performance. He is the host of the podcast “Real Impact!”, co-author of the ATD/Wiley book “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook,” and a frequent blogger, conference speaker, and contributor to industry publications. Rich is the VP, Consulting for Performance Development Group.

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