In a recession, more than ever, sales teams are under pressure to perform. Likewise, their managers are under pressure to nurture top performers, spot talent, and drive their teams to success.
But how do sales teams measure success? The majority of sales managers and leaders base their replies on one indicator: revenue generated. When we are in such challenging times, is revenue -- as a quantifier of success -- far too one-dimensional? Looking at how reliably this one metric predicts success, we have found that revenue alone cannot tell the sales leaders of the organization about long-term sustainability or the ability to improve team performance.
Hiring more experienced salespeople does not necessarily improve the sales force over the long term.
Research by Gallup with about 250,000 sales representatives in about two dozen industries shows that sales is primarily a talent-driven occupation. We define a talent as a "naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied." Think about a salesperson's inability or unwillingness to hear the word "no" or the thickness of skin required to keep going in the face of rejection. These talents and similar innate tendencies -- which are extremely difficult or even impossible to teach -- are exceptionally powerful in great salespeople.
So this is where senior management comes in. The surest path to success in a sales organization is to find people whose talents naturally position them for success. In other words, hire new players whose talent profiles match those of your "A" players.
Experience is not the silver bullet
Why is it so important to instill this concept in senior management? Because this approach differs from the conventional approach of improving the effectiveness of a sales team by either hiring salespeople with more experience or providing more training to your current team.
Beyond a short learning curve, Gallup's research shows little correlation between experience and sales productivity. Hiring more experienced salespeople does not necessarily improve the sales force over the long term. Similarly, providing additional sales training has a limited, short-lived impact. Research shows that salespeople in the bottom 50% of most sales forces will benefit little from additional training.
Improving the talent base of your organization, however, does result in substantial increases in the effectiveness and productivity of your sales organization. Over the past 30 years, Gallup's researchers have identified a way to quantify the talents that characterize your top sales producers and to measure the presence of those talents in your potential salespeople. Through a number of studies over many years, we found that a better talent fit directly correlates to increased sales productivity.
Where to begin
So where do you begin to build a world-class sales force? Our experience suggests that you should follow a simple path:
Step 1: Hire more people who will naturally behave like your best producers.
Build a recruiting and hiring system that will attract and identify such people. If you already have a recruiting and hiring system, analyze it to determine if the selection assessments are predictive of future success.
Step 2: Identify and develop each salesperson's unique strengths.
A strengths development intervention will lead to improved talent retention, productivity, profitability, and customer engagement. Examine your current professional development programs to determine if you provide the proper tools to help your salespeople optimize their performance by making the most of their dominant strengths.
Step 3: Build a great workplace.
Ensure that your managers are contributing to the productivity, retention, and growth of sales performers. Measure your sales managers on the strength of the engaged workplaces they build and maintain. If you are measuring engagement, look at your metrics to determine if they measure factors that managers can influence and if they link to business performance outcomes.
Step 4: Make sure you are customer-focused.
You might be doing things right with your sales force, but are you doing the right things to turn your customers into loyal advocates? Measure your account teams on their ability to emotionally engage and retain customers for long-term, sustained success.
Gallup's analysis reveals that 30% of sales teams can be significantly lacking in the required talents to be successful in your organization. This doesn't mean that they are not working hard or that they aren't dedicated to the company. What it does mean is that they are not right for sales -- at least not in your organization. So, by ensuring that the people you hire are the best fit for your organization, you are safeguarding yourself against tough decisions and poor performance in the future. That's an investment worth making.
A Fit Made in Heaven
Gallup's research suggests that the traditional reliance on experience, education, and skills or competencies is a grossly inadequate and often misleading way of building your best team. Instead, we believe the degree of fit can best be determined by examining these five areas:
How strong is your salespeople's motivation, and what specifically motivates them to strive, to win, and to achieve? A certain restlessness -- sometimes obvious and sometimes not -- propels individuals who are high in motivation to ever-higher levels of productivity, mastery, service, and excellence.
Do your salespeople consistently overcome obstacles and close sales? With the force of conviction and the power of persuasion, a sales representative with high influence talent inspires others to move toward desired goals sooner rather than later. Resistance is squarely met and overcome. These individuals counter arguments with reason and communicate confidently with customers in a manner that is concise, clear, and to the point.
Does your sales team demonstrate the ability to set goals, devise plans, attend to details, meet deadlines, and organize materials? All of these tasks define a team's work style. Individuals with the desired work style characteristics handle multiple tasks with ease and know when to delegate assignments to others. They automatically see what needs to be done and do it. They thrive in a busy, productive atmosphere. Work is a source of satisfaction and pleasure for them.
What relationship patterns are most successful with your customers? In the give and take of human relationships, the best salespeople strive to gain a keen understanding of who their customers are on both a professional and personal level. In many encounters, trust is established and nurtured, understanding is ensured, and loyalty is strengthened. Appreciation enhances cooperation, cooperation enhances teamwork, and teamwork enhances the quality and quantity of outcomes.
Do your salespeople exhibit a thought process that enables them to achieve sales objectives? Decision making, problem solving, creativity, and innovation grow out of a great salesperson's thought processes. The correct balance of divergent and convergent thinking leads to the generation of options, alternatives, and solutions and allows for the identification of patterns, trends, possibilities, and potential problems.
This article is adapted from one originally published in the May 2009 edition of USP magazine. Reprinted with permission.