Creating Sales Monsters (Opinion)

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“I liked that column you did, the one about nice guys not always being the best salespeople,” a reader told me a few weeks ago. “My sales team has a lot more farmers than hunters. I’d like to have good hunters — I mean, real sales monsters!”

The column in question — “Do Nice Guys Sell Less?” — was based on some compelling research from the Corporate Executive Board and a subsequent book, “The Challenger Sale.” It generated a lot of response from readers.

The “challenger” approach is all about using sales conversations and marketing messages to reframe the customer’s view of his own business, offering provocative ideas for making and saving money that also link to capabilities where the customer outperforms the competition. Challenger sales reps account for a disproportionate share of high performers (“monsters,” I suppose) compared with those reps who can be described as Hard Workers, Lone Wolves, Reactive Problem Solvers or even the likeable Relationship Builders.

The weight of recent research supports the challenger premise. For example, a McKinsey & Co. survey of purchasing decision-makers found that product features and the overall sales experience were most important in determining how customers rate a vendor’s overall performance. The two factors customers described as “most destructive” to the sales experience were inadequate product knowledge and contacting customers too often. Only 3 percent of those purchasers said they weren’t contacted often enough, which suggests to me that your customers are open to fewer, but more meaningful, conversations.

So what are the implications for sales management? How can you better equip and train your sales team (and perhaps marketing, product and service teams) to embrace this reality, perform better and close more good deals?

The Corporate Executive Board research provides some great insights. A large-scale survey of sales reps, in which the respondents were asked to evaluate their managers, found that 27 percent of sales managers’ success is rooted in management fundamentals — the type of skills that are common to good managers in any function. That leaves nearly three-quarters of sales management excellence on the “sales” side.

The most effective sales managers excel in three areas, in ascending order of importance:

Selling. This isn’t about managers doing the selling themselves, but rather knowing enough about sales and negotiation to be able to help others do it better. Occasionally the manager might also need to fill in for a rep or help close a big opportunity.

Coaching. This means helping reps prepare for customers, follow through appropriately and tailor their approaches to different situations.

Owning. This factor, which explains 45 percent of effective performance on the “sales” side of sales management, is the extent to which managers run a territory as if it were their own business.

That “owning” attribute is key. To some extent it involves managing to what is already known (allocating resources, driving process compliance, correcting as needed), but the even bigger factor is creating for the unknown. The authors of “The Challenger Sale” call that skill “sales innovation,” generating new ways to position an offer or solve deal-level problems with a rep.

Today, most sales managers spend 70 percent or more of their time with reps doing check-ins: asking whether reps made enough calls or sent enough proposals. That’s managing to the known.

A larger payoff for sales management probably lies in coaching through co-creation: managers working collaboratively through reps to find opportunities where the stakes are the highest, then finding new ways to advance deals.

It takes time, discipline and effort to shift an organization. Marketing needs to create compelling stories for the field that truly differentiate the company in ways in which it outperforms the competition. Training builds awareness, skills and confidence within the sales team over time. Executives need to hold firm even when the internal adoption process gets bumpy. But the payoff from monster-creation will likely be worth it.

Jim Karrh is the founder of Karrh & Associates and director of MarketSearch, both of Little Rock. Email him at [email protected].