In this article, we outline 3 crucial steps that you can take to professionalise your sales force. In doing so, you can ensure that your sales people systematically:
- Create ongoing incremental value across their client bases and sales territories;
- Continuously improve in terms of their sales productivity and effectiveness; and
- Start to get the support and recognition they deserve from the wider organisation.
Since I founded Sterling Chase over 10 years ago, the role of the modern day sales professional has changed a great deal. Back then, the typical sales function consisted of sales people who had received little by way of structured professional development. They either played a numbers game by pushing the features, advantages and benefits of their products at as many prospective clients as possible or they facilitated peer-to-peer senior executive contact at the client decision maker level to feed the prospect’s ego, instil a sense of a long-term commitment to a partnership and, ultimately, cut a deal.
The vast majority of companies did not see the need to take a structured approach to sales development. With the internet still in its infancy, buyers had much less access to information and less choice, so selling organisations could get away with sending highly incentivised teams into target markets with a sound knowledge of the features, advantages and benefits that their products or solutions offered.
But even then, it was the selling organisations that implemented a structured approach to professional sales development, such as IBM in the technology sector, that achieved systematic success.
Having led sales people of up to 1,000 people, I had first-hand experience of what a structured sales development programme could achieve. By adopting a structured approach to sales development, we were able to ensure that our people created ongoing value for our customers while earning support and recognition from the wider organisation for their professional approach to selling. Compared to our competitors, we were seen both internally and externally as a professional army who had the strategy, techniques, skills, confidence and motivation to repeatedly outgun the competition.
Since then, the rise of the internet has significantly empowered buyers. Their ability to instantly research alternatives, combined with an increased focus on corporate governance, has resulted in much more due diligence when making purchasing decisions. Even in smaller buying organisations, economic uncertainty and cutbacks in spending have made every purchase come under much greater scrutiny.
This new sales paradigm has caused the traditional product sales person to become ineffective. It has led to a drive towards selling organisations taking a more structured approach to developing the effectiveness of their sales functions to enable them to systematically create, pursue and secure new business while defending and growing the contracts they already have. Consultative selling, up-selling and cross-selling is now expected in every client interaction.
Despite this significant change in the approach that sales organisations take to developing their sales functions, the way in which sales is viewed has still not changed a great deal from a professional perspective. From our experience, it is clear that the role of the sales professional is still undervalued by other functons in the modern day organisation.
…the role of the sales professional is still undervalued by other functions in the modern day organisation.
For many sales functions, a failure to reliably hit over-ambitious targets has created a vicious circle of underinvestment in support and training. It has led to them being underequipped and incapable of realising their full potential in terms of creating ongoing incremental value for their clients. Consequently, many sales organisations actually experience systematised underperformance, leading to further cuts and reorganisations as tactical changes are made to protect net profit and greater reluctance is shown to making anything other than a basic investment in support and training.
It is perhaps one of the business world’s great paradoxes that, when it comes to sales, no other professional discipline faces such a lack of investment in its development, yet no other professional discipline provides the potential for such a high return on investment. The problem is made worse by many organisations having wasted so much money on tactical development initiatives in the past with the expectation of miracles, without treating them seriously enough in terms of the transformational change management and change leadership that they require.
To professionalise your sales force and ensure that it delivers systematic growth and is valued and respected across your organisation (and the industry), you need to develop AND embed professional selling skills, attitudes and behaviours in your people at every level. In simple terms, you need to:
1. Embed professional consultative selling skills and behavioiurs in your sales people.
2. Embed professional sales coaching and sales leadership skills in your managers.
3. Embed a culture of applied continuous professional development at all levels.
Now let’s go through each of these steps in turn to demonstrate how you can professionalise your sales force and ensure that they receive the training and support they deserve.
1. Embed professional consultative selling skills in your people.
Today’s business buying decisions have become polarised between low-cost commodity purchases and strategic investments. No matter what markets your sales organisation operates in, today’s increasingly savvy buyer now expects sales people to present solutions to their needs which add incremental value and extend beyond the typical features, advantages and benefits that are pushed onto them by product sales people.
To win high value business in today’s environment, you need to embed professional consultative selling skills that enable your people to be more proactive about the way they sell and deliver real business value for clients that will lead to long-term, high-value relationships for your organisation.
Your people need to adopt consultative selling tools and techniques (such as our award-winning Selling from the Left® sales methodology and the supporting sales coaching tools) to create new pipeline and develop major accounts.
2. Embed professional sales coaching and sales leadership skills at every level of sales management.
While it is important that you embed professional skills and behaviours in your front line sales people, it is equally important that you develop and embed professional skills and behaviours at every level of sales management to ensure that your sales people are professionally led, coached and managed in the science (and art) of selling on a daily basis.
To ensure that your sales management team is equipped to lead, coach and manage their people and make every client interaction count, you need to embed professional skills, competencies and behaviours across all of the key sales management disciplines. This means that you should develop your sales managers to be experts at territory sales planning, managing stakeholder expectations and coaching and leading their teams to drive performance improvements at the transaction, campaign, relationship and market (or territory) levels.
By equipping your sales managers with best practice sales management skills, their world will become a different place. They will no longer face the common dilemma of spending too much time on analysing and reporting on failing performance. They will be able to focus on proactively driving sustainable sales growth and professional selling skills, attitudes and behaviours across the organisation.
3. Embed a culture of applied continuous professional development at all levels.
While embedding professional selling skills in your people is crucial to creating value, both for the buying and selling organisations, it is also crucial that you continue to give them the adequate support and training they need to continuously improve and be successful in an increasingly demanding selling environment. This means that you need to take a professional approach to developing your people that embeds best practice professional selling skills, behaviours and techniques in your people that stick in the long-term.
To make your sales development investment deliver sustained results, you need to take a professional approach to developing your people. You need to tailor and communicate your sales development initiatives as part of a clear strategy for developing the skills, attitudes, behaviours and performance of the sales function.
To take a more professional approach to developing your people and transform the effectiveness of your sales function, your sales development initiatives should:
- Provide sales and business development processes, tools and techniques that are tailoed for different organisations, markets and sectors that your company targets.
- Use a blend of coaching, training and consulting that is applied to real life situations as the context for continuously developing your people’s skills, attitudes, behaviours and performance.
- Include professional accreditation standards based on the level of skills, behaviours and performance you expect forr each role.
By ensuring that your sales development intitiatives are tailored and applied to your actual environment, you can take a more effective approach to developing your people that will have long-lasting results. At the same time, you will be able to provide them with the support, infrastructure and recognition that they need to deliver outsanding results and sustainable sales growth in today’s world of B2B selling.
Until recently, there had been little in the way of professional sales accreditation. As a colleague of mine once wrote, this is really quite astonishing when you think of the vital role that the sales function plays and you compare this with the number of other disciplines (such as marketing, commercial law and financial management) that are underpinned by professional qualifications and chartered institutes.
However, in recent years there has been a drive towards professionalising the industry with professional bodies, such as the ISMM, and universities starting to offer industry-recognised sales qualifications that can support and facilitate the continuous development of your people in a more profesional and recognised way. Most major organisations are also starting to develop their own externally recognised accreditation standards which are directly linked to their performance management processes.
To take a more transformational and sustainable approach to developing your people, we recommend that you not only seek to develop the skills of your people and management teams with a professional approach to sales development. We also recommend that you reinforce this with professional sales accreditation standards that are linked to performance management and remuneration. This joined-up approach to sales performance development will provide your people with the process, skills, attitudes and behaviours they need to be successful, along with the recognition and reward they deserve for achieving excellence in their sales and sales management roles.
By combining applied skills training interventions with field coaching, performance management and professional assessment interventions, your people will be in a much better position to deliver outstanding results for your organisation. They will also feel valued as professionals and individuals which will, in turn, encourgage positive attitudes and behaviours across the sales force, promoting a powerful impression across the organisation and its customer base.
Written by: Steve Eungblut, Managing Director of Sterling Chase