High-performing Salespeople: Separating Madness, Myth, and Methodology

This article originally appeared here in the Selling Power blog.

Every year, the Florida State University (FSU) Sales Institute conducts a benchmarking survey to identify top priorities for their consortium of sales leaders. In 2018, replicating the performance of high performers was the number one focus area. Why? Because, in a world where quota requirements are on the rise, the percentage of salespeople meeting them is at an all-time low.

Furthermore, a recent study of more than 1,000 sales calls examined by the FSU Sales Institute found that, on average, only six minutes of a 60-minute sales call were devoted to information unique to the seller and correspondingly important to the customer. The combination of missed goals and misaligned seller interactions is the equivalent of the sky falling on Chicken Little. Yet sales organizations are pretending it isn’t happening. What’s going on?

Negative Trends in Sales Effectiveness

Worrisome trends are afoot in the world of sales effectiveness – trends that, if left unchecked, will continue to tank sales improvement efforts and stymie well-intentioned salespeople. The result will be billions of dollars wasted and crashing sales force productivity.

The most problematic trend is that we keep investing in sales improvement efforts that don’t work. One of the top choices for improving sales performance is to invest in a standardized sales methodology; yet over 65 percent of organizations report that the results they achieve when deploying these methodologies are below expectations. So, are sales training efforts aimed at standardizing around a given methodology worthwhile? Or are they simply a big waste of money?

The Need for Better Sales Effectiveness Strategies

One very practical way to answer this question is to examine how others have solved similar problems. Let’s use the military as our point of reference. For thousands of years, military leaders all used a single battle strategy. Military leaders lined up as many soldiers as possible and engaged the enemy before them in hand-to-hand combat.

Modern warfare is quite different. Instead of amassing soldiers and engaging in hand-to-hand combat, military leaders strike their enemies with precision tactics – tactics appropriate for the specific situation they encounter. Military leaders today use very powerful intelligence gathering techniques to assess the battlefield before they ever engage – limiting the waste of resources and increasing their chances of success.

The Importance of Data for Sales Effectiveness

Technological advancements lead to increased availability of data, which leads to better military insight, which allows the neutralization of key targets and crippling of the enemy. Leaders must know target locations, which they obtain via satellite images and drones – not guesswork or instinct. The constant stream of data allows continual adjustment in strategies and tactics, thereby creating a vastly more agile force. Agility is impossible without insight, which is impossible without data.

How does this relate to sales improvement and investments in sales methodology?

Standardization Is the Enemy of Agility

Understandably, organizations want to standardize to one sales approach; however, this is “efficiency thinking” at the expense of effectiveness. Why? Because our research with FSU revealed that any given sales approach is effective only 25 percent of the time. In fact, the highest performing salespeople struggle to adhere to a single sales methodology. High performers know that a single approach can never work in every situation.

Successful sellers, like successful military leaders, are agile. They adapt their approach to the situation they face. The scary fact is that average sellers – the core group of any sales force – have the highest adoption rates of sales methodologies that work only about 25 percent of the time. Sadly, organizations are investing millions of dollars to train their salespeople to be average. How is your organization impacted when you consider your own sales improvement efforts?

Sales Agility: The Way of the Future

In sales, as in the military, insight is needed for success. You need insight into the situations your salespeople face – and the best sales approach to use in those different scenarios. First, analyze the factors that define your organization’s unique sales situations. Sales situations are company-specific, exactly the opposite of a one-size-fits-all approach. When it comes to identifying your seller’s unique buying situations, the hard truth is that it’s unlikely that a single approach will do the trick and make the sale.

Next, you must use data to identify which selling strategies win in your different buying situations. This is the only reliable path to take if you want to replicate the practices of your top performers who do this instinctively. You must analyze the situations they face and identify the sales strategies they use to win in those situations. This is the best path to insight that leads to true sales agility and success. Military leaders know it and – thanks to FSU’s research – now, so do we.