World-Class Soccer Players Are Agile. So Are High-Performing Sellers

You are probably sick of sports analogies. We hear them all the time. They are old and tired. Except this one of course! I realize that Americans are crazy about football; however, the rest of the world views football as something very different. We call it soccer. Everyone else calls it football. This blog is about football, just not the American kind. To be user friendly, we’ll call it soccer to avoid confusion.

Soccer vs American Football

Let’s compare some of the differences between the environments experienced by soccer players and American football players. In soccer, player substitution can only happen twice in a 90-minute game. In football, the coach stops the game every few seconds and provides very specific guidance. The coaches provide moment by moment guidance via constant communication with the players. In soccer, almost no coaching happens during play. The game never stops. What are the implications of this different type of coaching and what does this have to do with sales?

Sales is like Soccer

Sales is more like soccer and less like football. Why? Because a sales manager can’t stop the sales conversation every few seconds and provide guidance. It would be horribly disruptive. In sales, the sales call unfolds – beginning, middle, and end. The quality of planning has a tremendous impact on the success of the interaction. In soccer, the same is true. The quality of the practice has huge implications on progress and outcome of the game. Since soccer is “real time,” the decisions players make and the actions they take have immediate consequences.

When it comes to soccer, one man stands above the rest. Lionel Messi has won every award available to a professional soccer player. He is the best. So what? What does this have to do with selling? Well, there are some very definitive similarities. The best soccer players and the best salespeople don’t necessarily work harder, they work smarter. They do things more intentionally and are very deliberate about the effort they expend.

A soccer game, if played well, is a series of well executed decisions. A sales conversation, if done well, is also a series of well executed decisions. When sellers, or soccer players, act in a more ad-hoc manner without the proper decision-making frameworks, they flounder. This is what drives sales managers crazy. They often feel powerless about what is happening when they’re not around. Critical sales calls happen frequently, and they can’t attend them all. What effective sales managers do is prepare their sellers to evaluate their situations, make the best game-time decisions, and execute those decisions effectively.

Lionel Messi is a Great Decision Maker

Let’s take Messi for example. If you look at the most common stats for soccer players, the average distance run is 7.5 miles (12 KM). For Messi it is 4.9 miles (8 KM). Messi runs 35% fewer miles per game versus the average. What’s mind blowing is that his scoring average is .8 goals per game and he has had 54 hat tricks in his career of over 700 games. No other player even comes close. So, Messi expends less effort and has a much better scoring average. Messi is constantly scanning the field, taking in information, evaluating it, and then making highly targeted decisions. The ability to assess the field and make better decisions is one of the things that sets him apart, leading to almost otherworldly effectiveness.

High-Performing Sellers Assess their Buying Situations

In sales, the most effective sellers spend more time than average sellers assessing the situation they are facing. To get more specific, high performing sellers take more time up front to analyze the buying situations they face, the factors present in each buying situation, and the implications for their sales approach. The best sellers use this critical buyer information to adjust their approach to increase the chances of a win. The best soccer players do the same thing. It is not about more effort. It is about effort expended in a more focused and intentional way.

High performing sellers have honed the skill of assessing the buying situations and use that insight to make better choices. This is not different from expertise in any other domain. Experts in sports, music, and selling are better decision makers. They develop mechanisms for evaluating input and organizing that input to make meaning. These decision-making mechanisms become more sharply tuned over time.

It may appear that high-performing sellers make very rapid decisions about how to approach a customer situation, when in reality the decisions are likely based on many instances of prior assessment. They are building muscle memory that allows them to flex and be nimble. This flexibility is not an inherent trait. It is learned over time by being exposed to different situations, assessing those situations, determine what does and does not work, and filing that information away for future use.

Building Sales Agility

Agility is the result of building the right muscles, in the right way, so that when it matters the right decisions can be made. Effective coaching for soccer players and salespeople must enable better decision making. Sales managers and soccer coaches are unable to make play-by-play decisions. Winning strategies are practiced off the field so that they can be replicated on the field in the right situations. The assessment of the situation is the critical piece that separates the elite from the rest – in soccer and in sales.

In practical terms, it is very challenging to get salespeople to take the time to properly assess the situations they face. Sellers are impatient. They want to act. We face this resistance every time we teach them the principles of sales agility. The most important step in agile selling is assessment. The quality of seller assessment impacts their choice of selling tactics and the execution of those tactics. Bad choices, when executed well, are still bad choices. This discipline of assessing the buying situation prior to acting is a major differentiator between high and average performing sellers.

Coaching and enablement efforts must not only acknowledge the importance of assessment, they must lean into this process. Sellers can (and are) taught to become more skilled at recognizing and making sense of buying situations. Sales managers can incorporate this important assessment step into their coaching to ensure that sellers are properly evaluating the deals they are pursuing.

For more information read our article on Building an Agile Sales Force
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