Most sales organisations of any significant size suffer from a gap between their best and worst performers. If we exclude recent hires from the analysis, sales people typically fall into one of three clusters:
A minority of the sales organisation - rarely more than 20% - are habitual over-performers. A larger number - often 30% or more - are habitual under-performers, with many displaying little evidence that they have the aptitude to improve.
After excluding these outliers, the majority of sales people sit somewhere in the middle: there is some indication that they have the potential to do better, but they have so far failed to consistently and reliably over-perform against their targets.
The middle ground represents a huge opportunity for performance improvement - so what can sales leaders do to narrow this gap between the best and the rest?
The actual size of the performance gap between the best and the rest depends on a number of factors, including the relative complexity of the sales environment.
A wider gap in complex sales
According to the CEB, in transactional sales environments the gap between the top-performing group and middle-of-the road performers is around 160%. But in complex high-value sales environments, the gap is much higher - close to 300%.
Now, it’s clear that some of the differences are because these top performers display a set of specific personal attitudes and behaviours that cannot easily be replicated.
But this is never the entire explanation: a significant part of the superior performance of this group is down to the fact that they have learned how to more effectively identify, engage, qualify and persuade more of the right sort of prospects - and have made these best practices a habit.
It’s these learned habits that provide the clue to moving the middle: top-performing sales teams have been able to identify these winning habits and distil them into a structured selling system that equips, encourages and enables otherwise average sales people to emulate the behaviours of their top-performing peers.
We’ve recently published a guide to “Moving the Middle - bridging the gap between your best sales people and the rest” - which helps outline some of my key recommendations:
Define what good looks like
You’ll want to be clear about where you want to move your average performers to, so you’ll need to be able to define what good looks like. This is best done by carefully evaluating the winning behaviours of your current top performers, and blending this with the best practices of top-performing sales organisations that share a similar market and sales focus.
It’s incredibly valuable to be able to analyse your historical patterns of sales performance.
What is it that these top performers do differently from average sales people? How do they target prospects? How do they qualify opportunities? And what is it that they have learned that they need to know and do at each stage of the sales process to maximise their chances of winning?
Assess, analyse and benchmark
How does the rest of your sales team stack up against this ideal sales person profile? How do you rate their innate capabilities - intellect, values and motivations - and their coachable capabilities - skills and behaviours? Which of your team have the attitude and aptitude to improve? And which are so determinedly stuck in their ways that they will resist any attempts to change?
It’s also incredibly valuable to be able to analyse your historical patterns of sales performance. Which types of opportunity (solution type, lead source, sales person, vertical, etc.) have had the highest win rates - and which the lowest? What are the common characteristics that distinguish the opportunities you usually win from the ones you usually lose?
You may have more information that you think: the latest generation of sales analytics tools from organisations like InsightSquared are capable of extracting historical data you never knew you had - and enabling you to benchmark against the best-in-class.
Focus on compelling issues
Top performing sales people, and top-performing sales organisations, recognise that their prospects are faced with many more issues than they will ever be able to address, and that therefore they have to prioritise.
- Interesting issues might attract the prospects attention, and drive an initial investigation.
- Important issues are significant enough to drive a detailed evaluation - but are still not guaranteed to drive a purchase.
- But at the end of the day, it is only the truly compelling issues - the ones that once recognised cannot be ignored - that are guaranteed to drive the prospect to action.
What are the compelling issues that have underpinned your past sales successes - and how can you coach all your sales people to systematically uncover and address more of them?
Defining your ideal customers
Average sales people, and average sales organisations, tend to have a rather simplistic definition of their target markets, often largely restricted to the classic demographic dimensions of size, sector and location.
Top performing sales people, and top-performing sales organisations, tend to have a far more nuanced perspective on what an “ideal customer” looks like. They recognise that demographics are just the start of the process.
They have worked out what the key structural, behavioural and situational predictors of sales success are in their markets - and they apply them when targeting prospects and qualifying opportunities.
Even if the issue appears compelling, and the prospect organisation appears to be in your sweet spot, there are many other factors that can influence your chances of success.
Rather than leaving it to chance, top sales performers and top-performing sales organisations take a far more disciplined approach to qualifying apparently attractive sales opportunities.
Many have concluded that the traditional BANT methodology is an entirely inadequate basis for accurate qualification - and many sales organisations are embracing the ADOPTED acronym as a more effective way of assessing key qualification factors.
The days when all you had to do was to get in front of a single all-powerful decision maker and secure the deal are largely in the past, if they ever existed at all. Today’s complex, high-value purchases are invariably team decisions involving multiple stakeholders.
Top performing sales people, and top-performing sales organisations, tend to have a far more nuanced perspective on what an “ideal customer” looks like.
That’s why today’s top sales performers - and today’s top-performing sales organisations - recognise that sales success depends on identifying and engaging with the entire decision-making unit, including a number of people that are more likely to sit in the background than the foreground.
It explains why they place so much stress on identifying all the decision team members, and on assessing whether their primary contract is a genuine mobiliser, capable of taking the lead when it comes to influencing their colleagues as to both the need for change and the particular merits of your proposed solution.
Buying-aligned sales process
But all your good work will be wasted if your sales efforts aren’t completely aligned with your prospect’s buying decision process. In complex high-value buying decisions, prospects typically first ask “why do we need to change at all?” followed by “what type of solution do we need to change to?” and only then “why should we choose you?”
Top sales performers, and top-performing sales organisations, have come to recognise that diagnosing where the prospect is in their decision process and implementing the appropriate actions are critical to the success or failure of their sales campaign.
In the early stages, one of the most common causes of failure is sales people rushing to pitch their solution too early, before the prospect has even decided whether the issue is significant enough to drive a consensus for change within their own organisation. It’s critical that your sales people help them build the case for change before you attempt to build the case for your solution.
A non-trivial task
I’ve learned that if you want “moving the middle” initiatives to be effective, you have to take the sort of integrated approach that I’ve suggested above. It’s a non-trivial task, but worth it.
If you have been hoping that a one-off sales training course will achieve lasting change, then I'm afraid that you will be disappointed. It’s well established that 85-90% of everything taught in the typical sales training course has been ignored, forgotten or abandoned in under a month.
On the other hand, several industry studies have demonstrated that a systematic programme targeted at equipping every member of your sales organisation to embrace proven winning habits has a lasting positive impact on revenue production, quota achievement and sales forecast accuracy.
Which approach are you going to take as you prepare for 2017? If you’re determined to move the middle of your sales organisation, I recommend you download this guide.
About Bob Apollo
A fellow of Association of Professional Sales, Bob Apollo is the founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners. He works with ambitious B2B-focused organisations that have complex sales environments, helping them to establish consistently scalable sales and marketing machines that deliver predictable revenue outcomes. Follow him on Twitter at @bobapollo.