Our Approach Best Practices In Sales

Common Sales Performers Peak Sales Performers Best Practices

The diagram above contrasts the behavior of common and peak sales performers as they move through the sales cycle, and the amount of time they spend in each stage. This information is derived from the available research on sales, and our extensive experience working with individual reps and sales organizations across a variety of industries. We define common sales performance as sales reps who don't make quota consistently and/or have average to low close rates. Although not part of our operational definition, their cost-of-sales is typically above average. Despite low close rates and high cost-of-sales, some of these reps occasionally make quota. But they do so at great expense to the overall organization, which is generally not sustainable. 

Our analysis of sales performance is very detailed. This review will not be comprehensive, instead focusing on how rep behavior in the initial stages of the sales cycle sets into motion a downward spiral that negatively impacts the subsequent stages and the final outcome. If you would like to discuss this analysis further, feel free to contact us.

Arguably the biggest mistake of common sales performers is not spending adequate time conducting needs assessments and qualifying the opportunity. As a consequence, the subsequent sales cycle is characterized by three major problems:

  1. Ineffective demos and inefficient use of resources

  2. Increased pushback and objections from the prospect

  3. Scope creep and unmet expectations during implementation

As a result of inadequate assessments and qualification, excessive time is spent doing demos and providing proof related to features for which a need has not been established. This is evidenced in (typically canned) spray and pray demos. When it comes to providing proof of the product and vendor capabilities, common performers also disproportionately request the best and most resources (e.g., most qualified product experts, highest profile references, executive management, etc.) - even in opportunities that don't warrant that level of resource allocation.

Common sales performers use a lot of high pressure tactics that produce excessive pushback and objections from the prospect. The data clearly shows that objections are most often the direct result of sales rep behavior. Although there are several sales rep behaviors that produce objections, the most common is when the sales rep discusses and demos features before need has been established; understandably, the prospect then pushes back - either directly through objections and indifference, or indirectly through cancelled meetings, etc.

Finally, the post-sale and implementation stage suffers from the insufficient needs assessment and the consequent outcomes. Unclear expectations and commitments, over-promising, and other miscommunications result in scope creep and other unplanned - and unbudgeted - efforts by the implementation team to keep the customer satisfied. Not surprisingly, customer loyalty is often low - putting future sales at risk - and reducing the probablity that the customer will serve as a reference or track success criteria.

With all those negative consequences, it is understandable to wonder why common sales performers behave the way they do. There are many reasons and usually several are at play:

  1. Don't know how to behave differently.

  2. By definition, these are "common" practices and so it is the stereotype of how to sell. 

  3. All that activity - even if it does not translate into progress - keeps the rep busy, and they can present themselves to management as working hard.

  4. If they walk from this prospect then the rep has to find another; and lead generation, especially cold calling, is an even more onerous task.

  5. There is often a shared belief - by reps, marketers, product developers, etc. - that features will sell themselves, which is true in some instances but will always be short-lived.

  6. They still make some sales, and they use that intermittent reinforcement to justify their behavior.

  7. It takes a large amount of optimisim to be in sales, which can also lead to the belief they "can bring the prospect around and still win it."

  8. Managers reinfornce or encourages that behavior, either because they believe in it or don't know how to help reps behavior differently.

Peak sales performers are defined as those who consistently make quota and/or have above average close rates. Although not part of the definitional criteria, they usually have shorter sales cycles and lower cost-of-sales. The sales cycles of peak sales performers, both in terms of behavior and time, differ in significant ways from those of common sales performers. As with common sales performance, this will not be a comprehensive review of the data. Instead, the focus will be on behavior in the early stages and how that affects the rest of the sales cycle. If you would like to discuss this analysis further, feel free to contact us.

Typically, a sales rep is not enagaging in purely common or peak sales performance behavior. Most reps will be doing some things well and others not so well. That reality speaks to two key elements of performance improvement programs. First, it highlights the fact that none of us are perfect and all of us have something we can change to improve our performance. Second, it argues for the importance of assessing your specific situation before you enact any improvement program. With that said, let's proceed with the review of peak sales performance.

Peak sales performers spend significantly more time in the qualification and discovery stage understanding the prospect's business. This understanding includes:

  • Both individual and organizational definition needs and goals

  • Identification of all the key players, their role and influence in the buying decision, and their politics

  • Relevant technical environment and requirements

  • Budgetary constraints and ROI requirements

  • History with similar projects

A key insight of peak sales performers is that discovery is intimately related to or even part of qualification. If the propsect is serious and the sales rep is competent and credible, then both understand that this information needs to be gathered so that both the vendor and the buyer can make the best decision. Therefore, providing the rep information and access becomes a qualification criteria. If the prospect doesn't provide access, then either they are not serious about buying or not serious about buying from you. If they can't provide access, then they may be serious; but, they are not the decision-maker or do not have enough authority to make the purchase happen. In that case, the rep needs to get to who does have the necessary power - by the way, getting to that person is another important qualification criteria. 

Another hallmark of peak performers is the use of what we call an evaulation plan. Very early on - and at a strategically key point - in the sales cycle, peak performers work with the prospect to develop a sequence of events they both agree to that will be used to evaluate the potential purchase. It can be viewed as a project plan to accomplish all the steps needed for both the prospect and vendor to make a purchase decision. Space does not allow a comprehensive review of and rationale for the specific components. But, this is one of the most powerful tactics any sales rep can employ. If it is a lengthy and complex sales cycle then the plan should be documented. In one call or short sales cycles, it could be an oral agreement. There are many benefits to using evaluaion plans, including:

  1. It manages expectations, keeps focus, and reduces the likeliehood that key steps will be omitted.

  2. It guides the prospect through a decision-making process, rather than using high pressure sales tactics.

  3. It tells you when you can legitimately ask for the business.

  4. It serves as an ongoing qualification tool - if the plan unravels, then it may not be a qualified opportunity. 

  5. It provides visibility into opportunities, which helps improve resource allocation and forecasting accuracy.

The post-sales and implementation stage is also very different than with common sales performers. Peak performers have manged expectations well throughout the sales cycle. Consequently, scope creep is far less likely. Also notable is that the sales rep maintains an active role during this stage. Far too often, sales reps essentially disappear once the sale is made. What message does that send to the customer? What does it say about the sincerity of the rep towards the customer's business? And how can the rep learn what mistakes or miscommunications might have been made earlier in the cycle and what can be done to resolve them?

Peak performers stay involved until the customer is a satisfied user. One of the key ways they remain involved is through the tracking of the implementaion milestones and the tracking of the Customer Success Factors (CSFs)after implementaion. CSFs are specific metrics that have been mutually agreed to and will serve to assess the outcome of the project. Sales reps can monitor that tracking and should definitely lead the periodic reporting of them to the customer. Potential CSFs are often generated during the initial discovery stage and can also be used to build powerful refernce stories and case studies. With documented proof of success, customer loyalty is high. CSFs can also highlight new opportunities for cross-selling and upselling.

From the data on peak performers, we are able to identify best practices for sales reps. But, peak performers do not operate in a vacuum. Their performance will certainly be affected by the organization they work for and the sales environment they work in. The focus here is on the performance of the individual. Organizational considerations will be minimal, but addressed elsewhere. Although some sales environments make produce specific nuances, peak sales performers in all environments share these characteristics:

  • Patience: Whether innate or learned, peak performers do not rush either the person or the process. They understand that connections are fostered when people are allowed to tell their story and that making a decision takes time. Peak performers utilize a process-oriented approach in which they methodically work step by step to a purchase decision. 

  • Plan and prepare: A hallmark of peak performers is that they are prepared. They do not just wing it, which relies on (self-perceived) expertise and the whims of fate. Instead, they do their homework, identify goals for every interaction with the prospect, and consider how to achieve those goals. 

  • Align with buyer: Throughout the sales cycle, peak performers align their behavior with where the prospect is in the buying cycle. Although their planning and skills keep the process progressing, their patience enables them to be with the prospect in the moment.

  • Have conversations instead of making presentations: Peak performers possess strong communication skills to engage prospects in conversations. They do not rely on presentations, and in fact are skilled at transforming the standard presentation format into a conversation platform. They strategically use questioning techniques to gently probe and extract the information they need.

  • Listen: Perhaps the most important communication skill, peak performers listen carefully and focus on understanding the prospect's needs, goals, limitations, and poilitcal environment.

  • Invest time early on: As an indicator of their patience and communication skills, peak performers spend much more time early on in the sales cycle getting the information they need. This investment pays for itself many times over as the sales cycle advances, or the prospect is disqualified and the rep can move on to another opportunity.

  • Understand when to walk and are able to do so: Peak performers conduct extensive qualification of an opportunity. Without being a complete skeptic, it's almost as if they sell with an attitude of needing to be continually convinced that this opportunity warrants their time. They are also willing and able to walk away when it is not qualified, confident that there are enough opportunities out there to keep them on quota.

  • Prevent objections: Without necessarily being able to articulate it as a strategy, they engage in the behaviors that prevent objections from occurring and avoid the behaviors that produce objections.

  • Efficient use of everyone's time and resources: Having effective conversations, rather than just small talk and superficial attempts at bonding, is a time saver in and of itself. The outcome of those conversations is a better understanding of the prospect's needs, goals, limitations, etc. - all of which will save even more time as the sale progresses. That understanding enables the rep to target subsequent activities toward specific ends. Coupled with the planning mentioned above, everyone's time is used more efficiently - the prospect and all their representatives, the individual sales rep, and the entire sales team.

  • Close when it makes sense to: Peak performers do not engage in high pressure closing techniques. By understanding the buying process and using a methodical approach to guide the prospect through it, peak performers know when all the steps have been completed and it make sense to ask for the business. Even with that, sometimes prospects are willing to skip a step or have, unbeknownst to the rep, completed a step on their own. In those instances the prospect will typically give indications that they are ready to buy and peak performers are sensitive to those signals. Again, asking for the business when the buyer is ready - not when the sales rep wants them to make a decision.

Adopting best practices enables you to improve your sales performance by operating more effectively and efficiently - all while meeting the buyer's needs.



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