Services Sales Rep Development

Establishment Alignment Optimization

The first steps in the development of a sales rep are establishing the processes that will provide basic information about an opportunity and some understanding about the progress being made to a buying decision. Account progress will be better illuminated in the alignment phase. In addition, A solid set of communication, questioning, and documentation skills are necessary to execute the plan. The establishment phase information also gives insight into the skillset of the rep, which will serve as a guide to further performance improvement programs. The core etablishment processes for a sales rep include:

Call planning:

The purpose of any sales call is to move the buying cycle further along. Preparation and planning help achieve that goal. One of the most fundamental - but too often under-appreciated and under-rated - activities is call planning. Call planning involves strategizing what is needed to move the opportunity forward and developing tactics (e.g., high yield questions) to get that information. Planning requires an understanding of the prospect and the buying process, In the establishment phase, the information being sought and the strategy may seem overly simple; but they are necessary. The information gathered in call planning will continue to evolve as the rep and the organization develop further.

The account information the rep needs to gather will be used to detail the prospect's requirements, and qualify the opportunity. Both are detailed further below. Prior to a call, reps need to research the the person, company, and the account history to date, etc. Doing so demonstrates professionalism and interest in the prospect - and reduces a common source of friction. Prospects frequently complain that they have to keep repeating the same information to reps or have to review information that is easily available (e.g., through the company website). Our general rule is to avoid asking questions to get information that could have been gotten beforehand.

Quantify and document prospect's pain:

We separate out the problem exploration component to emphasize the importance of a full and comprehensive diagnosis of the problem, which far too often gets short shrift. This step can go by many names, including: discovery, needs assessment, etc. Whatever it is called, the goal is for the rep to understand what is driving the prospect to be considering a purchase - what problem is the prospect trying to resolve. Quantifying the size, extent, and cost of the pain is essential in virtually all B2B sales and many B2C. The general rule is quantify whenever possible and as much as possible. Unfortunately, many reps are uncomfortable asking about metrics or haven't been trained in what to ask. In some industries, metrics are closely guarded or considered confidential. Even in those situations, there are usually industry standards that can be used as a basis to work from, getting the prospect to modify those numbers without so that they are more accurate but without disclosing trade secrets.

Often, the prospect is already fairly along in the buying cycle before they talk with the rep. In those instances, the prospect will be focused on the goal - the prospect starting the conversation with something like "I'm looking to buy a..." - rather than the pain. In that case, part of the rep's challenge will be to get the prospect back to discussing and exploring the pain. The prospect may get inpatient with the reps attempts to do that - saying things such as "We don't need to waste our time with that, just tell me what it'll cost." We won't go into all the reasons for the prospect's behavior. Suffice it to say that it is critical for the rep to persist and asses the problem. To not do so, or for the prospect to not allow it, is a bad qualification sign.

The questioning and documentation skills required to extract the needed information deserve comment because they are not necessarily simple or commonplace. No one likes feeling interrogated, so there are some general communication skills that guides a questioning strategy so that you can maximize the amount of iformation while minimizing pushback and objections.

With respect to questioning, the distinction between closed and open questions is fairl well known. There are two advanced questioning techniques to note. The first is termed 'high yield questions,' which are carefully crafted questions specificall designed to extract the maximium amount of desired information. Contact us if you would like to learn more about high yield questions.

The second advanced questioning technique is derived from extensive research on psychotherapists in which it was discovered that highly skilled psychtherapists use more statements than were expected. Further analysis identified the statments were all of a special type, even though they took several different forms (e.g., "Tell me...":"Describe how..."). What they shared was operating`as what can best be described as "gentle commands" in that very effectively elicited information.

Define and document solution requirements:

The next step is to understand what the prospect is looking for in a solution and document it. That includes all the functionality they are looking for, any technical requirements or limitations , etc. It is important to gather all this information early on. As time goes on, the prospect will be less forthcoming. Also, the rep will want to determine whether there are any deal breakers as soon as possible. 

Admittedly, in some short sales cycle environments oral confirmation can be sufficient. What is critical is that the solution requirements come from, or at least be confirmed by, the prospect - although the sales rep may, and sometimes should, provide input to help craft, hone, and expand those requirements. But the rep should not be leading with features, as they frequently do at this early stage of their development. That practice should be changed quickly, as it tends to produce objections from the prospect. More on that in the 'Alignment' solution set. 

Qualify using functional, financial, and political criteria:

The purpose of qualification is to assess the probability that an opportunity will result in a sale so that a determination can be made about how, or whether, to allocate corporate resources. Qualification should be an ongoing process, until the purchase is made. This is one of the areas that gains the greatest benefit from a developmental model, because it will continually build on previous efforts to become more sophisticated and powerful. Qualification criteria need to be detailed and comprehensive. Being the early stages of development, for now the most basic qualification critieria will be used. At  minimum, any comprehensive qualification system has to assess three criteria:

  1. Functional: What are the prospect's needs and how well does your offering match up to them?

  2. Political: Are you dealing with the person who has the authorit to spend the money, and who else will influence the decision and what will be their role?

  3. Financial: Does your solution meet the prospect's budget and/or other satisfaction criteria? Do they have a formal ROI model and, if so, do you meet it? 

No matter what the criteria, for qualification to be useful the rep has to be willing and able to walk away from the opportunity when appropriate. Admittedly, there may be some instances in which a vendor believes they have to participate in an unqualified opportunity - ususally for political reasons. But in most cases, if the rep or vendor organization is not willing to walk, then time and resources will be wasted. A rep chasing unqualified opportunities will stay busy, but will not make consistently make quota or will have an execessive cost of sale. A company that keeps allocating resources to unqualified opportunities will not stay in busines for long.

Activity reporting:

Reps have to provide information about accounts to their managers and the overall vendor organization. Today, most companies use some type of Client Resource Management (CRM) system to track sales. Because the rep at this stage is only gathering basic account information, the reporting is essentially of activity. As a rep progresses in their development, the quality of the information entered into the CRM improves. Those improvements will enable more insightful reporting and more accurate forecasting.

Once the foundation has been established, some very productive - in terms of increased sales - development activities can begin. In this phase, the focus is on coordinating and aligning processes so that they are more efficient and more effective - with information and activities feeding each other to produce outcomes that are greater than the sum of their individual parts. Key elements of this solution set are:

Comprehensive (vertical and horizontal) discovery:

Discovery was part of defining and documenting the solution requirements in the Establishment phase. The addition here is to make certain it is comprehensive - that all aspects of the problem have been explored. To be comprehensive requires identifying everyone affected by the problem and discussing with them the impact. That means the rep, or other designee, needs to move moving both vertically and horizontally through the prospect organization. This movement often gets many reps out of their comfort zone - as they have to have business conversations with different functions, rather than product conversations with like-minded individuals. It is also necessary, at this stage, to identify who will be involved in the decision-making pocess and what their role will be.

We separate out the problem exploration component to emphasize the importance of a full and comprehensive diagnosis of the problem, which far too often gets short shrift. Like the solution requirements, the outcome of the discovery process should be documented and confirmed by the prospect - with the likely omission of sensitive information on influence, politics, etc. In many instances, the amount of data gathered at this stage is both large and complex. To help organize the information, we have developed a means of summarizing the data for each individual and mapping out the relationships throughout the organization. Contact us if you would like to discuss this very useful tool.

Negotiate and document evaluation steps:

This is one of the most powerful tactics any sales rep can employ. We call it an evaluation plan, although it can go by many names. At a strategically key point in the sales cycle, the rep works with the prospect to develop a sequence of events they both agree to that will be used to evaluate the potential purchase. It is no slick sales trick or over-hyped closing technique. Instead, it is an upfront means to methodically lead up to the point where the prospect can make an informed decision about whether to buy from you. It is in essence a project plan for the sales cycle.

The evaluation plan includes all of the tasks (e.g., technical requirements, approvals, etc.) that need to be completed in order to make a purchase decision, and logically sequences them to mirror the buying cycle. Space does not allow a comprehensive review of and rationale for the specific components. The number of steps and length of the plan should be consistent with the complexity and urgency of the purchase decision. 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. The benefits of using an evaluation plan are probably too numerous to count. They include:

  1. Managing expectations, keeping focus, and reducing the likeliehood that something will be omitted - which could delay or prevent the sale.

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

  3. Clearly letting the rep know when they can legitimately ask for the business.

  4. Being a powerful qualification tool beacause it requires committment and action from the prospect - and as each step is successfully completed, the probability that it will result in a sale increases.

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

Document value of your solution or offering:

The first and most important point to note about value is that it has to be from the PERSPECTIVE OF THE PROSPECT! Apologies for the shouting, but this is too important for there to be any doubt or to be misconstrued. Face the cold hard facts; as a sales rep, your opinion or estimate of the value does not matter. It is imperative that the prospect "own" the value. Therefore they have to explicitly state or confirm the value of your offering. In a lengthy or large sale, confirmation should always be in writing. In a short sale cycle or small ticket sale, it can be an oral confirmation.

Value is, in part, based on the benefits that will be gained. So you have to learn, from the prospect, what those benefits will be. In a B2B sale and some B2C sales (e.g., purchasing a major home appliance), those benefits should be quantified. There are some sales, mostly B2C, where the benefits may not be able to be quantified; but they can, and should, still be expressed by the prospect (e.g., "My wife will love this, and be so surprised" or "This pan will be so great for sauteeing"). Whether a tangible or intangible benefit, it needs to come from the prospect and confirmed - in writing, if possible.

But value is not just benefits. A value calculation has to also factor in the costs; and that needs to be a full calculation of all the costs. A full cost calcultion should include both immediate and future costs paid to you, and any additional expenditures going to other vendors. It is all part of the total cost to the buyer.

Knowing benefits and costs, the value calculation simply becomes: Benefits - Costs = Value. In some settings a formal return on investment calculation - in which more complex issues like the cost of money or opportunity costs - may be warranted; but in the vast majority of settings, the straightforward value calculation will suffice. Considering the cost of doing nothing - meaning the cost of doing business as they are today - also helps make a more compelling case for the prospect to take action. This is sometimes called the cost of delay.

Qualify on completion of milestones:

With evaluation steps documented, opportunities can be qualified on actions. Specifically, the completion of the key steps - termed milestones. Each completed milestone is a powerful indicator of the prospect's committment to both making a purchase and and of your standing in relation to the competition. As mentioned previously, the steps in the evaluation plan are strategically crafted and sequenced. Having some tasks early on that require resources from the prospect makes the plan even more powerful as a qualification mechanism.

As more steps are completed, the likliehood of a win increases. That enables the use of account-specific behavioral information to create sales forecasts. No longer will the organization be dependent on the opinions of sales reps to make revenue projections and business plans. Our customers see a dramatic increase in their forecasting accuracy from this data. We have gathered data from our customers on win rates that can be used initially. Once you have your own historical data, it can be used to calculate probabilities - which will increase forecasting accuracy even further. 

Objection prevention:

In the literature and training on sales, a lot of time is spent discussing how to overcome objections from the prospect. Some of it is useful. Much of it is a lot of hype that often does more harm than good. Learning how to effectively deal with objections is important and is something we teach. But, we emphasize a different approach to the whole issue - preventing objections so you never have to overcome them.

The research clearly shows that prospect objections are most often, to an overwhelming degree, the result of rep behavior. Understanding what behavior produces objections and learning how to act differently is far more effective than resolving mistakes once they have ocurred. And not surprisingly, objection prevention has many other benefits. Contact us to learn more about the source of objections and how to prevent them.

Proof targeted to key players and their specific concerns:

Because a comprehensive discovery was conducted, the rep knows the specific concerns of each key player. When it comes to providing proof, the rep can now target what is offered to each individual. Targeting proof has numerous benefits to both sellers and buyers:

  1. Proof is more effective in adressing concerns

  2. Providing proof takes up less of both the rep and prospect's time

  3. Vendor resources are used more efficiently, lowering the cost of sales

  4. The rep is seen in a positive light: attentive, responsive, professional, etc.

Sales team management:

The evauation plan and the related documenation serve as a powerful management tool in leading the the sales team. An established timeline for events enables sales reps to more effectively schedule resources. By having all the key account information documented, team members can prepare for their specific contributions and better understand what is expected of them. The outcome of those contributions are also more definitive, improving account reviews and providing valuable feedback for improving team performance.

Account progress reporting:

Account reporting can now detail the completion or status of specific milestones from the evaluation plan. This is a great advance from the mere activity reporting that was previously provided. Reporting on the status of specific milestones brings greater visibility into the progress being made in the account, more effectively guides account planning, and highlights both individual and organizational areas in need of further development.

Once processes are aligned, they can be optimized through further refinements and expansion. And expansion - of individuals, processes, and data - is the new key element in the optimization solution set. Individuals contribute above and beyond what is considered their core function. Processes support and fuel each other like never before. And, data drives decisions and actions processes to an unprecedented degree. The Optimization phase consists of:

Mutual qualification with the prospect:

In the previous solution set, opportunities were qualified on the completion of specific milestones. In Opimizaion, that is elevated with a straightforward technique - ask the prospect to tell you that they think you are the best fit and explain why that is. Of course, you don't want to give the prospect too many opportunities to say 'no.' Strategically, this should only be done upon completion of a small number of very select milestones.

Tactically, the rep can take a sraightforward approach or what might be considered reverse logic. A straightforward approach would be something like, "Now that you have seen how your staff would use our automated payment processing system, do you think it will reduce time and increase productivity and do you still want to go forward?" The "reverse logic" approach would be to say something like "I am not convinced that we are the best fit for your needs, what do you think?" In either case, the prospect is qualifying themself and arguing for why they should buy from you.

Customer Success Factors and tracking defined:

Customer Success Factors (CSFs) are specifc items that the rep and prospect agree will be tracked to monitor the outcome of the use of your product or service. CSFs are tied to the business objectives of the prospect. Potential CSFs are usually generated during discovery phase and often show up as components of the ROI calculation. But, CSFs are not the same as the ROI, and typically should not be monetary because too many other factors enter in. Some examples of CSFs are: time, volume, error rate, productivity, etc. In addition to the CSFs themselves, tracking and reporting methods also need to be established. Periodic reviews should be agreed to in which the CSFs are reviewed with the buying committee and/or other stakeholders.

The primary purpose of CSFs is to demonstrate to both the customer and vendor the positive outcomes from the purchase; but they also serve many other purposes. CSFs can note areas that are not achieving the expected levels of success, which can then be opportunities for up-selling and cross-seeling additional products and services. The metrics can be used to create powerful case studies and whitepapers, which can be used in marketing campaigns and as proof to other prospects. Many customers are proud of what the outcomes they have achieved and are willing to share that with their peers. If so, they can be enlisted to participate in educatonal seminars, webinars, etc. And they will often have much greater credibility with their peers than the vendor ever will

Negotiation trade-offs are focused on the overall benefit of the organization:

This will not be a review of negotiaitng tactics, Instead, the emphasis is on the strategic component of determing trade-offs - what you will give up and what you will ask for - based on the larger goals of the organization. 

During final negotiaitions, the reality is that the rep is typically concerned with one thing - What is is going to take to make the sale. The consequence is that the rep may discount as much as possible, give away additional products, offer free services, or any other incentive to get the business. But some monetary concessions have a greater true cost to the vendor than others, and many have a greater value to the buyer than the true cost. Strategically, the organization should prioritze what they are willing to give up and convey that to reps; and tactically, reps should have uncovered much earlier in the sales cycle which concessions have greater value to the buyer.

Most incidious of all, reps usually make concessions without asking for anything in return. Most of us know that to be bad negotiaitng practices; but under the stress of actual negotiations, it frequently happens nonetheless. It is somewhat understandable - even if not acceptable - for reps, because they tend to be focused on the short-term goal of making quota. Giving concessions without getting anything in return, may get the sale for the rep; but it does not give the vendor organization any return for that concession. Unfortunately, far too often the vendor organization as a whole - being obsessed with meeting quarterly targets - shares that view. That support is most evident in sales rep compensation plans that reward only revenue and ignore profit margins. Your sales rep compensation plan and what it actually rewards is a discussion for another time. But in negotiaitions at least get something in return for concessions. And align what you ask for in return with your strategic goals - preferably by getting something that will produce future sales.

Research consistently shows that satisfied customers are one of the most powerful marketing tools. Customers help you generate more revenue in a number of ways: introducing you to colleagues; through public endorsements; by leading educational seminars; collaborating on whitepapers, etc. They can also help close opportunties by serving as proof of capabilities by: serving as a refernce; writing case studies, etc. The ways you can use a customer is limited only by how you market your offerings.

Peer mentoring, coaching, training, and education:

The final component to optimizing sales rep performance is to get them involved with the development of their peers and the larger revenue organization. In this way they can share their expertise and insights, shorting the learning curve for others and providing continuity by contributing to the organizational knowledgebase. In addition, research clearly shows that articulating your experience and describing your behavior helps to crytallize and solidify what you have learned. Of course, sales reps are not trained learning and development professionals, and they may not have a comprehensive understanding of your sales enablement efforts. To be most effective, reps should be assisted with any of these activities and supervised by appropriate staff.

Noting the caveat on assistance, there are a variety of learning and development activities that a rep can engage in. Reps may directly mentor and coach their peers. They can participate in the development of training programs by creating or reviewing content, providing input into meaningful and practical exercises and activities, provide input into certification content, etc. Reps can also participate in the delivery of programs by leading sessions, facilitaing exercises, and recording training videos. An often neglected activity is to have reps educate other members of the revenue on specific topics (e.g., what interests key players) or the general challenges of working in the field. The choice of which activities a rep should engage in should be a mutual decision between the individual and relevant members of the revenue organization, balancing the interests and skills of the rep with the stategic needs of the organization.

We provide services to help you develop any of skills or processes listed above. We can also help you put together a comprehensive professional development plan. To best accomodate your needs, we offer our services through a variety of modalities. They include:

  • Instructor-led programs

  • Distance-learning programs (web and telephone)

  • Individual coaching

  • Self-paced workbooks and other instructional materials

It's important to note that our model is a guide, not a prescription. It is used for assessment and planning. By identifying gaps and understanding the interplay of processes and skills, we can help you create a development plan that maximizes both effectiveness and efficiency. You can read more about our developmental model and the benefits of using it.



  • "HSG designed and implemented an online ordering and financial system for our client that far exceeded expectations." Jackie Townsend, President

    » Read more
  • "During our merger, Paul's guidance helped us navigate the challenges we faced integrating the two organizations." Jayne Hancock, President

    » Read more
  • "Paul's training, coaching, and tools helped me with specific accounts and grow overall as a sales professional." Rex Klein, Account Executive

    » Read more
  • "Paul's marketing and project management expertise was critical in successfully launching our first Security Summit." Michael Jones, President

    » Read more
  • "Revenue has increasd by 25%. New customers are coming in...We've developed new revenue streams and more are on the way." Steve Wilson, Proprietor

    » Read more
  • "...Paul gave us the crucial information, tools, and coaching to convert more of our enterprise level opportunities into wins..." Eric Albertson, President

    » Read more
  • "Paul helped us move into larger accounts, which resulted in an opening sale of $280,000." Rex Klein, Vice President of Sales

    » Read more
  • "Paul's...program reduced the time my new reps took to reach quota by two months..." John Sedlacek, Vice President of Sales

    » Read more

Tools & Tips

Sell unto others as you would have them sell unto you.

The Golden Rule applies to selling as it does to life.

» Read more

Common practices are not necessarily best practices

Learn what the top sales performers do to increase their win rate and consistently make quota.

» Read more