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Leading with sales

Leading with sales

Profiling successful salespeople. Myths,
Folklore.and Progress. An article by: James H. Killian, Ph.D.

Current economic conditions have resulted
in some notable changes to our workforce. Many companies have found
themselves in unfortunate positions, having been forced to lay off hundreds (if
not thousands) of workers to cope with a paucity of resources and try to
maintain a competitive edge, or even stay afloat. The financial meltdown of
2009 has caused many organizations to fundamentally change their business
models. But the fact remains that even in financial crises, companies still
manufacture goods or provide services, salespeople still sell them and someone
ultimately buys whatever that product or service is. The world may slow down
from time to time, but it does not stop. And while no one likes a recession, it
is these very periods that truly force most businesses to think critically
about their model, strategy and practices.

This is especially true for sales management. Businesses must incur expenses in
order to grow, and salespeople are a frequent source of expense for organizations.
They also are given a wide degree of latitude and freedom to get their jobs
done, provided they meet their business objectives. During bull market
conditions, managers are content that the salespeople are selling. But during
challenging times, sales leaders often find themselves asking if they have the
right control on resources, the appropriate measurement to gauge their sales
force performance, and even whether they have the right people on the team.
With the world economy now in an uptick, Chally Group has found many sales
leaders are coming out of the slump with a newly invigorated sense of sales
force management and a commitment to ensuring the right talent is on board and
in the right roles going forward.

As of late, a theme among blogs, newsletters and clients seems to be a movement
of “getting back to basics.” This seems reasonable at first glance –
look for the lowest common denominator across sales organizations and address
it. Need to fill the pipeline? Just get out and talk with people. Need a better
process, go get a sales lead management tool from the Web. Need a good sales
manager? Promote your best salesperson (which seldom works, by the way).
However, in good times and bad – the concept of basic solutions for specific
problems is destined to be a failed one because of its one-size-fits-all
approach. Getting specific is absolutely critical to hiring and developing the
right sales talent for the right sales roles. As the old saying goes, the devil
is in the details.

A recent article, published by the Sales Executive Council (SEC) entitled
“The New High Performer,” challenges the concept of basic sales
approaches and sales rep “types” – and Chally agrees with them. In
this article, the SEC surveyed about 450 sales managers and asked them to rate
top performers and core performers across a number of characteristics, in an
attempt to identify trends in performance relative to sales types (i.e.,
specific profiles).

What is appealing about the SEC’s approach and results is that no single sales
profile emerged. In fact, the results from the study identified five different
types of sales profiles that emerged from the survey analyses. Chally supports
this concept directionally as far as it goes, because our database of several
hundred thousand sales professionals distinguished 14 “Unique types”
of sales roles. Based on over 35 years of studying the sales profession,
helping organizations select winning salespeople, and developing better
salespeople and managers, Chally has had a longstanding position that “a
salesperson is not just a salesperson.” As an example, having an
outstanding track record of selling snow tires does not mean the same person
will be effective at selling a sophisticated telecommunications system to a
Fortune 500 company. Our research and common sense dictate that there are
significantly different skill sets involved.

While the SEC’s recent article deserves merit, we also believe that several
concepts critical to salesperson performance were neglected in this research.
First, they compared the performance of High Performers to Core Performers, and
the concept of “Core Performer” did not appear to have been clearly
articulated. But based on the presentation of the data, it appears comparison
between sales superstars (the New High Performer) and everyone else on the team
was the method. Chally research has documented that salesperson performance can
be mapped to an almost normal curve, meaning there are fewer exceptional
(unfortunately) performers and an abundance of more average players on most
sales teams. Hence, simply focusing on selecting or developing one
“type” of salesperson (i.e., the coveted superstar) equates to lost
effort for recruiters and hiring managers – and ultimately suppresses overall
sales success. A good analogy is a sports team – take basketball. Michael
Jordan was arguably the best player in the history of the sport, so why didn’t
Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson build a team full of Michael Jordans if he was
the best? The answer is simple: there were not enough Michael Jordans from
which to choose. But one can still build a high performing team that is focused
on winning, if a slight change in method and philosophy is taken.

Neglected by most sales managers, industrial psychologists, human resources
managers and researchers is the fact that there is more to a high-performance
sales team than selecting the next Michael Jordan – it is also about
eliminating the players that cost the company money, are difficult to manage
and don’t deliver results. It is largely about not hiring the salespeople who
are below average. This is a concept that is frequently ignored in selection
and assessment practices, as we routinely hear companies and consultants make
the claim that “if you assess your top 15 people, we can create a profile
based off them and you can use that to hire (clone) those good
performers.” But ask any sales manager where he or she is spending most of
their time – (a) on the superstar performers or (b) the hiring mistakes – the
majority are dealing with poor performance issues. Thus, while the aspiration
in selection and development efforts is about hiring/coaching the hi-potential
salesperson, in practice it’s much more about not hiring the problem employees.

Second, hiring the right salesperson is dependent upon far more than just
whether the person is a debater, relationship-builder, knows the customer’s
business and is willing to push people out of their comfort zones. These
descriptive behaviors are certainly useful for development, but this general
and broad approach to predicting whether someone will be successful or
unsuccessful in a specific sales role has proven to be ineffective. It’s
similar to claiming that all salespeople have to talk to customers so all
salespeople are extraverted.

The fact is that not all
extraverts are salespeople, and not all salespeople are extraverts. In fact,
many introverted people are very good at selling, just as many extraverted
people may spend too much time talking at someone instead of listening – a key
ingredient to effective selling. There is a great deal of research in the field
of Industrial/Organizational Psychology that suggests broad personality traits
like extraversion do not predict well enough when used by themselves. These
constructs do a sufficient job of describing someone’s tendencies and are
therefore useful for self-awareness and on-boarding new employees, but they do
not identify the specific competencies and behaviors that someone will need to
be a strong performer in a specific sales role.

The crux of the argument is that someone who scores as a particular sales
“type” may be a very good performer, but mostly for a specific type
of sales role. Chally has identified 14 different sales-related profiles, and
while our research concludes that 65  percentof
people who are failing in one role can be successful in another role, the
probability of success depends largely on whether someone is moving from one
specific sales role into another for which they naturally demonstrate

In fact, our research has demonstrated that those who have the capability to be
a top 20  percenthunter-type seller
demonstrate a diminished (less than 10%) capacity for being in the top 20  percentof farming sales roles (e.g., account
management). This is because there are very specific things that a top hunter
does to make him or her successful that would generally be counterproductive in
another role. As a result, taking a broad brushstroke approach (e.g., the
Challenger, the Extravert, the Dominant person) tells us little about what
someone will do to be successful in a specific sales role. Pushing people out
of their comfort zones may be useful for a New Business Development Hunter-type
salesperson responsible for influencing others, but the same approach for a Relationship
-based territory Salesperson, Account Manager, or Inbound Customer Service
Representative likely will fall flat.

Historically, applied research has shown substantial differences between skill
sets of generalists versus specialists. This is true for physicians, attorneys
and sales people alike. Recent research focusing specifically on sales roles
suggests differences among salespeople will dictate whether they are successful
in one sales role versus another (low vs. high complexity). There are very few
hybrid sales roles (e.g., a hunter and farmer together) that are practical or
useful, as a salesperson very rarely demonstrates exceptional performance in
such different sales disciplines.

Chally believes companies who want to succeed in a competitive market need to
begin with the end in mind and gather thorough information about the sales
position(s) under consideration. An understanding of exactly what is being
sold, to whom it is being sold, sales cycle length, and how many stakeholders
need to be involved is just a surface level synopsis of the key decision
criteria that need to be addressed to specify exactly the salesperson
specialization (and subsequent critical competencies) needed to ensure success
in that specific sales role. From there, it is vital to select, onboard,
develop, plan and measure those same critical competencies throughout the
employee lifecycle to ensure consistency in methods and measurement. This
consistency will go to ensuring that companies leverage a system that distinguishes
strong from poor performers for a specific role and keep them focused on those
things that reliably predict sustainable results.

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