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Sales Behaviour links to Sales Success

CEOs are investing more than ever in their sales forces, but results aren’t improving. To understand this disconnect, we observed sales professionals in live sales meetings. We discovered eight sets of sales behaviours. Article by Professor Lynette Ryals and Dr Iain Davies.

The bad news is that only three of them – accounting for a mere 37 percent of salespeople – were effective. What’s more, some of the behaviours of the remaining 63 percent actually drove down performance. But there’s good news, too: the eight sets represent behavioural tendencies, not set-in-stone personalities. Managers can effect changes in their current salespeople and recruit better team members in the future if they understand the eight sets of behaviours.

Selling is an important job. It is responsible for stimulating demand for a company’s products and services. Research shows that sales people in business-to-business markets are increasingly taking on the strategic role of relationship management, becoming involved in forecasting, analysis, consultative selling including product/service customisation etc. It is noticeable that major customers are becoming more demanding of their suppliers, and in many cases it is the sales team that has to respond to these greater demands.

The importance of sales is reflected in the number of people who do it (around a million in the UK alone) and in the high levels of remuneration they receive (a basic salary ranging between £35,000 and £75,000 in this study, before commission payments). Yet, despite this, many sales people perform less well than they should. Previous research has shown that customers look for three key factors in sales people: credibility, knowledge, and professionalism. However, until now, little has been known about what it is that good sales people do in sales meetings and how that differs from what happens in unsuccessful sales meetings. So, we worked with Silent Edge, a specialist consultancy, which has used a detailed scorecard to collect observations of no fewer than 802 live sales meetings over six years. We subjected these observations to a rigorous analysis. The results tell us a great deal about success in selling.

Eight Sets of Sales Behaviours

Our results show that there are eight sets of sales behaviours that sales people use in meetings. From least to most successful, these are: Socialisers; Aggressors; Narrators; Focusers; Storytellers; Consultants; Closers, and Experts. Each set of behaviours (with the possible exception of Experts) have their strengths and weaknesses, which should influence the training and development they receive.

The best

Experts (nine percent) Make selling seem effortless, keep customers happy, and clearly outperform their peers. Experts generate few objections from customers, probably because they are highly trusted. They need little coaching and could themselves be valuable mentors for less successful sales people.

Closers (13 percent) Pull off some very big deals (typically in product sales rather than in service sales) and can effectively counter customer objections. But their smooth talking style puts some customers off. Coaching at a senior level might ‘round some of the edges’ of these successful behaviours and help them grow into Experts.

Consultants (15 percent) Listen well and good problem solvers; they develop solutions that meet their customer’s needs. But they tend to be one-dimensional and to forego valuable case examples that could boost sales. They are also less careful at pre-meeting preparation: Consultants are the ones who try to ‘wing it’ at sales meetings. Coaching should focus on pre-meeting preparation and meeting planning.

The Rest

Storytellers (seven percent) Customer focused and love to provide case studies, but they often “talk through that the sale” and waste time in long meetings that don’t yield results. A combination of training and coaching might be needed to improve listening and customer interaction skills.

Focusers (19 percent) Know their products cold and believe deeply in them, but they lack confidence. They often insist on detailing every product feature and may not hear customers’ needs. Sales people who tend to do this in sales meetings would probably benefit from sales training relating to developing their questioning skills and their general skill and confidence in presenting.

Narrators (15 percent) Know their offerings and the market but are overly dependent on scripts. They cling desperately to marketing materials and failed to respond adequately to challenging questions. Training here could focus on questioning and selling skills.

Aggressors (seven percent) Approach sales meetings purely as price negotiations. They can score wins, and they rarely concede too much; however, some customers dislike their combative approach. The ‘hard sell’ approach is becoming increasingly unpopular with customers, but some sales people are taking a long time to learn this lesson. It is possible that some company cultures may also encourage hard selling. Aggressors need to be trained in up-to-date relationship selling methods.

Socialisers (15 percent) May initially impress customers with their friendly chats about such things as children and cars. But they usually don’t get past this, and close few deals. They need basic sales training – or another career choice!

What Determines Sales Success

The most exciting part of our results is how the behaviours of these sales people are linked to their success. In particular, we demonstrated the clear link between pre-meeting planning and sales success. This should explode once and for all the myth that sales people are born, not made – in fact, the most effective sales meetings are those that the sales people plan for carefully and where the agenda is thought through in advance. The other behaviour that is linked to sales success relates to selling value, rather than product. This means that sales people need to think a lot more about the value that the customer gains from the product or service, rather than just selling its features.

These results are important for all companies wanting to improve their sales performance. There is a tendency for organisations to engage in inappropriate sales training, focusing on the wrong issues, such as the persistent belief that slick Powerpoint presentations are what close deals. Our research provides evidence to the contrary and gives clear pointers for improvement.

Lynette Ryals is Professor of Strategic Sales and Account Management at Cranfield School of Management, Iain Davies is a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bath.

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