Everyone involved in developing and managing a sales team has asked themselves the nature or nurture question: are top sales professionals made or born? Do we need to recruit for innate qualities or can we cultivate the right skills and provide the right tools to build a first-class team? Based on my experience, the answer lies somewhere in the middle: someone with the right personality and spirit certainly has a head start, and everyone’s effectiveness can be enhanced by training, tools, and structure.
Either way, here are six traits that I’ve consistently seen in top-performing sales organizations across industries and markets.
Resilience: the coffee mug of a great sales VP I had the good fortune of working with early in my career said, “Salesmanship begins when the customer says no!” No matter what the product or market, salespeople are likely to hear “No” more often (maybe a lot more often) than they hear “Yes.” There’s two lessons here: 1) It’s OK. You win some and you lose some. If you’re going to be brought down by the inevitable rejections, sales may not be the ideal profession for you. 2) “No” does not always mean “end of story.” Embracing this truth and developing the fortitude and skill to better understand what led to the initial rejection often leads to turning the situation around. Have you been talking to the right influencers in the customer’s organization? Do you really understand the pains motivating their buying decision and the quantifiable benefits your solution can deliver? Have you communicated this in a compelling way to the right audience? Best case, you can turn the No into a Yes. Worst case, you’ll learn valuable lessons for the next opportunity.
Honesty: be honest, first of all with yourself, and most definitely with your customers, about the types of problems your products can solve, for whom, and the value they can create.
With yourself: This is especially important for you during the qualification phase of the sale. How many times have we all allowed ourselves to be convinced that we have a good fit by rapport with a customer contact and an apparently good solution for some needs - only to have other influencers with other needs show us we never had a shot? Unless we are very clear-eyed and honest first of all with ourselves, we can kid ourselves into wasting a lot of time, money and effort chasing bad deals.
With customers: the last thing we want to do is create an inflated impression in our customers’ minds about what we can really deliver. This can be tempting in the short run, because it might help win a few deals. But it inevitably catches up - sometimes during the more detailed “proof” phases of the sales process, and sometimes after the sale in the form of unhappy customers who share their feelings with their peers. Honesty throughout the process builds trust, solid customer relationships, and positive references and referrals.
Bottom line: know your market, your products, and the value they do, and don’t, deliver to buyers in that market. Find prospects for whom that value is compelling, and focus your efforts there.
Curiosity: genuine interest in your customers’ needs and pains certainly makes for a more interesting and rewarding career. More to the point, this comes across to your customers and prospects. When they perceive that you are interested in and care about their concerns, they are more likely to open up and work with you in the discovery process to uncover the issues and opportunities your products can solve, and link your solutions to quantifiable results that feed into your compelling value proposition. Having an exciting value proposition that is based on data your customer has provided and in which they take ownership elevates the sale process far above the typical feature/function checklist your competitors are likely to be bogged down in.
Curiosity also entails the ability to look beyond what’s said to underlying and perhaps hidden meanings. The customer, or at least the words that come out of their mouth, may not always be right. Customers may use different terminology or jargon than you do. Major purchases almost always involve a committee, and usually an executive approval layer above that. There will be a variety of different opinions and priorities. A winning salesperson is good at probing, connecting the dots, reading the situation, hearing the unsaid, and verifying what they think they heard and understood.
Focus: Following from the previous point, successful salespeople steer clear of the temptation to do a “core dump” demo of all their products’ nifty features and functions. They maintain focus on the high-value components identified and quantified above. In the proposal and closing stages, it is critical to maintain focus on value rather than just price or cost.
Discipline: successful sales organizations invest a lot of time and effort building sales methodologies that cover the entire process from lead generation through qualification, discovery, presentation, proof, proposal and close (your phases may be different but the general point applies). While some ability to flex based on specific situations can be beneficial, we all have known those reps who disdain structure and want to fly by the seat of their pants. Like Icarus, they may achieve liftoff but usually end up being scorched as a result of flying too high: wasting time with poorly qualified prospects, shortcutting the discovery process, relying on canned pitches and feature-laden demos, and losing out to more compelling value propositions at closing time. Top pros leverage their winning skills and instincts with the processes and tools that have proven successful for their companies over time. Those processes and tools, however, are not etched in stone. Successful sales executives regularly circle back to refine and enhance processes and tools based on lessons learned in the field.
Innovation: although it can be tempting to stand pat once you’ve developed and deployed sales processes and tools that are producing good outcomes for your team and company, the world (and your competition) is not standing still. Long-term success means keeping your eyes open and ears to the ground for new and better tools and techniques. Building those into that regular review and improvement cycle I discussed in the previous point is essential to your long-term success. Constant improvement isn’t a cliche - it’s a mantra you and your entire team need to embrace to stay on top of the game.
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