The number one thing I hear from C-Suite leaders about their Sales organization: they want their sales team to be better at selling solutions, and to from a transactional approach to a consultative approach. Remarkably, I was hearing the same thing from executives ten, even twenty years ago. Why aren’t sales professionals better at this already? After all, we’ve been training salespeople in the principles of consultative selling and selling solutions for more than 40 years!
The transformation to a consultative and value focused sales approach hasn’t happened as broadly and consistently as one would expect. Especially considering how long these ideas have been around. The answer to why it hasn’t happened is simple: it is hard. And when it comes to doing hard things, companies and people frequently look for shortcuts.
Jeff Bezos hit the nail on the head in his 2018 letter to shareholders when he highlighted how difficult it is to achieve high standards. He shared the metaphor of the perfect handstand, relating how a friend decided to learn to do them and hired a coach. The coach told her, “Most people think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Bezos went on to share this observation and advice: “Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.”
So, efforts at creating a high-performance solution sales organization fizzle out or devolve into a series of training programs. Building the capacity to sell your products and services as solutions to customer problems or business objectives requires a more strategic effort in addition to an investment that is much greater than most leaders anticipate.
There are three key steps to truly transforming your sales organization:
1. Connect the Sales Organization with your strategy. Every sales call reflects the success or failure of your go-to-market strategy. From the target markets you’ve chosen and your ideal client profile, to the competitive advantages you intend to win with, the elements of your strategy should drive every interaction your sales team has with potential customers. The sales experience you deliver accounts for 25% or more of the customer’s decision to choose you. So, even if you are competitive in every other factor, from price to brand to the products themselves, your likelihood of winning the business increases dramatically if you design and deliver a compelling sales experience.
For executives responsible for the future value of the company, driving strong alignment of your strategy with the Sales Organization should be a top priority. Ensure that sales leaders at every level and reps on the front line fully understand each part of your strategy and their role in executing the strategy with clients and prospects.
2. Rethink Sales Management practices and metrics. One of the primary drivers of performance are management and measurement systems. Unfortunately, sales management practices tend to center on inspection versus improvement. That is, there is significant time and energy invested in checking on the activities of sales reps or adjusting the forecast and too little time spent working with the sales reps to improve their performance as sellers.
I have observed that most companies measure very limited metrics when it comes to sales performance, often just revenue and profit numbers at the end of a quarter or year. That’s the equivalent of a coach in a sports arena watching nothing but the scoreboard during a game. There is so much more you need to pay attention to if you want to understand and improve the performance of the athletes.
I recommend focusing on leading indicators – the metrics that are predictive of a successful outcome with clients or revenue. You’ll find these measures throughout the management of your sales process, with each stage reflecting an advance in the cycle. Most of the opportunity to shape the scope of work you will provide to your customer or to influence what the customer will buy occurs early in the sales process. Myopically attending to the late-stage revenue for the current forecast causes many leaders to miss on this.
3. Create a culture of coaching. Like the perfect handstands referenced by Jeff Bezos, reaching a high level of competence in consultative selling requires considerable practice. At its core, consultative selling is really a communication discipline with a set of flexible practices.
Anders Ericsson, author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, has done considerable research on achieving skill mastery and calls this “deliberate practice.” It requires a clear model of what good looks like, a chance to practice, and a manager who provides behavioral feedback about performance. Sales managers who invest the time and effort to coach their sales team can systematically improve their reps’ ability to sell consultatively and position solutions. One caveat though: since you don’t want inexperienced sellers practicing on your best customers, you need to make sure that there are ample “at bats” in safe situations, where your salespeople can work toward becoming great at consultative selling.
Just because we tend to underestimate how difficult it is to achieve certain goals, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. It’s a matter of understanding the degree of difficulty of the change and harnessing the proper commitment for the business. This is of course, the primary role of executives in building a high-performance sales organization and success comes through putting in the strategic work as a leader. It’s really a matter of understanding the performance drivers that will make it happen and applying all the resources at your disposal to the effort.