When it’s time to “transform” sales performance, don’t start with selling skills …

dreamstime_xs_59454294-1When sales organizations want to improve or transform sales performance, they traditionally focus on selling skills or the “how to sell” piece. Sometimes, we call this magic words, training. But salespeople usually don’t sell (noticeably) more  as a result. The reason is that improving sales performance involves a  more complex mix of challenges than just selling skills.

The real question is not how do we improve or lift sales performance, in the selling skills sense. It’s, how do we lift and maintain sales productivity and in particular, how does the sales organization equip the individual salesperson to become continuously more productive. “Productivity” is made up of a host of variables, including the daily selling routine, identifying prospects, qualifying prospects, creating opportunities from scratch, diagnosing and strategising deals, managing stakeholders, producing accurate forecasts, interacting with non-sales colleagues, collaborating with the manager and closing against the clock.

In practice, selling requires an optimal mix of the right mind-set, a relevant skill-set and and a toolkit. So, how does the sales organization bring together all three so that they have an immediate and positive impact on individual productivity and performance?

The Starting Point is the Common Language

Sales tends to lack a useful language. If you ask 10 salespeople to describe their “top prospect”, not only will each description vary widely, but what each person means by a top prospect will vary widely. This is why managers end up with unrealized forecasts, and holes and gaps in pipelines and targets.

This happens because each salesperson is using loose language devoid of any sense of qualification, measurement, velocity or timeline, when describing the health of a lead or deal or opportunity. On the other hand, a proper common language for your sales organization works something like this:

  1. It describes the stages a buyer goes through in deciding to use you, and under what conditions the buyer moves through the stages.

  2. It communicates the timeline for the buying and selling journey.

  3. It measures and communicates the commitment of the buyer in terms of  participating in the buying – sales cycle.

  4. A common language is immediately recognizable in your sales reporting. (That’s why those “standard” CRM reports never really catch on).

  5. The common language is used to diagnose the health of each sales opportunity, devising strategies for moving the deal forward and collaborating with non-sales people and the manager.

Salespeople don’t sell; they manage the prospect or the buyer

When we help sales organisations to introduce a common language for managing the sales pipeline, managers and trainers often describe it as more a cultural rather than a skills change. That’s because we help instill a new mind-set in the salesperson, whereby they seek to establish where the buyer is, in terms of participating in a buying-selling process. In practice, it eliminates the common scenario whereby the salesperson is far too optimistic about a deal, and therefore makes the wrong moves. It’s why we say that selling IS managing the buyer.

A “Common Language” is not a set of labels in a CRM drop-down menu

CRMs, ironically, have helped work against sales organisations introducing a common language approach. That’s because they reduce sales language to a set of labels in a drop-down menu. The salespeople use the labels in a haphazard way and the labels are in no way tied to forecasting or accurate reporting. Nor is a common language something you bury in a 20 page document stored in the cloud. You need certain tools to socialize and make the common language actionable.

The DEI Board System can now be implemented in Salesforce.com

Better tools are now available to visualize common language sales systems.

You need the right tools

The most effective way to introduce and socialize a common language across the sales organization is to visualize the buying – sales process for users and managers. You literally then put everyone on the same page. The visualization should be reflected in the following ways:

  1. You train the buying and selling process using visual tools.

  2. You manage the sales pipeline and forecasts through a visual tool. Over the years, we have referred to the visual tool as the Board System. Many CRMs, including Salesforce.com, now facilitate the visualized Board approach through tools sch as Kanban.

Everyone saying the same thing, in their own words

A “common” language does not mean that everyone says the same or does exactly the same or becomes robotic. It does mean that everyone in the sales organization can say the same thing, in their own words. They can describe the blockages they are facing in a deal to their manager or colleagues, and there is an instant understanding of the challenges. They can articulate the company’s messaging in their own words, yet protect the core differentiation of the company. They can call a forecast number, and the manager knows exactly how they would have arrived at that number. That’s why the “common language” approach is as much a way to create a culture as it is about methodology. And the best methodology becomes a culture, a way of thinking that promotes and enables continuous improvement.


The DEI approach, with its focus on the common language and visualizing the sales process, yields short and long term value for the company. Short term, the likes of stalled deals start moving forward and daily selling routines are improved. Longer term, target attainment becomes more predictable, with improved activity and selling approaches. And managers and salespeople develop more useful and meaningful one-on-one interactions, because they can identify priorities and what is important to make plan.

Implications for Training, Learning & Development Professionals

Progressive training and learning departments no longer just “do training”. They socialize a common language as the basis for all sales productivity and continuous performance improvement. They use the common language to get salespeople and their managers on the same page. They equip managers to help salespeople become more productive and autonomous and to take ownership of their own productivity. Only then do they prescribe or transfer specific selling skills.

Implications for Sales Management

One of the most common comments we have heard over the years from sales leaders, is that they don’t want to operate a system of micro-management. And, nowadays, micro-management is no longer accepted anyway by employees. What the common language approach does is, it gives the individual salesperson the mind-set, skill-set and toolkit to micro-manage themselves. In a sales role, the real micro-management requirement is between the salesperson and the prospect. Progressive managers tool their team to make this form of micro-management easy in the knowledge that the important work is getting done, to a commonly proven standard.

Awareness trumps skills

Many sales transformation projects underwhelm the salespeople, the direct line managers and senior management. The reason is that the initiative was driven by a “sales skills” mind-set, that mainly sought to teach or tell the salespeople how to sell. In effect, it became a heavy data and knowledge transfer project. When you take the common language approach, two key things happen that engage the salespeople and their managers:

  1. The salespeople develop a far sharper awareness of their role in managing the buyer, what constitutes important work and getting the right mix of activity and effectiveness. This type of awareness is more important than selling skills, as the foundation for improving productivity.

  2. They can now see why such things as sales processes, opportunity stages and forecasting are income-producing tools. In fact, we would go as far as to say that rather than socialize sales process, Training & Development professionals should  socialize the common language for the company. Instead of teaching people (just) how to sell, we need to teach them and give them the tools to increase their income! Only then, will salespeople pay any heed to selling skills.

Salesforce’s Best Kept Secret

Salesforce launched its Lightning platform in 2015.  Tucked away inside the Lightning platform is a tool called the Kanban, which visualizes the sales opportunity pipeline. To some people, it’s another CRM toy, of passing interest. But to others, it represents a whole way of thinking that has transformed their business and helped them scale global sales teams.

“Kanban” visualizes the sales pipeline, but it’s only the tip-of-the-iceberg of a powerful system for managing and coaching a worldclass sales team. In fact, over 10,000 firms have implemented what we have been calling the Board™ system since 1979. And at last, the tools are catching up with the thinking, in the form of CRM Kanbans. Better tools make the whole system more accessible and relevant to frontline salespeople and their managers.

Salesforce Pipeline Kanban. Click to enlarge

Salesforce Pipeline Kanban. Click to enlarge

If you’re a Salesforce user, you’re currently sitting on a tool that can be the basis of creating a highly engaged sales culture, where activity and deal creation are prioritized over all the other – unimportant – work that people tend to focus on.

1 The Board system introduces a common language for managing leads, opportunities and activity. The language becomes the basis of developing a buyer-focused mind-set, as well as the basis of reporting and review, better selling skills and a more productive selling routine.

2 The Board changes how salespeople think about their role. Traditionally, sellers focus on, or are asked to focus on their selling activities. If, for example, you’re producing proposals, that’s a measure of progress in many sales organizations. The Board system is not so much asking what the salesperson is doing, it’s asking how far has the buyer moved forward in terms terms of signing business. One of our clients literally asks his salespeople to place the position of the buyer on the Board.

3 Behind the Board is a specific, but small suite of reports that produce very accurate short and long term sales forecasts. If you’re frustrated with your endless CRM reports and dashboards, the Board system can help you clean it all up and introduce a reporting architecture that actually works.

4  Most internal weekly sales meetings amount to a series of arguments about whether a deal will close or not. When you introduce the Board system, you switch the focus to strategizing the forward movement of the prospect instead of arguing over whether or not the deal will close. This one adjustment alone, changes for the better how a sales team sees their role and how they go about managing their pipeline. Our own clients report that when they introduced the Board system through Salesforce for example, they enjoyed a  much higher level of collaboration between the manager and the salesperson.

Solve the Marketing-Sales divide

If you’re looking for ways to help your Marketing people to better understand the actual needs of the sales operation, in terms of demand and lead generation, and introduce mutual accountability, then introduce the Board system. Increasingly, we involve Marketing in the implementation of the Board, including the CRM piece, the reporting, documentation and the socializing of the system. This works, because it creates the common language between sales and marketing.

Leverage the available technology

One of our clients manages a team of multi-cultural salespeople across 20 countries, some of whom speak only their local language. Being a full-time salesperson himself, it was difficult for him to find the time for a weekly meeting, not to mention coaching or mentoring sessions. So he introduced the Board system in Q2, 2016. Today, he runs the team, literally, from his cell phone. The reason he can do this is that the team now intuitively works with a common language through the Board, and focuses on delivering against only a couple of metrics. The point here is not about mobile technology. Once you create the common language platform, it becomes much easier to manage any size of team effectively.

A new way of looking at your business

The Board™ system shows each salesperson how much progress they have made to date, what’s on the horizon, and what they need to do to make their number and move each individual prospect forward.  When you implement the system, you can see the health of the business into the future, literally, at-a glance. But you also know that the entire sales organization is now engaged in protecting the future of the business.

Note: If you are a salesforce.com user, in order to use the Kanban tool, you need to implement the Lightning platform first. Check with your Salesforce admin. If you are part of a large corporate or enterprise,  ask your admin to commission the Lightning / Kanban for you, without the whole organization having access, and take it from there.

Every Sales Team is a Collection of Individualists. Great teams go one step further …

common_languageSales teams in general are usually a collection of pretty individualistic people.  Many of life’s narrow employment pigeon-holes don’t quite suit good salespeople. That’s why they are in sales! Managers never want to lose the benefit the business gets from these focused, “lone wolf” type individuals. It’s why wise sales managers measure and manage with a light touch.

Yet, if you look at very successful i.e. high growth, companies, while they attract capable individualists, they get an added bonus that smaller, lower growth companies miss. They get an incredibly high level of engagement from each salesperson to help the sales operation be successful. It’s like every individual salesperson is being supported by the know-how and experience of all the other salespeople. 

This engagement and group intelligence, doesn’t come about by chance. It is “architected”  into the sales operation using a common language. This is what turns a collection of individualists, into a powerful sales operation, while supporting individual autonomy and creativity. 

The common language is used for all sales-related discussions. It describes how you create and close a deal, how a buyer moves through the buying process and the tools that move deals forward. It describes what “committed forecast” means and when a deal is stalled. It even describes what “closed” means and it sets the agenda for the manager-rep regular review.

The common language uses a light sales pipeline framework, relevant tools, a flow of ideas for prospecting and closing deals, and supports a meaningful manager-rep conversation. It creates a “checking in” rather than a “checking up” culture, and captures and communicates accumulated experience and learning across the sales team. And we recommend that the fastest way to make a common language relevant for salespeople, is to visualize the language. 

Elay Cohen, author of SalesHood and a former head of sales productivity at Salesforce.com, brilliantly captures idea of the highly individualistic, yet highly engaged salesperson that benefits from connecting with team know-how: every salesperson is saying the same thing, in their own words.

Sales managers warm more to the idea of a common language than a dry “sales process”. For some reason, process and sales is an oxymoron. When Sales Enablement, or Sales Training talk about sales processes, what they really should be promoting – and creating – is a common language across the sales team and the company. Indeed, I cannot think of any greater contribution a sales support function can make, than embedding a common language across the sales team – and a language that the non-sales departments also use and respect. It takes a village to be individually successful. And the village speaks a common language.

Sales Management: The Great Under-used, Under-rated and Under-invested Business Resource

Sales management and sales managers are one of the most under-used, under-rated and under-invested company resources. Companies (and senior management) often hope to land “killer”, A-player salespeople, instead of investing in building sales capability through effective and resourced sales management. And the main reason it’s so difficult to hire the A-Player salespeople is that there simply is not enough of them to go around. So “growing your own” is a fact of life when it comes to having very effective salespeople on your team – especially if you are an SME (SMB) company.

There is also a new pressure facing sales management. Traditionally, if you built a team of relationship-style salespeople, (roughly translated as people who got on well with anyone) even with a second league product or service, enough buyers would give you business. Today, buyers want a lot more from your salespeople, assuming they haven’t already found alternate ways to buy or solve their problems. They want to deal with experts, get sound advice and achieve faster success by using you – and they want to pay less. The type of salesperson who survives in this environment doesn’t walk in off the street or off a jobs board. They have to “produced” by the company – by sales management. Effectively, today’s sales manager is developing salespeople, who are “customised” for your business, irrespective of previous experience or talent.

The traditional perception of an “effective” sales manager is that the manager will have some magic-like effect on individual salespeople that will extract a high level of sales performance. Maybe the odd sales manager has that effect, but it’s a poor formula for delivering predictable and consistent performance, even in a small sales team.

The sales managers who are excelling in their role are increasingly adopting a more scientific, process-driven approach to building sales capability and have let go of the “born-to-sell” nonsense that has plagued the sales profession for decades.

The really effective sales manager starts with this belief: that process, tools, training, feedback and support are what build great sales teams, given some supply of capable people willing to be coached. He or she does not depend on the hope that some combination of experience, talent and “x-factor” leads to people suddenly knowing how to deliver a sales number. If you want to test this theory, the next time you are conducting a new hire sales interview, ask this type of question: how would you go about delivering a million in sales? You’ll be shocked at the answers!

Effective sales managers go to their bosses and look for proper investment in tools, systems, training and supports. Equally, they put strong forecasting and early-warning reporting systems in place and set clear expectations for each salesperson. They run a transparent weekly review routine and don’t try to extract sales performance using embarrassment or public humiliation. Above all, they value the desire for improvement and that old idea of hard work and working on the few important things that deliver sales success – like prospecting for example!

This is not to say, that for the individual sales manager, you don’t have to manage the personalities on the sales team. But managing personalities is just a a hazard of sales management; it’s not sales management.

If you’re looking for ways to accelerate sales growth in 2017, don’t overlook your investment in effective sales management and effective selling systems and practices. It’s much easier and better for your career than waiting for the magic to happen or for that “killer” salesperson to turn up!