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.

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