Today’s post is coauthored by Michelle Vazzana, a founding partner at global sales management training and development firm Vantage Point Performance, and Leff Bonney (PhD, MBA), associate professor of Marketing at Florida State University, where he teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in sales and sales management.
Anyone in the sales profession sure could learn a lot from Peyton Manning. As an athlete, much of his success was due to his uncanny ability to come to the line of scrimmage, correctly assess the defensive situation, and adjust his play based on the cues he was seeing. He was an incredibly agile player.
One of the most widespread problems we see among both sellers and managers today is rigidity. Companies implement a sales methodology – SPIN Selling, the Challenger Sale, relational selling, or any other fill-in-the-blank approach – and then demand that the approach be used. Every time. This is like a football coach walking into a locker room and saying, “Okay, team, we’ve got a big game today and we’ve got a really good play so we are going to run it 43 times.”
The play may be fantastic, but it’s not going to work in every situation. The same is true in selling. A sales methodology may be excellent, but it will be excellent only in certain situations. In others, it just won’t be the right fit.
What’s needed to drive higher performance in sales today isn’t a better sales methodology, it’s more agility. It’s the flexibility to walk into the sale like Manning walked to the line of scrimmage – with a plan in place and six backups at the ready, any of which can be put into play if the situation isn’t what had initially been expected.
This kind of adaptability requires highly flexible salespeople and sales managers. And, for most people, it doesn’t come naturally. It needs to be taught.
Sales Training Agility and Flexibility
How? Start by thinking through the common sales situations your team faces. On average, we find most companies have 5-6 scenarios that show up again and again. When we talk about scenarios, we are talking about the buyer. Think about these three questions:
- What problem are they trying to solve?
- How many people are involved in trying to solve it?
- What’s the process and timeline for solving it?
This isn’t about segmentation – salespeople don’t think that way. They think, “What’s the situation I’m facing right now, and what’s the best way to deal with it?”
Next, create “plays” or sales approaches that work most effectively for your company in each of those situations. Every rep should know those plays and approach each prospect with a tentative plan based on his or her understanding of the situation. Then the rep must be ready to switch instantly to a different approach if the line-up on the customer side warrants a switch. Great reps are able to recognize that the defense hasn’t lined up as expected – and they quickly adjust their game plan.
The key to accurately reading a sales situation comes down to asking the right questions. Our research has found that novice salespeople ask more needs-related questions, while top sellers ask three times more “scouting” questions (e.g., How fast are you moving? Who is involved in the decision? What’s the process?). It’s the scouting questions that reveal the situation, enabling the seller to apply the right approach.
This kind of flexibility and adaptability is just as crucial at the manager level. We have found that low-performing managers tend to be highly rigid in their approach to management – holding the same kinds of conversations, at the same times, and focusing on the same selling skills for every rep. Top performers, on the other hand, adapt their approach based on the role, the individual, and the current situation – and their results show it.
How Sales Managers Can Develop Agile Sellers
Remember those five or six plays for salespeople in a selling situation? There also tends to be a limited number of factors that drive success in any sales role. Identifying them and coaching around them is the key to management flexibility – and success.
Tip #1: Pinpoint the critical activities, by role and person, that lead to great results. This shouldn’t be a laundry list; you aren’t looking for all the factors that drive sales success – just the critical few that have the greatest impact in each role.
Tip #2: Plan your coaching for each rep around the skills on this list, ensuring they engage with enough frequency and depth to help reps move the needle on performance.
Keep in mind that “frequency” does not equal “more often.” Our research on sales management best practices found that top-performing managers meet with their reps less often than lower performers, but their meetings are longer and have more depth in the right areas, such as digging into opportunity strategy and helping sellers plan upcoming critical calls.
Top performers also continually re-evaluate each rep and role, making ongoing course corrections as necessary so they don’t continue running the same play once the play is no longer effective. Low-performing managers, while meeting with their reps more often, tend to be very absolute about those meetings, discussing the same things – typically a CRM data scrub – at a very shallow level.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach that can work in today’s highly dynamic selling environment. Instead, salespeople and managers must understand how to assess individual situations, decide which play is right, then run the offense accordingly. Companies that take a flexible, agile approach will see more consistent wins.