Today’s post is by Leff Bonney, vice president, research and product innovation, at VantagePoint and a professor of marketing at Florida State University. Leff serves as director of executive programs for FSU’s College of Business and its Sales Institute, which has been recognized as the premier university sales program in the U.S.
When organizations experience a sales performance problem – and most do – they look to one of two places for the solution: their sales processes or their sales methodology. The underlying idea is that improving process or methodology to create consistent sales execution will solve the sales performance problem.
This has been the common approach to sales force improvement for decades. But it’s still not working. While sales results are changing, it’s not for the better. According to the LinkedIn State of Sales Report:
- Over the past five years, investments in tech and training have all increased – to the tune of $28 billion
- Over that same period, quota attainment, rep turnover, productivity and sales VP tenure have all decreased
- 65 percent of sales reps are missing quota
Consistency in selling only works if the right things are done consistently well. Until now, companies have operated on the assumption that the “right thing” means choosing the best sales process or sales methodology and requiring salespeople to stick to it.
New research has discovered that not only is this assumption faulty, but it is also causing the very problems companies are trying to fix. According to the findings of a multi-phase study by the Florida State University (FSU) Sales Institute, by investing significantly in a singular sales methodology, organizations are investing in the creation of an average or underperforming sales team.
There Is No Best Sales Methodology
Initially, FSU researchers set out to determine the answer to a question they are frequently asked by sales leaders: “What is the best sales methodology?”
Four studies and a year later, it turns out the answer to that question is: none.
Here’s how they got there. In the initial study, the FSU team asked 783 sales reps from eight different industries to self-identify their individual sales style. They then correlated those styles with sales performance. The thinking was that whatever method/style was chosen by the most high performers would be declared “best.”
The results: High performers were most likely to identify as Challenger or consultative sellers while low performers mostly identified as product or relational sellers. These results, which validated prior research done by the Sales Executive Council, seemed to indicate that a disruptive or consultative approach to sales yields the best results.
FSU might have stopped there had it not been for a thought-provoking comment by a top-performing seller who’d been asked to participate in the study. He told researchers he found it hard to answer the questions because the type of seller he was depended on the situation. This got researchers thinking: Was the same true for other high performers? And had they simply checked one box to get the study off their to-do lists?
The seller’s remark caused the researchers to question the validity of the initial study and changed the course of FSU’s research. Operating on a new hypothesis, the research team designed a new study that, instead of asking participants to self-identify their selling style, asked them to describe the various selling situations they face and explain their approach for each situation.
The results of the new study were very different – and gave researchers the “Eureka!” moment they’d hoped for.
Top Sellers Align Their Approach with the Sales Situation at Hand
The second phase of the study, which evaluated 1,500 salespeople from three different industries, found that the scenario dictated the type of approach high performers used. Where low performers’ toolkits had only one or two approaches to selling, high performers revealed significant variance in their tactics, using up to five different strategies depending on the situation. In this second study, no single method dominated.
These were extraordinary findings in a profession that has long believed that finding the single right approach for a specific company and using it consistently is the formula for winning sales performance.
To validate these groundbreaking findings, the researchers created a third study. They wanted to see if the problem lay in the situation, not the approach. The research team created situations they felt represented accurate depictions of what sales teams face every day, then asked salespeople to describe what they would do in those situations.
They also asked respondents to explain the details of both a successful and an unsuccessful opportunity pursuit for each scenario. The results were the same. High performers changed their approach to match each situation while lower performers used a singular style of selling regardless of the sales situation.
In the final phase of the study, FSU built a training program aimed at teaching sales agility at a company that agreed to alter its sales approach based on FSU’s findings. Researchers learned the company’s high performers used four distinct selling strategies to reach five distinct types of buyers.
After documenting the five buyer types and the selling strategies that worked best in each case – then training all sellers in the company to identify a buying situation and leverage the correct approach – the results were overwhelmingly supportive of the earlier conclusions. By using an agile approach instead of a single approach, win rates soared and a significantly higher number of reps made quota.
The conclusions were inarguable. While many high performers have long been seen as “rogue” agents who don’t stick to company-directed methods, it turns out the “deviant” selling behavior that has long plagued managers is actually the key to their success. High performers:
- Don’t use a cookie-cutter approach
- Adapt their sales strategy to each unique situation
- Use the strategy with the best chance of success
- Are least likely to use a singular sales methodology
- Have a very different-looking pipeline than lower performers
Based on this research, sales leaders need to stop seeking the “best” sales methodology for their company and instead ask, “What three to five methodologies are right for the three to five situations our sales teams face on a regular basis?”
As more and more companies are discovering, that’s the millions-of-dollars question that’s the key to turning around lagging sales performance.