Building the High-Performing Sales Rep
A 2018 survey by CSO Insights found that 84 percent of Sales Leaders do not believe they have the “right team to succeed.” This is a remarkably candid assessment by Sales Leaders, since – unless they’re new on the job – they were the ones responsible for hiring and developing those teams. Although, as Sales Leaders, we own the problem, it would be short-sighted to say that Sales Leaders are its root cause. The actual source of the problem is multifaceted. Like any home construction project, building a high-performing Sales rep starts with finding the right raw materials – in this case, recruiting candidates who have the right qualities to succeed in your organization.
Beyond that, you need to have a plan in place for shaping those “materials” into the desired state, and then flawlessly execute on the plan until that state has been achieved.
Better Hiring Yields Better-Prepared Reps
The first step of the “building” process – acquiring the right materials – is a major challenge for Sales Leaders, and one of the main reasons why they lack confidence in their teams. The traditional approach to hiring – screening candidates, conducting in-person interviews (often for a “test pitch”) with Sales Leaders or a hiring committee, and checking references – is falling short, primarily for two reasons:
- It relies on opinion and “gut feeling,” rather than scientific candidate data.
- It does not involve Sales Enablement professionals early enough in the process.
The traditional process needs to be fortified with additional steps that increase the hiring success rate, including:
- Incorporating Data into Candidate Evaluations – Leading-edge companies have discovered that successful Sales reps often fit a specific behavioral profile. And, sometimes these behavioral profiles will vary based on the target industry (one type of rep may be successful in manufacturing, while another type is successful in financial services) or company cultures (formal vs. informal environments, etc.). It stands to reason, then, that finding candidates fitting the right profiles is important when building strong Sales teams.
Thankfully, it is not difficult to take this approach to hiring. Using reputable psychometric tests, such as the Predictive Index, can help codify the qualities that top reps share. This data can then be used to find more candidates with similar behavioral profiles. By understanding this data, Sales Leaders can dramatically increase the likelihood that they will bring new reps on board with a high probability of success.
- Involving Sales Enablement Teams Early – Sales Enablement pros are usually responsible for the onboarding process, and often their first exposure to new reps is on the first day of the onboarding “bootcamp.” Unfortunately, this is too late.
Sales Enablement should be involved in the recruitment and interview processes – cultivating relationships, evaluating the skill sets of prospective reps and then customizing the onboarding program accordingly. For example, a successful candidate’s “demo-pitch” session can provide valuable information on the skill sets that rep needs to strengthen, which then can be incorporated into onboarding/training.
You’ve Hired the Right People – Now What?
Hiring the right people is the first step to building high-performing Sales reps. The next phase is to provide the proper training and coaching, so those reps are ready for every Sales interaction. To achieve this ideal state of perpetual readiness, onboarding and subsequent training programs need to move from the traditional “drink-from-the-firehose” approach, to a system of continuous milestones and checkpoints that determine whether or not a rep is truly ready to engage with buyers.
This type of “agile-readiness” program adapts to rep needs and changing business conditions, and it should begin the moment the rep is hired (if not sooner). When done right, agile readiness prepares reps and validates their mastery of the skills required for upcoming milestone tasks (first Sales call, Sales call for new product, presentation before buying committee, etc.). It is also a continuous process; once one milestone is achieved, reps begin preparing and mastering skills for the next one.
Assess Talent with the Right KPIs
To ensure that reps are progressing and developing the way you want them to requires valid key performance indicators (KPIs). Many commonly used KPIs often are not valid indicators of Sales Readiness, because they tend to be tied to activity rather than outcomes. For example, many organizations use KPIs such as tracking reps’ completion of courses, quizzes and tests, or participation in ride-alongs, demos and customer visits. While these measure reps’ activities, they do not provide any qualitative information on the rep’s actual readiness.
When tied to Sales outcomes, KPIs can provide the needed qualitative visibility. These types of KPIs would include things like time-to-first-proposal, first discovery call, first closed deal, etc. – measurements of actual outcomes, rather than raw activity.
Coaching: Another Key to Readiness
Now that we’ve selected candidates fitting the profile of successful Sales reps, incorporated the Sales Enablement organization much earlier in the employee-development process, structured Sales onboarding and training to better prepare reps, and implemented meaningful KPIs based on outcomes, we’ve set the foundation for building high-performing reps. Right?
No, we haven’t. Something very important is missing: Coaching.
Coaching is the key to ongoing Sales Readiness – identifying areas where reps need reinforcement or instruction, and providing them with “quick-hit” practice to fortify their skills. Doing this will engender continuous improvement in rep performance and help with rep retention, since being put in a position to be successful is a major factor in overall job satisfaction. Many organizations recognize the importance of developing a “coaching culture,” but nearly 60% take a random or informal approach to Sales coaching, according to a 2018 survey by CSO Insights. That’s a shame, when formal coaching approaches lead to double-digit improvements in win-rate and quota attainment (also per CSO Insights).
The first step to moving away from a random “hit-or-miss” approach and toward creating a true culture of coaching, is to assign a clear point of responsibility and accountability for coaching –the Sales Manager. However, many, if not most, Sales Managers fall short on the coaching proficiency scale. The reason for this is often a misappropriation of focus. For example, Sales Managers tend to be laser-focused on the Sales forecast. As a result, when they interact with reps, it is usually in the context of a Sales pipeline review, rather than for true coaching.
Additionally, most Sales Managers only engage in coaching when a Sales opportunity has materialized. All Sales Managers should think of the emergence of a Sales opportunity like they do the opening of a bloom on a flower – it is critical to cultivate the roots and stem long before the flower opens. Building a robust coaching program will do just that, enabling more flowers to bloom because reps have achieved a greater state of readiness.
For Sales Managers, the keys to being an effective coach (who fosters highly effective reps) include:
- Understanding the Sales Cycle and the buyer’s journey.
- Being an active listener.
- Taking a “teach-them-how-to-fish” approach to coaching, rather than stepping into the Sales role for reps.
- Analyzing trends, so they can understand where deals are breaking down for reps and apply the proper recommendations.
Readiness Builds High-Performing Reps
Building the high-performing Sales rep comes down to one thing: Sales Readiness. From identifying candidates, to preparing new hires to reach a state of reliable quota achievement, Sales Readiness is the key determining factor.
If Sales Managers take steps to add science to the art of candidate selection, so they know they are bringing people on board who have the inherent qualities to succeed, and then implement agile Sales onboarding programs, continuously identify areas for improvement and quantify rep readiness, they can dramatically increase the number of “A players” on their teams. Most importantly, this will move Sales Leaders to a new frame of mind, where they are highly confident (based on solid data) that they have the right teams in place to be successful.