By Kevin Higgins
First, the bad news. On average, sales organizations are not improving. Four separate Fusion Learning surveys from 2008 to 2016 reveal that, across everything from selling skills to management, the average sales organization remains just that: average.
Now, the good news. Some sales organizations are thriving. These organizations are not altering what they’re doing, but rather how they’re doing it – and how frequently. They’ve evolved in response to the changing marketplace.
What has changed since our last survey in 2013? For starters, selling is just plain tougher now. In North America, the shine is wearing off of the economic recovery. With skittish U.S. markets and consecutive quarterly drops in Canadian GDP, buyers are more conservative and short-term focused. Buyers have also begun to tune out sales and marketing messages after years of bombardment. Indeed, B2B buyers now prefer to research and buy via a self-service Website. In fact, Forrester forecasts this trend will cost a million U.S. B2B salespeople their jobs by the year 2020.
But not all technological advances are bad for salespeople. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is now the most popular management tool, according to Bain’s 2015 Management Tools & Trends Report. In fact, with the dizzying array of technologies now supporting sales force performance, TechCrunch declared 2016 to be the “Year of the Sales Stack.”
So, how have the best sales organizations changed? Let’s first define “best.” To qualify as best in our research, sales organizations must have attained more than 110 percent of revenue plan with more than 70 percent of salespeople at or above plan. Eleven organizations (6 percent) of the 183 responses to our 2016 survey qualified as “best.” Several key differences have emerged between the best and average sales organizations:
- Frequency. The best sales organizations act with a sense of urgency. This urgency manifests itself in the frequency and consistency with which sales leaders spend direct time with their salespeople. For reference, 60 percent of the best sales organizations hold weekly team meetings; this is compared with the average of 44 percent. Likewise, 60 percent of best sales organizations’ managers hold weekly one-on-one meetings with sales reps, as compared with 25.5 percent of average organizations. These frequent meetings drive accountability and results.
- Pipeline drives productivity… Interestingly, although more frequent, the best sales organizations’ meetings were rated as only marginally more effective than average. But the impact of the frequent meetings jumps off the page in one category: “Pipeline helps drive productivity.” Here, the best score a whopping 8.6 out of 10, as compared with a pedestrian 6.3 out of 10 on average. Clearly, the best now use pipeline reports more effectively and more frequently. (It’s not that CRM didn’t exist in 2013. It did. But, in 2016, people are actually using it!) These leaders don’t wait for monthly reports. They access instant data on activity. They build these data into their weekly meetings to boost prospecting efforts and have different conversations.
- … and prospecting. The best scored higher than average in selling skills. Prospecting, in particular, stood out. When asked whether each member of the sales force has the skills to effectively prospect for new business, the best scored 6.4 on a scale of 1-10. This is compared with 5.6 on average, and up from the best’s 5.7 score in 2013. Likewise, in response to a question about whether each member of the sales force makes time to prospect for new business, the best organizations scored 6.8 out of 10. This compared favorably with a 5.5 score in average organizations.
The last point I’ll leave you with is perhaps the most telling. When asked whether the phrase, “We currently have a high performing sales culture” applies to them, the best, by and large, recognized that they did. But, when they were asked whether they were happy with the current state of their culture, they scored themselves lower. They know they’ve got to keep pushing ahead.
The main message here is not that you can’t change your sales culture. Quite the opposite. You can improve through training and proper management. Even in a challenging economy. But saying you want that change won’t cut it. Building a great culture – like a solid pipeline – takes relentless, consistent, and urgent focus on behavior change.
Kevin Higgins is CEO of Fusion Learning, a world-class sales training organization. He takes pride in his great team and the sales performance improvements they help make in their clients’ organizations. Over the past two decades, Kevin has trained thousands of sales managers from Fortune 500 companies, including American Express, BlackRock, BMO, Disney, Expedia, Honda, HSBC, iShares, JTI, Manulife, Pfizer, SAS, Sun Life, Scotiabank, TD Bank, and 3M. An internationally recognized consultant and public speaker on selling, sales management, and learning effectiveness, his passion for lifelong learning is well known and he is respected in the training industry as a “business person working in training – not a training person trying to figure out business.”