I have recently begun two new search assignments that are related to the sales function – the first for a Technical Salesperson and the second for a Director of Business Development. While working with the hiring managers to determine the performance requirements for each position, I was reminded of some common characteristics that I typically see in high-performing people. I firmly believe that, in any profession, 20% of the people are above average performers and 80% are average, or below average, performers. And this certainly holds true for the sales profession where 20% of the salespeople make 80% of the sales. Here are three reasons why:
They are Internally Motivated
Average, or below average, salespeople are most often ‘fueled’ by external motivation – not all, but most. They tend to be more influenced by their external environment, and the people that they interact with, than they are by their own personal values and standards. Often adept talkers and strong presenters, their listening capability is usually limited to assessing prospective client objections and to determining what their prospect wants to hear. Typically believing that ‘the customer is always right’, once they know what the prospect wants to hear, they will feed it back to them in order to win the sale.
“The customer is not always right, 80% of the time they just think that they are”.
We all run into this ‘I know best’ thinking from prospective clients. Rather than being open to sometimes contrary input, too often prospect decision-makers, who are very good at what they do, will fool themselves into thinking that they are very good at everything. (Nobody is). Internal organizational ‘yes people’, and external salespeople, who agree with this thinking are only supporting their misconception. After all, if everyone is always telling them that they are right – it must be true!
Thinking that they ‘already know’, can cause these decision-makers to more readily assume that any new, and unfamiliar, products and services are questionable or likely inadequate. As a result they are more closed to input and reluctant to conduct a proper investigation into whether some different approaches may actually help them. Playing into this, the externally motivated, short-sighted salesperson employs techniques that are more focused on agreeing with the prospect simply to close the sale – regardless of quality of the potential outcome. As a result, the evaluative focus shifts away from quality and towards best price, rather than where it should be – on actual value obtained through effective problem solving. And in the event that the salesperson actually wins the sale, but fails to deliver, the ‘right thinking’ prospect will simply blame the salesperson for their poor decision, and become even more closed to future sales approaches.
In contrast, exceptional salespeople are typically internally motivated. This means that they are primarily motivated by their own internal values and standards, and they obtain support for their opinions via input from the outside world.
Wanting to build trust and an ongoing business relationship with their prospect, internally motivated salespeople are focused on doing the right thing, whether the prospect initially agrees or not. When allowed to, they will take the time to educate their prospect about effective solutions to their specific issue, and if they cannot solve the prospect’s problem, they are more likely to possess the integrity to recommend a solution that can be found elsewhere. To them, developing a long-term relationship is more important than making a fast, questionable sale.
Hint: When developing business, look for decision-makers who are true leaders. These people tend to have an open, growth-oriented mindset which causes then to want to do the right thing rather than to personally be right.
They are Adaptable Communicators
Effective communicators present a message in the way that the recipient wants to receive it.
Effective communication goes well beyond simply being a good speaker or a capable presenter. High performing salespeople use their superior listening capability to first fully understand all of the aspects of their prospect’s specific issue so that they can then evaluate the effectiveness of their specific solution. Then they will also use their listening skills to understand the communication requirements of their prospect so that they can then present their specific solution in a way that helps the prospect to understand, to envision its application, and to eventually accept it. In other words, high performing salespeople adapt their message delivery so that it is aligned with their prospect’s specific communication needs.
By first understanding various forms of communication, the salesperson can then recognize, and categorize, both their own personal communication preferences as well as the communication preferences of their prospect. When they can see that their personal communication delivery preferences are incongruent with their prospect’s communication receipt preferences they can then make the necessary adjustments in order to more effectively get their message across.
For example, let’s say that Salesperson A prefers to present information randomly through auditory means (speaking), yet Prospect B prefers to receive information serially via visual means (charts, graphs etc.). It does not matter how Salesperson A prefers to present their information, because if they fail to adapt their delivery to prospect B’s receipt requirements a communication ‘disconnect’ will occur. By listening to prospect B, and obtaining a greater awareness of their communication preferences, Salesperson A can then adapt their message delivery to present a visual, step by step solution that will be optimally received by Prospect B.
As well as evaluating their prospect’s more overt communication preferences, developing a greater awareness of people and their environment can help effective communicators to also accurately identify, interpret and integrate subtle environmental cues (ie: body language) into their communication process in order to create commonality, rapport and trust. Doing so will enable the salesperson to help increase their prospects comfort and to reduce their biases toward change resistance, self-protection, and the justification of the status quo. And once the prospect is more open to considering alternatives, they will be motivated to put in the effort to carefully consider and evaluate the right solutions to their issue.
They are Cognitively Matched to the Product or Service
Since not all products and services are the same, neither are the skills required to sell them.
Some products are relatively simple and can be sold immediately, while others are more complex (and expensive) and therefore require a significant time frame (sales cycle) before the sale is closed. It is only logical that the skillsets required to be successful are very different, and are dependent upon where the product or service resides on the ‘complexity scale’. A big part of achieving high-performance sales results will be the presence of a match between the relative complexity of the product or service and the salesperson’s ability to cope with it. We refer to this as a salespersons cognitive capability, or problem solving skills.
For me, cognitive capability involves a person’s ability to organize and evaluate complex information (sometimes seemingly unrelated) in order to develop effective solutions to problems within a given time horizon. The farther into the future that a person has to contemplate, and plan for, the greater will be the complexity of the information involved, the strategies to be developed, the solutions to be formulated and the contingencies to be considered. The immediate sale of simple products and services will require a much lower cognitive capability than what is required for more sophisticated and complex longer-cycle sales.
Salespeople with higher than needed cognitive capability will be bored and uninterested with the simple product or service, and similarly, people who are required to sell more complex products and services will be overwhelmed and incapable when their cognitive capability is below what is required to be effective. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, there is no such thing as a salesperson who can ‘sell anything to anybody’. If the salesperson is not cognitively matched to what is required for their product or service, and thus are overwhelmed or bored, they will simply fail to perform effectively and they will not meet their sales expectations. This is a big reason why 20% of the salespeople make 80% of the sales.
It is also important to understand that, as young adults, we all develop various levels of cognitive capability, but we do not all start out at the same cognitive ‘level’ – some people begin at a more advanced level than others. As well, everyone’s cognitive capability will grow, at various rates, as they mature over time. Knowing this, we could make the assumption that it is more likely for more mature salespeople to have developed the level of cognitive capability (as well as the technical familiarity and industry knowledge) that is necessary to successfully sell more complex, longer-cycle products and services than their younger counterparts.
But we should not assume that, just because a person is mature, they will have developed the necessary cognitive capability to perform – obviously many have not. Again, people will be different because everyone begins at a different cognitive levels and their capability will grow at different rates. Similarly, just because a salesperson is young, does not mean that they cannot be a rare sales ‘superstar’, as some young people will have developed more advanced cognitive capability which will enable them to surpass their peer group. The critical thing to remember is that, whether young or mature, it is essential for an exact cognitive match to exist between the salesperson’s capability and the complexity of their product or service – otherwise poor performance will result. In all cases, they key is to go beyond basic assumptions about age and personality types, and to know what to look for.
What about Directors of Business Development?
This discussion about skillsets is applicable to various levels of sales managers as well. Effective managers are more often both internally motivated and adaptable communicators. But, in the great majority of instances, their cognitive capabilities need to be beyond those of their respective salespeople. The nature of their role requires them to manage a greater volume of even more complex information than their individual team members, since they are now responsible for multiple interdependent resources. To be effective in their leadership role, and to add value to their team, sales managers have to be more strategic, they have to possess greater scope, and they need to be capable of planning within longer time horizons. Possessing these cognitive capabilities enables them to create a practical vision of the direction of their sales department as a whole, and to create supportive and productive followers within their sales team.
Sales managers that have the same level of cognitive capability as their team members, or a level below, are not seen to add value to them. When employees do not see value in their managers they tend to grow dissatisfied and the truly talented ones will most likely leave (poor manager = poor retention). All the more reason for organizations to ensure that the right sales manager is placed in the role. But too often, organizations mistakenly promote the high-performing internal salesperson only to see poor resultant managerial performance. This occurs simply because they failed to realize that the skillset, specifically the cognitive requirements, of the sales manager role is different than that of the salespersons’.
Well intentioned educational opportunities, such as management and leadership training, mentorship and other developmental activities, all of which are provided in order to help the promoted salesperson to be successful, will be ineffective when that person’s cognitive capability is mismatched to what is required for success in their new role. There is a big difference between knowing what to do, and actually having the skills that are required to successfully apply any gained knowledge. While 20% of the salespeople make 80% of the sales, only 20% of the sales managers are capable of helping them to be successful.
If you want to employ high-performing salespeople and managers, look for people who are internally motivated, who are adaptable communicators and who are cognitively matched to their role and to the complexity of their product or service.