Building an amazing sales team can be elusive, painful, and costly. One study found that the average cost of sales turnover was just shy of $50,000 per sales rep. Turnover, tension, and toxicity are often assumed and accepted as the reality of sales. Top performers seem few and far between. Sales leaders struggle just to manage a sales team, nevermind achieving the desired business results with predictable revenue.
When it comes to high-performing sales teams, however, there’s something most hiring managers miss: Sales is about aligning a group of people to deliver business results. Given your context and circumstances, how do you craft a team of super stars? We’ll explore how this is done through the four-part discipline of talent optimization.
The four components of talent optimization are:
- Diagnose: Measure critical people data, analyze that data in the context of your business, and prescribe remedies as needed.
- Design: Create and continuously evolve your people strategy.
- Hire: Use talent optimization insights based on people data to hire top talent and build cohesive teams.
- Inspire: Use data to drive important employee-oriented activities.
We’ll look at each of these separately to explore how they manifest when maximizing sales team performance. Given that sales organizations come in all different shapes and sizes, it would be a mistake to think that what works at one company will work at another. This is why it’s so important to break down your talent strategy within the four components of talent optimization. This allows you to discover what you need in your context.
Diagnose is the first aptitude in talent optimization, because we need to measure and analyze what matters in order to take the appropriate next steps.
Using the Diagnose aptitude in sales
The ultimate measurement of sales—revenue—is a clear diagnostic indicator of whether you’re hitting your sales goals or not. From how your sales team is performing compared to revenue goals, you can break down what’s working and what’s not working.
If goals, metrics, and forecasts are sound, what’s causing your team to meet or miss their objectives? The short answer is: People and/or process.
How we diagnosed the PI Sales Team
You have a plan to deliver results. This is what business strategy is. However, the folks you have in place are underperforming. This may be the individual contributors themselves, the sales leadership, or the supporting roles in marketing or operations.
If your team is underperforming, dig in to find out why. Is there unhealthy tension or toxic behavior? Are your people disengaged? What’s driving this? Are the expectations of the team clear? Is it a skill set problem, a mindset problem, or perhaps a combination of both?
When completing this exercise for my own team, one of the first things I discovered was that my account executives (AEs) and business development representatives (BDRs) were not aligned on the value proposition. I had to redesign pitch decks, talk tracks, playbooks, and more to address this. Areas like these need to be monitored and measured to make a diagnosis. We can’t expect to close more deals or achieve desired business results if we don’t diagnose and address the root causes for poor performance.
How to diagnose your own sales team
The only way to discover what’s at the root of your business problems is to measure critical people data and analyze it in the context of your business. This includes talent audits, cognitive assessments, behavioral assessments, and more.
Maybe you have a technical and complex sales cycle, and your team members continually drop the ball around details. This may be due to a mismatch in natural behavioral drives, a lack of process, or unclear expectations. Or, perhaps you have a fast-paced, high expectations culture, and you expect your sales team to respond in kind. If you’re finding that your team is resisting, this may point to the fact that you have the wrong people for the job. This isn’t meant to sound harsh. Having the wrong people in the wrong seat isn’t good for anyone. It leads to disengagement and suboptimal results.
By measuring and analyzing people data, you can get an objective look at what’s causing performance issues in your organization, then create a plan to remedy them.
Let’s turn to the Design component of talent optimization to ensure that the design of your teams will set you up for success.
Designing a sales team takes into account components such as sales leadership, product or service, target audience, industry, and organizational culture. Medical equipment sales is very different from retail sales, which is different from SaaS sales, and so on. Each requires a completely different design.
Design relates to the organizational structure needed for success and will depend on where your organization is at in its evolution. Here are some questions to help you determine the best model for your sales team:
- What type of sale are you making?
- Who are you selling to?
- How complex is the sale?
- How long is the average sales cycle?
- Who are the top-performing reps in your company, and what are they like?
- Why type of salesperson do you need on your team?
Whether you’re going after existing customers or net new business, the design of your team will play a role in how quickly and efficiently you’re able to close deals.
How we designed the sales team at PI
At PI, our product is relatively complex, in that we’re selling a SaaS platform based on decades of behavioral and cognitive science. But we’re also selling the discipline and methodology of talent optimization—which is embedded in our software—and world-class training on how to design, hire, and inspire winning teams. Our sales team needs to be able to navigate this complex offer to deliver value to our prospects.
To achieve this, we switched from an individual contributor sales model to what we call a Rocket Ship model. Instead of an individual contributor working towards a quota, we have teams of four working to crush their rocket’s quota. What this has allowed us to do is provide better service to our prospects, shorten the sales cycle, and show more value to the prospect, resulting in higher annual contract value per sale. This rocket design also shows a clear career path to our sales team members. An outbound SDR (Mission Specialist) can move into an inbound BDR (Navigator) role, then a junior closing AE (Co-pilot), and finally a senior closing AE (Pilot).
The blueprint to design your own five-star sales team
Designing your team goes beyond simply structuring your team to include team leadership. For example, a highly regulated, mature industry may take a no-nonsense, analytical approach to selling, whereas a startup may focus significantly on relationship building to the point that the CEO co-sells right alongside the sales team. The former may require a heads-down, intellectual leader. The latter may require a leader who can build relationships, connect with people, build bridges, and close deals. These are vastly different behavioral requirements and skill sets, but they both work when placed within the right sales design.
Additionally, determining the strengths and weaknesses of your sales leaders to meet the demands of your design will highlight potential pitfalls. For example, some sales managers are amazing with forecasting and data, but they’re weak on the people front. Others inspire their team to drive revenue, but are weak on the metrics. Self-awareness plays a large role in this. Helping your sales leaders understand both areas of excellence and areas of weakness provides clear opportunities to tap into their natural superpowers and clear action steps to take in areas of weakness.
The role of team culture
Another component that talent optimization calls to the forefront is culture. What is the culture required to deliver the results you’re after? While culture has been relegated to the likes of cool offices and ping pong tables, it’s so much more than that. Culture is the result of the values and beliefs you hold as an organization, and it’s heavily influenced by leadership.
If the cultural tone, values, and expectations are unclear or non-existent, or if they’re not tied to the company mission and vision, the culture—and by extension, the sales team—will suffer. For example, a culture that rewards individuals for aggressive action and competition works for some companies. However, if your product requires a consultative team-selling approach, these values just won’t work.
For this reason, it’s important to map out your culture so it aligns with your business goals. If you’re not sure what your culture currently is, take notice of what gets rewarded. For deeper insight, consider using leadership retreats, surveys, and assessments to determine the core values driving your business.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
If your culture is not aligned with your strategy, your results will get off-track fast.
With clear measurements of success, as well as an understanding of the design of your sales team, hiring becomes much more efficient and purposeful. Rather than filling seats with warm bodies based on a sales resume and interview, you can pay careful attention to the type of person who will best deliver the results you’re after.
Keys to make the right hire
Talent optimization provides the methodology to define and communicate job requirements, gather stakeholder input, and build a stellar job ad that will attract sales reps who are most likely to succeed in the position. Too many job ads are cut and paste from existing ads. Not only does that method lead to a hire who’s not a fit for your organization, but often the requirements listed conflict. If you’re seeking “a results-oriented, quota-crushing individual contributor,” they’re probably not going to also meet the expectation “must be a team player.” Gaining clarity on the values needed for your sales team to be successful will help you craft a job description that will attract the right candidate for your organizational needs.
Along with the evaluation of skill set, it’s important to know the behavioral and cognitive requirements of the sales position itself. Asking questions such as, “What does this role require from someone day in and day out?” provides insight to the behaviors needed to be high-performing on your sales team. When creating your job description, make sure to incorporate language that speaks to the type of person who would succeed in the role.
Hiring for sales at PI
At PI, we drink our own champagne. We use our own talent optimization platform to determine behavioral and cognitive fit to the role. Determining if someone is wired for a job is not a subjective measure. It requires objective science. Too often we hire a lefty for a right-handed job. All this does is create disengagement, turnover, poor performance, tension, and toxicity. Once a behavioral and cognitive fit is determined, we look for culture fit. Can we see this person working at PI? Do they embody our core values (teamwork, honesty, reliability, energy, action, drive, and scope)?
Other factors we consider when hiring are the sales team dynamics. How well will a new sales executive fit into the sales team? Will they fit right in, or are there characteristics that are different than others? Team dynamics can have a real impact on performance. Get it wrong, and you lose money, people, time, and profits. Get it right, and you make money, grow, and expand.
Steps to improve your onboarding
Onboarding plays a vital role in the success or failure of sales executives. On my team, we’ve discovered that there are roughly four behavioral profiles that work really well in our context. However, they all have varying preferred methods of learning and onboarding. To address this, I created a flexible onboarding process that allows those who like to “talk it out” talk. And for those who like to think it out, they can analyze to their heart’s content. The main focus is on new hires absorbing and learning what they need to deliver the results that we’re after.
Three attributes of successful salespeople
As an aside, I’ve discovered that great salespeople do three things:
They set goals.
They set their own goals. They go beyond quota, seek to shorten their sales cycle, or both. One of my AEs adds 20 percent to their quota every month.
They have passion.
Top performers live and breathe what they sell. They embody the value of the offering, which comes across in spades to the prospect.
They are consistent.
Top sellers execute on a consistent basis. Day in and day out, they work their leads, maintain their pipeline, and follow their process.
You can make the best sales hire of your career, but if you don’t know how to manage them, you risk losing your top performers. Inspiring salespeople requires an understanding of how they think and work. This understanding should inform everything from onboarding to coaching to one-on-one meetings.
How to manage your sales team to success
Several of my salespeople prefer to talk things out. When they have a question, concern, or are looking for the best approach to respond to an objection, they want to talk through the problem and possible solutions. Then there are others who prefer to learn by doing. They like role plays, scenarios, and practice. These are two very different learning styles. And yet there are still more: I have other reps who are more analytical. They prefer to think things through. They’ll read, gather data, process it all, and then go on to crush it. My job, as a sales manager, is to respond to their preferred style. When I do this, I can lead much more effectively and tap the natural powers on my sales team.
Understanding what drives your team also allows for successful career pathing. This is something a lot of organizations get wrong. They may have a great culture, but if a career path isn’t quite clear, they risk losing valuable members of the sales team. Career pathing is a key component of the organizational design we discussed earlier.
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Hopefully this brief outline highlights how talent optimization provides a powerful framework to build amazing sales teams. While some organizations incorporate some of these components, it tends to happen unintentionally. Intentionally designing your organization is paramount to success.
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