Top 3 Lessons in Athletics that Contribute to Sales Success

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Posted: July 1, 2009

We have sent men and women to the moon and we can e-mail across the world. So why can't we figure out how to manage and lead sales teams? One word: process. Most companies operate without integrating three key processes needed for building high performance sales teams:
1. A hiring process.
2. A sales process.
3. A management process.

I often use (and overuse) athletic analogies to make my point in building high-performance sales teams. I believe the world of athletics has done a better job of establishing and using processes in building top-performing teams than business has in building top-performing sales teams.
Let's examine the three processes.

Recruiting (hiring):
Top sports coaches are disciplined in their approach to building teams. They have determined their "need to have" versus "nice to have" criteria. For example, my nephew plays pro football for the Carolina Panthers. While Bruce was in college, the scouts were not willing to sign him until they were convinced that he could reach 300 pounds. Bruce was a great player, which was nice. However, the NFL is disciplined about its need to have 300-pound players.

Many owners and sales managers have not determined the "need to have" for excellence on their teams. Do you need someone with a finance background? Do you need someone who has built a sales territory from scratch? Do you need someone who thrives on new business development versus account maintenance?

Sales managers often settle for nice instead of need. The result can be mediocrity -- not a great strategy for growing companies. Be disciplined when identifying your "need to have" in building your sales team:

1. Hard skills - If you are selling a highly technical product, you may need to have someone that possesses the technical knowledge in order to succeed in your business. You may need someone with major account-selling experience due to your customer profile.

2. Competencies - Identify key competencies needed for this specific position. A highly competitive territory may need a person with tenacity, resilience and initiative. An established territory may need high relationship attributes.

3. Behavior style - Determine the type needed at this time in your company. Do you need a salesperson with a high sense of urgency or one who will work at an even, steady pace?

Playbook (sales process):
"I didn't hire a rookie. I expect them to know how to sell." The is second area of breakdown in building high-performance sales teams: no sales playbook or expectations for sales excellence.
What would happen if Broncos Head Coach Mike Shanahan allowed each of his players to run his own playbook? There would be a lot of running around, with few touchdowns.

It looks the same in business. Sales representatives are running around, calling on unqualified prospects and not accomplishing the goal. Because a sports team has a playbook, coaches can look at post-game films and determine what plays worked, where breakdowns occurred and what to focus on in practice.

Without a sales playbook, the sales manager doesn't know where the sales representative needs to improve or what part of the sales process is not working. A sales process that worked five years ago may not work today.

If sales managers want to build high-performance teams, they must take time to document the company's sales process. This may be a four-step or a 10-step process, depending on the industry and product. Creating a template of a sales process can often take a full day of brainstorming with your team. You must identify and start building best practices in three key areas: activity, knowledge and skills.

What is the activity needed to build and grow business? What are the necessary steps in the sales process? What knowledge is needed for effective client management? If you are not willing to document, be ready to settle for a lot of running around with few touchdowns.

Coaching (sales management):
Training and coaching skills are essential to growing people and teams. Sales managers often get stuck in their manager role and spend too little time in their training and coaching roles. This is the equivalent of a sports coach spending time in his office during basketball practice.
Sports coaches are excellent at having a playbook and making sure their teams execute it. They accomplish this through drills, practice and more practice. They understand that top-performing teams know the plays so well, they can execute without thinking.

Sales managers often receive pushback from their teams when it comes to running practice and drills, i.e. role playing. The excuse given by the team and accepted by the sales manager is "it is not real."

My response is the same: "Neither is basketball practice, but it is as close as you are going to get to the real thing. Stop practicing in front of your prospects." Start running practice sessions with your sales team. Managing numbers and dealing with operation issues are important. However, I haven't seen a sales team improve skills from either of those areas.

Practice sessions can be held at sales meetings, one-on-one coaching sessions or field coaching during a sales call. The point is to let your team know that yours is a culture of continuous learning and improvement. After all, NFL players show up every day for practice, and they have been playing football for years.

Hire the right stuff, build a sales playbook and coach your team to the next sales Super Bowl.

Good Selling,

Colleen Stanley
Cheif Selling Officer, SalesLeadership, Inc.