Developing an Effective Sales Force in Today’s Complex Environment

Greg Long and Butler Newman

“In most business models, the sales department is fixated on selling. The problem with this approach is that people no longer want to be sold.”

-- The Modern Face of Sales by Humpus Jakobbson

All aspects of business have changed, and as Jakobsson points out, this includes sales. Traditional approaches to selling and training your sales force are outdated. So how do you address the challenge of achieving a successful sales interaction with today’s customers, and how do you equip your sales force to consistently perform to produce the sales outcomes you need?

Some organizations seek simple answers to a complex problem. If sales are down, then more sales training must be the answer. Teach the team more about the product. Or get them to memorize more features and benefits. Or focus the training on how to better use the sales management process to improve the customer experience. Or modernize the sales force automation tool. While aspects of these solutions could be helpful, they are just shots in the dark if you don’t first conduct research to understand what is important for your particular sales force.

Complex problems demand a rigorous approach to determine what matters. Selling in today’s highly competitive market filled with technically savvy buyers and hungry competitors certainly qualifies as a complex problem. For many organizations, sales is the final frontier calling for a robust approach to develop in-depth understanding. For instance,

  • Research is conducted to understand what features and functions are important to the target segment.
  • Research is conducted to understand what matters to the user.
  • Research is conducted to find the right price point.

Typically, however, no research is conducted to understand what is important for individual sales professionals in their roles.

Focusing on the right things, the things that matter, is the fuel that energizes successful sales force improvement efforts. How do you determine what matters most, specifically to your sales team, to create success in your complex selling environment?

The answer, similar to strategies used in marketing and product development, is straightforward and can be summarized in a four-step diagnostic.

Step 1: Identify who’s already getting it right (or starting to)
Referring to the sales force with gross generalizations such as, “Our sales force is great,” or “Our sales force is not very good,” is common. These generalizations ignore the fact that the performance of the sales force follows a normal distribution curve. This curve has subpar performers, mostly average performers, and a small handful of top performers. Regardless of your sales situation, the top performers have either already solved or are in the process of solving the mystery that has ensnarled your sales circumstances. Identifying these top performers, though not always as straightforward as you may expect, is the first step in the process of analyzing sales performance. Performers in your sales organization today are creating the customer conversations, experiences and ultimately the end results your organization is seeking. These people are typically the most-respected members of your sales team.

Step 2: Gather data from top performers
Your company’s product, your customer experience initiatives, your incentive programs, your competitor analysis and your customer support all must be integrated within each individual on your sales team. And it is a truly human integration, so understanding your top performance is a people-centric endeavor. In the language of performance improvement specialists, those top performers who have successfully achieved this integration are “unconsciously competent.” In other words, they execute patterns of success without consciously thinking about what they are doing or need to do next. For them, being consistently successful in their roles is a bit like driving a car. They know when to brake, when to accelerate, and how to instantly spot and take action to avoid hazards. Simply surveying them or conducting how-do-you interviews will likely not result in sufficient data to understand what sets them apart. However, collecting data on top performance behavior is not illusive; it can be gathered through observation and diagnostic interviewing techniques, typically conducted by performance improvement specialists. Applied across an appropriate sample set of top performers, these techniques yield an impressive collection of raw data.

Step 3: Analyze the data to develop a model of top performance
Invariably top performers think about their roles differently. Their focus is based on the mental model they have created through trial and error as they have pursued success. By synthesizing the data, a mental model of how top performers view the sales role can be developed. This model is defined through a set of five to seven outcomes that in aggregate are consistently produced by top performers. These outcomes tend to be leading indicators of success rather than lagging indicators. This forward-looking view is the chief reason it is key to identify and codify the desired outcomes.

Step 4: Take action to equip the entire sales team to behave like top performers
Taking action to equip average performers to produce the same outcomes as top performers does not necessarily equate to training. Though effective approaches to equipping the average performers do not ignore knowledge and skill development, these attributes are not the sole focus. The focus should be on equipping the individual sales professionals and the organization to produce top-performer outcomes throughout the sales organization. In our experience, focusing on the outcomes creates alignment throughout the organization that in turn drives new and significant behaviors in both sales leadership and sales professionals. At the core of this behavior change is a set of new and meaningful conversations: conversations between supervisor and sales professional, conversations amongst leadership, and conversations with customers. These new, meaningful conversations have a compounding effect in driving success across the organization.

Following these four steps provides tremendous clarity and focus for the sales team in today’s complex environment, which in turn produces huge dividends for the organization.

Greg Long and Butler Newman are coauthors of The New Game Changers: Driving Performance by Focusing on What Matters. They are with the global consulting organization GP Strategies and can be reached at