Sales Playbooks: The Xs and Os of Company-Directed Sales Organizations

André Martinelli

Growing companies often hit a barrier when their established ways of meeting customer needs are no longer sufficient to support their aspirations. The entrepreneurial, get-it-done mindset that enabled them to capture new customers and grow share can become an impediment as a larger sales team leads to a larger variety of ad-hoc sales processes.

The net result of these “self-directed” sales organizations is often inconsistency in revenue results, difficulty in forecasting, and missed targets. Attempts to diagnose the source of the inconsistency often prove futile. Is the uneven sales performance an outcome of different skills? Different tenures? Different sales approaches? While the answers may vary, the best starting point for fixing the problems is the same: transform the self-directed sales organization into a company-directed sales organization.

In a company-directed sales model, reps are consistent in their use of a defined sales process. They follow the same proven steps and therefore can predict with greater accuracy which prospects are most likely to close and when. They have segmented their clients and prospects and created targeted go-to-market approaches for each segment that are likely to resonate with each one. Without differing sales processes as a confounding variable, managers can isolate shortcomings in their teams and take corrective action quickly.

So how do you get there? It starts with your high-performing sales reps. Many managers believe these “A” players possess some intrinsic ability that is key to their success, that they have some “secret sauce” that cannot be replicated. But just as a real secret sauce originates with experimentation and corrections until, upon perfection, it can be replicated and scaled, top performers’ recipes for success can be codified and shared.

In a company-directed sales model, this knowledge transfer is institutionalized in personal sales playbooks that set expectations, provide resources and offer guidance to all reps. Creating, rolling out and holding managers accountable for a company sales playbook is a hallmark of a company-directed sales organization—and the foundation of its success.

Playbook Components
Playbooks for sales reps should have two primary goals: (1) describe the expected sales process and (2) help reps apply that process successfully. While the specific sales process a company follows is unique, it should address four broad categories of activities:

Relationship establishment– How should targets be determined? How should they be approached to build relationships and determine whether an opportunity exists?

Opportunity development– When an opportunity exists, how should the offer be developed, proposed, negotiated, and closed?

Account management– What should be done to nurture and maintain existing relationships? How can additional opportunities be uncovered?

Overarching guidelines and best practices – What processes and tools guide the sales process, such as CRM systems, pricing guidelines, and sales activity expectations?

After detailing the sales process within those four categories, a helpful sales playbook provides the sales team with the following resources to help them apply the process successfully:

  • A description of best practices at each step.
  • A detailed list of methods, tips and “how-to’s” corresponding to these best practices.
  • A list of resources that can be consulted, where applicable, for each step.
  • The suggested cadence for each step.

While these items provide great detail on the individual steps and help the sales rep perform each step at a high level, the playbook should bring these pieces into an integrated whole. In general, we find everything boils down to two questions:

What should I be doing? Provide sales reps with a sample calendar that, for a typical week, shows what percentage of their time should be spent actively selling, prospecting, attending sales meetings, and performing administrative tasks. Set expectations for each activity (e.g. 3-4 selling appointments per week) as well as objectives (e.g., respond to all warm leads within 48 hours).

How will I be measured? In addition to the stated commission plan, it’s important to establish the specific sales skills and associated management by objective (MBO) goals by which the sales reps will be judged. Any MBOs must have specific and measurable metrics with an associated timeframe (e.g., attend six networking events each quarter).

After internalizing the sales playbook, a sales rep should know what they are expected to do, how they are expected to do it, how often, and where they can turn for additional help if needed.

Creating the Sales Playbook
Developing and disseminating a sales playbook requires a significant effort because each one is company-specific. Driven by customer needs, buyer values, buyer behaviors, and company culture, one size does not fit all. However, while each playbook is unique, the steps sales leaders should follow to gather the information for them is fairly consistent:

1. Create a framework for the sales process. Though the specific details of the sales process will be amended after speaking with the sales team, it is helpful to have a straw man as a starting point for discussions. Rather than asking reps to describe what they do, guiding them to describe how they establish relationships, identify opportunities, negotiate, etc. will lead to richer descriptions of best practices.

2. Interview high-and low-performing sales reps. While interviewing high performers is an obvious step, oftentimes companies do not think about interviewing low performers. Not only do the low performers serve to highlight contrasts in technique, they also can be a source of good individual practices, even if on the whole their approach isn’t successful.

3. Interview high- and low-performing sales managers. Interviewing managers helps address the impact managers have on outcomes. In addition, experienced managers can provide more insight than individual reps, who may not have the self-awareness to understand why they are successful.

4. Go beyond “what?” and “how?” questions. Investigate “why?” to understand the rationale behind actions taken and resources consulted. Ask “when?” to get a sense for the cadence and frequency of activities. Learn “whom” they consult for assistance and “where” they turn for facts, data, and other resources.

With this information, leaders will be able to create a sales playbook and begin transitioning their self-directed sales organization to a company-directed model that propagates consistent application of best practices. Organizations that follow these guidelines and regularly reinforce the use of the playbooks typically see a rapid improvement in sales performance as the sales team begins to apply the sales process in a more strategic and structured way. While the investment of time, management attention, and communication efforts in creating and disseminating a sales playbook is significant, so are the rewards that come from a consistently high-performing sales team.

10 Techniques for Successful Playbook Rollouts
As with any transformative sales effort, adopting a sales playbook hinges on successful change management. In our experience, mastering the science of making change happen accounts for 70% of the value created in a transformative sales effort; developing the playbook itself only delivers 30%. Here are 10 techniques for implementing sales playbooks:

  1. Obtain design input from those impacted – sales and sales management representatives need to be involved in design.
  2. Avoid the Big Bang – use pilots and phased rollouts where possible.
  3. Describe the vision/purpose – articulate the end state and its benefits over the status quo.
  4. Share details of the new playbook, not just a high-level description.
  5. Introduce a single leader – one person is in charge and accountable.
  6. Explain how the organization is going to transition to using the playbook.
  7. Provide the right tools, including the playbook and any associated templates and software.
  8. Explain new metrics for activities and outputs – and capture them within the playbook itself.
  9. Ensure visible sponsorship from the leadership team.
  10. Iterate – recognize that the first version is not final and that the playbook should be evergreen.

André Martinelli is a Managing Director with Blue Ridge Partners, a firm focused on driving revenue growth. He has more than 15 years of experience in business and product development and consulting — all focused on helping firms grow sales more effectively. He can be reached at