Strategy vs. Sales Skill – A Las Vegas Showdown

Author: 
Jason Jordan

As veteran consultants, we have worked with practically every type of sales force, so we are rarely surprised by the clients we encounter. However, we have to admit we suspected someone was joking when we heard that a Las Vegas casino wanted us to help a sales force that services high-stakes gamblers. Were we being set up by a devious reality TV show producer? After finally recognizing that this was not a joke (and after a fair amount of negotiation over who would get to be on the team), we packed our lucky bags and set off to one of the most surreal locations in America.

Shining Stars in the Desert
The problem facing our client was a familiar one: They wanted to improve their sales force’s performance. In this case, however, the sales force sold a unique product – entertainment. The salespeople were essentially dedicated customer service representatives for gamblers who frequented Las Vegas. The “sale” was to entice the individuals to visit their hotel and casino rather than the competition. Once on the property, the salespeople ensured that the guests enjoyed themselves while they spent and lost tens of thousands of dollars. As sales objectives go, this was one of the most fascinating goals that we’d encountered.

Like most sales forces, there were a few superstars who brought in three to four times more revenue from their clients than their average salespeople. And like most sales forces, no one understood what the star salespeople were doing that led to such miraculous performance. Therefore, we set about the task of analyzing the sales force to uncover the actual reasons that some sales stars shine brighter in the desert sky.

The Usual Suspects
We began by asking the sales managers why they believed their top performers were so outstanding. Their responses were similar to the answers we usually hear – likable personality, hard work, proactive behavior, etc. We also asked the top salespeople why they believed they were successful. Their opinions were similarly familiar – interpersonal skills, time management, work experience, etc. While their answers were not surprising, they were also not accurate.

As we often find, sales management and salespeople tend to focus sharply on one aspect of selling – sales skills. We suspect this fixation is a remnant of “old school” selling, when sales were mostly transactional and driven by learned techniques of persuasion and pressure. In these types of sales, you didn’t need a great deal of strategy, the sales process was simple, and sophisticated sales tools didn’t really exist. Success was, in fact, largely determined by the ability of the salesperson to control the sales interaction and manipulate the buyer.

However, as the complexity of products and customers has increased over time, so have the number of factors that affect sales performance. Sales skill will always be fundamental to success, but it is now intertwined with many other elements of an intricate selling system. Despite this fact, selling skill is still the first place most people look to improve a sales force or explain its performance. So too was the case in Las Vegas.

Dazed and Confused
After spending a few days (and nights) side-by-side with the casino’s sales force, we reached conclusions that were quite different from their original self-assessment. Surprisingly, we saw no uniquely noteworthy use of selling skills in the top salespeople. To the contrary, we observed better questioning, time management, and interpersonal skills in many of the average performers. The best salespeople were skilled, no doubt, but it was not a critical differentiator between them and the rest of the sales force.

We analyzed other pieces of their selling system as well, though the casino had no standardized sales methodology. Everyone generally followed the same sales process – calls came in, calls went out, and travel accommodations were made. Regarding sales tools, the sales force was in the process of migrating to a new suite of software applications, but some of the top salespeople were actually using the older, less functional tools – so no clear advantage to the superstars there. What, then, was the source of the large disparity between the productivity of the top performers and the average sellers?

The Secret Is Revealed
If sales skill is the component of a selling system that gets too much emphasis, then sales strategy is the element that gets too little. From our analysis, it was clear to us that the top performers were succeeding because they had each developed their own targeted customer strategies. Without knowing it, each of the top sellers had carved out their own market segment and developed very efficient methods of satisfying their needs. For instance, one star salesperson was focused on extremely wealthy gamblers, and he maintained a relatively small base of clients that individually contributed large portions of his sales. These clients required a lot of attention, and trouble brewed if there were ever more than two or three in the casino at the same time.

On the other hand, a second top performer had created a niche that suited his more reserved personality. He catered to mid-market gamblers who were not very needy, and he accordingly had hundreds of clients that frequented the casino. Since they required much less attention than the rich and famous, he could have dozens on the property at any given time and satisfy them all with brief, casual conversation. Like the other star performer, he too had developed a highly efficient customer strategy, though targeting a different customer segment.

The average performers tended to have the worst of both worlds – relatively needy customers who were not very profitable for the casino. These salespeople spent much of their time negotiating with patrons who were fighting for every last perk but didn’t contribute substantially to the sellers’ sales numbers. This inefficient model unknowingly doomed the sellers to ho-hum performance that kept them hovering around their quota.

While these customer segmentation and service strategies appear obvious when described on paper, you can imagine how confusing this scenario was for a sales manager searching for the specific skills that led to success in the sales force. One top seller was aggressive and highly attentive, while the other was low-key and casual in his business relationships. The two didn’t demonstrate any apparently similar skills or personality type, so sales management kept digging deeper, looking for the silver bullet skill. However, selling skills were not the reason for their superior performance. Over time, the top performers had found distinct market segments and developed appropriate strategies to service each efficiently.

In this duel between sales strategy and sales skill, skill had come up a bit short. Customer segmentation and service efficiency were the true determinants of success in this casino’s sales force.

The Moral of the Story
Personal skills are critical to success in any selling environment. The abilities to question, listen, educate, negotiate, convince, and manage are basic requirements for a professional salesperson. However, skills are not enough. There is a system of interrelated components that requires the right mixture of strategy, processes, skills, and tools to engage, win, and retain profitable customers.

In this particular instance, it was not selling skills that were needed to boost the productivity of the casino’s sales force. Rather, it was better customer strategies. To elevate the performance of your salespeople, you may need to look at any or all of the components in your selling system. A sales force can always improve their selling skills, since no salesperson is perfect, but skills training won’t lead to more sales unless those precise skills you train are both critical to your sales force and currently lacking in your salespeople. Before you drive yourself crazy searching for the silver bullet sales skill, take a broader look at the way your sales force is interacting with your customers. Also examine the strategies, processes, and tools they use to win sales. The real leverage points might just be hiding in places where you haven’t yet looked.

Jason Jordan is a founding partner of Vantage Point Performance, a global sales management training and development firm, and co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code. Jordan is a recognized thought leader in the domain of business-to-business sales and teaches sales and sales management at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. For more information, visit www.vantagepointperformance.com.