Building Sales Capability for the 2020s

This is the first in a series of weekly posts exploring what sales and sales capability will look like in the decade of the 2020s. Specifically, the series will look at best practice for building sales capability for competitive advantage, especially in the SMB sector where firms need to grow and scale. (And this is our longest post of the series!)

There have been more productive changes in the practise of sales in the past decade than the previous 50 years, since “sales” emerged as a professional trained pursuit. We are thankfully moving away from an era of personality-based “magic hands” selling to an era of professional best-practice.

Two Major Trends Shaping Sales for the 2020s

1 The differences between the products, services and offerings are not as big as they used to be. Gone are the days when a firm could create and sustain a substantial product difference for 10 years. Today your stand-out difference can be eroded in months. It was easier to “sell” when the product was clearly an improvement on what came before, or in the case of products like IT, the product was mysterious and sellers were essentially earning a big margin on buyer ignorance and fear.

2 Buyers used to “need” salespeople just to get access to basic information. Salespeople were live, socially-oriented and at times, overbearing brochures. Today, buyers decide to speak with a salesperson only to get access to additional expertise and subject matter knowledge that they could benefit from.

Given similar or indistinct offerings, companies now compete and grow on their marketing and sales capability. Products alone are not enough to attract customers. We are moving into an era where a business is judged by its capacity to attract customers whose success can be profitably supported.

Sales No Longer = Magic Salespeople

Sales used to be seen as a certain type of (magic) person, with an unobservable, subjective and often whimsical set of extraordinary traits and capable of heroic deeds e.g. mysteriously closing a big deal, which up to then, was a best kept secret.

Today, growth firms need to go beyond “salespeople” and (first) build sales capabilityThat capability will not be embodied in one salesperson or even a collection of individual salespeople. It is a unified system of values, mindset, measurements, reviews, enablement, skills, training, content and tools. The challenge will not be to find “good” salespeople, but to find people who can work within a sales framework or architecture and then develop their own effectiveness.

From the Sales Personality to the Sales Capability Era

If you take a moment to scan the web, you will find an extraordinary level of sales practice content such as Sales Hacker, OpenView, SaaStr, Predictable Revenue, and a number of really good quality sales blogs from thought leaders such as Anthony Iannarino. They each promote some or many aspects of sales best practice, which is helping to move sales out of the sales personality era into a professional, more holistic sales capability era. The challenge for an individual company, founder or CEO is how to build sales capability that gives a company a competitive edge and a distinct attraction.

As mentioned earlier, Sales Capability is made up of many moving parts, but the most important is how a sales organisations decides to keep score

Building Sales Capability Starts with How You Keep Score

Traditionally, and especially in SMB companies, when you wanted to grow sales, you used a stroke-of-the-pen strategy i.e. you hired a top, proven, experienced “sales winner” and you waited for the deals to roll in. For the reasons mentioned above, that approach doesn’t work as well or as easily today, though you might occasionally get lucky.

But people are not the problem in sales. Sales problems and challenges originate in poor systems or lack of systems. A “systems” approach requires big goals, clear outcomes,  prioritising of work, allocation of time, a common language and ideally, a set of values based on timeless principles. Above all, a system requires us to keep score of progress, and that forms the first building block of sales capability.

Keeping Which Score?

In the sales world, we use two extremes of keeping score; measuring results and measuring activity. Neither works when you want to shape, build and then support sales capability and especially the human behaviour elements of the system.

Results in sales refers of course to revenue, booked business, numbers of customers etc. In fact, it’s part of traditional sales orthodoxy to promote the idea that results are what matter, no matter how you get there. It’s why so many salespeople fail because they chase “closed sales” instead of doing the important, unheroic, mundane, plodder-like, work that delivers sales.

The other extreme of keeping score is activity management e.g. number of “calls”, number of emails sent, time spent on the phone, the list is endless. When sales organisations measure activity, they usually get what they wish for; see, I did all you asked me to, that’s my job done, let someone else worry about the outcomes.

(At the individual salesperson level we tend to keep score as follows: that was a great call. That was a great meeting. It went well. It’s looking good. They want a proposal. They are going to send me an email about it. They’ll definitely do something. If you are still prone to such optimism bias, keep reading).

Keeping Score is Tracking Outcomes

Sales results come from a number of outcomes (or outputs). Outcomes tell you how close you are to achieving a goal, and guide the level of resources, time and type of actions required to get there.

When you define the outcomes clearly and in a meaningful way you can build a sales system that is extraordinarily effective and that motivates people to focus on productive work in a defined time frame. And it’s how you keep score that determines the quality of execution and the effectiveness of individual performance.

That’s why the next post in our Building Sales Capability for the 2020s series deals with the subject of How Top Sales Organisations Keep Score.