A couple of months ago I was having dinner with Neil Rackham, sales guru, and mentor of mine. We talked about recent changes in the nature of sales and sales management, and agreed that companies with a sales oriented culture would have a source of significant competitive advantage.

In my client work and two stints an EVP of Sales, I’ve observed a handful of characteristics that stand out in the best sales cultures. Here they are.

  • The sales function is recognized as a critical component of how the company creates value for clients. It isn’t simply distribution, and it is widely understood that the sales organization provides the business with an asset beyond products and services. They get it that there is value created in the sales process and how they sell. That value can only be derived in the interaction between your clients and sales professionals. It happens when a seller helps a client to identify issues or opportunities they hadn’t considered or to recognize the unintended consequences of a decision. They may even be seen as valuable to a client by bringing additional resources or capabilities that your company can offer in the service of addressing their needs. This is what Neil termed, and I have written about for Harvard Business Review, as sales calls your customer would be willing to pay for.
  • They manage sales as a process. In a high performance sales organization the sales process is understood based on the expectations of the company and clients at each stage of their decision making process. Doing this enables sales professionals and management to replicate activities that portend success, and address predictable failure points. In a high tech company that I’ve worked with, we identified several pivot points in their successful sales cycles that most often resulted in acquiring business. Isolating those common variables helped them to concentrate resources, and focus on key milestones at each stage of their sales cycle. This enables organizations to decode and replicate a vital part of the success of their top performers and provides a roadmap for rapidly getting new hires up to speed and productive.
  • Coaching is a business imperative. Selling is one of those professions, which few people (I know of no one) actually go to school to get a degree. As a result there isn’t really a blueprint or defined standard to follow like GAAP rules for accounting and so forth. Professional selling is learned almost entirely on the job. A successful manager coaches their sellers on process, skills, and approaches to increase effectiveness. They understand where limited coaching time will have the greatest impact and consider that in planning. They avoid the pitfalls of doing the selling for their reps, being the discount approver, or worse, the closer. They observe sales calls and provide feedback, and help to plan account strategies. This is important for sales leaders too, because done well; they are coaching sales management to be more effective. Not just double and triple checking forecasts, which is the next topic.
  • They manage the right metrics. While it is important to forecast performance as accurately as possible, doing so rarely if ever helps improve sales. In fact, every minute spent reporting or inspecting the results, is a minute lost trying to improve them. In a sales culture the right practice is to create some equilibrium between analyzing results (which can’t be managed), and coaching optimal activities and behaviors (which can be managed with great benefit). Jason Jordan and Michelle Vazana, coauthors of Cracking the Sales Management Code, studied over 300 sales metrics that were tracked by companies, finding that only a fraction could actually be affected by management. The remaining were the results of coaching and completing the right sales activities. Activities like sales call management, opportunity management, account management, and territory management. It’s the difference between inspecting the results that have already occurred, and actively improving the results.
  • They have a clear sales strategy beyond “get out there and sell!” This includes some kind of ideal client profiles, an understanding of where the best opportunities are likely to be, and what differentiators will be most effective in the market. The cornerstone of that strategy is a vividly clear picture of what the improvements in the client’s condition you are able to make. It doesn’t have to a big strategic science project to do this, but you will need the discipline, focus, and process to do the hard thinking about what your strategy will be.

The glaring omission for some of you reading this will be incentives and rewards. I didn’t forget that, but rather, intentionally left it out here. In great sales cultures, while compensation and incentives must be available for high performance, they are simply part of a good performance management system. But compensation won’t create the culture.

So what kind of sales culture do you have?

Edinger Consulting