Sales Leadership: Best Practice

Sales Leadership: The best approach to getting the best results

Sales leadership is also about getting the best results out of your sales team and increasing sales revenue. An effective sales leader understands the value of strong leadership and guiding their teams on effective sales strategies.

We strongly believe the training we provide for sales people is a means to an end – improving your sales performance – so we'll always tailor our approach to meet your individual business needs.

No matter what your issues are, our research shows that there are some common factors that are fundamental to success, of which all sales leaders should be aware.

1. Strategies and tactics for competitive advantage

Knowing your competition is standard practice – and rightly so, but how do you sell to your strengths and not theirs?

  • When you're in the middle of a big sales campaign, it's all too easy to get hung up on what competitors are doing. But focussing on your competitor will draw the customer's attention to them too. Skilled sellers are aware of the context of competitive activity but focus on the customer and their needs.
  • Our research shows skilled sellers analyse how their own, and their competitors', solutions compare, drawing up a list of criteria by which all the proposed solutions will be judged and ranking each offering against them. Most importantly, effective sellers make this judgement through the eyes of their customers, recognising it's not how they compare with the competition, but how customers think they compare with the competition, that's crucial to success.
  • Having accurately analysed the competitive landscape, skilled sellers identify competitive strengths and weaknesses. They can then develop and execute strategies to maximise one whilst mitigating the other.

2. Understanding and influencing the decision-making unit

Knowing customers' decision-making processes is second nature to most sellers. But understanding where each decision maker fits within the buying process and what issues to address at each stage can be the difference between success and failure.

  • Our research suggests the majority of sellers assume that a buyer's job title is a reliable indication of their role within the decision-making unit (DMU), with the most senior person having the greatest influence on the decision. But that's often not the case. Our research shows there are discreet roles within a DMU that are independent of job title and are a far more useful indicator of how to identify and influence each decision maker.
  • Companies don't make decisions – people do. In most major sales it's fairly obvious where the buying company is within its purchasing process, and many sellers take this at face value. Skilled sellers, however, recognise the decision is made by people, and not all of them will be at the same point in their decision-making process at any one time. Effective sellers treat the decision makers as individuals, accurately assessing where each one is in their decision-making process, and behaving accordingly.
  • Just as individual decision makers have differing roles and may be at differing stages in the process, they also have differing needs and drivers. Effective sellers recognise this too, and tailor their approach in response.

3. Questioning techniques that generate sales

It's now an undisputed fact that effective questioning skills are fundamental to sales success. It's equally true that everyone can ask questions. So why doesn't every question-rich sales meeting succeed?

  • When it comes to questions, it's quality not quantity that matters. Telling sellers to ask more questions will usually work, but it probably won't produce more sales. Ask too many of the wrong questions and you won't improve your sales success at all. That's because there are four key questions types, the SPIN® questions, and each has a different effect on sales success. SPIN® explains each question type and when to use it, to ensure you maximise value for your customers at every sales meeting.
  • It's not as simple as open versus closed. Common sense suggests that questions that get people talking have to be better than those that invite one-word answers, but there's absolutely no evidence to support that in a selling situation. The reality is it's the context and content of the question, not just the structure, which determines how the other person responds. In something as complicated as selling, there will be times when a yes/no response is exactly what you want to hear. By using SPIN® skilfully you can get your customers to give as long, or as short, an answer as you need.
  • Questions aren't just for gathering information. There's no doubt that gathering information about customers' needs is the most important purpose of questions in selling, that's what SPIN® is all about. But they do so much more besides; building rapport and empathy, establishing credibility and expertise and managing the process of the meeting itself are all achievable through skilled use of questions.

4. A holistic approach to selling

The buying process, from a dawning awareness of dissatisfaction with the current situation to acquiring the replacement solution, is often long and tortuous. Mapping that process every step of the way with effective selling skills and strategies is equally complex. 

  • Why change? Early in the buying process the customer is focussed on their needs and requirements. Our research shows that, at this stage, effective sellers help their customers to understand and prioritise their needs, think through the implications of doing nothing, and calculate the value of adopting your proposals.
  • What should we change to? In mid-cycle the customer focuses on their decision-making criteria and how each potential supplier matches up to them. Skilled sellers will accurately predict what this comparison will look like and utilise skills and strategies to ensure your solution has the closest match to the customer's requirements.
  • What if it goes wrong? Late in the cycle the customer's attention turns to what they must give and, understandably, what risks are attached to selecting each particular solution. Our research shows most sellers fail to recognise this phase completely and often use counter-productive techniques in an (usually futile) attempt to close the sale. Skilled sellers recognise this phase and work with their customers to resolve their concerns and bring the sale to a natural, and for both parties satisfactory, conclusion.

5. Key accounts or big accounts?

Pareto's Law suggests that 80% of revenue comes from 20% of customers, and for many companies this is an accurate reflection of their customer spread. Identifying the 20% correctly and managing the accounts appropriately should be a key part of every company's strategy.

  • Our research suggests many companies assume their largest accounts are inherently key accounts, despite the fact that spend alone is not an accurate indicator of a customer's status. Whilst it's vitally important to treat your big-spending customers well, there's potentially a lot more to being a key account. Effective companies take into account factors like the customer's role as an opinion former, the market in which they operate and their strategies and culture. Only accounts that meet most or all criteria are elevated to key status.
  • Effective companies behave differently when dealing with key accounts. It's more than making sure that key customers get the highest service levels (or the lowest prices), it's about working together to jointly plan and execute your business strategies to achieve mutually defined and agreed business objectives.
  • The role of the key account manager (KAM) is vital, yet many companies make the mistake of assuming their sales people are capable of taking on the role. We often see high achieving sellers promoted to a KAM role only to see them struggle. Quite simply, the skills of a good seller are not enough to be a good KAM. Key accounts operate at a different level to the normal buyer-seller relationship and it's vital your KAMs have these new and different skills if they are to succeed.

6. Influence decision-makers you will never meet face-to-face

When was the last time you were in the same room as your customer when they made the decision to buy? Increasingly, buying decisions are made behind closed doors and by more than one person. It's inevitable therefore that there will sometimes be key decision makers who you can't meet or, at best, are just faces in the crowd at your formal presentation.

  • Rehearse your sponsor. If you can't meet all the decision makers, you have to rely on those you can meet to sell on your behalf. Skilled sellers use questions to get their contacts thinking through their arguments in favour of the seller's proposals. By drawing on your customers' own imaginations you can equip your contacts to sell on your behalf using their own language and arguments. So, instead of your customers saying "the sales person says it will give us this value" they say "I've thought this through and it will give us this value" – much more persuasive.
  • Give persuasive presentations. The formal presentation may be your only chance to speak directly with the more elusive decision makers, yet many sales people fail to make the most of that opportunity. By relying on generic presentation visuals that focus on you and your solution, you can end up subjecting your customers to 'death by PowerPoint'. Our research shows that effective presentations are made memorable and persuasive by focussing on the customer and their needs, making it clear how you decided on the solution you are offering, not simply illustrating your solution.
  • Effective proposals. All too often we see beautifully presented and lavishly produced proposals, which have almost no persuasive impact. In these situations, the proposal is little more than a glossy technical brochure with prices. Effective sellers ensure their proposals will be read by, and persuade, the decision makers they haven't met. By focusing on the case for change and clearly indicating how the proposed solution meets the customer's required outcomes, the proposal becomes another aid to selling effectively.