Four Keys To Evolving Your Sales Organization

If 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have a legacy of disruption, then 2021 will be known as the year of transition – a bridge between old consumer buying patterns and sales delivery models to new and shifting approaches. According to research from the Technology & Services Industry Association (TSIA), more than two-thirds of sales organizations say they don’t think sales practices will ever return to the way they were.

Even before last year and the pandemic, more buyers were moving toward more digital, self-service approaches to sales. It is likely the convenience of virtual selling for buyers will prevail long after the lockdowns and quarantines are over. Meanwhile, research from Gartner shows that buyers are only spending about 17% of the sales cycle with sellers – and that time is split among competitors, leaving less time than ever to develop a trust-based relationship and an urgent need to make that limited time more productive.

These market dynamics and many others have illuminated the fact that many organizations’ sales capabilities have not kept up with the changes in the markets they serve, leaving leaders questioning whether a pre-COVID-19 sales organization can succeed in a post-COVID-19 world. Sales transformation will be critical to success moving forward, and greatly hinges on evolving sales talent management in three crucial ways.

Better Hiring from the Start.

Even prior to the pandemic, research from 2019 by Korn Ferry found that less than a third of sales organizations were confident they have the right talent to succeed – a figure that has only worsened since. Today, 84% of sales leaders say they don’t have the sales talent they need to succeed in the future and just 22% report that they consistently hire sellers who succeed. Sales professionals themselves have waning assurance in their success, with only 54% of B2B salespeople expressing confidence in their ability to close deals in the new environment.

Alarmingly, buyers themselves also aren’t impressed. Research by Korn Ferry in 2021 found nearly a fifth of B2B buyers prefer to avoid sellers entirely. The rest found some sellers helpful but observed that many others wasted their time. It is clear sales and HR leaders need to find new strategies and approaches to identifying sales talent that are better equipped to perform.

According to XBInsight Executive Coach MaryEllen Towle, M. Ed., “The inability to read body language and uncover hidden objections in the virtual world make it difficult for sellers to know where they stand in the process of closing the sale. And the ability to add value quickly is critical in a virtual selling environment. There is no worth any more in ‘I want to learn about your business.’ Buyers expect that you have already researched their business so sellers should be doing their homework on the account ahead of time so they can focus on a pain point and offer something tangible as early as possible to keep the prospect engaged.”

According to Towle, the competencies and strengths sales leaders should be looking for in candidates have changed, requiring greater focus on competencies in establishing credibility, listening actively, demonstrating curiosity, and leveraging technology. Yet, even with the critical importance of sales talent, it’s surprising that only 20% of sales organizations have changed their requirements of what success looks like in a job—and only 24% assess why their top performers win.

Many leading sales organizations have moved the dial on hiring better performing sellers from the start through a data-driven approach to evaluating and comparing candidates for open positions benchmarked against competencies required for the changed sales landscape.

Address Underperformance.

With an average B2B sales quota of $2 million, hiring or keeping underperformers on the team leads to large quota gaps. Yet, forced or voluntary attrition is equally costly given it takes four months on average to find and hire new sales talent and an additional nine months to get a new seller up to full productivity. Without a clear understanding of which sellers have the potential to take them forward and who isn’t a good fit, many leaders are hesitant to discipline or dismiss underperformers.

Cindy Fox, XBInsight’s Director of Training and Client Services, says “One of the best ways to address underperformance among your sales team is to define the skills and competencies that are required for success in the specific job to clearly identify where a seller’s skills align and where there are gaps. Equally important is identifying the values that align with the culture and work environment.

“Oftentimes, the disconnect for underperformers is based on having underlying values that don’t align with the company’s rewards system and culture. For example, if a company rewards independent goal attainment and a seller is motivated by working collaboratively and making a difference with others, the environment may not motivate him or her to succeed.”

Utilizing assessments and a data-driven upskilling strategy can help alleviate underperformance and better accelerate sales transformation initiatives, reduce turnover, and curb performance losses.

Continuous Talent Development Key to Sales Success.

Sales talent can accelerate, or stall, sales initiatives required for transformation, such as new methodologies, changes to processes, deployments of new technologies, and more. In fact, three out of five business leaders expect that, even in the post-vaccine world, face-to-face selling time will decrease, and that virtual selling is now a permanent fixture. However, engaging and developing the right sellers with newly required competencies and skills can transform a sales team in less than two years.

The top performers in a sales organization produce, on average, 62% of the revenue. This means most sales organizations are not utilizing their entire sales team to their advantage. While many leaders are investing in tools to help their salespeople improve, tools alone won’t drive the growth and skill development needed to capitalize on market opportunities.

When organizations follow a formal or dynamic coaching program that reinforces their sales methodology and process, their win rates increase by 16.6%. And, with ongoing development, seller engagement rises while attrition drops. In addition, recent research found that organizations experienced a double-digit increase in win rates – a gain of 13% – when they assess, enable, and coach their sellers.

“Coaching provides a platform to increase self-awareness, helping a seller identify their strengths and how to leverage them effectively,” says Fox. “It can also uncover blind spots that may be having a negative impact on a seller’s performance.” 

Sales training and coaching are especially impactful in an environment where the skill and mindset requirements are changing, and for organizations skeptical about whether they have the right talent to succeed.

According to Fox, real world application is critical for sales training to have an impact. “We teach methods for adapting when communicating and influencing clients based on behavioral style differences and use real life case studies for practice and training. For example, customizing needs analysis questions that are tailored to each unique client style is the best way to identify a client’s issues and concerns to ultimately uncover tangible sales opportunities; or teaching strategies for negotiating with clients based on their style and specific needs so sellers can apply them to situations they encounter in the field.”

Ongoing talent development will be vital for sales success in the ever-changing, fast-paced business environment we find ourselves in. Training and coaching will play a critical role in identifying current skill gaps, planning for future growth, and creating solutions that ensure sales teams are prepared to succeed in this new normal.

Rewrite the Sales Leadership Rulebook.

Along with most aspects of the world and business, sales leadership approaches and styles require a whole new set of requirements and competencies to drive transformative sales efforts. Leaders now need to adapt to better meet today’s changing dynamics and remain nimble in how they approach leading and developing their teams.

For many organizations, senior leadership only becomes involved with sales matters when an issue arises or when sales aren’t meeting targets. Yet, today’s environment requires sales leaders to play a larger role in developing employees, supporting throughout the sales cycle, communicating more effectively, and being a true change agent. However, Gartner research shows that 42% of managers lack the confidence to develop the skills that employees need today.

Yet, developing long and short-term goals with each sales team member and tracking and communicating performance towards those goals are essential skills for a sales leader today, says Fox. “In order to drive true sales transformation, a sales leader needs well-developed skills in coaching and developing others to help them build individualized development plans with each salesperson on their team.

“It’s also important that a sales leader be skilled at holding others accountable and providing consistent follow-up and feedback to ensure that sellers have the support and a clear roadmap to help them achieve their sales goals.”

This is a critical issue given that excellence in sales leadership requires much more than being a good seller or deal maker, and as sales organizations evolve, the leadership role becomes a fundamentally different job.

Today, a high performing sales leader will score high in competencies such as recognizing growth opportunities and maintaining a strategic business perspective, according to Towle. “Leaders who possess these skills will have a strong understanding of marketplace trends and the competitive landscape, will challenge the status quo, and be highly effective at creating buy-in for change initiatives implemented to move the business forward.”

A Future-Ready Sales Organization.

There are far-reaching implications for changes in sales enablement, operations, technology, and strategy as companies navigate the future. But a priority must be placed on the most fundamental element of the sales equation – people.

While virtual technologies and changes in sales delivery are ever present, the reality is that companies need people to sell, establish trusting relationships, and grow customer retention. That’s why world-class organizations are taking steps to address their talent gaps and are 22% more likely to rank investing in acquiring new sales talent as their highest talent priority over the next two years.

These efforts include a focus on identifying the traits and competencies that are more critical due to shifting trends, the use of talent assessments to evaluate their current teams, new hires, and redeployments against this agreed profile for success, and planning to address the talent gap through targeted coaching and development across all levels of the sales organization.

XBInsight has partnered with sales organizations across the U.S. to build integrated talent management strategies, including customized assessment solutions, proven hiring methodologies, and providing industry-leading coaching and development support. To learn more, click here.