Five lessons in sales excellence

Five lessons in sales excellence

Jim Collins (author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t) stimulates a thought that many sales managers should be asking themselves right now: “What makes good salespeople great?”

At Barrett we work with sales managers and salespeople every day, and recently asked that question of a number of people in both categories. The response wasn’t that startling. What Barrett learned is that few sales managers, and even fewer salespeople, could actually define what “great” selling actually means. This has confirmed Barrett’s findings that many salespeople let themselves down because they aren’t sure what they need to do to lift their game and become great.


Most salespeople, sales leaders and sales teams get good, or even great, by default not design.

It is often the case that when a new person joins the sales team the manager will introduce them to the best salesperson in the organisation and it goes something like this: ‘John this is Anne Marie, she is our top salesperson here. What I want you to do is go out with Anne Marie and be like her’. That’s it.

And here is where the problem lies. No one ever asks what does Anne Marie actually do and how does she do it that makes her great. Anne Marie more often than not doesn’t know herself; it’s all instinctive, free form and so on. All this approach does is create sales mimics at best instead of fully formed and intentionally mindful sales professionals who know how to elevate their sales capabilities and performance to great.

Not all is lost however. Using the Good to Great model as a guideline, Barrett has identified dive key activities that, when performed consistently – even at a mediocre level –deliver improved sales results:

1. For starters, Collins talks about “getting the right people in key seats on the bus”. Sales leaders can learn from this. Great sales leaders know what their team is selling e.g. unique solutions, customised products/services, or off-the-shelf products. Whatever they are selling will dictate the level of capability required of their salespeople e.g. selling complex solutions requires high standards of sales and business capability, which would not suit selling off-the-shelf products. This sets the benchmark of the minimum standard of excellence required. Identifying the level of knowledge, skills and mindset will determine the right people who need to be on the bus.

2.Salespeople can learn from this too. Great salespeople make sure that they interact with the right people from the companies they want to sell to. They make sure that they are sitting across from key decision-makers. Great salespeople recognise that junior and mid-level operators are important in the sales mix and need to have their needs addressed. The reality  is, however, that those executives who are on the line for delivery of effective performance from the purchases they approve need to be “in the right seat on the bus”. This means that salespeople who want to be great need to be taught how to think about sales strategy, market segmentation, and sales messaging and then taught how to develop and implement their own effective go-to-market sales action plan to drive great sales performance.

3. Collins also proposes a quarterly review of the “brutal facts”. Great salespeople do the same thing. They meet with their key customers and encourage brutally frank feedback about what they and their organisation need to do to be better than they have been in the past. They don’t wait for their customers to tell them. They seldom wait for customer satisfaction surveys responses. They also don’t settle for their customers simply telling them how good they have been. Great salespeople constantly explore the next level – i.e. what they have to do to be better in the future, than they are now or have been in the past. They push for the harsh realities that would change the game and help them take a quantum leap forward. This means that great salespeople need to be ‘other-centric’, interested in how others feel and experience what they and their company deliver. They need to be experts at asking insightful questions, actively listening without prejudice and then taking relevant feedback on board back into the organisation for review and appropriate implementation whilst creating a continuous feedback loop.

4. Good to Great reported that great companies focused on meeting short, medium and even long-term goals and objectives. But Collins also revealed that these great companies had at least one, huge audacious “stretch” goal that requires special effort and yet inspired them to lift the game. Whilst every salesperson should be focusing on meeting regular quarterly and annual sales targets, in each territory or portfolio there should also be at least one huge opportunity that is going to require some special effort, creative thinking and the energised support of the entire sales team.

Collins maintains that great companies usually have only three or four priorities that they focus all of their attention on at any one time. Like great companies, great salespeople don’t have shopping lists of priorities. They have a few, clearly defined, key imperatives that drive them to succeed.

5. Lastly, Collins found that every one of the great companies has committed itself to a core set of values that never varied and that represent the cornerstone of their sustained success. Great salespeople, sales leaders and sales teams also have a set of core values – usually around delivering exceptional value to their customers – that never varies. They aren’t prepared to compromise on these, nor are they prepared to set them aside for short term gains (personal or organisational). Great salespeople, sales leaders and sales teams are wholly customer-centric and because of that they generally deliver consistently superior results.

Sales leaders have the choice. They can continue as they have and hope to get great results. Alternatively, as many savvy sales leaders are doing, they can make these commitments and encourage the leap that will turn their good salespeople into a great sales force.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is the founder and CEO of the innovative and forward-thinking sales advisory and education firm, Barrett and the online sales education & resource platform


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