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Sales Research Summary: Key Selling Success Factors


Here is a summary of valuable research carried out in developing the highly regarded Sales Activator® sales training and development system, (which itself is featured on the Sales Activator® page).

The study researched the key criteria for sales organization success, via a huge survey (in association with Nightingale Conant) of 2700 organizations, to identify why certain corporations manage to sustain sales success, compared to the rest who cannot.

Here is a free full copy of the sales research report (pdf).

This research helps to explain how to take an innovative, modern, effective approach to sales development, and the training and development of sales people and sales managers.

The research is presented here in a rather different format to the formal report. The presentation uses some highly memorable metaphors, which in themselves offer a lesson about communications and selling - to be imaginative and special:

Not many people want to buy 'ordinary', and those who do can generally find it cheaper somewhere else.

A Magical Selling Tale...

When we were young we believed in fairy tales; magical kingdoms, and a world where all our wishes would come true just by wishing hard enough.

Now we are grown up we know that for our wishes come true we need to think, plan and work at making things happen.

And in competitive situations, like sales, it helps to have an edge - a special advantage.

There is no 100% guaranteed method to succeed in selling, but you can make it a lot easier to sell more, and for your people to sell more too.

There is the story of the rich socialite in Paris who needed a hat urgently for an important occasion. Her milliner (that's a hat-maker) arrived at her apartment and within twenty minutes had created an amazing and beautiful new hat from a single strand of ribbon. The socialite was enthralled and asked the milliner the fee. The milliner replied "One thousand Francs". The socialite gasped, "But that's so much money for a piece of ribbon!" The milliner unpinned the ribbon and handed it to her, "Madam the ribbon is free, it's the 'know-how' that you're paying for".

The 'know-how' on this page (and in the full report) has been designed to help people improve their success in sales, and success in managing sales organisations.

The study involved 2700 organisations and resulted in some powerful findings as to the crucial factors that enable (or prevent) sustainable selling success.

Five Key Aspects of Successful Selling

The study identified that there are five pitfalls, regardless of the market sector of the selling organisation, which if avoided enabled the sales organisation to achieve significant and sustainable successful sales.

In keeping with the 'accentuate the positive' maxim, turned on their head they become five essential factors for selling success:

1 - A Well-Defined Sales Process

Metaphor: The Three Little Pigs. "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down!"

A poorly defined sales process always dilutes sales revenues. In other words:

A well-defined sales process increases sales revenues.

Far too often competent salespeople are counted upon to channel their own activities into the areas that will produce the biggest and quickest wins. But, left to their own devices, sales people generally don't develop and pursue a formal plan for moving a prospect interaction forward toward a sale. Instead, they end up 'dancing around' hoping they will get to their chosen point on the dance-floor (the sale). This is normally unsuccessful because, as recent research from The Results Corporation plc shows, the average prospect says "No" seven times before saying "Yes" and over 80 percent of sales people give up after the first "No." They carry on dancing.

When their efforts don't pay off quickly, even capable sales people tend to get discouraged. They may spend longer hours struggling to meet their sales quotas, working less efficiently. The details of what goes wrong differ for each sales person, but the net result is always the same: wasted time, which fails to produce high quality sales, and consequently increases the cost of sales.

For VP's of sales, sales directors and managers, this means that it's absolutely vital to develop a comprehensive, realistic and step-by-step sales process - a clear outline of what the sales people are expected to do. It's only when such an outline is in place that sales management is in a position to monitor the sales force's activity, its progress and results. Only then is the stage set for transformative performance improvements.

2 - Sales People Must Have Essential Skills

Metaphor: Goldilocks and The Three Bears. "Who's been sitting in my chair - and broken it into pieces?"

Lack of skills, and disjointed and inappropriate selling techniques, lead to below-average performance and below-average sales results. In other words:

Good selling skills and appropriate sales techniques lead to good sales results.

During the 1970's and 1980's, it was common for large corporations such as Hewlett Packard and IBM to put their new sales recruits through a 12-18 month training program. Today, sales people consider themselves 'lucky' if they get an initial two weeks of training.

Yet sales haven't plunged proportionately. According to Pavita Walker, Director, Organisation and Leadership Development, Barclays Group, "The greatest differentiator amongst sales organisations of the future will be the ability to build world class capability and skills".

Giles Watkins, Global Competence and Learning Manager at Shell Lubricants, adds, "Skills development is critical … Once a sales person is really fluent with what they do, they become more responsive to customers' requirements."

So, what's going on? How should a VP of Sales reconcile the fact that many corporations today provide less up-front training for their sales staff than in years past, with the increasing importance of staff development? The fact is that selling in today's climate is a profession that demands a wide range of skills that require continual fine-tuning.

According to Steven Reinemund, CEO PepsiCo Inc., "To have growth in products, you have to have growth in people".

Yet training alone does not guarantee peak sales performance. This can only come from ongoing coaching from sales managers, and those organisations that have a strong coaching culture attract and retain the best sales people.

3 - Focus on Sales: People's Selling Activities

Metaphor: The Elves and The Shoemaker. "Although he worked hard, times were bad and he became very poor."

Failing to focus on sales people's activity reduces efficiency and results. In other words:

Focus sales people's priorities and time on core 'high-yield' selling activities.

Focusing the efforts of a sales team towards a common goal that creates value for the customer, the organisation and the employee is the best way to optimise the activities of a sales team. Time is a huge constraint on sales people's activities. Any extra effort that can be achieved must be channelled into productive activities or it will mostly be wasted.

Frequently two main pitfalls dilute the activities of even experienced sales people: Firstly, they simply aren't doing enough, and secondly, but equally important, sales people often aren't clear about how to identify the prospects most likely to have a genuine need for their product or service. 

Sales people who lack a disciplined, future-oriented plan for generating new contacts and sales, often find themselves spending more time attending to 'urgent' activities rather than 'important' activities that will develop their business.

Having a clear focus on 'high-yield' activities will improve sales people's productively, and reduce time spent on unimportant non-productive tasks.

Establishing and measuring performance against productivity-related KPI's (Key Performance Indicators - more useful sales and training acronyms here) will help to reinforce and sharpen sales people's focus on 'high-yield' sales activities.

Motivating sales people to increase their activity level is productive when the extra activity is suitably focused.

4 - Encourage and Expand Sales People's Belief in their Own Capabilities

Metaphor: The Ugly Duckling. "Why, I'm a swan!"

Allowing, and worse still, causing self-limiting beliefs among sales people, constrains sales people's performance and is a major reason for inferior results. In other words:

Use every means possible to expand and encourage self-belief among sales people.

The saying is true: "Whatever you believe you can do, you will; and whatever you believe you can't do you won't."

Like everyone, sales people hold stubbornly to private beliefs about themselves and the people they work with; beliefs that can have an enormous impact, either positive or negative, on their sales performance. 

Yet, while most sales managers and team leaders grasp the concept of activity management, skills and knowledge development, etc., far too many feel powerless to help their sales people turn their negative beliefs into positive ones. 

Those who do tackle beliefs and are able to change their sales people's self-limiting beliefs into empowering ones make a remarkable difference to people's achievements and successes.

Inspiring and encouraging people to strive and aim higher is one of the most significant and yet simple ways to help sales people towards higher levels of performance.

5 - Sales Leadership that Nurtures and Develops Sales People's Potential

Metaphor: Rapunzel. "Immediately, the witch flew into a great rage and cut off Rapunzel's hair."

Failing to appoint and develop a sales leadership team that truly nurtures and develops the sales people is catastrophic for any sales organisation. In other words:

Select and develop sales managers and leaders who can inspire, develop and truly lead the sales people.

The single-most common mistake that organisations make is promoting their number one sales person into the role of sales manager, thereby depriving themselves in a single stroke of their best producer and hamstringing their sales force with an ineffective manager.

The skills required for managing, mentoring and developing a sales team are totally different to those required for selling. As a result, many newly-promoted sales managers become casualties - they struggle in the role, their people struggle too, and the manager often leaves the organisation in order to return to pure sales role.

Selecting, preparing, training, and appointing sales managers and sales leaders is a crucial and pivotal activity for executives and directors. Doing this right makes everything possible; getting it wrong produces havoc and failure.

The majority of sales managers say they do not have sufficient time to train and develop their sales teams. They are so focused on sales results and so accustomed to achieving success through their personal pursuit that they overlook their greatest potential source of power: the power to increase sales performance by developing their people.

Even when they do recognise the importance of developing their sales people, many sales managers find that they lack the skills and resources to do it effectively. It then becomes easier 'not to bother'. To make matters worse, most sales teams consist of a number of individuals with differing levels of experience and ability, so the whole issue of team development becomes too daunting to contemplate.

In under-performing sales organisations it can be a puzzle where first to direct training and development attention and to drive change of methods - sales people? Sales managers? Sales directors and VP's? The CEO? 

It's an interesting question, for which the answer often depends on the people concerned. Whatever, the role of the sales manager is a crucial one. He or she is the point of influence upon the sales people. He or she needs to support and buy into new sales processes and behaviours, so arguably mostly it's through and with the sales manager or team leader that training and development should first be channelled.

This approach is echoed by many development experts, for example Giles Watkins, Shell Lubricants' Global Competence and Learning Manager, who believes that "... training and development should first focus on sales managers, so that their onward positive coaching can then produce a multiplier effect..."


Organisations and sales people who have a 100% commitment to doing whatever it takes to elevate their sales to a whole new level are the ones most likely to succeed.

Trying to operate a sales organisation without total commitment is like trying to drive a car without fuel.

Every organisation has the potential to harness the power of their sales people just as surely as oxygen pumps life into the human body.

... For a moment the handsome Prince stood gazing at the beautiful golden-haired girl, wondering how he could break the spell. Stooping he kissed her; instantly Princess Aurora opened her blue eyes ... they lived happily ever after and had many children, all who grew up to become extremely successful sales people. And you may be sure they asked all the right fairies to help them avoid the pitfalls and banished the wicked witches forever.

This article is based on the white paper 'The 5 Most Dangerous Trends Facing Sales Leaders Today', which resulted from the extensive research carried out in the development of the popularly successful Sales Activator® sales training and development system.

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© original concept and technical content The Sales Activator Company Ltd; edit and contextual material Alan Chapman 2003-2012. Please retain this notice on all copies.