Creating Sales Conversations That Matter
“Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth,” is what Mike Tyson said about boxing. Every sales leader has a plan to make their numbers, until reality hits them in the mouth. Markets change, requiring shifts in strategy and execution. For sales leaders, we need to prepare our sales teams with the skills to succeed. In today’s competitive sales environment, that means having sales conversations that matter. In this article, we explore how to identify the sales conversations that need to change, creating conversations that matter and changing the behaviors of sales reps to achieve the desired outcome.
Talk Is Cheap
Whoever said talk is cheap likely had a bad experience with a sales rep. Cheap sales talk is the most expensive conversation your sales reps can have with potential clients. Every sales organization wants to think their sales reps are delivering valuable conversations to their prospects and clients. If you are a sales leader, your job is to make sure your team is delivering on this goal. The problem is that the target is constantly moving–new competitors, changing economics, and even customers change. What doesn’t work anymore is the single annual sales planning session to map out next year’s sales strategy.
In today’s business environment, we are seeing companies struggle with two extreme issues. Either they are struggling because their sales are too low or they’re struggling to meet demand because their sales are too high. Either way, you are looking at your new reality and thinking, we need to figure this out quick or we are going to have a serious problem. Paradoxically, the solution to both problems is to improve the quality of the conversations with your prospects and clients, not increase the quantity.
Quality Over Quantity
Here is a thought to consider as a sales leader: If nothing changes regarding the quality of conversations your team is having with your prospects and clients, what are the implications for your organization? Pause for a moment and think about that question. Most organizations that want to drive revenue focus on the volume of contacts. This is an easier metric to change. You can buy more data, hire more sales reps, and stack more technology. But if the quality of the conversation does not improve, you are just building a faster “cheap talk” machine.
Most sales leaders know their sales conversations could be improved, but don’t have the time to make the improvements. It’s true that improving the conversations your team is having with prospects and clients takes time. But the hard reality learned from years of experience is that everything else either doesn’t scale or takes longer. It has been our experience that until a committed effort has been implemented, sales conversation improvement is marginal at best.
You Get What You Tolerate
As a sales leader, you get what you tolerate. Sales reps have the tendency to repeat what is rewarded. You cannot expect sales reps to implement new behaviors if you reward the status quo. A sales rep is less likely to repeat behaviors if there are sanctions associated with the behavior. Until there is consistency with the rewards and the sanctions, sales reps will continue to display the behavior trying to be changed. Often, sales reps get comfortable in their dialogue with prospects and customers, which causes their numbers to plateau and then drop off if no change management is implemented. In essence, they keep saying the same thing over and over, hoping for a different outcome.
Many sales organizations use recording technology for their sales conversations, yet how often do sales reps and leaders review these conversations? Reviewing your team’s sales conversations can be a goldmine of information. As you review the conversations, you can find repeated mistakes, roadblocks, and issues that can be improved. Finding the inefficiencies in the current sales conversations allows you to circumvent the issues that led to lost sales. The first step in improving your teams’ sales conversations is evaluating exactly what is being said. This is not something you are going to read in a book, or in the latest guru post. This is a ‘role up your sleeves and figure out exactly what your team is saying’ with prospects and clients.
We can hear you groaning now. I don’t have enough time to complete my current tasks, how am I going to find the hours to review sales calls? There are no shortcuts to identifying the gaps in your sales team’s conversation. The situation cannot be remedied without a detailed sales conversation audit. This review can be used to update your sales playbook or sales process. It can also be used to update the best practice of what’s actually working for your best reps.
What to Look For
The quality of your sales conversations is significantly influenced by the quality of your questions. A commonality of high-performing sales reps is that they listen more than they talk. Poor questioning skills lead to the sales rep talking more than listening. High impact conversations are less about what you say or how you say it, and more about the questions you ask. For example, if you asked your sales team, “What are the 5 questions we need to ask every prospect?” Would the questions roll off every sales rep’s tongue? High-performance sales leaders do not allow their reps to wing it. They take the time to develop high-impact questions that are relevant in today’s sales environment. They also ensure their sales reps are held accountable to the standard.
It’s been said about sales, that telling is not selling. And for sales training, preaching is not teaching. The goal for sales leaders is performance improvement. Accomplishing this goal requires a consistent commitment to holding sales reps accountable. Before you can hold reps accountable, they must know (and agree) to what they are accountable for. This needs to be documented. You can call it your sales process or sales playbook; you can even call it your sales rule book. Whatever you call it, it will set clear expectations for every sales rep and define what acceptable sales behaviors are for your organization. This is not a “set-it and forget-it” policy. These rules must be reinforced daily.
There are two ways to reinforce behaviors–positive reinforcement (rewards) or negative reinforcement (sanctions). It’s either the whip or the carrot. One is not better than the other, it just depends on the individual sales rep and how they respond. But you want to be sure you are following the best practices, which are:
Using the Carrot (Rewards)
Sales leaders can use rewards in different ways and it’s not just about material rewards. Public praise is an effective way to encourage sales reps to engage in the desired conversation. This is particularly effective because it focuses on the desired behavior and effort, instead of waiting for the outcome. When sales leaders provide genuine praise that is specific, public, and deserved, it’ll encourage continuous improvement among the sales team.
Peer praise is another non-material reward that can drive behavior change. When sales reps are encouraged to praise each other, you create a positive work environment. Remember it’s a sales team, and teammates are supposed to support each other. Sales reps need to be taught to support their peers, not made to believe it’s a cutthroat competition. That’s toxic.
For rewards to be effective and change behaviors they need to be immediate, consistent, achievable, and fair. The reward also needs to be something sales reps aspire to be or want. Just remember, new reps will need different rewards than veteran reps. New reps also need more rewards. Keep in mind, the key to rewards depends on the behavior you are trying to change. The more difficult the behavior, the more frequent the reward.
Using the Stick (Sanctions)
A mentor once told me, some people run fast to win gold medals, while other people only run fast if a German Sheppard is chasing them. If your sales team is not having the conversations you desire, and you have plenty of rewards, it’s time to review the sanctions.
First, it’s critical that sales leaders understand that they cannot control their sales reps’ behaviors, but can only influence and direct behaviors. The “praise in public and correct in private” is a great benchmark. For most sales reps, it took them a long time to develop their ineffective conversations. Changing them will require time, so be consistent and patient.
Sanctions should be used on a limited basis. Legally as sales leaders, we are restricted to what type of sanctions we can apply. The sales performance improvement plan (PIP) is a common approach. When a sales rep is placed on a PIP, clear metrics are defined that measure success. The biggest sanction is that it will require the sales rep to check-in more often than usual. These meetings can be used to measure improvement, listen to calls together, and have the sales reps explain what could have been said differently. Another great tool is to require the sales rep to listen to 30 minutes of their calls daily. They can provide after-call reports and learn to teach themselves how to improve their sales conversation. For sanctions to be effective, without termination, they require effort on both the sales rep and the sales leader.
The hardest things to change tend to have the biggest return on investment. Improving the sales conversations department-wide will enhance your sales team’s capacity to serve as trusted advisors for your clients. Documenting the sales process, playbook, rewards, and sanctions is the foundation for high-performance. Improving your teams’ sales conversations will affect all levels of the organization, from culture to financial performance and everything in between.
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