Sales Lessons From Nick Saban

Sales Lessons from Nick Saban

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” is a quote you will never hear Nick Saban say. Why?  Because Saban is committed to the process, not the outcome. The secret that Saban learned and sales teams can benefit from is that a process-focused team will outperform an outcome-focused team.

Before Saban started his dynasty at Alabama, he was the head coach at Michigan State. While there he worked with psychiatry professor Lionel Rosen to formulate a systematic approach to winning football games. He called this “the Process.”

Saban and Rosen broke down complex events like football games into bitesize, manageable tasks. Rosen realized the average football play lasts only seven seconds so coaches and players should concentrate only on those seconds. Concentrating on those seven seconds is the best way to influence the outcome of the game.

Saban said “It’s impossible to read and execute every play to perfection for the entire game. But seven seconds? Anyone can do that.”

Saban took that concept and applied it to every activity for his players and coaches.  Saban believes you are doomed to be disappointed if you focus on the desired outcomes (winning) and not the individual actions (process).

How does this process mindset apply to sales?

Think about the sales manager who tells his team, “I expect you to make your quota.”

How many times have you been frustrated because your sales numbers felt out of reach? That feeling of frustration is an indication of a lack of faith in your process. Eventually, the frustration leads to the belief that the goal is unattainable.

When a Saban football team is down at halftime, he reminds his players to forget the scoreboard and focus exclusively on the next play. In other words, go out and execute. The core belief is that the willingness to commit to the next right action, methodically, is the key to success.

There is an element of a stoic philosophy to Saban’s approach to the process. Marcus Aurelius said “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”  Another stoic philosopher, Epictetus, said, “the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.”

The genius of the process is you create a culture of high achievement with low frustration by not focusing on your desired outcome. As Saban has said before, “Mediocre people don’t like high-achievers and high-achievers don’t like mediocre people.” Which is the exact culture every high-performing sales team desires.

If you look at Saban on the sidelines you can’t tell if his team is winning or losing. Why, because he is not looking at the scoreboard to measure his team’s performance. Regardless of the score, he evaluates how well his team competed for the entire game, not the scoreboard. His team could win by 30 points, but he’s quick to point out, “I think we got a little sloppy in the fourth quarter, we had a lot of penalties and that’s something we can work on.” 

How often will a sales team have a great month or quarter only to underperform the next? Inconsistency is a sign of a relaxed process. This could be a lack of accountability on sales reps or sales managers to follow the process or no process at all.

According to one recent industry survey that evaluated more than 850,000 salespeople at 10,000 companies, 91% of salespeople reported they don’t have or don’t follow a formal, customized sales process.

Last season Saban’s team, like everyone, was disrupted by COVID. Saban told his players, the team that handles the disruptions the best will win. In other words, don’t focus on how long the lockdown will last, focus on what you can control today, the task at hand. Alabama went 13-0, won the SEC and the National Championship with an average margin of victory of 30 points.

One of Saban’s favorite sayings is, “Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”

It does not matter if it’s a football team or a sales team, a good process produces good results.  Each sales leader needs to evaluate what is most important for their team at each stage of the sales cycle, and then create a meticulously detailed process to achieve those objectives.

Like football, sales is complex with many moving parts and factors to consider. The teams that are consistently winning are the teams that have a detailed process, planned with precision. Teams that have the experience and resources in place are better able to implement significant sales and business improvements.

Unfortunately, many organizations underestimate the complexity of implementing a world-class sales process. The denial of complexity becomes a form of self-deception for these companies.  Every company believes they have a sales process, just like every football team from high school to college to the NFL has a process to prepare for games. But world-class organizations utilize methods that are proven, evidence-based with a curriculum that will facilitate buy-in from the team. 

Sales excellence does not happen overnight. It requires a process that includes hard work, consistency, and discipline. It does not matter if it’s football or sales, if you don’t work at your craft on a day-to-day basis, you will not be excellent.

One thing few people realize about Saban is that for years he’s had an outside consultant called a Special Assistant to the Head Coach. This is someone who has had previous head coaching experience at the college level and helps Saban organize off-field activities like recruiting, high school relations, and player development. In essence he has someone to assist with a combination of project management and administration support. This allows him to focus on the big picture while a subject matter expert assists with the execution.

Key Take Away for Sales Teams

The Process is not created overnight, it’s continual and evolving.

Sales tactics that worked in the past like cold calling may become less effective and require change. Just because it worked in the past does not guarantee it will work in the future. The process requires evaluation on a regular basis. If a sales rep says “It’s getting twice as hard to set an appointment”, an old-school sales manager will reply, “Then make twice as many cold calls.” 

No detail is too small to ignore

The process-focused sales team recognizes how you do anything is how you do everything. Are you showing up and winging every call, jumping from one task to another, and feel like there is never enough time in the day? This is a symptom of a poor process. Or is your day, week, and quarter planned with precision? This level of detail creates value in your team that your prospects will recognize. Good sales habits are systematically built up one step at a time.

The Process requires buy-in from all participants.

When the team buys into the process, they have a shared vision for the future. Team members will check their egos at the door. And they get after it every day because they know their contribution will lead to the team’s success. Clarify your vision and plan with precision. Team members that oppose this mindset either have to change their view or be removed from the team. As Saban says, “My goal for spring practice — get the right guys on the bus. Get them in the right seats and get the wrong guys off the bus.”

A sales leader does more than manage the sales process, they are also an educator. Whether you are leading your team or leading your prospects to the aha moment that holds the potential of making an enormous difference in your work. Good outcomes can become great when the sales team is focused on improving the process. A successful sales process does more than just add value to the organization, it creates a culture of high performance. 

Nick Saban believes there are two pains in life. There is the pain of discipline and the pain of disappointment. If you can handle the pain of discipline, then you’ll never have to deal with the pain of disappointment. With buy-in, attention to detail, and continuous improvement your sales team can develop a sales process to achieve world-class performance.

If you are okay going to work every day and not getting the results you desire that means you probably have not adopted the process mindset to be excellent. The one question Saban asks every player, which sales leaders would be wise to ask their team is, “How good do you want to be?”