What It Means to Manage a High-Performing Sales Team

What It Means to Manage a High-Performing Sales Team

“If my other sales reps would just sell half as well as my top sales rep, we’d quadruple revenue in 12 months,” said a wishful thinking VP of Sales. The assumption sounds logical, that by raising the individual performance of all team members, you exponentially increase the organization’s aggregate. But the logic is flawed. The sales leader is blaming the poor performance on the individual sales reps, and not the system which they are using. In this article, we’ll explore the flawed logic that keeps underperforming sales teams from high performance and what you can do as a sales leader to change it.

Deception of Complexity

“If” is the most deceptive word in the English language. It suggests a simple solution to a complex problem. Whenever you hear the word “if,” warning sirens should ring in your mind. The deception of, “if we just had more time,” “if we worked harder,” or “if we had more energy” then things would be different, oversimplifies the complexity of high performance. Said another way, the denial of complexity is a form of self-deception. For many sales leaders and their organizations, self-deception is the root cause of poor performance.

For example, does the fictional VP of Sales above have a sales rep performance problem or a recruiting, hiring, training, developing, and retaining problem? The longer the VP of Sales attributes the poor sales performance to the individual reps, the longer the poor performance will perpetuate. Sales leaders who focus on isolating problems and individual solutions disregard the interconnectedness of the sales department. In other words, they don’t have a high-performance sales system and are hoping to get there by finding superstars. Their only problem with this model is that superstars don’t scale, but systems do.

System Thinking

Everyone assumes that selling is getting more complex. You’ve heard the argument that buyers have access to more information. Therefore, selling features and benefits is now ineffective. Modern buyers want solutions, not features and benefits. But what if the buyer’s wants never changed, (didn’t they always want solutions?) just our understanding of their wants has changed? For example, let’s compare selling to science. Consider that our understanding of the universe 100 years ago was rather simple compared to today. Did the universe change and get more complex in the last 100 years, or did we just improve our understanding of the universe?

Sales leaders that want to improve performance will stop viewing sales as fragmented components (sales reps and buyers). Instead, sales leaders will view performance as an interconnected system. System thinking recognizes that performance is tied to multiple components, and optimizing each component enhances performance. When all individual components are optimized–recruiting, hiring, training, and compensation–then overall system performance is enhanced. In corporate speak this is what they call “best practices.”

System thinking is a specific combination of sales best practices, work structures, and processes that maximize the sales team’s contribution to the organization. High performance is achieved by strengthening the components, not by fixing individual problems. For example, consider an athlete on a sports team that is rehabbing from a pulled hamstring. Once they fix the problem, they return to their natural state, but the team is not guaranteed to improve. Building a high-performance sales team by focusing on fixing individual problems is like trying to build a championship team by rehabbing injuries. 

High Performing Sales Leaders

What separates the high-performance sales team from average-performing sales teams often comes down to how the sales leader views their role. In high-performing teams, sales leaders are seen as coaches, mentors, and facilitators. High-performing sales leaders understand that their role is to make the team function at a high level, not simply fixing problems. They take responsibility for underperformance but give credit to the team for high performance. These sales leaders inspire vision and lift everyone’s vision to new heights.

Average-performing teams have sales leaders who view their role as managers. These leaders impose demands, supervise compliance, and judge performance. Their focus is on managing their people while the high-performing sales leader is focused on managing results. These leaders are also attached to things that should work but don’t. This type of sales leader usually works for an organization that feels they are “one step away” from exponential growth. That one step could be a new hire, new product enhancement, or new market (aka, component thinking, not system thinking).

Success Factors for High Performance

The American Society for Training and Development (ATD), surveyed managers and consultants to identify critical factors that can make or break a high-performance team. The results identified seven actions necessary for success:

  • Have a compelling reason for change (vision).
  • Senior leadership buy-in for change.
  • Sufficient resources allocated for change.
  • Clear communication.
  • Detailed system implementation.
  • Ability to measure and quantify change.
  • Leadership involvement through entire process.

When you look at these seven success factors, there is no mention of problem-solving. Problem-solving is necessary, but it is of low value to the organization. Other low-value opportunities that are not mentioned in these success factors include ideas, information, plans, and strategy. I’m not saying these components are not important, because they are, but high-performing teams have moved past this level of thinking. 

High-performing teams are more focused on results, not problems. They value things like vision, execution, effectiveness, and converting (exploiting) opportunities. Exploiting is in parenthesis because that’s the essence of high-performance. High-performing sales teams capture, convert, and capitalize on opportunities average-performing teams miss. What’s clear about high-performing teams is that they pursue something inspiring.

Attaining High Performance

If you read between the lines of the seven success factors above, it screams one thing–all in. It’s not about piece-meal changes and component improvement. A perfect example is the Dallas Cowboy football team. In 1988, Jerry Jones purchased the team. His first decision was to fire their legendary coach, Tom Laundry, and hire Jimmy Johnson. Jimmy Johnson immediately traded their best player, Herschel Walker, and drafted new talent with the picks. That team won three Super Bowls in four years. By anyone’s definition, high-performance. That success wasn’t achieved by piece-meal fixes, but by going all in.

Since then, the Cowboys have been consistently average. That is to say they are constantly one coach, one quarterback, and one play away from success. They’ve wasted two decades plugging holes and fixing problems, while other teams are going all in and winning Super Bowls. 

I know sports and selling analogies are clichés, but what stands out to me among the seven success factors for high-performing teams is detailed system implementation. Average-performing teams may have a detailed sales process, but they don’t strictly adhere to it. For example, high-performing sales teams have clear benchmarks for the new hire sales rep performance. If the new hire does not achieve a minimum level of performance within 90 days, they move on from the candidate. Average-performing teams will retain the underperforming rep for an additional 9 to 12 months. Said another way, “they stick to the script.” 

Here is the catch about sticking to the script. If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old. The old script of building high-performing teams is no longer effective. Searching for and filling your roster with superstars is a recipe for frustration because they are so hard to find. Fixing problems one component at a time is expensive and ineffective. A better option (but much more difficult) is to focus on building a superstar sales system. 

In Conclusion

This concept about system thinking is nothing new or revolutionary. Most sales leaders know this intuitively; create a compelling vision, get buy-in, establish processes, and monitor team performance. The hard part is holding everyone accountable to the new higher standard. But the scary part for the sales leader is to say, “This average performance is unacceptable, we need to raise our standards and re-design our sales system.”

Why is this scary for sales leaders? Because it’s much safer to be average and keep your job than to take a risk to be great, fail and lose your job. That’s why senior leadership must sponsor and support the desire for high-performance. Without that senior leadership support, lower leadership only feels safe with piece-meal changes. Hence, high performance is rarely achieved.

 As Muhammed Ali asked, “Who’s going to dare to be great today?”