Tl;dr - Many companies think of a sales force as a build and maintain function. That's wrong. Markets change and people change. A sales force must be continuously improved and upgraded to deliver a return on marketing investment and ensure company vitality. A strong program built on a commitment to sales assessment tests is key to achieving this.
Don't Conflate Technical Knowledge with Sales Capability!
Many companies equate sales tenure and deep technical expertise with sales skill and effectiveness.
That's a mistake for two reasons.
- What buyers really want is solutions to the business problems, but technical myopia often interferes with delivering that as sales people talk about their products/services, or even worse, about their company.
- Engineering and sales are two different areas of expertise. Certainly some folks are expert in both, or expert in one and strong in the other. That's unusual though, and often capital equipment companies select the technical competence over the sales competence because they don't really understand and can't measure attributes of strong sales capability.
You've heard the justifications. Maybe you've even used them yourself.
- Our product is really complex and takes years to learn.
- Our buyers don't have the patience to deal with anyone who's not a technical expert.
- Our industry is different.
What's common about these justifications? The first person. It's about how you expect to sell as a manufacturer and NOT about meeting BUYER needs.
Certainly capital equipment buyers have been trained by vendors that they're supposed to rely on the salesperson as a technical resource, and therefore default to those types of questions...and then they flounder trying to get the project approved internally!
But you're not selling technical features. You're selling business outcomes. So either:
- you're missing the important opportunity to differentiate your business and leapfrog the competition by helping your deal champion manage their colleagues on the buying team, or
- you're selling to the wrong buyers (e.g. users instead of decision makers)
That's precisely why many top-performing companies differentiate between sales, and technical sales or sales engineering. Managing the business outcome is different than answering technical questions.
Picking at The "Qualified Lead" Scab
There's one place this is apparent in almost every capital equipment sales organization.
Many revenue growth conversations with prospects start with some version of "We just need leads. It's so hard to get in front of decision makers, we need that opportunity. Once we're there, we know how to sell and we win most of our deals."
I used to take this at face value. Serious business people know their metrics and hire carefully - ergo their diagnosis must be correct.
Except experience has made abundantly clear that it's not.
We'd start guiding their hard work to create a digital marketing lead generation engine and leads would start to flow....but sales wouldn't budge.
Then the sales team would prevail on management to change the requirement - from leads (an opportunity for the conversation which they originally said was all they needed) to sales qualified leads (which they'd further define as essentially a qualified opportunity - defined need, approved budget, engaged decision maker.)
But that's not what digital marketing (or any marketing) does. Rather, that's what sales creates from leads through diligent effort- whether the leads are handed to them by marketing or they create them with outbound sales prospecting.
And when you've watched this movie often enough the issue becomes clear. Sales people who are selected and valued for their technical expertise are doing exactly what they've been asked to do. They're focusing on active projects where they can bring that technical expertise to bear in helping to engineer and design solutions.
They're not selling, because in most cases, they can't or at least won't. Sales happens around the business case for disrupting the status quo and diverting resources from investments that others think are a higher priority - not around technical details. The latter is project engineering and management.
And therefore, in most companies, there is no real sales. Yet they've got high-priced, senior people on staff who are paid to sell and demand obeisance from their colleagues above and below. So it's a terrifying and disruptive process to acknowledge this reality.
Most industrial sales teams, particularly those selling capital equipment, totally suck.
Solving for Sucky Sales
The good news is that it's fixable. And while there's a runway to do so, paraphrasing the Chinese proverb we know that although it would have been great to start ten years ago, the next best time is today.
But how do you do so? It's hard. After all, sales is the only position for which you hire that we know has people lining up to make them fail! Your traffic manager doesn't have competitors and prospects tearing them down! (It's much easier to hire a controller based on domain experience or an assistant based on compatibility!)
The solution is twofold:
- Action steps built on a sales assessment test process
- Understand what you currently have so that you establish a baseline, measurable goals and a clear understanding of strengths and trainable shortcomings in sales people, sales management and leadership, sales process, training and coaching, enablement, and messaging
- Create a disciplined process to upgrade all of the above, including the team
- Culture & change management
- Rigorous accountability UP and DOWN the line
- Integrated revenue growth approach (Overall Revenue Effectiveness™) and a Framework to align marketing and sales
- Restructuring the sales organization to address business development, opportunity creation and management, and project management - including team selling and marketing driven sales enablement
- Defined (and realistic) sales process, rigorous deal qualification, realistic pipeline management, reliable forecasting, healthy ratios of new vs. repeat business, etc.
- Strong buyer focus
- Deliberate revenue operations to optimize process, compensation, territories, and more
There's a lot here obviously. So let's start with the easier part. The role of a sales assessment test.
How to Use Sales Force Testing to Improve ORE™
First, you have to clarify what you expect the assessment test to do. Too often folks default to some popular sales personality test or behavioral screening that is designed to help you figure out whose company you'd most enjoy at the summer outing.
Think about how absurd that is! Nobody wants to spend time with your sales people! So, why would that be remotely relevant!!??
You need a sales evaluation tool that:
- accurately evaluates individual contributors - measures not only whether someone can sell, but whether they will sell. That means both, whether they have the skills to effectively execute the hard and unpleasant work that's so fundamentally important to sales success, and whether they are driven to succeed and will consistently do that work.
- quantifies the performance of sales management and sales leadership functions, and clarifies gaps
- measures the effectiveness of sales process
- identifies gaps and suggests training approaches
- provides an executive summary distillation of the current situation for each individual and the aggregate sales force
That should be based on data and science because sales people are particularly adept at excusing their own poor performance. Therefore it's critically important that this process be empirical.
Second, you have to start to upgrade the team. That can involve improving the performance of existing team members with better coaching, adoption of technology, improved sales process, etc.
It might also mean moving people into more appropriate roles based on aptitude and skills (e.g. from field to inside sales, from project management to business development, etc.)
And it also means creating a funnel of outstanding new talent. You need to continuously recruit new candidates, just as you need to continuously search for new business.
This probably feels uncomfortable. So let's unpack it further.
Continuous Sales Recruiting
Too many sales personnel decisions are made by default as an alternative:
- they're not doing great, but it's better than an empty territory
- it will take too long to get them up to speed
- we don't have a great track record hiring - who knows if the replacement will be any better
And yet we know that people resign, retire or stop working (they don't like being held accountable, their spouses take jobs in other cities and they move, they become seriously ill, they make 'enough' money, etc.)
So putting aside the question of replacing current people, it's irresponsible for a business to get caught short in any of those situations.
And the reality is that you've got some mediocre talent that needs to be replaced. You've got others who might be able to do more but don't have the drive. Knowing that you're looking for their replacement will help nudge some get on board with your improved program. It will nudge others to go lower the bar of competitors' sales teams.
Either way, that's a good thing.
But it's even harder to do as we near full employment!
As openings climb and unemployment falls, there are now 92 unemployed people (excluding temp layoffs) per 100 job openings.— Jed Kolko (@JedKolko) August 9, 2021
That's back down to the 2019 average -- when the labor market was tight.
That means you need a process that will help you to very efficiently attract likely candidates, assess and filter them scientifically to avoid wasting time on the vast majority who are average (by definition), and interview effectively to minimize mistakes!
And that process MUST help you avoid traps like personality preference and industry experience which tend to contribute to emotional hiring decisions that rarely work well.
A couple hours/week, and a small investment in advertising will yield enormous business benefits.
But....and it's a big but....it is contingent on having a consistent, efficient process built around a reliable candidate assessment methodology. (e.g. one which boasts a track record of 92% of recommended hires reaching the top half of the sales force within six months, and 75% of those not recommended, yet hired anyway, leaving within six months!)
The Net Impact of Sales Force and Candidate Evaluations
Done right, here's the upside.
- higher return on marketing
- consistent, predictable forecasting and revenue
- higher caliber talent - fewer crisis to manage
- comfort that you won't be caught short
- confidence to make important personnel decisions when it's right for the business (vs. when it's convenient)
- greater mutual respect across departments
- happier buyers
It's just up to you.