Improving the Sales Force Professor Lynette Ryals February, 2009 SM As times get tough, the issue of getting the most from the sales force becomes even more important. So it is very timely that a report has been produced called Improving the Sales Force, and I have got one of the authors of the report, Professor Lynette Ryals, today in the studio. Now, Lynette, how did this report come about? LR Well this is a really interesting dataset. We were lucky to be able to partner with Silent Edge, which is a sales consultancy and what they do is they actually observe behaviours in live sales meetings, and those could be face to face sales meetings, or they could be over the phone. So what we have got here is we have got a dataset of 802 people who are in a sales meeting situation, either by telephone or face to face with a customer. And we have got an observation in each case, a scorecard, observing the different behaviours that they use and then looking at the success of that sales meeting. SM So it’s real data, it’s not what people have told you for instance, or it’s not some fancy theory. You have started off with observable data, which you have clustered together? LR Well, I think that is one of the most powerful things about this study. I think that a lot of the research that has been done previously on sales success has looked at things like personality type, and attitude‐ reported behaviour, how sales people think they did in a sales meeting. Those are very common ways of gathering these kinds of data, but the problem is that an attitude is just a predisposition to behave in a certain way. What we have got here is really the kernel of it, which is what are people actually doing in sales meetings, and then is that resulting in a good outturn in sales success or not? It’s a very, very powerful dataset. SM So tell me some more about what came out of the report. LR OK. Well, we analysed it in two ways and we have got two sets of results to talk about. The first thing that we did was that we applied something called a cluster analysis technique where we looked at how these behaviours grouped together and we looked at what the different people were doing. And we found that there were eight different types of sales person: that is based on the different behaviours that they were using. And there were some very clear differences between the least effective and the most effective types of sales people. Then we applied something called structural equation modelling which is a more advanced statistical technique and what we were doing there was linking the behaviours themselves to the success of the sales meeting. And that enabled us to look at which behaviours were strongly linked to sales success and also to identify that some behaviours were negatively linked to sales success. That is, they were damaging the chances of getting the sale – and I think that again, is a very interesting finding. SM So in other words, the more you do of something that you think is working well, the less it works? LR Absolutely. SM Tell me then, of the eight types that came out, tell me the ones that seemed to work, the ones that didn’t work. LR Well this is interesting, because there were some very substantial differences. So in terms of these eight types of sales people, at the bottom end of the scale, we see the sales people that we call socialisers, and socialisers are kind of tea and biscuits sales people. So they go in and they have a nice chit chat with the customer, but they never really make any progress with the sale. And of course it is alarming for companies to understand that they have people like that in their sales force. We also had another category that was also very unsuccessful, but in a very different kind of way, which is the dealmakers who went in and were very pushy. They were trying to get the sale all the time, but actually they were overdoing it, so they were putting off customers. So we see these two different types of sales people, who are pretty unsuccessful. At the other end of the scale we have got the people like the consultants – the product closers and the expert sales people. These are people who have great knowledge of their company’s products and the market place, but interestingly are also able to adapt themselves to the customer, to deal with objections during the sales meeting, to listen well, to engage well. Those were people who were much, much more effective in a sales situation. SM So, having done this analysis, having said ‘hey, we have got these types’, where do we go next? LR What we then saw in the second part of the analysis was we saw that there were six or seven different kinds of behaviours and we looked at these groups of behaviours and said well are they linked to sales success? And these are things like pre‐meeting preparation and knowing about the company and doing the sales pitch and interacting with the customer – and something which we called ‘rising to the challenge’. And then also the use of storytelling which anecdotes and examples of other people who have used the product or solution. So we see those different types of sets of behaviours going on. SM So you didn’t just look at the face to face situation? You looked at the sales cycle in the round, if you like, before the meeting, during the meeting and so on? LR That’s right, that’s right. And then looked at the outturn. So was the sale moved on a step? Did we get some concrete outcomes? And of course, ultimately, was the deal closed? And in analysing these different strands of behaviours we were able to see which of them were linked with that progression, with that idea of moving the sale on. SM So let’s get to the meat of it then, what came out of it? LR You are right – the real meat is that there are two types of behaviours that are strongly linked, very strongly linked, to sales success. The first type is the pre‐ meeting preparation. So that is things like having a plan for the meeting, setting an agenda, setting objectives. All those kinds of behaviours very strongly linked to sales success. SM So do your homework, basically? LR Do your homework, absolutely. Even more strongly linked to sales success is the idea of the interaction with the customer and overcoming objections. Not just talking down, beating down the customer, but listening to what they have to say, negotiating with them, talking through the issues, overcoming their concerns and their fears – a kind of adaptive selling techniques. Now these are techniques that really good sales people do, know how to use, and they are very strongly linked to sales success. SM So its very task focused, but very focused on the issues that the client is wanting to be dealt with, really? LR That is right. Then we have got some behaviours which are negatively linked to sales success. This is the shock finding. I think that what we mean by negatively is we don’t mean don’t do them at all, but we mean if you do too much of them you might actually harm the progress of the sales meeting. And there are really two behaviours in this category. One of them is the sales pitch and the other, interestingly, is storytelling and anecdotes. Now I think we are all familiar with the idea that too much of a sales pitch is liable to put off a customer, but are we as familiar with the notion that too much storytelling and too many anecdotes can actually put off the customer? Perhaps because it sounds too much like special pleading, but also I think because of the danger of doing what we call ‘talking through the sale’, which is perhaps not listening enough to the customer. Not understanding that they are at the point where they are ready to buy, the sales person just keeps talking and then unfortunately the moment passes. SM So where do we go from here, then? You have got some very sound data, you have researched it well – what are the implications in the real world? LR I think that is definitely a question that we need to ask of practitioners. I think that one thing I would like to flag up is that these results could be very important in terms of how a sales director, or a sales person, trains – what training they receive and what coaching they receive. Because one of the things that we did find is that there is a set of behaviours that are completely unrelated to sales success. And that is things like personal presentation and rapport with the customer. Now why that is interesting is because I suspect that quite a lot of current sales training focuses on looking right, having the right presentation skills, doing the kind of interpersonal stuff. Well actually those are really hygiene factors. Somebody who can’t do those is really never going to get the sale. But being able to build a rapport and being able to present yourself well, it is a hygiene factor; you have just got to be able to do it. It’s too much of a basic. So I think that we need to think beyond perhaps some of the basics of sales training and we need to think about developing some of these more advanced skills, like the interaction, the adaptive selling, the overcoming objections. Some of these advanced skills which we can see now very strongly from our research are linked to sales success. SM Lynette, that has given us a lot of food for thought. Thank you very much.