Excelling in a Sales Career: Learnings Throughout Sales
March 17, 2022 | Written by Tom Callinan
I recently presented at a selling and sales management seminar for undergraduate students and had the opportunity to reflect on my learnings throughout a sales career.
When you are in a sales career, the most important thing to keep in mind is that sales is all about results. Nobody wants to hear excuses when you don’t achieve your quota (this is true throughout your business career—results matter). Achieving your quota/plan is your job. I like to compare sales professionals to boxers or tennis players: Your results are 100% within your control.
There are some key behaviors that help sales professionals achieve results:
1. Having a learning mentality and growth mindset
2. Being relentless and agile prospectors
3. Asking relevant questions and listening intently
4. Understanding and articulating the specific business case that your solution addresses and how it can empower buyers
5. Focusing on what the prospect is saying to move the transaction through the sales motion (don’t avoid objections as they’ll surface later)
6. Leveraging your team’s strengths to support your efforts
A Learning Mentality
In my B2B experience, one of the differences between the star and an average sales professional is an understanding of business. If you are selling a solution to a senior manager or the executive level, you need to have a solid understanding of business to have a productive conversation. Simple approaches such as “we save money” or we can “increase your productivity” without a clear, actionable process will go nowhere.
Next, you need to appreciate what you’re selling. Most solutions today aren’t novel, but rather they’re a better version of the mousetrap. If you are going to be a star, you need to recognize the limitations of what your prospect is currently using and how that affects their organization. You also need to understand precisely how your solution addresses those shortcomings and the benefit to the prospect. It’s also essential to be aware of competitors’ solutions and how yours is differentiated.
Sales professionals solve business problems.
Your prospect wants to know how you can:
1. Increase revenue
2. Increase margins
3. Reduce expenses
Reducing expenses does not mean you are less expensive. Your solution can be 2X the cost of what a company uses now, and it still might reduce the overall expense as it addresses a salient business issue.
At one company I led, we used an industry-specific enterprise resource planning (ERP) software with rudimentary reporting capabilities. Among other missing modules, there was no human resources information system (HRIS) or ticketing abilities. We invested substantially in reporting software, HRIS software, ticketing, remote technician capabilities, and process automation software that we developed and needed to maintain. We spent about one million USD annually on ERP licenses, but if you didn’t know the software limits, you would not realize that we were spending another one million USD annually on other solutions to fill the holes in our ERP. Moreover, we invested in IT support to keep all the systems synced—time that could be eliminated with a more integrated ERP.
Therefore, our total investment in the functions that a fully integrated ERP solution would provide was north of two million USD, plus IT resources and employee and customer dissatisfaction with issues that resulted from the solutions breaking integration. A new solution that addressed all our needs and was fully integrated could easily be justified for two hundred thousand USD per month, or $2.4 million per year. You need to understand business and your technology to make that sale.
There are many ways for a company to save money. Most executives are focused on improving productivity, which in the simplest terms, is an output measure (revenue per sales employee; revenue per total employees; widgets per worker hour on a production line). Sales professionals need to succinctly articulate how they specifically address business problems and unrecognized issues. Saying “we help you increase productivity” will ring hollow. Saying, “we were able to help X company reduce the amount of time IT spent managing 400 applications from 60 hours per month to 11 hours,” will get their attention.
For a sales professional to have these business-level conversations with executive-level employees, they need to clearly understand how their solution addresses business problems and how their company has addressed the issue alongside an actionable case reference. You also need to understand the art of questioning and listening.
Continuing with the ERP example, if you asked what they had spent on the ERP, you’d probably get “one million USD per year” as an answer. Suppose you understood the specific business needs and limitations of the current ERP. In that case, you might say something like, “When we worked with John Smith at Y company, he was using other solutions to fill in where (ERP) didn’t provide him the information and automation he needed. He used Adaptive Insights for reporting, Tech Raptor for remote dispatch, Zendesk for reporting, and had outsourced the development of some normal process automation, like filling repeat orders. What types of solutions are you using in addition to your ERP?”
This type of questioning provides the framework you’d like your prospect to think through without feeling as if they were being interrogated and is open-ended enough to allow the prospect to provide you with information you didn’t think about. Who knows what she/he might consider as a solution to invest in due to shortcomings in their ERP.
Once you ask the question, it’s important to listen intently and thoughtfully. Too frequently, when I interview a person for a sales position, they tell me they’re great talkers, which to me is the exact opposite of the skill required to be successful in sales. What they should be telling me, and demonstrating, is that they are a great listener. As was mentioned at the onset of this article, in B2B sales, you need to solve business problems. If you don’t ask the correct types of questions, then actively listen to the responses, you aren’t going to get the information you need to help the prospect and make a sale. Although it’s thrilling—or “electric,” as one sales professional would say—when the prospect opens by telling you how much they dislike their current provider, it is an extremely rare event.
Great sales professionals utilize their team to move transactions through the sales motion. You may be thinking that I said sales is like boxing or tennis, and it is. But every elite athlete has a team around them: Conditioning coach, psychological coach, nutritionist, skills coach, manager, etc. Nobody can be stellar on their own, and this is certainly the case in sales. Your manager and senior management can help you move the transaction through the sales motion or get to that higher-level executive you need involved. The technical specialists will be a big help when you get to the bits and bytes discussion.
When it comes to your career, don’t feel like your path needs to include management.
One of the big motivators of a sales career is the ability to make a lot of money. It has been normal in my career to have sales professionals earning $600K – $800K year after year, and I had one that consistently earned $2M+. These individuals had navigated through the sales hierarchy to handle large accounts. They excelled at identifying a business case for their offerings and could maneuver through the buying team. It took six to ten years of developing their skills and moving from smaller accounts to the enterprise level to achieve these earning levels. They chose a professional sales career.
I followed the management path, so I clearly believe it is also a great career approach. Everyone in sales is motivated (to some extent) by money, but for myself and many of the good managers I’ve seen in my career, if you want to pursue a management track, your primary motivation should be supporting other peoples’ success. As a manager, you get excited when someone on your team gets recognized. Although making plan is critical, you realize that you will consistently execute your business plan if you develop your team members, so ensuring an environment that supports and offers professional development is paramount.
What every excellent sales professional gives up in moving to management is short-term income. You’ll make good money, but you will need a couple of promotions to get to the income level you would have enjoyed if you stayed in selling. Not only are you limited by your management talent, but there is also the constraining factor of fewer upper-level positions.
Although money motivates those attracted to the profession of sales, the most crucial determinant of your career path must be enjoying your job. We spend most of our waking hours performing that job, so choose the career path that will provide you with the most satisfaction.