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Developing salespeople for your business

The question ‘are salespeople born or made?’ has been asked for decades and the debate rages on. Many will argue that they are born.

I disagree, in part. Essentially you can train anyone in anything if they really want to learn. They may not be brilliant at it but if they are determined they can usually make a good go of it. Which is why selling can be taught. But like any task there will be those people who are naturally suited to the task at hand and those who have to work a lot harder to get good results.

I often use the analogy of swimming, which is not an easy sport to learn. Almost everyone can learn to swim well if given good instruction and proper tuition. However, not everyone is predisposed to be the next Ian Thorpe or Michael Phelps. Genetically wired for swimming greatness, these two outstanding performers are shining examples of talent and ambition meeting opportunity combined with excellent tuition and coaching.

Although many swimmers are not blessed with the swimming genes of Thorpe and Phelps, if they are determined to succeed and given the opportunity to receive excellent tuition and coaching they can draw upon their desire for accomplishment and achieve a standard of excellence in their chosen sport as well.

They may not ever become a household name but they may still to make it to the national swimming titles (which is no mean feat in Australian swimming) or an international event which still means they are in the top 1-3% of swimmers in the world. They too have achieved excellence.

For those who made it to the state titles or performed well at local competitions they too are still way ahead of those people who have not learned to swim properly. Wouldn’t it be great to have a spread of salespeople who were all competent and able to compete at a high standard?

This swimming analogy is akin to the state of the selling profession. Most people are not trained in how to sell in a competent and skillful manner. Instead, training salespeople in most companies has become the equivalent of throwing them in the deep end and expecting them to sink or swim, or in this case, sell.

The reason why the question ‘are salespeople born or made?’ persists and people keep claiming they are born instead of made is because the good ones, like everyone else, were often thrown in the deep yet, unlike their floundering or drowning colleagues, they managed to work out how to sell well, intuitively.

The value of sales training

Why leave good sales performance to chance? If you dig deeper beyond the myths and legends of sales superstars you will find very few people have been given proper training, coaching or advice as to how to sell well. Instead, businesses often rely on the sales superstars (those born to sell) to carry the load of their sales performance with no way of transferring or teaching their knowledge to others which is a high risk manoeuvre into today’s complex world.

For many years people have been searching for that one magic quality, the one key ingredient that distinguishes top performing salespeople from all others—a magic ingredient with which only the special are anointed. If you take my swimming analogy it was probably sheer bloody mindedness to just survive.

However here are some of those qualities that have been espoused as the one and only magic ingredient:

  • Not call-reluctant
  • Resilient
  • Extroverted
  • Persuasive
  • A good talker
  • Charming.

The trouble with taking a singular approach to defining high level sales performance is that it assumes there is a one-size-fits-all approach to sales, and only those people with that ‘special’ quality can sell. This is certainly not the case.

This singular approach minimises and trivialises the complexity that is inherent in effective selling and disregards the constant adjustment needed to meet changing industry standards, market conditions, competition, corporate strategy and culture, personalities involved and so on.

Just think how the swimming strokes have changed over the years and the effect on speed and performance they bring even without the streamline suits. For example, the butterfly kick at the beginning of a breaststroke dive or turn, the tumble turn in backstroke, the corkscrew twist in freestyle and backstroke reducing stroke counts while going faster.

I speak about swimming from a level of experience as I too, have had to adjust my strokes to keep up with the pace of change in swimming. Even if you do not have knowledge in this space you can see, as a spectator that swimming has changed significantly over the years and with it comes improved performance. So it is with selling.

Selling has changed

Selling has fundamentally changed from being product-centric to client-centric although I would argue that good salespeople have always been client-centric, which is why they are effective.

Over the last 50 years, we can see a distinct shift occurring from the aggressive, one-sided, product flogging, sales monologue, the equivalent to swimming with one arm only, to where selling must now be balanced with the ability to proactively find opportunity and the ability to genuinely listen and respond to the subtleties of more complex relationships which involves patience, nurturing, and dealing with ambiguity.

Think of the types of conversations you now need to have with your prospective customers where listening, questioning, resolving problems, collaboration, empathy and understanding are encouraged. And technology such as social media has fundamentally changed the way we network, connect, prospect and buy.

The goal posts are shifting which means our definition of ‘good selling’ is shifting too. Fortunately there are a number of studies from here and overseas that reveal some interesting findings into elite sales performance. They are shining the light on the competencies and models we can learn and apply. The secret of sales success is no longer a secret.

For instance, a US longitudinal study (over five years) released in 2001 by Bernard Rosenbaum, Seven Emerging Competencies, revealed nine sales competencies: seven emerging and two traditional. While traditional sales competencies such as basic selling skills and account management are required, they do not differentiate top sales performers from poor or average sales performers. The findings cut across all industries, contradicting the assumption that successful sales practices vary among different industries.

Highest performing sales people develop and use the seven emerging competencies despite the fact they may not have been modelled by their managers and many managers still do not fully recognise these competencies. So they are still not being taught and developed in all salespeople.

What the research found was that successful sales people are not constrained by traditional practices, but work instead in ways they have found best. They practised and applied the following seven emerging competencies:

  1. Engaging in self-appraisal and continuous learning
  2. Listening beyond product needs
  3. Orchestrating internal resources
  4. Aligning customer/supplier strategic objectives
  5. Establishing a vision of a committed customer/supplier relationship
  6. Understanding the financial impacts of decisions
  7. Consultative problem solving.

The most interesting finding was that gender differences in sales competencies were found, with women rated significantly more highly than men on five of the emerging competencies. Rosenbaum, the author of this study, suggests this is reason to have a gender-balanced sales team.

If we are to take anything from this topic, it is that highly successful people are usually self-motivated and driven to succeed despite the prevailing conditions, which is likely part of their nature. We cannot rely on those few rare creatures for our business success, however: we need to and can train up more people to perform to standards which give us the momentum and allow us to prosper in these complex times.

Good salespeople are both born and made. Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett

Sue Barrett

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, coach, and founder of Barrett, specialists in assisting businesspeople and businesses build high performing and profitable sales teams.

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