Trending This Week: A Customer-centric Approach to Sales Management

New research from McKinsey & Company uncovers insights on using a fresh approach to get the most out of your sales reps.

June 30, 2017

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Which traits separate the top tier of sellers from the bottom tier? It isn’t an easy question to answer -- many companies, in fact, have been unable to do so despite making it a singular operational focus.

But the companies that pinpoint attributes conducive to stellar performance, and then integrate those findings throughout their hiring and enablement processes, are the ones that consistently dominate the field.

New research from McKinsey & Company delivers an enlightening, if not entirely surprising, revelation: the top sales organizations are those that treat their reps like customers.

Sales DNA: What Defines a Great Salesperson?

In his recent hit single, rapper Kendrick Lamar describes his gritty makeup: “I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.” Sounds like he might just make a good salesman!

Then again, those are rather vague descriptors. And in general, hiring sales reps based on ill-defined professional characteristics and gut intuition are inhibiting issues for companies looking to bring in effective sellers.

In the age of big data and measurable everything, we are now able to segment and profile customers with unprecedented accuracy. Companies that put the customer front and center are reaching new levels of engagement through personalized outreach. So why aren’t more sales managers taking the same tact with their teams?

The wide-reaching survey from McKinsey & Company assesses the “Sales DNA” of more than 100 organizations and more than 15,000 reps, searching for the distinct intrinsics and skills that prove to be differentiators. There are a number of interesting nuggets to analyze within the results, but the underlying theme is this: top-performing sales leaders acutely identify key characteristics aligning with success, and use a data-driven approach to construct their teams around those characteristics. This applies to hiring decisions as well as training direction.

It might sound obvious but the practice can lead to unforeseen discoveries, as one media company found:

After it profiled different roles and teams across its sales organization, the company’s head of sales was surprised to learn that 40 percent of new hires had a bottom-performer profile, and only 10 percent had the characteristics that aligned with top-performing brands. Those insights sparked a broad transformation that shaped recruiting and helped transform a company that had been losing market share into one that now leads peers in revenue growth by two percentage points.

It isn’t just about determining skills that tie to strong selling, but parsing out those that work within a specific niche or industry. Again, this seems intuitively apparent, but the data from McKinsey shows that “many organizations rely on static training methods that tend to focus on a universal set of seller capabilities.”

Insights on Time Distribution

One of the most striking findings in the Sales DNA survey comes from the time management profiles for top sales teams compared to the average baseline. 

This should present sales managers with some food for thought: How can we streamline preparation and prospecting tasks in order to give our reps more time working directly with customers? Which inefficiencies and redundancies can we cut down or delegate elsewhere?

Implementation Optimization

Of course, it is not enough to recognize the defining traits of a strong salesperson. This data is really only valuable if we can leverage it in actionable ways. When it comes to implementing best practices, McKinsey offers three suggestions in line with the concept of treating reps as customers:

Tailor and customize communications with salespeople in the same way customer-centric marketers aim to do so in outreach campaigns. Don’t use the same uniform training materials and protocols as one-size-fits-all solutions. Highlight tangible benefits of new programs or initiatives for reps. Resist flooding them with fatiguing information to the point where they start to view your emails as spam.

Make investments in coaching for a more hands-on style of guidance. Once you dictate the capabilities you wish to emphasize systematically, provide sales leaders with the training and time to work directly with reps. The Sales DNA study also shows that role-playing stands out as an effective coaching technique.

Use digital tools to create personalized connections. Businesses around the world are deploying new technologies to better understand and interact with their customers throughout the buying journey. These same mechanisms can be used for superior sales enablement. “Data-enabled tools and processes, such as leadership boards, virtual deal clinics, and gamification techniques, can bolster friendly internal competition and increase interest.”

Today, more and more companies are using all available resources to adopt the customer’s point of view and then establish an organizational mindset based on around it. Sales leaders who do the same with reps are watching their teams thrive.

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