As a psychologist, I am always struck by how long it takes for evidence from the world of social science to be implemented in sales, particularly in the development of sales people.
I have come across some new research from Brown and Harvard Universities involving an experiment with 136 teachers in 14 schools in Tennessee. Why Tennessee? Because uniquely the state measures teachers on 19 separate skill areas. The researchers matched the highest performing teachers with the lowest performers and had the principals ask them to work together to improve the latters’ performance over a year. They worked specifically on areas identified in the performance appraisal process. The result? The improvement in the lower performing teachers was roughly the same as the difference between a novice teacher and a veteran with five to ten years’ experience.
One of the reasons that this approach was felt to work is that teachers are traditionally quite isolated and rarely work alongside their peers. Does this ring a bell? Sales people are notoriously isolated often working from home, geographically remote from their team-mates. When their managers do bring the together, it is as often as not for star-chamber pipeline meetings or re-forecasting conference calls. All too often, sales people are managed as a collection of lone wolves with incentives that reward only individual achievement.
So would pairing low- and high- performing sales people along the lines of Tennessee teachers actually work? I can already hear the list of reasons why not. Of course, sales people are different from teachers and until researchers are able to do a similar experiment with sales people, including a control group, then there is not much one can say to rebut that argument.
The other argument I can hear is that, since organisations are so dependent upon the success of its top performers, the worst thing you can possibly do is distract them by asking them to hold the hands of someone who might be better off being “performance-managed” out.
To this I would make a couple of observations: Firstly, you need to think of the total cost to the organisation including that of recruiting and “on-boarding” new hires that may take six months to get up to speed. Secondly, we already limit the ability of our top performers to bring in revenues much more dramatically than this – we make them sales managers! Without having developed in them the skills to manage and coach their team, they often struggle to overcome the desire to do everything themselves.
I frequently hear that sales managers find it hard to acquire coaching behaviours. What better way to develop these than to partner them with low performers before they reach managerial level?
Success in sales is too often a mystery and regarded as akin to mastery of some sort of black art. We explain success in any number of ways but invest little time in sharing best practice and repeating what works best. It has often been observed that the best way to understand how something is done is to teach it to someone else. Much of what works in sales is observable and repeatable – with an all-too-frequent focus on individuals’ adherence to a process and meeting activity levels, an opportunity is being lost. Perhaps in addition to teaching one another, teachers from Tennessee have something to teach the sales profession also.
By Ian Price, co-founder of Sales-Mind, owner of Recludo Consulting, a business psychologist and author of ‘The Activity Illusion’. Sales-mind is a team development consultancy that is 'all about mindset'. They develop mental toughness in growth-oriented leadership teams, full-time sales teams and professionals that need to sell as part of their role. Recludo Consulting are specialists in helping professional services firms develop and grow their sales capability - it’s ideal for professionals who do not feel they have a 'natural' aptitude for selling.