Six sales best practices

Selling is a complex discipline involving many kinds of activities. Some are customer-facing (e.g., making a presentation). Others are background activities (e.g., researching the customer). In that complex array of activities there are innumerable qualities that make someone a top performer. Some are simply the minimum standard, or “ticket to the dance”, like being on time or good written and verbal communication skills. Then there are “soft skills,” – those things which can be described as innate to the sales person such as a strong work ethic or a high energy level. The, “soft skills” are most appropriately considered as hiring criteria.

This analysis focuses on six best practices which can be observed and then trained and developed across a sales force.

Best Practice 1: Understands and develops customer needs

This first best practice is the ability of the sales person to identify potential problem areas the customer is experiencing. Implied in this best practice is the ability to ask questions which cause the customer to think about problem areas and the ability to listen to what the customer says about these problem areas.

The research also indicates that top performing sellers are able to discriminate between general problems and those needs which the customer has the urgency to take action to resolve.

Best Practice 2: Understands the customer’s business

Understanding the customer goes beyond Best Practice 1. It is more than simply asking questions about customer needs. Top sales performers develop a comprehensive understanding of the customer’s business:  What are the trends impacting their customers market or industry? How do these trends impact the customer’s strategic direction? Who are the key players in the customer’s organization? Who are the customer’s competitors and how do they threaten the customer? Top sales performers not only rely on asking their customer to gain these insights; they also invest time to research it themselves.

As a sub-best practice, top sales performers leverage this knowledge. They incorporate it in their strategic approach. For instance, understanding the financial impact a given procedure might have on the customer’s ability to meet its mission, can help them frame their discussions about how a new solution creates a competitive advantage for the customer.

Best Practice 3: Develops trust in the customer relationship

The research is unanimous about the importance of trust. Top performing sales people work hard at building and maintaining trust with their customers. Getting there is a litany of those things you would expect in this category. Trusted sellers tell the truth; they are candid. Trusted sellers are concerned about the customer. They are responsive to complaints, problems, and expressed needs of the customer. They return phone calls in a timely manner. They do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. Moreover, they know what their organization and its products and services can do. They do not try to do what they cannot do. They under-promise and over-deliver.

Best Practice 4: Leverages resources

Top performing sellers are expert resource brokers. They have extensive knowledge of their own organization’s capabilities, products, and services, enabling them to bring together the right combination of resources to address customer requirements. Today, being an expert broker has become a necessity because solving customer problems has become more and more complicated. The best sales people know their capabilities and how they “fit” – for helping the customer drive business results. They also rely on others to deliver on that “fit”. Sometimes, they draw on resources within their organization. At other times, they even partner with other vendors.

Best Practice 5: Manages the long sales cycle

Sales top performers realize they are in a long sales cycle. Having one good sales call, while perhaps a cause for some cheering, does not win the game. They know that success comes over the long haul and involves stringing together a series of successful interactions with the customer. So, top sales performers are constantly looking to the next step. Their goal in each customer interaction is to move the sale forward, sometimes yard-by-yard and sometimes inch-by-inch.

Best Practice 6: Manages the competitive threat

Top performers are aware of the interplay of competitors. Top performers use tools to help them and their organization understand the competitive situation. Whether it is through SWOT analyses, value matrices or other means, they invest time and energy understanding who their competition is and how to manage them. They then put this knowledge into practice when they are face-to-face with the customer. Most importantly they keep their eye on the ball – the customer.

Check out the Sales Training Connection to read other posts on sales effectiveness.

©2011 Sales Horizons, LLC

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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4 Responses to Six sales best practices

  1. caitlin edwards says:

    what can a sales manager do to help a newer account rep get better at understanding customer needs and the customer’s business? Books? Suggestions?

    • Richard Ruff says:

      In the end, the best thing a sales manager can do is to find more time for coaching the rep that needs help. This means going on sales calls – helping the rep plan the call and most importantly giving feedback after the call. But it is not a one time coaching thing – it probably takes 3 months with field visits every other week to make a difference.

    • Amy D says:

      Company websites are an excellent source to learn about a customers business. Most will tell you what the customer values, their goals and mission. Some websites will go so far as to explain their strategic imperatives. In medical device sales, learning about each of the healthcare partners is equally important. So who are the partners? Physicians, hospitals and payers must come together to form a system that works in harmony… or does it? Understanding how each partner is paid will help a new rep begin to understand the “business” their customers are in, it’s opportunities and it’s challenges. Can the manager hold a conversation with a customer or rep that allows both to learn? The manager must be articulate if they are going to model the conversation for others.

  2. Richard Ruff says:

    Reply to Amy D

    Just wanted to reinforce the point Amy D made about using websites for gaining information about customers. First, it is a good idea because of the ton of information available. Also think about it from a “call time budget” perspective. If you get all that information before the call, you can better plan your calls – they can be more efficient and you can devote the time in the call to high impact topics rather than just asking low level situation type questions. You just look sharper in front of the customer because you know how to and have the time to add value.

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