Seven Steps To Become A Great Sales Leader

Stay Ahead Of The Game

According to the old Chinese proverb, you should dig a well before you get thirsty!

Nowhere is this more true than in sales.

Imagine this scenario – your sales team is well-settled and delivering good results. Business is good. The phone is still ringing, customers are still spending, and the bonuses and commissions are taking care of themselves. You are not looking to recruit – you have a total headcount, and you’re certainly not looking to replace anyone. You do some internal development with the team, but they’re performing well, and you don’t want them taking time out to learn new things. Not when they could be cracking on with dealing with their bulging pipeline. However, one of the most significant challenges for any sales leader is that once a problem exists, it can quickly develop and are slow to fix.

This could be a star performer handing in their notice, and a significant portion of your sales revenue can instantly be lost overnight. 

Sure, they may be on a longer notice period, but being realistic – will you ever get the best from them who already has one foot out of the door?

How long does it take to find their replacement – and how long does it take them to find their feet and deliver the top-notch sales performance you want to replace? 

The sad reality is that the recruitment process can take months – they may have a notice period to serve, they may have to learn your product or services, it could be your company culture and style, and the account base and then set them on their way. So it can be up to a year (or even longer) before your potential star performs at their predecessor’s level.

Alternatively, imagine one of your customers who contributes a significant proportion of your income and revenue suddenly turns off the tap. Not necessarily anything done before, but there’s now a substantial hole in your sales target that wasn’t there before. If your typical sales cycle is around 3 to 6 months (or longer), then it’s going to be some time before that gap gets filled.

What if there’s a change in the market? Economic downturn, the introduction of a new competitor or a significant offering from an existing competitor can create real pressures for a sales team which, more than ever, need to be more effective at converting the opportunities that they have in their pipeline as well as honing their ability to hunt for new ones.

When we look at what great sales leaders do, those that lead teams to hit quota consistently. Not just in the good times but can ride out and thrive during the most challenging periods. 

We notice that they do the following:

Always Recruiting

Great sales leaders don’t wait for a vacancy before they look to fill the gap. They are constantly looking for individuals that will add value to their organisation. They have a pipeline of talent ready to join the team. The longer the ramp-up period for new starters to the team, the more attention they pay to find those top performers well in advance.

Succession Planning

Promoting from within can be the most effective strategy for building a high-performing team, finding the next generation of sales superstars, developing their skills and moving them up through the organisation. Your BDM and Enterprise sales executives come from the AE population who already understand your customer base and value proposition and are already learning from the best of your current crop of top-level sellers. Your AE’s come from the SDRs who have developed their skills base learning about the problems you solve and how to open these conversations with prospects.

The key to succession planning is to start developing the skills before you promote them. For example, successful sales leaders ensure their team’s skills are developed to be effective in their current role and work on the skills they will need to hit the ground running in their next role.

Developing their top talent

The Mastery of sales is a journey, not a destination. Top sales leaders recognise that sales is a profession; like every other profession, ongoing and continuous professional development is essential to delivering top performance. The market, the customer base, the competitors, the technology and the economic backdrop to their sales business is constantly evolving. As such, their sales teams must continuously refine and hone their skill set and approaches to stay one step ahead. 

A team that stops learning is a team that, at some point, will start to decline. They recognise that coaching and training are not just a remedial activity but quite the opposite. They invest in developing their teams because they are good and, therefore, worth the investment.

Seeking New Ideas

Innovation and development are often less a case of trying something new and untested but rather a matter of taking what has worked well in one environment and adapting it to another. 

The rise of the SaaS model has come from seeing the success of how subscriptions can work in other settings (think Netflix and Spotify) and, more recently, Pret a Manger recognising that if movies, music and software can all be sold on subscription, then why not coffee! 

Top-performing sales leaders constantly seek ideas from other sales professionals, both within their industry and beyond, to enhance their sales practices.

Promoting Learning

Experience is meaningless without learning. Having 20 years of experience is no advantage if it is merely just a year’s experience repeated 20 times over. Great sales leaders create a culture where learning from experience is encouraged and facilitated. This means doing more than just having a ‘Reason’s Lost’ tab on your CRM system (which nine times out of ten will just say ‘lost on price’ anyway!). Instead, they encourage constant reflection, including asking why deals were won or lost – you get much more honest feedback from the customer in these circumstances. Observation, feedback, review, and practice are essential to ongoing learning. Any seller who tells you they don’t like role pay is telling you that they don’t want their sales approach being scrutinised or their skills being open to critique.

Challenge the Status Quo

“This is how we’ve always done it!” and “This is how we do it in our industry!”. If it’s ineffective, takes time and doesn’t deliver, then change it! Great sales leaders know this. If activities don’t deliver a decent ROE (Return on Effort), then you need to do it better, do it differently or stop doing it all. How many ‘account management’ meetings happen for the sake of it? How many steps in the sales process don’t add anything to the likelihood of success and are just ‘habits’? It takes a critical eye to see what needs to change – particularly when market conditions and competitor activity constantly evolve.  

Challenge The Maths

Sales is a numbers game – results are always measured numerically. Whilst some organisations (judging by the content of our inboxes) are still playing the game of ‘chuck enough s**t, and some of it will stick, the intelligent sales leaders recognise that sales have always been a balance between the quality and quantity of activity. 

Do enough of the right stuff, and sales will follow.

But how do they stay on top of this balance? For many sales leaders, the focus is purely on measuring the quantity of activity because, to be frank, that’s relatively easy. However, when there is a shift in the market dynamics, the volume at the tip of the funnel suddenly doesn’t produce the volume at the bottom. The response to this – shove more and more in the top.

Innovative sales leaders recognise that quality measures are harder to come by – but provide far more useful information when managing the entire sales funnel. If you have a leak in your funnel – putting more in the top will see more leaks through the sides.

Knowing conversion ratios from key stages of the process, measuring cycle lengths, average order values, and other quality metrics provide clues as to where the leaks are occurring and act as an early warning for where your sales process is becoming less efficient and effective.

It’s not always possible to predict what changes and challenges will occur within the market – there are too many variables and unknowns. Great sales leaders are not better at predicting change, but they anticipate the inevitable changes. If things are going well right now, they know that challenges are right around the corner and respond ahead of time. They constantly monitor what is happening and how prepared their sales teams are to react to whatever might come their way.