Observed both here and elsewhere, average sales quota attainments appear to be in an exorable decline. As I discussed in my recent Analyst Perspective, "The Art and Science of Sales from the 'Inside Out'," vendors of sales technology have reacted to this by adding a slew of new functionality including the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to be a game changer for sales. One can argue that this use of AI is still relatively immature having been generally available only since 2014, but that is still over five years of market availability.
So why are we still discussing how to arrest the decline? It could be that the focus has only been on the deal or the opportunity. As sales leaders know, deals don’t sell themselves; people do. And yet there has been little focus on the salespeople. Addressing the coaching and skills elements of selling professionals could enable a higher confidence in the sales engagement potential.
The answer may lie in the sales organization itself. If we look at most B2B sales organizations or commercial sales arms of B2C organizations, the focus in the last 10 years has been on sales team management, pipeline management and health or sales forecasting. Even when AI was first introduced, the focus was on opportunity scoring, surfacing reasons why a deal was a potentially good or bad fit. The explanation and reasons for these scores were predominantly observational rather than actionable, leading to a metaphorical shrug from salespeople and first line managers.
However, this same data — data that is used to help inspect and provide objective judgment as to the fit of an opportunity or as to how the deal is progressing — can also be used by sales organizations to look more closely at who they hire and how they focus sales execution and skills training. Historically, sales leaders typically go to salespeople they have worked with in the past, or look to hire those that have exhibited success elsewhere. In addition, internal sales training is typically one-size-fits-all and often takes place at events such as sales kick off, where distraction is at a maximum.
By using data and techniques similar to those used to inspect opportunities, sales organizations can separate the idea of what a good salesperson looks like as distinct from a good deal. Ventana Research asserts that by 2022, less than one in five organizations will utilize advanced analytics to identify skill and coaching needs to help sales professionals engage effectively and mitigate reducing the sales organization’s revenue impact.
There are a number of new vendors in the market that combine standardized psychometric testing with sales attainment to ascertain what a “good” salesperson looks like for a particular organization, product set or region. The resultant profile can then be used in several ways: to better understand whom to hire and to profile the existing sales teams. By classifying sales teams into groups through regressing soft and hard skills against attainment, sales leaders can identify their current team’s strengths and weaknesses, and which skills are dominant in predicting success. Microtargeting of individual sales skills training needs supports the potential of moving C players to B players, and B players to A players. This will also enable decisions about team members for whom either the company or the role is not a good fit. This training should not be one and done; properly managed, this becomes a continuous process, enabling monitoring of progress or otherwise with repeated decision points as to whether salespersons are developing in line with expectation.
For hiring new reps, rather than relying on past success at a different organization with different products and different buyers, the same analytics and data-driven approach can be used to create a successful seller’s profile — the attributes that make a salesperson successful in a particular company, product set or region — to hire against. Sales leadership should ensure they use more sophisticated insights from analytics and data, supporting a much better understanding of what constitutes the “right” salesperson profile. By doing so, they are able to improve the coaching and skills development of future salespersons, which must be their responsibility if an organization is to have a higher probability for achieving sales effectiveness.