What I Learned Talking to 53 Sales Managers

31 Mar 21

Their insights intrigued me. Across different industries and sales cycles, these 53 leaders valued similar essential skills in their top salespeople.

Last week, I surveyed 53 sales managers, asking them, among other things, what essential skills their top-performing salespeople possess.

Okay, it wasn’t an actual survey. Our team at SRG recently completed rolling out a sales training program from a large sales organization, and I was reviewing my notes from interviews I had with frontline sales managers as part of the customization process. As I reviewed these notes, I started noticing trends.

Intrigued, I reviewed notes from conversations I had with sales managers from other large projects SRG had completed recently. These sales organizations were in different industries – technology, financial services, life sciences, and manufacturing – and had sales cycles that ran the gamut from simple to highly complex. Nevertheless, several clear themes emerged.

Here are key insights based on my unscientific “survey” of these 53 conversations.

Prospecting is always a problem.

This one was nearly unanimous. The inability to consistently add new sales opportunities to the top of the pipeline was a significant concern for most managers.

Great reps differentiate themselves through disciplined prospecting. For those managing enterprise salespeople in my survey, better prospecting often meant that the salesperson was expanding their footprint in an existing account or booking appointments with senior stakeholders at new accounts. For those managing SMB teams, better prospecting started with their salespeople having the discipline to maintain high activity levels consistently.

Great reps do these three things.

When I asked about the selling skills that set their top performers apart from the bottom performers, the answers typically included active listening, call planning, and asking thoughtful questions.

What surprised me was how often sales managers identified active listening as the number one sales skill they correlated with top sales performance.

Product knowledge has to translate into solutions.

It’s a given that successful salespeople must have excellent product knowledge. But the sales managers told me that the best-performing reps on their teams could apply their product knowledge to the customer’s unique problem.

The combination of having product knowledge, gaining a deep understanding of the customer’s problem, and then applying their intelligence and creativity to solve that problem was the secret sauce of super reps.

Pay attention to the intangibles.

The sales managers I interviewed with didn’t agree on everything. When it came to the intangibles, their responses varied. Attributes such as work ethic and curiosity (this one surprised me) were often mentioned, but so were coachability, competitiveness, resiliency, and motivation.

You can’t train on the intangibles, but you can hire on them. However, your own cognitive biases can get in the way here. You’re susceptible to hiring people like yourself. You can overcome this similarity attraction bias by looking for the attributes of other successful salespeople on your team and replicating the top performers.

While I fully acknowledge that my "survey" results are unscientific, I think many of the ideas and concepts these 53 managers discussed will resonate with most sales leaders.


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