Five Best Practices for Sales Managers

By Heather Baldwin

There are few terms more overused than the term "best practices." Search Google using the key words "best practices" and "sales" and you’ll come up with more than 20 million hits. Yet only "a tiny fraction" of what’s published as best practices would truly qualify as such, says Steve Gielda, partner at Advantage Performance Group (www.advantageperformance.com). Thus the crucial question for the sales manager aiming to incorporate true best practices into his organization is this: Which techniques are truly best practices and which are merely recommendations by a self-proclaimed expert?

Gielda explores the answer in his report, "World Class Sales Force Best Practices." He starts by explaining that a best practice is "a technique or methodology that, through experience and research, has proven to reliably lead to a desired result in a specific environment." He adds that a best practice must meet four requirements. It must be: observable (something top performers actually do as opposed to something they say they do); measurable (a behavior, not an attitude); repeatable (something that can be replicated across the sales force); closely correlated with success (if performed regularly, it leads to victory more often than not).

With these parameters in mind, Gielda culled through thousands of pieces of information proclaiming to be sales force best practices and separated the wheat from the chaff. Here are five that truly are best practices:

Best Practice #1: Understand and develop customer needs. This practice is the ability of the sales person to identify a customer’s problem areas. Implied in this practice is the ability to ask good questions and then listen to what the customer says.

Best Practice #2: Develop trust in the client relationship. Research from both the customers’ and sellers’ perspectives is unanimous on the issue of trust: it is crucial. And top performing sales reps work hard at building and maintaining trust. They do it by always telling the truth, even when it might cost them business; by responding quickly to complaints, problems and customers’ expressed needs; by returning calls in a timely manner; and by doing what they say they are going to do, when they say they are going to do it.

Best Practice #3: Know your customer. This practice relates to the ability of a rep to understand the customer’s business. It goes beyond uncovering their needs to knowing what they and their organization can do. "The best practice is to penetrate deeper to understand the customer’s business," says Gielda. "Who are their customers? What are the trends impacting their customers’ market or industry? How do these trends impact the strategic direction of the customer? Who are the customer’s competitors and how do they threaten the customer?" Gielda adds that top-performing sales people do not rely on asking their customer about these issues, but invest the time to research it themselves.

Best Practice #4: Full knowledge of capabilities and customer applications and the ability to bring to bear internal or external resources in service to the customer. This one’s a mouthful, but essentially it states that top-performing reps are expert resource brokers. They not only know what the customer needs to drive better results, but they know the person or people who can best demonstrate that solution. They know when to draw on internal resources and when to partner with other vendors to serve the customer’s interests.

Best Practice #5: Manage competitive threat over the course of an opportunity pursuit. Top performers know they are in a long-cycle, relational sale. They don’t cheer one good sales call, but rather regard it as one link in a long chain of successful interactions. They are not looking for a sale, but instead are always looking to the next step. "Their goal or objective in each customer interaction is to move the sale forward, sometimes yard by yard and sometimes inch by inch," says Gielda.