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Put Your Salespeople on the Path to Excellence

By Selling Power Editors

This article is one of a series about sales force effectiveness, written in collaboration with experts from ZS Associates. Kelly Tousi and Torsten Bernewitz were interviewed for this article. To learn more, check out the Sales Force Effectiveness Navigator from ZS Associates.

Have you ever tried to give someone directions without using a map? It can be done, yes. But it’s frequently a less precise and effective way to help someone find his or her way.

Sales managers can use benchmarks outlined in a competency model as a kind of map when coaching salespeople and evaluating their performance. Yet experts at global sales and marketing consulting firm ZS Associates confirm that many sales managers are winging it. This represents lost opportunities.

“There’s significant potential in developing the skills of salespeople,” says Torsten Bernewitz, a Principal at ZS Associates. “But without clearly defined benchmarks of the skills, knowledge, and behaviors that lead to success, it can be difficult to point reps in the direction of success.”

Kelly Tousi, a Principal at ZS Associates, says that the most successful sales organizations start by establishing a clear view of the competencies that make reps successful. They then codify these in a competency model that sets clear expectations for each role. “A competency model is a must for successful sales-talent management,” she says.

According to Tousi and Bernewitz, competency models can be ineffective for a variety of reasons:

  • Reps and managers aren’t aware that a competency model exists.
  • The skills enumerated in the competency model are too generic and not specifically germane to sales roles.
  • The descriptions in the competency model are not tangible enough for managers to coach them effectively or help reps understand how to apply each skill in practice.

In contrast, routine use of a good sales force competency model introduces science to the art of sales coaching; specific benefits include more rigor and precision in execution, higher consistency of approaches, and more predictable results. It shows your reps a clear path for professional growth and higher success and sets up your organization to achieve organic, profitable growth.

“The purpose of competency models is to remove some of the trial and error that exists in every sales organization,” says Bernewitz. “Every team has reps who produce consistently better results than others. Codify these best practices in the competency model, and make it the backbone of training, coaching, and performance management. You will see average performers improve, sometimes dramatically.”

The model can also help to evaluate the fit of new and current reps to different sales roles. “It’s about identifying the right talent quickly and knowing where they need to be in order to perform at their best,” says Tousi. “Sometimes that’s another role or another department.”

To be useful, the competency model needs to reflect skills specific to your sales process. For example, while nearly all competency models would likely include a dimension on communication, it’s important to define exactly what communication means at your company. “A tailored competency model would instead ask, ‘How well can you communicate value to customers and tailor information to meet their needs?'” says Tousi.

An effective model has detailed descriptions of behaviors associated with basic, advanced, or expert levels. These descriptions then enable the manager to evaluate the rep’s skills and the reps to do a self-evaluation. Gaps between their perspectives can prompt a highly valuable dialog.

“The conversation is, ‘Let me tell you what I’m seeing when I’m in the field and why my assessment is not matching up with yours,'” Bernewitz says. “It’s not, ‘Why didn’t you hit your number?'”

This kind of discussion can help groom reps for more responsibility and, down the road, possible management positions. “You show the rep what it means to operate at an expert level. If the rep wants to be promoted, the manager can say, ‘Here’s the path to that. Here are the competencies you’ll need to succeed in a bigger new role,'” Bernewitz says. “It gives the sales team a chance to see what excellence looks like. Once they see it, they want to get on that path.”