I was an accidental sales leader and I, and therefore our team, was adrift.
I had good intentions, but no sales roadmap.
As I got oriented in the first few weeks of running the team (I had just stepped in to run things after parting ways with a sales manager who was not a good fit), the first thing I wanted to do was simple. I just wanted to get my arms around the reps I had, to understand their strengths and weaknesses so I could chart our path forward. But, my conversations and observations were scattered, and I felt like I was running in place. As a leader, I was all over the place. Every time I coached a salesperson, or reviewed one of their calls with them, I was reinventing the wheel. It didn’t feel organized and it didn’t feel scalable.
My sales operations manager and I knew we needed something, but at the time we didn’t know what that what was. I was just trying to get us anchored together with something. Anything.
So, she and I locked ourselves away in a conference room and just started throwing out words. We were grappling with culture, with recruiting, with coaching, with performance and words just came tumbling out scattered. Words about our company, about our buyers, about our deals, and mostly words about our reps. On the characteristics of our best and worst producers. We talked about skills we had, and skills we were lacking.
We ended up with lots and lots of words on the whiteboard so we started to group and categorize. Eliminate redundant words. Enthusiasm, passion and excitement were consolidated to “Enthusiasm”.
Like watching come together right in front of your face, suddenly it was clear to us both that what we needed first were a set of defining characteristics of our team. The skills and traits we wanted to cultivate. From this, our culture could take shape.
I realized that what we were organically creating locked away in that room was a set of characteristics we wanted to use to shape our team. I was going for just a few traits. We ended up with 12. The entire exercise probably took an hour. We then slept on our draft list for a few days. We tweaked. We changed. We debated. And about a week later we had settled on what came to be called The 12.
While I wanted a much shorter list (for it be something memorable and focused), The 12 actually served us well as a rallying symbol of our new team and my newly appointed role as sales leader. I launched it at first our annual sales kick off meeting, and we created an entire annual curriculum around each characteristic, focusing on one per month.
This was our list of 12 sales characteristics:
- Enthusiasm—Long term enthusiasm in sales requires grit, not just a sunny disposition and a positive outlook. Call it hunger, call it drive, call it a person who always is ready to tackle the next thing on their path. I want to work with people who can generally sustain enthusiasm, even through the ups and downs.
- Time management—The best reps I know are strategic in the management of their time. They don’t go drifting from one thing to the next. They map out how much time they need to spend on prospecting, on calls, on follow ups and they maintain order in their schedule so they can get it all done, without being a slave to their desk and without letting things fall through the cracks. If a rep isn’t managing their time, then they probably aren’t managing their prospecting, their pipeline or themselves either.
- Creativity—I think great sales people are inherently creative. They think fast on their feet. A playbook is nice, but it’s not a must have for them. They are creative conversationalists, creative problem solvers, creative deal makers, and creative in their approach to getting, and sustaining the attention of their prospects.
- Curiosity—I believe innate curiosity is the most important trait a sales rep has. If you aren’t curious, it’s hard to have relevant, meaningful, naturally flowing conversations. I believe a truly curious rep can hold their own in just about any sales conversation, no matter how much subject knowledge they have, or experience on the job.
- Listening—The best reps really listen to their buyer. Not just the words spoken, which is crucial, but also the intent and feeling behind them. They hear what is said, what isn’t said and what’s meant between the lines. That requires intentional focus on listening and hearing and even some intuition and smart inference.
- Silence—The best reps talk only when needed, are as brief as possible, and listen more than speak. I like 80/20—talking only about 20% of the time (or less!). Reps who yammer on and on think they are doing a good job connecting with, and teaching, their buyer. What they are actually doing is missing opportunities to really understand and connect with their buyer.
- Persuasion—I love buyers who sell themselves, and I love deals that just naturally come together, but that’s luck. That’s not skill. When the buyer doesn’t know what’s best for them, when the buyer lacks focus and direction, when the buyer needs to be led—these are the moments reps have to be persuasive. Lots of things go into the ability to be persuasive, from being authentic to being credible to being honest. And at the end of the day, a rep who isn’t persuasive isn’t going to consistently perform.
- Competition—A sales person has to want to win. They have to want to beat their best numbers, and the numbers of everyone else on the team too. A competitive streak doesn’t always need to display itself to the world, but it’s got to be there under the surface. The rep needs to care about winning, and passionately pursue being at the top.
- Storytelling—I want reps who are silent and who are good listeners. But they also need to be great storytellers. A story is how we get the buyer’s attention. It’s how we hook the buyer. It’s we pull at their emotions and keep them on the path to purchase. Data and numbers don’t win deals. Stories do. Authentic, credible, relevant stories woven into every conversation and interaction.
- Persistence—Or grit. You have to call until you hear no. You have to overcome the objection. And try again if that fails. You have to make one more call, send one more email. This requires resiliency. And unwavering dedication. A sales person must be persistent in the pursuit of their goals, in the pursuit of a new opportunity, and in the pursuit of closing the deal.
- Positive—How is positivity different than trait #1, enthusiasm? At first blush these seemed too similar. But someone can enthusiastically, doggedly go after a goal, and still be a real drag to be around, can’t they? We didn’t only want enthusiasm, we wanted people who naturally embodied positivity. We wanted our team to exude positivity. When we lost that big deal, we wanted our first inclination not to be despair, but to be “what can we learn from this, so we can go win the next deal?” We wanted to ensure we didn’t build a team of wallowers who turned sour every time things got tough.
- Goal oriented—Goals and top performers go hand in hand. The strongest performers I know have short, mid and long term personal life goals that fuel their drive to succeed in their profession. I want to work with people who are driven by the achievement of their goals. That’s how energy and focus are sustained through the ups and downs of winning and losing deals.
The 12 were characteristics we wanted every sales person on the team to have, or to strive for. These would be the things we would each work towards, and that we would work on together as a team. They would also be the way we evaluated current and potential sales people. But more important than any one rep, the 12 became the deliberate characteristics of our team.
The 12 became a sales culture tool
The 12 became something we could look to and reference in our discussions. We could reward people for displaying characteristics we wanted to foster in a public way. It was something we could all use collectively and it ended up becoming much more than 12 words. It defined who we were, and who we wanted to be, at a time when the team had no glue. It became something central that we could all rally around together.
I used The 12 for two years, until it had served its purpose and helped us cement our culture.
Pay less attention to the actual list, and more attention to the story of why I needed this list, and how it helped me as a new sales leader to create a deliberate culture. I created this list about 10 years ago, just as I was starting to lead a sales team. If I were making a list of characteristics I wanted to foster in my team today, I would tweak these just a bit.
I think defining your own characteristics (or using mine, if you like them!) is a valuable exercise for any new sales leader. If you don’t know what you personally think defines a successful sales person, it will be hard for you to be consistent in your recruiting, coaching and feedback. Reps won’t know what behaviors you expect from them. It will be hard to be deliberate about your culture.