Virtually every job ad seeking new sales talent starts the same way: “Wanted: Sales Professional. Must have five years of sales or account management experience.”
If you want to hire world-class sales talent, a demonstrated track record of past success seems pretty important.
Embedded in that simple phrase, however, is a flawed assumption that not only dramatically limits a company’s pool of high-potential applicants, but likely steers them toward the wrong candidates. Because, in today’s rapidly changing sales world, past experience may no longer predict future performance nearly as well as it used to.
Arlington-based business advisory firm CEB has spent the past several years analyzing a number of changes in customer buying behavior. These changes dramatically rewrite the rules of what good business-to-business sales looks like.
Today, customers learn on their own prior to engaging a sales rep. Just as people now walk into car dealerships having researched what they need to know — including the price they are willing to pay, a business-to-business customer can approach a supplier with everything figured out — other than the size of the discount that the supplier is willing to offer.
In many ways, it’s a race to the bottom in a world where increasingly transparent information means sales reps have little left to discuss other than price. As one head of sales told us, “It’s hard to grow your business when your high-cost sales team has just become the Fulfillment Department.”
This widespread commoditization pressure doesn’t result from getting outsold by the competition, but rather outlearned by one’s own customers. In this world, it’s not the competitors’ sales ability but rather the customer’s learning ability that’s causing the problem.
So how does an organization compete against its own customers?
Suppliers now must find sales talent who can “unteach” their customers. The best sales reps challenge customers’ thinking, demonstrating in a diplomatic and professional way that despite all of their learning and due diligence, the customer has missed something materially important to their business.
Because this ability to challenge customer thinking wasn’t nearly as important in the past, there’s no guarantee that past success will automatically translate to future performance. Instead, if challenging customers is the operative sales skill now, suppliers looking for sales talent can cast an entirely different net based on a simple question: Is it easier to find experienced sellers who are able to challenge, or proven challengers who are able and willing to sell?
Our research indicates that proven challengers make up only 17 percent of the total sales professional population, so they’re hard to find and even harder to afford. At the same time, however, many suppliers have found dramatic success hiring and training professionals with wildly diverse backgrounds to sell effectively in this new environment, based largely on their natural willingness and ability to challenge customers’ thinking. These challenger reps are up to four times more likely to be a top performer and outperform their “average” peers by 14 percent.
To overcome the hurdle of finding and building challengers, sales leaders need to revisit how they assess potential, measure sales reps’ performance and develop challengers. Assessments that bring out critical thinking and communication skills, programs that help salespeople learn to teach and performance measurement programs that focus on career paths and rewards are all ways to attract and retain this important group.
It is critical that organizations enable this new kind of salesperson. The evidence shows that when they do, customers will buy more and stay longer with them as a supplier — outcomes that even the most tenured sales team is struggling to deliver.
Talent Matters is a monthly column from CEB, a Rosslyn-based corporate research and advisory firm. Jean Martin is CEB’s talent solutions architect. Brent Adamson is a managing director at CEB.