The Winning Formula

How do you replicate the success of your top sales reps? Is there a tried-and-tested formula?

How many unicorns do you have in your sales force? Those mystical creatures who can take an opportunity that comes through the doors and fly with it through the whole sales process from start to finish without management needing to step in? It turns out that legends of the sales rep world come in threes.

“I ask clients this all the time,” says Brian Walsh, Senior Partner at sales consultancy Force Management. “Here’s the interesting thing, whether the sales force is 20, or 300, I always hear the same number – ‘I’ve got three of those.’ Why do you only have three? Because you don’t really know what good looks like.”

“If you look across the globe, you’ll hear sales management say that the majority of reps are average,” says John Gerow, consultant and SVP Client Solutions at Ashfield. “They can do the job, suit what’s expected, tick all the boxes – but they're not great reps. Everyone wants to look in the mirror at the end of the day and think they’re doing a great job. The question is whether we are setting them up for success in the way we’ve got the model built today, and I would say, probably not.”

So, what is the winning formula for replicating success?

“Really interesting, long-standing empirical data will tell you that every sales person’s pipeline is a bell curve,” says Walsh. “For every 10 opportunities, there are two or three that you’re probably going to win no matter what, two or three that you’re going to lose, no matter what, and it’s the four or five in the middle where we really need to figure out how to do better, faster.”

His first step would be to take top sales people and match them up against key attributes, to identify exactly what grit, or intellectual curiosity, look like in your marketplace, giving you a “list of gold standard attributes to develop your other sellers to.” It’s also important to ensure you focus on staff who not only have great skill, but also good behaviour, Walsh adds, or else you’ll unconsciously model your sales force on unfavourable behavioural traits.

The burden of this falls onto the leadership team, who need to take ownership of projects. In turn, they require their own support system. “You need to teach managers how to coach skill and move live opportunities on. The frontline sales manager’s job is the hardest in the company, and you can’t replicate anything at the sales rep level if you don’t have those things in place first.”

As well as teaching the ‘how,’ it’s also about ensuring rep interactions are being appropriately managed. For Gerow, a more rewarding model could see sales rep visits curtailed to once every 10 to 15 weeks, with other staff visiting more frequently to simply service the office, rather than sell. In the vein of Apple’s Genius Bar, there could be support without inherent sales, in turn saving on the higher cost of a skilled sales rep for these interactions. “I believe we have so many reps in the middle who probably are more service providers than they are sales reps, so you could separate those two things out, really find the great reps and then bolt onto that a service component.”

Replicating a successful deal requires hard work, and a rigorous formula, says Walsh, which is far from just sending out internal memos or press releases. “I’m going to take that team and rip that deal down to its studs and make them put it back together for me, because I see their opportunity as a golden goose. I figure out how to do it from start to finish, both inside the company, and in front of the client, and find out what skills were necessary.”

Then instead of simply teaching these skills to the sellers’ peers, he’d put together a detailed playbook on how to run such a deal and identify similar accounts across the company. “The onus is on the manager to take that playbook, get the team in line with it and then manage the opportunities day in, day out. There’s a coaching aspect because I’m teaching a very specific set of skills around running a certain play.

“In my mind, that’s how you replicate; by identifying skills to create a specific success and managing the skill development and opportunity capabilities. Success without a well-oiled plan is just luck or timing.”

Contrastingly, Nick Marasco, EVP, Global Business Development, Commercial Solutions at Syneos Health, believes replicating success is more about the tools than the talent nowadays.

“Real performance today is a result of focusing more on establishing what is the right medium to access prescribers and key opinion leaders. It is leveraging digital, social and all of the appropriate tools in order to provide education and communicate with decision makers.”

Crunching the numbers 
Measuring success is crucial to ensuring teams or individual reps stay on track, but an undue emphasis on the end result is not always conducive, says Walsh.

“We have a tendency in the sales world to focus on results – the revenue, the number of wins. This is all important, but the reality is, if that’s your only set of measures, you’re waiting until you get to the finish line to decide whether you were good or not.

“You’re certainly going to have your revenue goals, but you need process markers to measure success in the year, so that two months in, you can start making course corrections, not 11 months in.”

Extensive analytics are the most reliable benchmark, says Marasco. “Where good companies have become smarter is looking retrospectively at the different channels and mediums that have been successful, analyzing them and then looking to replicate them. We've invested heavily in the human capital as well as the technology in establishing the right innovation and technology in order to appropriately measure outcomes.”

Whizzy technology can be a double-edged sword, however. Interpreting a deluge of data and looping it back to reps is very much an evolving story. 

Syneos has made gains in this area, says Marasco. “We've invested heavily in connecting the operations and project managers to the information technologists to essentially close that loop.”

Integrating the analytics team with other parts of the business means that salesforce teams are fully looped in to what constitutes success before they are deployed, he says.    

Soft metrics are also increasingly taking the place of hard metrics in sales, says Marasco. Barometers of success now include managed care, reimbursement, appropriately educating advocacy groups; raising awareness and guiding them through the benefits of treatment adherence.

As a result, traditional metrics are out of touch with the way the industry is moving. New metrics are needed in the face of changing cultural norms and the rise of customized treatments. It is not simply about having the right profile rep in the right geography anymore, he says.

Traditional metrics still have their place, argues Gerow. “We still look at things like the number of calls we’re making, cost per call, through to the rotations. All those metrics really matter. I also want to see high satisfaction on customer surveys, so I’ve got to audit clients. Are we bringing value? Does my sales team understand your patients? The questions posed are as important as the answers you’ll receive, to ensure those being canvassed really understand the model and what’s being asked of them.”

It is ultimately incumbent on the leadership create the model for success, adds Gerow. “We have to define what selling looks like, and what great looks like in that role. Then a lot will really step up and deliver.”