Messages that Matter: Unleashing the Wisdom of the Sales Team


Posted By Dr. Tom Sant | Dec 12, 2011


Glorifying the "Gunslinger"

In recent years, Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman has found that dividing physics and chemistry students into small groups and having them discuss specific, practical problems among themselves increases comprehension for everyone in the group of the relevant principles.

Likewise, James Surowiecki, in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, provides abundant evidence that the collective intelligence of a group will often produce better outcomes than an expert working alone. This is true for problems that involve identifying the correct answer to a problem, coordinating activities, and cooperating with others. The group's superior performance occurs even if the members of the crowd don't know all the facts and even if a few members of the group act irrationally!

So what?

Well, it seems to me that we're squandering the wisdom of our sales team on a regular basis.

Very few professions glorify the role of the individual more than professional sales. This is particularly true for sales people who are "hunters" — whose success depends on generating new revenue from new opportunities. But glorification of the "gunslinger" sales rep is part of the general mythos of professional sales. And that culture is reinforced by typical compensation plans and reward systems. For example, at the vast majority of companies, sales people are expected not only to beat the competition but to beat each other as well for such perks as President's Club and Top Gun awards.

What a waste!

Embracing a Team Approach

There is plenty of evidence that the team is smarter than any individual member. Why then do we discourage our sales teams from working as a team?

A "wise team," according to Surowiecki, must contain a diversity of opinions. And the members must be independent from each other.

They should be organized in a loose, decentralized way, and they need to have access to a good method for aggregating opinions. Most sales teams contain strong egos from a variety of backgrounds, so meeting the first two criteria—diversity and independence—is no problem. Even though some sales managers try to micro-manage their people, the fact that field sales organizations are often geographically dispersed and the sales people are expected to manage their own time encourages a de facto decentralized structure.

The missing element, I would argue, is the means—or the inclination—to aggregate opinions. Suppose I found out that a particular way of presenting our value proposition is incredibly effective. In the current environment, where I'm trying to beat my competitors and outshine my colleagues, too, why would I share that? I'll hoard that information just as I will hoard the various other sales techniques that I've found work for me.

Stop Hoarding & Start Rewarding Sharing

But if the organization rewarded me for sharing the methods that work and if the organization provided an internal social network that makes it easy for me to do so, I might post something that others could try. They might end up modifying it or at least discussing it. Some of the suggestions will be adopted as standard practice by the entire sales team. Others will be too idiosyncratic and will get dropped. But over time the performance of the entire sales team will go up. The bell curve of performance for the entire sales organization will shift to the right.

Years ago, Peter Drucker pointed out that the best source of insight on how to improve a work process was to ask the people who had to perform that process. Why should it be any different in sales?

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