How Developing a Sales Team is Like Professional Football
McKenzie Ingram, one of Act-On’s marketing journalists, sat down with Luke Smith, Act-On Regional Sales Director & Area Leader in the Portland office, to discuss his experience leading a sales team at one of the fastest growing companies in America.
Luke has climbed the ranks within Act-On and is recognized as a leader in SaaS sales. And, in another life, he was actually a successful college and professional football player for the Idaho Vandals and the Houston Texans. Now that he’s hung up his cleats and left professional football behind, Luke shares with us what it means to be successful on and off the field, and how the two careers aren’t so very different.
MCKENZIE: What’s the biggest difference you see between successful salespeople and ones that struggle?
LUKE: Sales folks are measured by their weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly contribution. Sales is a timed event much like a football game, except there are no timeouts, no ties, and no overtime. Time ticks down relentlessly every minute, and we cannot get these minutes back. If I can eliminate 25% of wasted time, I’ve all of a sudden just added 25% of production to a day, a week, a quarter. And that’s a lot.
That is the expectation I set with my sales team. Successful reps must make sure that every single day that they are working, they appreciate the value of the remaining time, or the lack of time, in order to make sure tasks are being prioritized and placing top ranking revenue-generating activities above all else. The successful sales people accept this; the unsuccessful ones do not.
MCKENZIE: It sounds like time, or lack of it, is a huge hurdle for salespeople. How do you combat that?
LUKE: When it comes to prospecting habits, what I see is that salespeople, across every industry, are having a hard time getting focused and pointed in the right direction. There’s a lot of wasted time with calling the wrong person, with accomplishing the wrong task, with not navigating your strategic deals correctly, with not taking control of the sales cycle, and eliminating time in between meetings.
If you were to take a look at those numbers at the end of a quarter and calculate how much wasted time there was doing non-revenue generating activities; or calling the wrong people that will never contribute to the desired result, that would be pretty disgusting from a sales standpoint.
So the real question is: how can you reduce the risk of not hitting your number by eliminating the wasted time that every single salesperson is faced with on a daily basis?
MCKENZIE: So what’s the answer to that question? How do you eliminate it?
LUKE: What it comes down to is you’re looking to call the right company, to call the right person within that company, and to call that person at the right time. Those are the three things that make for a good prospecting call. But how do you know what that right company, person, or time is?
The downfall for a lot of sales people is either they’re calling the right company, but the wrong person at the wrong time; calling the wrong company, but the right person at the right time; or any combination of those things.
When every salesperson comes into the office in the morning and logs onto their computer, here’s what is on their mind: “There are people that are buying right now in my territory. There are people that are buying my product without my knowledge. They’re signing a contract for a type of technology that I’m selling, and I’m not involved in that conversation. How can I make sure that I am involved in every one of those conversations?”
You’re looking to call the right company; to call the right person within that company; and to call that person at the right time.
MCKENZIE: Who does that apply to? SDRs (Sales Development Representatives), Account Executives, or RSMs (Regional Sales Managers)?
LUKE: It applies to everyone in an SDR, sales rep, or sales leadership position. And ultimately, it applies to your Sales VP, your Chief Revenue Officer (CRO), and your CEO. It’s a numbers game. You need to be able to ensure you’re getting the maximum amount of connections for the day. But a connection is worthless if it’s a connection to the wrong person.
That’s why you’re seeing a lot of revenue leaders seek technology that helps point sales in the right direction. Otherwise, people just call out of the database a lot of time. They’ll call out of a list. They’ll be cold calling. And they’ll be lucky to get one person that day who would even listen to what they’re saying, let alone book a meeting.
MCKENZIE: As your team’s “coach,” how do you help them be productive and successful?
LUKE: It starts by ensuring my team understands that merely showing up to work will not deliver them to the promised land of commissions, quota achievement, recognition, career advancement, and money. Anyone can show up. Showing up is a task, like brushing your teeth in the morning. Anyone can do it. Now, anyone can walk through the door in the morning and back out in the evening. But if there is a separation of top producers vs. bottom performers, then there must be a magical combination of effort and skill that top performers have. That magic typically consists of a high sense of urgency, prioritization toward revenue-generating tasks, 100% coachability, and violent execution of strategy without hesitation or procrastination. When members of my team exhibit these qualities or traits, I know they will get a higher return on their time investment than others who don’t.
So in an athletic event you have your competition; you have your performance; you have your individual goals; and you have your team goals. Individual goals roll up to your team goal. You have to be able to unify as a team to be able to accomplish your overall goal, which is winning the game.
That’s the same way a sales team is constructed. You have your coach, your players, and your individual and team goals. Add strategy, coachability, sense of urgency, and violent execution of critical tasks without hesitation or procrastination and we have ourselves a team focused on winning the game against a prepared and relentless competitor. When the last second ticks down to zero and the sales quarter is over, there are winners (those that achieve their quota) and losers (those who do not).
There’s always a winner and a loser.
MCKENZIE: What are the “winners” doing that the “losers” aren’t, or vice versa?
LUKE: The people that prevail are the ones that put in the time, put in the effort, and make sure they focus their effort on prioritizing and making sure the calls they make are worthwhile. So the question becomes, how do you decipher what’s a worthwhile call and what’s not a worthwhile call?
Then you have your strong performers and you have your weak performers. Who’s doing it right? How are they able to make sure the effort they’re putting in is yielding better results than their colleague who’s putting in the same amount of time, and perhaps the same amount of effort, but is not getting very good results.
Successful people are always pointing the finger at themselves. Unsuccessful people are always blaming outside influences for why they’re not successful. That’s one of the key differences I see in successful and unsuccessful people.
Successful people are always pointing the finger at themselves. Unsuccessful people are always blaming outside influences for why they’re not successful.
There are no resources my team has or doesn’t have that other sales teams have or don’t have. Given everyone is on an equal playing field, as far as resources, then coaching comes into play. I analyzed the traits of our top performers, and there are three traits that set the top people apart. My job is to strengthen, or coach, those traits in all our team members.
MCKENZIE: What are those three traits?
Trait #1: Acknowledging You Don’t Know It All, But You Want To Try
One is that no matter what level of mastery you achieve, the best people are always seeking improvement. Top performers, regardless of their job or industry, are always leveraging resources, and opening their brain. The most successful people are the people that don’t think that they know it all.
My current top performer is at my desk constantly. We’re collaborating on different things. He understands that he doesn’t know it all and never will. But he also understands he’s good, and wants to be better.
The most successful people are the people that don’t think that they know it all.
Trait #2: You Have Control Over Your Effort, And You’re Giving It Your All
The next thing is giving 100% effort. One thing we have complete control over is our effort. Everyone’s going to walk in the door in the morning, and everyone’s going to walk out of the door at night. If we’re going to put in a similar amount of time, then what are the things you have direct control over to make sure you’re putting yourself in the best position to succeed?
There are a lot of things that you can’t control. You can’t control what your prospects are going to do; what they end up buying; whether they’re going to lie or tell you the truth; whether or not they’re going to buy when they said they’re going to buy; or whether or not they’re going to introduce you to that VP as they said they would. All those things you don’t have control over.
But you can control your effort. You can control the amount of calls you’re making. You can control the number of WebEx meetings you’re having. You can control the amount of new business opportunities you’re adding to the pipeline. You can control your learning process and seek ways to get better.
The one thing that we have complete control over is our effort
Trait #3: Consistency is Everything
The third thing is consistency. Anyone can produce and have those types of successful metrics for one quarter. But it takes a true all-star to stay disciplined to consistency, to the metrics, to the coaching, and to prioritizing their day-to-day focus on revenue generating activities.
So those are the three things. If people bring those things, all the other stuff comes with them.
It takes a true all-star to stay disciplined to consistency
MCKENZIE: In sales, you could have the best numbers of your career this month, but on the first day of next month, it doesn’t matter. It all just starts over. What’s your take on keeping people motivated and prepared for this?
LUKE: You have got to be on your game at all times in sales, especially with these fast growing companies. It’s exactly like professional athletics. In professional football, it doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or if you’re Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. You’re only as good as your last pass, tackle, reception, or block. Even the stars understand there are people gunning for their job, and that they could lose it on a daily basis. If they have even one bad practice, or they take the foot off the gas just a little bit, it could be career-ending.
If people don’t understand that this is also true in sales, that you think you have this long-term career and can hang your hat on the things you’ve already done, then that’s when you’re in for a surprise. You have to erase the past. To paraphrase retired NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, we are newer people now than we were five minutes ago. Whether you’re growing or you’re dying, that’s your choice.
MCKENZIE: As a leader and a coach, how do you handle being a role model for your team?
LUKE: If I start saying I’m going to come in at nine instead of seven, that I’m going to start leaving at four instead of staying until six, if I start taking my foot off the gas even just a little bit, I will be replaced too. And I know that. And I welcome that. That’s something that gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s a challenge. It’s something that makes the victory sweeter.