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February 28, 2019

I interviewed dozens of sales leaders over the past year, and here are the three biggest indicators of success

By: Anna Schena

I work at Narrative Science, a Chicago-based AI technology company with a mission to empower everyone to understand their data, make better decisions, and drive better outcomes in their company.

We recently built a new product called Lexio that was just released in beta. We are launching with a Lexio Sales Application that will translate Salesforce data into plain-English stories. In order to get this out into the market effectively, I’ve spent the better part of the last year interviewing sales leaders – dozens of VPs of sales, CROs, sales managers, and more.

I’ve learned so much from these people, but one of the most surprising things was just how similarly successful sales teams – and unsuccessful ones – are structured and run. It didn’t matter the team or company size, what product they sold, or what industry they are in. Great sales leaders motivate their teams in remarkably similar ways, no matter what the circumstances.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Great sales leaders get their team on the same page

In today’s fast-paced business environment, it is more difficult than ever to keep everyone on your team informed, especially as teams grow and change. However, out of all of the leaders I talked to, the best ones were meticulously focused on keeping their team on the same page. They know that when sales teams understand what’s going on, and what’s expected, they are more empowered, motivated, and effective.

Good sales leaders communicate exactly what’s expected of their team clearly and consistently. Their teams know what is expected when it comes to activity metrics, sales stage and cycle length, pipeline, and of course their quota. Great sales leaders go one step further – they give their team the tools to know where they stand vs those metrics in real time. For some companies, this means investing in sales operations or analysts. Others are investing in technologies that make this possible.

2. Great sales leaders don’t manage, they coach

Sales is an extremely fast-moving game. In fact, we’ve seen the average number of decision makers in a software purchase more than double in the past two years. Because of this, sales managers can no longer just tell their teams what to do and expect the same results that they achieved in the field in previous years. The biggest difference between managing and coaching is asking questions rather than just giving commands that may or may not resonate.

In order to do this, great sales leaders must have in-depth knowledge of not only their team’s performance, but the performance of each sales rep individually. And this isn’t just a quarterly exercise – the best sales leaders do this every week. They know exactly what each rep closed, what they added to the pipeline, and can identify trends and areas of improvement. In addition, they give their rep the tools to do this on their own, too. As a result, they spend their 1:1 time asking questions, talking strategy, and brainstorming new ideas – not going through data. They don’t manage numbers, they coach people.

3. Great sales leaders drive a sales-driven culture in their organization

This was the most surprising to me, although it shouldn’t have been. Part of the role of leaders in any function is making sure their team knows how important they are to the company and how they play a bigger part in the company mission. However, sales is often siloed away from the rest of the company. This could be for many reasons – they often travel, are moving quickly, etc.

Many companies report on quarterly numbers, and that is perceived as a ‘sales number’ – a goal for only the sales team to hit. This is the fastest way to slowed sales cycles and a broken company culture. Great sales leaders showcase their team’s performance across the company regularly – not just bookings, but also adding deals to the pipeline or activity metrics. When leadership and other departments regularly see sales performance numbers, there is a shared urgency around helping the sales team close those deals. Closed deals are seen as a company win and celebrated across the entire company, instead of just within the sales team.

By remaining transparent with the company about sales team progress and results, great sales leaders are able to build sales-driven cultures within their companies. As a result, the rest of the company raises their hand to help more often, and the sales team feels empowered to speak up more for what they need. Win-win.

Sales will no doubt continue to evolve, but I predict that these indicators of success will remain consistent. There is no replacement for building a motivated team, and these building blocks can help you get there.

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