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Sales Technique Article - The Five Most Dangerous Issues Facing Sales Leaders Today

© Nigel Thompson

Millions of pounds have been spent investigating and pursuing ways to grow sales, and no wonder; after all, sales are the lifeblood of any organisation. Yet only a handful of companies have been able to grow their sales steadily not just in good times, but in lean times, too, and in the face of ferocious competition.

The Sales Activator®, in partnership with Nightingale Conant, recently conducted careful research amongst 2,663 sales organisations from Europe and the U.S., designed to identify the barriers that prevent organisations from achieving continual sales growth. The vast majority of companies that have been less successful than the few superstars we found, fall prey to a number of common mistakes. In contrast, the few that have consistently grown their sales have succeeded because they have found ways to avoid these same traps.

Issue 1 - A Poorly Defined Sales Process That Dilutes Sales Revenues

As the development of a more consultative sales approach within the UK pharma industry grows, then so does the need for a well defined and understood, stage by stage sales process. Increasingly, competent salespeople are counted upon to channel their own activities into the areas that they believe will produce the biggest and quickest wins. But, left to their own devices, salespeople generally don't develop and pursue a formal plan for moving a prospect interaction forward toward a sale. Instead, with so many prescribers and influencers to see, they rely more on instinct. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that key stages in the sales process are overlooked - often leading to resistance, objections and, inevitably, lost sales.

This is often fatal, because, as recent research from The Results Corporation Plc across a wide variety of industries shows, the average prospect says "no" seven times before saying "yes" and over 80 percent of salespeople give up after the first "no." When their efforts don't pay off quickly, even capable salespeople tend to get discouraged. They may spend longer hours struggling to meet their sales quotas, working less efficiently. The details of what goes wrong differ for each salesperson, but the net result is always the same: wasted time which fails to produce high quality sales and consequently, increased cost of sales.


For sales leaders in the pharmaceutical industry, this means either critically reviewing or developing a comprehensive, realistic and step-by-step outline of what salespeople are expected to do. Involve top performers and enlightened customers in identifying current best practice and refining the process. Critically, align CRM, sales management systems and compensation structures with the process for maximum results. It's only when such an outline is in place that sales management is in a position to monitor the sales force's activity, progress and results. Only then is the stage set for transformational performance improvements.

Issue 2 - Lack of Essential Skills Which Leads to 'Below Average' Performance and Consequently 'Below Average' Sales Results

This gradual shift in emphasis from traditional detailing to consultative problem solving is bringing with it the need for new and improved sales skills. With an ever growing body of research highlighting the difficulties in gaining effective detailing time, GP's are increasingly only granting access to those reps who are able to create dialogue, trust, and credibility with their customers and who demonstrate the desire to build a mutually beneficial relationship.

Effective sales and business training therefore seems to be even more important today than ever before, and is getting more important all the time. But traditional training isn't necessarily translating to increased sales competence and improved sales results. Companies are therefore, unsurprisingly, becoming more reluctant to continue supporting lengthy, upfront training programmes.

So, what's going on? How should a Sales Director reconcile the fact that many organisations today provide less upfront training for their established sales staff than in years past with the increasing importance of staff development? The fact is that selling in today's climate is a profession that demands a wide range of skills that require continual fine-tuning.


The lengthy initial training for new hires that once was the norm was well suited to a world in which the market and sales cycle were both reasonably stable. In today's more dynamic business environment, development and training are more important than ever before but must be delivered in smaller and more frequent chunks, with less disruption to the daily flow of salespeople's work and tied more closely to subtle shifts in the marketplace.

According to Pavita Walker, Director, Organisation and Leadership Development, Barclays Group, "The greatest differentiator amongst sales organisations of the future will be the ability to build world class capability and skills". Yet training alone does not guarantee peak sales performance. This can only come from a careful blend of training, mentoring and effective, ongoing coaching from front line sales managers who can find effective ways of highlighting and sharing best practice among the team coupled with organisations that have a strong coaching culture attract and retain the best salespeople.

Issue 3 - Failing to Focus Sales Reps' Activity Which Reduces Efficiency and Consequently Results

Today, pharma sales reps are increasingly being asked to maximise their productivity whilst keeping on top of a growing list of other activities. According to one recent study of a major Pharma company by Toronto based Pace Productivity, sales reps spend only 23% of their time actually selling. Thus, a great deal of their time is not being used productively.

Frequently there are two main dangers that even experienced reps can fall into in terms of activities. First, they simply aren't doing enough and secondly, but equally important, salespeople often aren't clear about how to target and prioritise the prescribers most likely to have a genuine need for their product. Many reps will take any opportunity to see a GP or other prescriber regardless of opportunity likelihood or value. Salespeople who lack a disciplined, future-oriented plan for prioritising their selling activities, often find themselves spending more time attending to 'accessible' potential prescribers rather than those that will develop their business effectively.


Maximising a workforce around one common goal that creates value for the customer, the organisation and the employee is the only way to focus the activities of a sales team.

According to Jon Parton, Director of Global Branding at AstraZeneca, "Rather than merely targeting high volume physicians, reps will need to analyse physician behaviour, demographics, and attitudes to segment the markets and target those most loyal to the brand, friendly toward reps, and responsive toward certain messages."

Those organisations who have been able to get increasing performance improvement from their sales teams have developed solid methods of qualifying and rating prospects based on opportunity, and have taken time to help reps focus their selling time on the typical 20% of those available who can deliver 80% of the results

Issue 4 - Allowing Self-Limiting Beliefs to Constrain Salespeople's Performance Which Causes a Reduction in Sales Results

Like everyone, salespeople hold stubbornly to private beliefs about themselves, their products and their organisation, beliefs that can have an enormous impact, either positive or negative, on their sales performance.

A hugely overlooked area of sales force development, limiting beliefs impact directly on sales results. In addition, the concept of 'transference' shows that the salesperson's state of mind is often instantly transferred to their prospect/customer, influencing in a powerful way the outcome of a sales call. This means that the challenge for organisations is to constantly create a highly resourceful state in their salespeople. This is extremely important because when salespeople lack belief in themselves, their product, or their organisation, it can not only lead to serious bouts of 'call reluctance' but they unconsciously transmit their attitude to prospects in a variety of subtle and sometimes overt ways.

Yet while most sales leaders grasp the concept of activity management, skills and knowledge development, far too many feel powerless to help their salespeople turn their negative beliefs into positive ones.


The good news is that beliefs do change. Given the right opportunity and environment, sales team colleagues can exert a hugely positive influence in overcoming negative beliefs. In addition, the sales manager or coach has a vital role to play in positively and constructively challenging limiting beliefs as they surface and building the self-worth of each individual member of the team. Those organisations who have found practical and effective ways to tackle beliefs and are able to change their reps' self-limiting beliefs into empowering ones have found an unbeatable path to success.

Issue 5 - Failing to Choose and Develop a Sales Leadership Team That Nurtures and Develops Their Sales Reps' Potential

Arguably the single biggest influence on the performance of any sales team is the team manager. Yet the single most common mistake that underperforming organisations make is promoting their number one sales rep into the role of sales manager, thereby depriving themselves in a single stroke of their best producer and hamstringing their salesforce with an ineffective manager. The skills required for managing, coaching and developing sales teams are totally different from those for selling. As a result, it's not uncommon to find newly promoted sales managers who regret having taken a management position and may even leave to get back into sales.

In addition, the majority of sales managers say they do not have sufficient time to train and develop their sales teams. They are so focused on sales results and so accustomed to achieving success through their personal pursuit that they overlook their greatest potential source of power: the power to increase sales performance by developing their people.

Even when they do recognise the importance of developing their representatives, many sales managers find that they lack the skills and resources to do it effectively. To make things worse, most sales teams consist of a number of individuals with differing levels of experience and ability, so the whole issue of team development becomes too daunting to contemplate.


Successful sales leaders look for management candidates who can demonstrate an ability to help others strategise, work effectively with customers, and build their self-confidence. Training and development is structured to help build critical coaching skills within sales management teams. Finally, innovative coaching resources and toolkits for sales meetings provide a wonderful opportunity to offer appropriate team development. The most successful Sales Directors of all bend over backwards to make sure that the development resources they give their managers are easy to use, are designed to appeal to and engage salespeople regardless of experience level, and, above all, can be used in manageable pieces so that sales teams can absorb, share and implement new ideas.


  • Develop a comprehensive, step-by-step consultative sales process.
  • Involve top performers and customers and align CRM, sales management processes and compensation structures for maximum impact.
  • Use training, mentoring and coaching in bite sized chunks to share best practice and develop consultative sales skill.
  • Develop and embed an objective, realistic method of evaluating and rating customers and prospects based on strategic value.
  • Train sales managers to spot limiting beliefs in salespeople and create the opportunities for colleagues to reinforce empowering beliefs in each other.
  • Recruit and develop effective people-centric sales managers.
  • Critically, build their coaching skill and provide innovative and easy-to-use resources for developing the team during regular sales meetings


Nigel Thompson is Managing Consultant of Thompson Strategy Works ( ) sales training and sales performance improvement specialists and UK providers of The Sales Activator® sales team development system. This article is copyright Nigel Thompson 2006. For reprint enquiries contact us.


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