Key Findings from Inside Sales Research

A substantive inside sales research provides a clear perspective of how successful sales managers influence hiring. 

Culture Rules

Inside sales managers that focus on potential rather than functional knowledge are able to influence hiring decisions that provide long term benefits to the organization. Successful sales managers hire to fit the corporate culture. Hence, if a top candidate is in conflict with the corporate culture, the sales manager moves to the next candidate. This approach creates a culture where employees are likely to refer job candidates to the organization. Also, sales managers are willing to hire on potential and not on prior sales functional background. These leaders are confident in the right culture, individuals can learn new skills and thrive to be successful. 

Be Influential

Successful sales managers take it upon themselves to influence their company’s hiring practices. They realize a sense of ownership to make their employee’s lives better. A focus on hiring for culture and making every effort to influence recruiting and hiring practices creates a culture that increases sales agent retention. 

It Takes More Than Dollars

Sales departments are mired in providing incentives as a means to retain talent. This study confirms what many other data points have proven over the past few years. There is little correlation between agents who exceed goals and their retention. Time to do something different. 

 

Martin (2015) researched over 800 sales agents and sales leaders to better understand what separates agents who exceed sales goals by 25%, compared to those who fall short by 25% of their sales goal. A vital component of the most potent sales agents was their verbal acuity, which referenced the communication level of the meaning, importance, and application of the words chosen. An advantage outside sales agents possess is their ability to adjust their verbal approach based on the recipient’s non-verbal queues. For example, a shift in the client’s body language can encourage an outside sales agent to emphasize a specific topic or emphasize a particular point. 

However, inside sales, not having the benefit of seeing their prospect’s/customer’s reaction, need to master key communication competencies for improved sales results. To date, research on inside sales communication competencies remains rather scant. Downing’s (2011) study found when inside sales agents demonstrated key communication competencies, sales results increased. In an attempt to extend the findings, sales managers trained and coached lower-performing sales agents to utilize five key communication competencies. The findings indicated when the following five communication competencies were used in unison, inside sales conversion for lower-performing inside sales agents increased threefold. 

  1.  Speak at an appropriate rate – The average person speaks at 125-150 words a minute. Even though we can process up to three times as many words per minute, sales agents who were able to talk at a more appropriate controlled rate, received fewer questions during the phone conversation. Also, inside sales agents purposely adapted their rate of speech based on the customer’s geography and other demographic factors. 
  2. Emphasize important points with changes in pitch and volume – A monotone approach disengages the person on the other end of the telephone line. Through the use of tone, pitch, and volume, the inside sales agents were able to make specific points more critical, generating more significant inquiries from their sales prospects. By using alternative voice inflections, it mimics using arm gestures or other body language techniques for face-to-face encounters.
  3. Acknowledge or paraphrase what the customer said – Active listening skills allow the listener to be part of the conversation and creates a sense of harmony and support. When inside sales agents paraphrased the customer’s words, the average telephone call lasted longer and was more engaging. 
  4. Use short, affirmative words and sounds – An extension of active listening is to provide positive feedback to the other participant. Researchers have linked affirmative words to satisfaction (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Affirmative words validate the prospect’s feelings while allowing the inside sales agent to enhance the relationship more quickly.
  5. Use language the customer can understand – Every vertical channel and company has its nomenclature or acronyms. Inside sales agents who focused on communicating simply with no use of acronyms or jargon were 25% more likely to develop steps for a follow-up conversation. 

These five communication competencies seem rather mundane and straightforward. However, in practice, many inside sales agents fail to apply any of these communication tactics, much less all five consistently. Our study found a sales conversion increase every time an inside sales agent included an additional communication competence. However, when all five communication competencies were utilized during the sales call, it had an exponential effect on sale conversions. Consequently, organizations should focus on developing their inside sales agents’ communication competencies. In the age of call monitoring, inside sales agent coaching efforts need to include the fundamental importance of communication competence, because prospects form opinions and make decisions based on what they hear.  

Meetings are a necessity in business today, whether to touch base, set strategy, or verify execution. This approach is specifically real in sales, where sales managers consistently meet with their direct reports to gain a sense of prospecting, funnel metrics, and sales results. In an inside sales context, where managers monitor every call and interaction, they are better armed with information as they interact with sales agents during the team and individual meetings. Unfortunately, many of these meetings are long, tedious, and tiresome. However, by focusing on five key topics and creating time management discipline, sales meetings can evolve to impactful, powerful, and productive fifteen minute sales huddles.

Step one is to conduct daily sales huddles. A daily follow-up will provide supportive accountability to each sales agent. Moreover, it allows the manager to integrate all the team members as resources for each other. Also, a constant meeting time instills discipline, sets follow-up criteria, and establishes the stage for the manager’s expectations. At first, a daily huddle may seem daunting, but after a little practice and some time management discipline, a culture of support, accountability, and fun will infiltrate the team.

The structure of the meeting is critical. Hence, step two centers around setting the proper sales huddle structure. During many sales meetings, agents spend excessive time complaining about sales leads and reduced opportunities, while sales managers spew numbers and metrics without securing feedback from their direct reports. The key for a successful sales huddle is the outline of discussion topics, group interaction ground rules, and follow-up expectations. Furthermore, it is critical for the manager to get a sense of how the group is feeling. Many meetings move too quickly to discuss results and numbers, without pausing to understand the sales agent’s emotion and mood. When an employee is emotionally exhausted, the likelihood of work performance is limited (Reb et al. 2017).

Once the sales manager has established the proper sales huddle structure, the next step is the management of the participant’s flow. As stated earlier, sales meetings generally turn into complaint sessions, where a few tend to monopolize the conversation. For a successful sales huddle, the sales manager acts like a conductor, thoughtfully, and tactfully moving from person to person and from topic to topic. The key is to allow each person to share the needed perspective, but not to overwhelm the group with unnecessary information. At times, the focus of the meeting may be on one topic. Therefore, the sales manager will have to set the tone early and leverage the team to add to the conversation to resolve the issue at hand. A successful sales huddle depends on the participation of each team member. The end goal is for each member to provide their perspective, feedback to one another, and hold each other accountable for results.

Step four centers around the pace of the sales huddle. Unfortunately, running a successful sales huddle is more art than science. It is easy for a sales manager to dwell on a single point for one sales agent. The overarching goal of the sales huddle is to have each sales agent provide their takeaway item with precise measurement results. Therefore, the sales manager will need to move from topic to topic thoughtfully, provide guidance, and smartly have each team member be more precise in their communication style. Without a focus on the pace of the sales huddle, it can quickly lose focus and limit the opportunity for the manager and team to cover the necessary information.

The last step is simple but necessary. Fifteen minutes goes by incredibly quickly, especially when a team of 10-12 people are involved in the sales huddle. Using a stopwatch is an effective way to keep track of the time. A trick that has been employed by many teams is to set the stopwatch at minute 12. This approach allows the sales agents sufficient time to outline the next steps and discuss the measurement tools. After a few sales huddles, the team will adapt and be able to efficiently complete the sales huddle within the fifteen minute time frame.

These five steps provide the tactics and structure to create timely, productive, and engaging sales huddles. Within fifteen minutes, your team can better understand employee engagement, past results, successes/challenges, behavioral commitments, and individual measurement outcomes. By staying committed to a 15-minute sales huddle, it will also give sales agents more time to focus on their craft of selling. Teams who follow sales huddle structure, methodology, and approach have seen an increase in sales agent engagement, conversion rates, and change in selling behaviors. Next time, we will cover the actual topics to include in a sales huddle.

 

As part of Tr3ce Consulting, insidesalegeek.com is a boutique consultatory focused on helping inside sales leaders create a culture and processes that maximize employee engagement, performance, and outcomes through the complex use of data. 

Technology is moving at a rapid pace as exemplified by Nancy Nardin’s sales technology landscape. For instance, if your company wants to maximize sales enablement/content management or sales prospecting/engagement, there are approximately 100 companies in this space that can provide these services. How about sales forecasting and reporting? You can choose from 13 companies in this area. The number of technological options available for every aspect of a sales organization is staggering. Per smartsellingtool.com there are over 500 distinct sales-tech solutions in the 2019 Landscape, an increase of 25% from last year! Needless to say, the involvement, influence, and appetite for sales technology are at a fever pitch, as companies make every effort to maximize revenue.

Underneath the surface of all these technological gains is a sales industry that continues to be mired with sales agent attrition between 27% and 33% (Darmon, 2008; Skok, 2015), while spending close to $800 billion toward incentivising and $15 billion training their sales force (Sunder et al., 2017). Yet, 20% of sales agents continue to produce 80% of all sales. To solve these foundational issues, senior leaders attempt to revise compensation plans, that according to Zoltners, Sinha, and Lorimer (2012) fall short of creating meaningful change. Or, they promote their top sales performers into leadership roles, which generally does not lead to positive results (Benson, Li, and Shue, 2018). At what point does the paradigm shift from focusing on technological advancements to innovating the human capital that leads and produces foundational long-term results? With this in mind, I would like to propose three areas that sales leaders need to define differently to develop innovative solutions.

Sales Leadership – When is the last time you promoted a low producer who was able to influence their peers with ease? The data is clear regarding the trend to promote top performers into leadership positions. Yet, a great doer may not be a leader. Every major professional sports industry has proven this fact to be true. The greatest coaches more often than not were not great players. Leadership development has to be intentional, constant, and experiential. Some options to innovate sales leadership development could include: “Loan” a top performer to another department, vendor, or partner company on a leadership assignment; Audit your leadership development program for biases, industry limitations, and current leadership shortcomings; Develop a leadership development program from a 360-degree view where all members have input and accountability on the outcome of developing better leaders. By defining the problem a little differently, many new tactics can be implemented to provide potential leaders the exposure, experience, and understanding of how to be a transformational leader that focuses beyond the quotas on the people.

Compensation – Sales compensation has migrated from an 80/20 in the mid-1980s to the current 60/40 pay mix (Zoltners, Sinha, and Lorimer 2012). The shift to higher weight on variable compensation has led to similar overall sales results, increased turnover, and decreased job satisfaction. The issue may be in the problem most sales compensation systems are trying to solve. The focus is on short term results, rather than long term performance. If the quality of a sales compensation system were, for example, evaluated on initial sales results, margin, current customer retention, sales agent retention, sales manager retention, and employee satisfaction, would we keep compensating salespeople the same way we have for decades? Rather than individual incentives, how about moving them to the team level? Perhaps pay a salary that is close to the expected total compensation potential (salary and incentives). Utilize authentic experimental design to create customized compensation programs, rather the cookie cutter approach. With nearly 80% of U.S. companies making meaningful changes to their sales incentive plans every two years (WorldatWork 2009), it’s time we define the problem differently that sales compensation plans are genuinely trying to address.

Hiring – Sales, especially inside sales, is at a constant conflict between agents shifting from controlled to autonomous motivation. On the one hand, there are many controls (created by technology) that continuously monitor every aspect of an inside sales job. While at the same time, agents want more autonomy to control their business. The ability to manage this conflict requires a unique set of skills. However, most current hiring tools do not consider the many aspects of an inside sales agent’s job. Instead of utilizing recruiting, interviewing, and hiring instruments specific to inside sales functions, companies adopt these tools from different, sometimes unrelated job duties. The value of creating a hiring strategy with supported scales focused on the inside sales agent’s actual job demands is that it will identify an agents’ ability to be coached, code shift between job duties, their perspective on goal pursuit, optimism level, regulatory focus, level of frustration and emotional reliance. Once hiring managers cross-reference the job suitability data with the company culture alignment summary, the job compatibility and success factor for a new inside sales agent will increase drastically.

Technology is quickly influencing sales in part by better analyzing leads, recording and dissecting phone calls, adding a video to the sales process, and maximizing social implementation. All of these and many more technological solutions provide an immense amount of value. But are there leaders fully equipped to lead through all this change? Are compensation plans addressing the real root causes? Are companies hiring the best-fit candidates? The greatest technology cannot overcome human capital opportunities. By thinking about problems differently and innovating the approach to developing, rewarding, and hiring the next generation of leaders, sales organizations can take a giant step to foundationally update an industry mired in what has worked, because the future of inside sales is people, not AI.

Inside Sales Paradox

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According to VB Profiles, with venture capitalists pouring over $10B in investment, 137 new companies were created from 2010 to 2015 to assist sales companies in maximizing their operational effectiveness. These companies offer services in such areas as pipeline analytics, sales intelligence, and productivity and enablement. At the same time, B2B insides sales are quickly transitioning to social selling where sales activities, for example, have evolved from meetings set to insights resolved (Mary Shea, Ph.D., Forrester Research). Yet inside sales agents continue to be compensated as they were 20 or more years ago with a strong focus on pay for performance and little consideration for intrinsic factors and evolving job activities. Unfortunately, when it comes to paying for performance, there continues to be a disconnect between academic research and industry practices.

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, made the statement, “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” What science has discovered through years of research is the lack of correlation between pay for performance and performance/job satisfaction. For example, Kuvaas et al. (2016) conducted a pay for performance study utilizing two years of data from an insurance company. Their findings indicate a relationship between base salaries, increased work effort and decreased turnover intentions. Moreover, those employees who received bonus incentives were negatively related to autonomous motivation. Furthermore, Olafsen et al. (2015), Kuvaas (2006) and Gagne and Forrrest (2008), validate the relationship between fixed pay and positive work outcomes (motivation, retentions, performance, etc.).

Further research on the topic indicates extrinsic motivation provides a positive uplift to algorithmic tasks, while heuristic tasks benefit from intrinsic motivation (Cerasoli, Nicklin, and Ford 2014). Unfortunately, an inside sales agent’s job, unlike outside salespeople, equally consists of both types of duties. However, most inside sales organizations reward heuristic tasks with extrinsic motivation, which is in direct conflict with the plethora of research. To illustrate this point, one of my own current studies of over 600 inside sales agents demonstrates no correlation between incentive earned and employee retention. When the data set is divided into low, mid and high incentive earners, the findings remain the same. In short, the research findings indicate incentives do not lead to employee retention.

Even though companies spend $800 billion incentivizing all salespeople (Zoltners, Sinha, and Lorimer 2008) and $15 billion in sales training (Salopek, 2009), inside sales attrition remains at 38% (Sok, 2015) with 20% of the salespeople generating 80% of the revenue (Sander et al. 2016). Considering inside sales makes up nearly 30% of all sales and is expected to grow by 30% this year (Krogue, 2017), an updated inside sales compensation system needs development. It is time to combine the overabundance of academic research with industry background to create a compensation system that rewards, develops and retains today’s inside sales agents. Based on the analysis, there are five key areas to maximize sales compensation. Please reach out to me if you would like to discuss these areas in further detail.