“Lone wolf” salespeople aren’t bagging sales like they used to. Nowadays, it’s collaborative teams that are taking home the trophies.
May 11, 2018 6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
There’s no more dangerous myth in sales than that of the “lone wolf.” Grounded in 20th-century sales culture and reinforced by individual-oriented compensation structures, the lone wolf is a solitary salesperson who rarely engages with the team and brings down big deals by force of will. In today’s sales environment, however, the solo salesperson often struggles to succeed.
As a March 2018 study by CSO Insights and The Miller Heiman Group shows, just 53 percent of sales professionals reached their goals in 2017, the lowest number in the past five years. Despite all the technologies and data at their fingertips, salespeople aren’t turning prospects into customers effectively. To soup up sales, the report suggests “effectively collecting and sharing best practices across sales and service organizations.”
In other words, the wolves must learn to work as a pack. The Alaskan wolf forms packs ranging in size from six to 30 to bring down big game like moose and caribou. By hunting as a team, wolves and salespeople can tackle larger targets that provide a taste of success for the whole group.
Embrace the pack — teamwork works in sales.
Of course, every team has its star players. Many of them were probably weaned in an “eat what you kill” sales environment, where the best hunters take home fat commission checks and receive plenty of corporate recognition.
The trouble is that sales teams at most organizations follow the Pareto Principle, which states that the majority of outputs (about 80 percent) will come from a relatively small set of inputs (about 20 percent). This applies to sales in two ways: A few sales are often responsible for most of the revenue, and most successful sales come from effectively utilizing a few key strategies. Working together through account-based marketing and sales enables teams to decide on their biggest targets and share strategies for closing them. In contrast, a “lone wolf” approach all but ensures that reps will miss out on learning some of the strategies that drive success.
That’s why collaboration is the name of the game at Node. When we developed an elevator pitch that produced significant returns, competitors scrambled to copy our technique. Had we not shared our 30-second intro across our sales team and continually adapted the pitch via regular feedback from the front lines, we would’ve soon found ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.
Selling is a cat-and-mouse game, especially if you’re in startup territory. Staying nimble and adaptive requires every member of the pack to play their part. To get your salespeople to work as one:
1. Make healthy feedback a part of the process.
When was the last time you held a truly honest, no-holds-barred feedback session for your salespeople? I always ask my colleagues to formally or informally give me feedback so they see sharing criticism as a positive force, not a negative one. It can be uncomfortable, to be sure, but feedback is growth fuel for sales teams.
If you’re not sure where to start, pick a particular function to share feedback around. Rachel Clapp Miller, Force Management’s VP of marketing and digital engagement, uses sales calls as an example. She makes a habit of asking co-workers to evaluate her call performance. In turn, she offers opinions to employees, providing feedback to reinforce what’s working well and to fix what isn’t. She urges workers to talk about their performances objectively and without self-strangling skepticism. Not only does this tactic help her and her teammates improve, but it also turns sharing feedback into a cultural expectation.
2. Encourage knowledge sharing when you’re not around.
Candid cross-pollination of ideas often works best when the boss isn’t around. Sales leaders should set the process in motion but then step back and trust the team to share ideas without them.
My team members often get together at Node’s office for what they call their “war stories” meetings. In my absence, they swap sales tips, vent and coach one another. It’s not a formal event; they meet as needed and without leaders looking over their shoulders.
To get salespeople-only meetings rolling, assign contributor roles until the process becomes natural. Have someone who tends to hold back? Ask him to be the discussion leader. Encourage someone else to take notes, and suggest that a third person share relevant ideas with other teams, such as marketing and HR.
3. Balance individual and team-based compensation.
Dollar signs rule the minds of most salespeople. But if you’re tying your representatives’ paychecks solely to what they do on their own, you’re undermining the team. At the same time, eliminating individual commissions makes it easy for poor performers to coast on the backs of sales experts.
Optimizing the ratio of individual-to-team compensation is tricky, but it’s not impossible. Many models link somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of variable compensation to team performance. If team targets can’t be built into each individual’s plan, offer bonuses for team performance to demonstrate leadership’s commitment to the team’s success. At Node, we offer bonuses, including cash and “prizes,” for salespeople who go above and beyond for the team.
Also consider out-of-the-box models that encourage non-salespeople to support the sales team. At social media marketing startup Tint, leadership sets a monthly revenue benchmark for the entire organization. Any earnings above that threshold are equally distributed to workers, regardless of department. According to a Tint blog post, the system drives developers, marketers and others to actively offer help to sales.
4. Build team-building into promotion criteria.
Still have a few hold-outs on your sales team who won’t get on board with collaboration? Create a promotion policy that requires regular sharing of ideas. Most “A players” are ambitious people who seek higher titles and responsibilities, and they’ll do what’s needed to get there.
At a former employer of mine, everyone had to complete a 50-point rubric before being considered for a promotion, much of which was tied to cross-functional work and team leadership. That might be overkill at a startup, but it doesn’t mean you can’t dictate eight or 10 behaviors for personal progression. Be specific, though. It’s not enough to tell salespeople to be more team-oriented. You might stipulate, for instance, that they consistently lead sales knowledge transfer sessions as part of your criteria.
Sales doesn’t work the same way it did 20, 10, or even five years ago. Buyers have gotten smarter, competitors have gotten more cunning, and market spaces have become more crowded. “Lone wolf” salespeople aren’t bagging sales like they used to. Nowadays, it’s collaborative teams that are taking home the trophies.