Want to Increase Sales Rep Performance by 31%? Build Your Team From the Bottom Up

In recent years, the conversation around sales enablement has shifted. This change is reflected in the rapid rise of the Sales Enablement Society, as well as the uptick in VC money flooding into companies selling sales enablement tools.

While some businesses still seem to be “building the plane while they fly it,” many have begun investing in dedicated sales enablement hires, as well as tools and software designed to introduce a new level of efficiency in the sales process. Although these forces point to a positive future, the sales enablement category is still very much in its infancy, leaving a lot of questions on the table when it comes to enablement best practices.

From Soccer to Sales Enablement

As a sales enablement lead for HubSpot, I’m lucky to have the right people, CRM software, and structure to support our sales organization to ensure we’re always improving. While our existing system is strong, I find it’s helpful to speak with other sales enablement professionals and study other disciplines to see if there’s an idea that can be “borrowed” to the sales enablement side.

One concept that piqued my interest was weak-link and strong-link thinking –an idea featured in The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally. While the book focuses on soccer, I’ve found that you can adopt a weak-link or strong-link approach to any situation where there’s a broad distribution of performance.

The basic premise of weak-link and strong-link thinking is that to increase overall performance, you have two options available. You can help your weakest performers improve (weak-link) or invest in making your star players even better (strong-link).

People Are Drawn to Strong-link Approaches

Many people have a cognitive bias towards the top performers, and it often feels like the right thing to do – it’s human nature to want to be associated with the top performers and winners. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best course of action. Just because conventional wisdom favors a strong-link approach, that doesn’t mean it will be the best route every time.

Weak-link Sales Enablement

For sales enablement, I believe a weak-link approach drives better results. This means your focus should be on improving the weakest performers within your sales organization. The rationale is that by improving the poorest performers and getting them up to the average, you will significantly improve overall performance.

Anderson and Sally make the case that soccer is, in fact, a weak-link sport. Matches have a low number of goal-scoring opportunities and a relatively high number of players (11) on the pitch. Many are typically involved in a goal. To be a successful soccer team you need the average ability of your players to be high and evenly distributed. I would argue the same is true of a sales organization.

The advantage of adopting a weak-link approach to sales enablement is that there’s going to be very clear and quantifiable room for improvement by sales reps. It will also be more efficient, as there will likely be existing structures, resources and playbooks in place. These can be repurposed, rather than having to create everything from scratch.

While there are advantages to a weak-link approach, there are some downsides too that need to be considered. At some businesses, trying to improve low performers will frankly be a waste of resources. They either can’t, won’t, or don’t want to improve. However, if your business has a high hiring bar, this will shield you from that particular challenge. This makes a weak-link approach worthwhile.

building a sales development team

Strong-link Sales Enablement

A strong-link approach, as its name suggests, means starting at the very top and helping your best performers get even better. By taking this cohort and helping them improve you will increase the team’s overall performance. Basketball is often cited as an example of a strong-link sport – chances in a match are plentiful and there’s only five players on a court, so you want to give the ball to your star players as often as possible.

Many people instinctively apply strong-link thinking to sales challenges and while it’s a noble move, it’s not necessarily the right one. If somebody is a top performer that hits 200% of their quota each month, it’s unclear just how much further improvement can be made (if at all). There’s an upper limit, and by seeking further and further gains, you will pass the point of diminishing returns and waste valuable time and effort. Like weak-link thinking, taking a strong-link can also be wasteful and inefficient.

Another consideration is that there will be few resources and playbooks available to help star performers get even better, so a strong-link approach tends to require more resources and upfront investment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and shouldn’t mean you discount strong-link programs, but it should be taken into account if you’re considering how best to invest your time.

HubSpot’s Weak-link Sales Enablement Program

Our program consisted of eight weekly training sessions delivered by subject matter experts, plus biweekly deal support meetings. The purpose of the deal support meetings were to identify opportunities where I could support sales reps to close deals.

We deliberately made the training sessions coaching focused and whiteboard-led, rather lecture-based, as sales reps frequently tell us they prefer this approach. Based on these discussions we developed the following guiding principles for the program:

         The program is …

      The program is not …

  • Whiteboard and discussion led (five-slide limit)
  • PowerPoint/Google Slides led
  • Practical – recordings, call scripts, case studies
  • Theoretical – lofty overview of topics
  • Has Q&A running throughout
  • Q&A limited to the end of the session
  • Coaching-based
  • Lecture-based
  • Facilitated by subject matter experts
  • Facilitated by generic trainers
  • Tailored to cohorts of sales reps
  • One-size-fits-all
  • Agile
  • Heavily structured
  • Small groups
  • Whole team

Positioning Matters

We knew that for the program to be successful, we’d have to have the position it thoughtfully. This wasn’t a pre-performance plan move – in fact, the opposite was true. By launching a program like this we were very clearly investing in the success of a cohort of sales reps. We believe that with added support, they will hit 100% of quota attainment.

This bootcamp had the desired effect and sales reps on average improved quota attainment by 31%. In addition, all but one sales rep maintained an increased performance level once the program finished. Five sales reps have gone on to earn promotions.

Challenge Conventional Wisdom

While it’s easy to overlook the weakest sales reps at your business, that doesn’t mean you should. Many people intuitively believe that improving top performers is the best approach. They gravitate towards strong-link thinking, but they miss out on a great opportunity.

If you dare to challenge conventional wisdom and support underperforming sales reps by getting them to where they need to be, you can have an oversized impact. As we’ve found at HubSpot, this approach can be the fastest way to improve overall performance of the sales team. That’s what really matters to sales enablement professionals.


state of sales development 2017

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