The world of the professional salesperson has changed dramatically over the last decade. With more demanding customers, more complex solutions, more intricate buying processes, and more intense competition, the list of challenges facing 21st Century sellers is both long and growing.
In response, salespeople have changed the way they interact with their customers. They have become more collaborative, more consultative, more solution-oriented, more responsive, and generally more intimate with those they serve.
Meanwhile, new research reveals that the very best salespeople have found another group of people with whom to get cozy. No…not new types of customers or even new business partners. Surprisingly, the best salespeople are standouts at wooing their own co-workers.
Who the Best Salespeople Know
Chris Plouffe of Florida State University, along with Srinivas Sridharan and Donald Barclay from the Ivey Business School at The University of Western Ontario, set out to understand what impact (if any) internal networking has on sales performance.
What the trio discovered was that anywhere from 27 to 42 percent of the variance in salesperson performance could be attributed not to how well the seller interacts with their customers, but rather how well they interact with colleagues inside their companies. To put this number into perspective, the more common studies measuring customer-facing sales behaviors typically can explain no more than 10 to 20 percent of the variation in performance.
Studying 315 salespeople from two Fortune 500 companies operating in different industries, they examined a specific type of behavior termed "exploratory navigation." This takes place when a salesperson purposefully explores his own organization to identify and engage key individuals who have the resources, decision-making authority, or policy-shaping abilities to affect the salesperson's ultimate success with their external customers.
In other words, these are salespeople who move beyond formal organization charts, hierarchies, and roles to find the people inside their organization who can help them succeed outside their organization. Examples of this behavior might be sitting in on a planning meeting with the manufacturing group; keeping abreast of promotions, reassignments, and new hires across the company; staying up-to-date on the company's Intranet; monitoring developments in marketing or advertising; or even riding along with the company's delivery or service personnel.
The benefits of such seemingly unnecessary behaviors can actually be quite important—like having the organizational access to learn about upcoming product quality issues, get access to scarce inventory, negotiate favorable delivery terms, expedite specific orders, and obtain similar types of favors or concessions that can provide tremendous value to the salesperson's customers and prospects.
In fact, the importance of a salesperson's ability to "make things happen" inside their own company was similarly demonstrated in a separate study where B2B customers said they absolutely expect world-class salespeople to act as their advocates inside the seller's company.
It is easy to see how salespeople who proactively explore their own company's personnel and resources succeed in the marketplace—they understand their organization's abilities and constraints and have built the relationships to take action on behalf of a customer when specific issues or opportunities arise. These are not the salespeople who ask, "Whom should I call to resolve this problem?" or "How do I find out the policy on that?" These are the informed, connected salespeople who know how things work and who it is that works them.
Who the Best Salespeople Are
Interestingly, there were two distinct characteristics the researchers found in salespeople who were good exploratory navigators. First, the salespeople tended to be highly competitive in nature. The researchers propose this competitive spirit is what drives the sellers to purposefully learn the intricacies of their own organizations. Aggressive competitors seek every possible advantage, and these salespeople apparently consider this "inside information" of high value in creating an extra edge.
Second, these prolific organizational networkers tended to hold informal positions of power inside their companies, because they were viewed by their colleagues as "experts." They not only know more about their products and their company than others around them, they receive a certain amount of unofficial power because of it. This power no doubt enhances their ability to influence their peers and make things happen for the benefit of their customers.
What Sales Leaders Can Do
As you read this article, you probably have identified the salespeople in your own organization who fit this description and profile. The challenge for sales leaders is then to create a whole team of these sellers who can navigate their company's waters with ease and impact.
First, sales leadership should emphasize the importance of internal networking, even with colleagues in departments other than sales. Provide your salespeople with the time and motivation to acquaint themselves with any organizational function that can have an impact on a customer's experience. Push them to learn the broader landscape, the key participants in it, and how to leverage it when the need arises.
Second, provide your sales force with tools that enable them to navigate other functions. Things as rudimentary as organization charts, role descriptions, and contact information for those on the periphery of their selling effort will make it easier for them to quickly find the right person to take the necessary action on behalf of their customers and prospects.
And finally, hire competitive spirits and develop their expertise, so they will have the desire and stature to interact with their non-sales colleagues. Research has now revealed for us that the most successful salespeople don't just influence their customers. They also influence their own organizations—from manufacturing to finance and beyond.
Note: References available upon request.
Jason Jordan is the director of research for the University Sales Education Foundation Foundation, as well as a principal with Go To Market Partners and World-Class Sales Leader.