Two weeks later, although Adam didn’t do a stellar job, he received a standing ovation for being brave enough to come back and complete the workshop. I helped Steve put a skill development plan together that would help Adam hone two skills; he enthusiastically worked with Adam to execute this plan. Eighteen months later, I was back in Cambridge for a planning meeting with Steve, who’d since been promoted, and the VP of Sales. After meeting all morning, we were walking down a very busy hallway on our way to lunch. “Bob,” I heard a voice in the crowd shout out. A very happy and confident-looking Adam walked up to me and gave me what could only be described as a bear hug. I was actually a bit embarrassed.

“Guess what happened to me last month?” said Adam, ”I won the award for top seller of the year, and I wanted to say thanks.”

Steve is a great example of a sales manager who practices Collaborative Skill Development, and Adam was certainly the beneficiary. But how many sales people could tell the same story? More often the scenario goes like this: After a sales rep is hired and given product and/or sales training. Then they’re left to perform. But within a quarter, the sales manager gets a bad feeling. The sales rep’s pipeline looks barren and the forecast is a mere wish list. The sales manager steps in to push deals forward and, hopefully, close a few. From the sales management’s perspective, the seller appears to be a falling star; they feel like they’ve made another hiring error.

Instead of this scenario, sales managers should utilize Collaborative Skill Development to strategically develop the talent of their sellers. It requires the manager to tailor their methods to the capability level of the sales person.

There are three seller capability levels and, therefore, three aligned management methods. A seller os considered Capability Level 1 if he or she shows that they cannot perform a skill, or if they appear unwilling to at least try to perform a skill. In this case, the sales manager should utilize a “prescriptive” method of management, where the seller is expected to rigorously practice with the manager.

Sellers can be described at Capability Level 2 if they can execute a skill but require assistance from their sales manager. Here, the sales manager should use a “collaborative” method of management, which is characterized by the seller having a greater level of independence and greater level of input with decisions. And, finally, sellers are at Capability Level 3 if they are able to independently execute a skill at the highest levels. In this case, the sales manager should apply an “empowering” method of management, where sales reps are given a great deal of autonomy.

I’ve often heard managers say things like, “Oh, I am naturally an empowering sales manager, and that’s the method I’ll use.” I will remind those manager-types that it’s not about them. It’s about them being aligned with their seller. The key is that we, as sales managers, must be in sync with the capability needs of our sellers. We must utilize the management method based on the needs of the seller we are managing.

Lets consider the set of skills sales people should master:

  • Panning skills: account planning and opportunity identification
  • Opportunity initiation skills: prospecting and account penetration
  • Sales call skills: solution development and qualification
  • Sell cycle skills: sell cycle management and control
  • Closing skills: negotiating and closing.

Most importantly, we’ve found that of these above skills, the average sales person is typically deficient in only one or two which hold them back from “eagle” performance. And if sales managers follow a systematic approach to Collaborative Skill Development, they can successfully unlock the potential of a sales person in one quarter. To accomplish this, a sales manager needs a way to grade sellers in each skill, and then follow the appropriate plan that focuses on the ones that are holding them back.

To grade the capability level of sellers, managers need a well-defined, objective set of metric-based criteria for each skill. Such a tool for the skill of Sales Call Qualification is shown below:


Then the sales manager can use these tools to summarize the performance level of a seller for every skill:

It typically takes 15 minutes to complete such an analysis. I hope you’d agree that this is not at all a huge burden, especially given the payback for both the seller and the sales manager.

So now what? Well, it’s time to focus on skill development. Over the years, we have found that a manager’s best approach is to focus on developing one skill per quarter. Any more than that is too challenging and time-consuming for the seller and the sales manager; it defocuses their efforts, and produces diminishing returns. However, if the seller and the sales manager proactively focus on the seller’s biggest deficiency, it yields extraordinary results. In the case above, the skill to focus on is Sales Call Qualification because this is where the seller is weakest.

And that leads us to a skill development plan for Sales Call Qualification, as shown in the figure below. Its purpose is to define a plan that requires the seller to leverage the components of the sales methodology that they have been trained in, and to practice relevant components with their sales manager. It also sets a target goal that the seller is expected to achieve by end of one quarter, as well as identifies the metric that should be tracked as a gauge of Capability Level success.

Also note that the items in the plan are based on a collaboration between the sales manager and seller, and includes role-plays and reviewing sell cycle control letters on the part of the manager.

As a result, sales managers should see dramatic, rapid, metric-based performance improvement in the skill that had held a seller back from peak performance. It is very common for sellers to progress from Capability Level 1 to Level 3 for a given skill in only one quarter! We can make Adam the rule instead of the exception to it!