Proven Sales Playbooks are BS — Paul Kenny Explains

In this guest post Paul Kenny (founder of Ocean Learning and long time BoS participant and speaker) argues that software and SaaS “proven sales playbooks” are BS.


Paul writes:

I’ve spent the best part of 30 years thinking about ways to help salespeople to get better, to develop more from their customer base and to have satisfying and enjoyable sales careers.

Over that time, we have become much more sophisticated in collecting and analysing sales data. We know who our salespeople talk to, when, for how long, what about and in what level of progress they make. Our CRM system can prompt the team to make the optimum number of calls, to follow up efficiently and to be better at predicting call or demo outcomes. 

We have more collateral to share than ever before, our salespeople are supported not only by marketing teams to drive engagement and lead generation, but also sales enablement teams to help ensure that they always have the right examples, user cases, demos, decks and proposal templates.

This evidence-based approach to managing sales performance certainly helps us to make better decisions about how we develop our sales teams and how we best use the talents available to us. However we have also seen a rise in the number of people claiming to have figured out the ‘right’ way to do sales.

Proven Sales Playbooks are BS.” Why?

I’ve lost count of the number of people who contact me to tell me with absolute confidence that their system (lead generation, prospect profiling, demonstration, closing, negotiating) is “100% guaranteed” to get me the results I need.

The range of blueprints alone suggests that we should all be cautious about buying into one system or another. 

Developing consistent sales performance remains a complex challenge even with all the data and tools at our disposal.

The main reason proven sales playbooks are BS is they can only be helpful if we have consistent inputs.

This means:

  • Our sales teams are equally experienced and capable
  • Our knowledge of the product and its capabilities is deep and rich
  • Our levels of motivation are consistent
  • Our belief in the efficacy of the product are high
  • We understand our market position completely, and it is stable
  • We have a robust and consistent process is for managing customer interaction
  • We know how to build rapport with our largest prospects
  • Our competitors are clearly positioned, and we know how to differentiate ourselves by comparison
  • Our pricing is clear and competitive; we can easily justify costs both in terms of user value and market comparison

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Why Your Sales Playbook is Going to be Different

In reality the inputs are many, varied and unique to your market. They’re also in a state of constant flux. One proven sales playbook, system or process simply cannot fit all models.

Furthermore, many of the guaranteed systems are based on confirmation bias.

“We succeeded with this so you will too”.

That is a big leap of logic and an even bigger claim to make.

The success they claim may be genuine but it may not all have been down to the sales method or system that they used. Results are not always a good indication of sales capability. A very well-known CEO/Founder once said to me,

“I know exactly how to boost sales, I have a strategy that works every time, without fail. If I want to boost sales we just release another version”

He was making the comment light heartedly, but the point was well made. Sometimes we get great results because the market favours us or because the brand has momentum or because we benefit from renewals or legacy pitches that we had nothing to do with. 

Furthermore, sometimes the sale is made even though the sales performance was awful, the client wants the product and buys it in spite of the lousy sales experience. The problem here of course is that the lousy sales performance is then rewarded and reinforced and becomes part of the company sales canon.

People Make it Harder

The picture is further complicated by the fact that every strength we foster or seek to encourage potentially has a downside or a disadvantage attached to it.

Let’s take this down to a single sales person to understand fully. 

Alex A. You have hired Alex A because they have worked at 43 companies in your field including the market leader. They are very confident, very goal driven, and very focused on making their numbers. The flip-side is they might also be wasteful of leads that don’t look immediately promising. Alex A may have little patience to deal with awkward technical queries, and may be willing to make unrealistic promises to get deals to cross the line.

Alex B Alternatively you may have hired Alex B because they were warm, empathetic, a great listener, and very customer centric. They may also be overly empathetic, lose control of the deals, be easily demotivated by client queries and complaints, and struggle to close deals or negotiate effectively.

What Should we be Doing to Develop our Sales Team?

Sales results are driven by many forces. The salesperson is just one factor. We should concentrate on helping salespeople to recognise and optimise the situation they’re in right now. To invest in their belief in themselves the product and your business as a whole.

If you’re building an entirely new product in an as yet underdeveloped market place, your sales challenges are totally different to someone building another project management tool or accounting solution. If the market is booming and demand is high the sales challenges are different to when demand plateaus or declines.

In short, for long term growth, you must define your own sales challenges and build a process and methodology that works for you than to try and shoehorn a ‘proven playbook’.

There is no universal proven sales playbook, but there are some guidelines.

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Some Guidelines

1. Focus on performance first and results second 

I know we all want salespeople who are goal focused and revenue driven. However results always come from performance, so concentrate on that first.

An old sales manager of mine and a mentor for many years once advised me that changing sales results is like trying to drag a brick with a piece of elastic, you may have to do a lot of pulling before you move the brick. You may be tempted to stop pulling because the brick isn’t moving, if you do, you have wasted your efforts. Once the brick starts to move momentum is driven by the energy stored in the elastic and it may  even continue to move even if you have stopped pulling on the elastic.

In the same way we have to invest in developing sales talent and focusing on performance before we can hope to get any really great results. Once best practice is established, results will continue to be delivered.

Sales Performance is driven by just three factors:

  • Quantity – are we talking to enough people?
  • Direction – are we talking to the right people? 
  • Quality – are we having the right sort of conversations?

Focus on how you find the answers to these questions, and what ‘great’ looks like in your business, for your product and your market.

Map the behaviours that create a great performance. Develop and reinforce those.

2. Develop a deep understanding of what the product really does for customers and how they use it

I’ve observed literally hundreds of demos and sales calls over the years. It’s immediately obvious when a salesperson is really, genuinely excited about helping the customer to find a solution to a problem and feels confident to do so. It’s equally obvious when they’re just sharing the approved features and benefits list or sticking to a standardised demo script.

The more a salesperson feels like the they are truly an expert the more confident they feel and the more of that confidence in the product and the company comes across to the buyer.

You can actively develop this product knowledge and confidence by:

  • Having your sales team work closely with and be coached by your best support people. Help them to understand exactly how the customer is using the product and what problems they are solving with it.
  • Make sure your salespeople are included in the follow up, once a new client has been acquired, and going through the process of onboarding or integration and then becomes a regular user. Make sure your salespeople are engaged and involved in the client development story even if their immediate involvement is over.
  • Create case studies that are more than ‘puff-pieces’. Ensure they show the problems, the options, the integration journey as well as the results. I have one client who trained all their salespeople to write the user cases (or at least contribute to them.) This way the very best customer stories are automatically embedded into day-to-day sales conversations.

3. Develop people little and often

As someone who has sold training programmes for salespeople for many years it may surprise you to hear me talk about the limitations of a standard training course.

The major problem is that often they have too much content.

This of course is a design glitch, driven by the fact that sales-trainers are often booked by the day and sales courses are often scheduled a multi-day chunks for convenience and to optimise travel budgets. Thankfully the global pandemic has accelerated the trend towards shorter, more bespoke, more focused sales coaching approaches. 

Ask yourself what you are doing to encourage the sales team to reflect, review and adapt their performance on a daily or weekly basis.

Do you have:

  • Regular 1-2-1 check-in meetings with your sales people?
  • Regular deal reviews where you analyse a range of deals (won and lost) to see what you can learn from them?
  • Regular and effective reinforcement strategies to encourage improvement in performance rather than just to reward results?
  • A large library of best practice call and demo recordings that your sales team can use to compare their own efforts against?

4. Think about the contribution journey of your salespeople rather than just the revenue

I often hear people talk about the ‘revenue ramp’ or ‘ramping up process’ in the context of sales onboarding. I get it, we want people to be delivering revenue within a specific time frame, and of course that’s what the salespeople want as well. However try to think of the ramp as more than just a revenue measurement try and define sales development through four distinct levels of contribution.

Four Levels of Sales Contribution

Level 1: Contribution by Supporting

New trainees for instance can contribute by supporting more experienced salespeople. Researching leads, helping to fix up meetings, preparing decks, copy proofing proposals etc. 

This achieves two things firstly they are learning the job from the bottom up understanding all the different working parts that must come together to deliver a sale. Secondly and perhaps most importantly they feel that they are genuinely contributing from the start of their careers to the success of the team.

Level 2: Dependent Contribution

At three months or so salespeople may be managing their own leads but would benefit from guidance from more experienced sales staff. There is much to learn about different approaches, keeping leads alive, dealing with objections and resistance. They may need to check important details relating to contracts and pricing. They’re contributing but remain dependent upon a manager or more experienced sales person to achieve their potential.

Level 3: Independent Contribution

Salespeople reach a level where they can contribute independently, they can carry out all their sales activities but would benefit from strategic input as to where to focus their efforts, how to refine their pitches, how to manage the more complex accounts and the more difficult negotiations. 

Level 4: Interdependent Contribution

If we’re fortunate enough to hold on to our best talent, they may contribute at an inter-dependent level. These senior salespeople know the product inside out, understand even the most nuanced needs of customers and can navigate complex purchasing processes. To keep them developing and improving they need to be at the heart of discussions around product development, market strategy and customer focus.

They should be the trusted advisors to your biggest clients.

You want them to be outstanding salespeople but also understanding the product management issues and to contribute to the future of the product and the business as a whole.

Think about improving and developing contribution as well as revenue.

There are no panaceas – proven sales playbooks are BS

Every book I’ve read on sales has been useful. Every sales course I have attended has been of value. However, none has been the panacea they promised. The same would appear to be true of all the supporting tools that we take for granted these days (CRM, Enablement Platforms, Call Monitoring etc).

Proven sales playbooks are BS too. Your sales playbook should be less BS, more BoS.

You need a playbook that works for your particular situation. It is different. Treat all the ideas, principles, methods and tools as a useful starting point or a framework for thinking about your biggest sales challenges. They can all be used to raise interesting questions, but they rarely have all the answers.

Remember, your sales team and your product sit in a unique position. Always try and understand the challenges and issues as they impact you now, try developing your own responses rather than relying on a templated solution. 

Real development happens on a day-to-day and a deal-by-deal level. Focus on improving performance here and the results will follow.


Find out more about Paul Kenny, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter

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