Why the Most Successful Teams Think of Sales as a ‘Team Sport’

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Let me ask you an honest question: If you were starting from scratch and setting up the entire sales industry for the first time, would you copy the structure we have now?

Would you build a sales culture based on the eat-what-you-kill, everyone-for-themselves format we’re all familiar with? With commissions and quotas?

Or would you do something new?

The way most businesses approach sales has its roots in peddler culture from hundreds of years ago — which carried through to the door-to-door salesmen of last century — and forward into the modern workplace. Whether we’re selling software or building supplies, the structure is pretty much the same.

When you start thinking about it, it becomes clear that this approach is antiquated.

The power of teamwork

Every other part of our business, from leadership to design, to customer service, to marketing — all are done by teams.

We’ve come to understand that collaboration fuels creativity and provides support. We know that discussions produce better outcomes than isolated decisions.

Teams do better work than individuals do. 

Yet we’re still selling like every salesperson is a one-man band — and we know it’s not working. According to research from Forrester, only about half of all salespeople hit their quotas in a given month or quarter. 

Brent Keltner, author of The Revenue Acceleration Playbook, sums it up bluntly: “Sales is a broken profession,” he says. The reason, according to Keltner, is that “sales training has evolved very little in 50 years.”

When we think of how far marketing has come in the digital age, it’s hard not to notice how little sales seems to have changed during the same period. 

And there are a million companies consenting to the way things are. 

Collectively, we seem satisfied with ho-hum close rates, extremely high turnover, and sales teams that are competitive instead of collaborative. 

We will keep getting the same results — and keep perpetuating an unhealthy culture — for as long as we think there is no better way.

But there is a better way. 

And we can see it as soon as we recognize what so many of us have chosen to accept.

The modern sales landscape

In most cases, when businesses come to us their sales teams look like this: There’s always a small group of top-flight, high-performing sales reps who routinely exceed their quotas (usually 25% or less of the entire sales team.) 

Then there’s everybody else. 

The rest of the sales team is full of folks who struggle. They rarely hit their numbers, and they’re often not around for very long, either because they choose to move on or are forced to. 

For these folks on the bottom, the experience is rough. But they’re not the only ones to suffer. Every time a business has to let someone go it creates turmoil and lower morale. Every time a business has to bring on someone new it costs time and money. 

Turnover hurts everyone.

But those top performers aren’t perfect either. Sure, they sell a lot. But they’re often lone-wolf types who aren’t team players, so they might not make great co-workers. And there’s something else. Sometimes a sell-at-all-costs approach brings with it other collateral damage. Salespeople want to close, and they sometimes do this with discounts or by under-scoping a project. 

But if a business tracks revenue above all else, these deals are celebrated, even though that hot salesperson might be selling the business into diminished profitability — while collecting a sizable commission in the process. 

Breaking silos, selling more: 5 steps to making sales a team sport

What would it look like if we introduced a team model to the sales profession? Could salespeople benefit from the camaraderie and collaboration so beneficial to other parts of the business?

This is the ‘team sport’ mindset that companies should adopt. 

This is the better way we’ve been looking for. 

This approach brings teamwork into the sales process, boosting overall performance and taming turnover. 

By minimizing some of the individual aspects of sales that we’ve become so accustomed to, we can solve the problems that have seemed intractable for so long. 

So what does a sales team look like when it practices selling?

It manifests in four core attributes and practices:

1. Sales team meetings focus on losses, not on wins

Walk into your average sales meeting today and you hear reps sharing their successes from the previous week, talking about where deals stand and who’s not gotten back to them. The mood is upbeat because everyone’s talking about wins, not about losses. 

That sounds great until you remember that most sales reps lose much more than they win. 

If a high-performing salesperson is closing at 30% — and all they’re sharing is their wins — the team isn’t getting the whole story. 

To ignore the other 70% of meetings is a critical mistake because we can learn much more from our losses that we can from our wins. 

The team sport approach to selling recognizes this, turning meetings from brag fests into learning opportunities where reps share their struggles as they troubleshoot and role-play together. 

But this shift comes with risks. 

It’s not easy to admit our struggles. To tell stories of failure. To openly share our mistakes. 

This cannot happen without trust and psychological safety. Employees need to feel accepted and not judged when they talk about their losses. They need to be open to critique and feedback, which can be hard for people who are used to receiving praise. 

However, the benefits of this shift are immense. If we want to see our close rates go up, we can’t ignore the times when things didn’t go our way. Rather, we have to scrutinize our mistakes and debrief with trusted team members so we can reach a different outcome in the future.

Opes Partners: A sales team committed to growth

As an example, our client Opes Partners has learned to begin every sales meeting this way. Salespeople share their toughest calls from the past week. They explain the meetings that were the most challenging. 

Then, they troubleshoot and role-play those very scenarios. There’s no judgment. Only support. 

In the last 12 months, Opes has increased its close rate by 25%. 

When you focus on your losses, you start getting better. 

2. Focus on call review

In order to really improve team performance, you need to watch film. Just like athletes who watch game tape, your entire sales team needs to watch sales call recordings — both their own and their teammates. 

It’s one thing to hear a recap. It’s another thing entirely to watch a whole meeting: to see the pacing, the body language, the back-and-forth. 

It is with call review that salespeople can offer feedback to colleagues, that managers can train their reps, and that each team member can break down their own performance. 

If you want to really get better, you need to focus on your failed calls. 

3. Sales team members pick each other up

Salespeople will only share their losses if they feel supported by their team. But so many reps have come up on individualistic sales teams that they see their teammates as quasi-competitors rather than collaborators. 

This requires a mindset shift that usually comes by way of training and coaching. An outside expert can introduce meeting structure and behaviors — and these things can be the seeds of a culture change. But it is then the job of the sales manager to develop and encourage this culture within the team. 

Support for teammates can come in many forms, from overt words of encouragement to subtle body language signals, but it requires top-to-bottom buy-in for it to take hold and work. A few eye rolls or scoffs can fracture the trust and undermine the culture you’re trying to build.

While early on it will be important for the team leader to prompt the encouragement and support that’s needed, once it takes hold the leader should take a step back and let the team members support each other without prompting.

4. Team goals come before individual goals

A team-first approach can only come if the team is focused on collective metrics first and foremost. 

This feels like a drastic change, but again — think of every other part of your business. Even though there are individuals responsible for initiative and priorities, there is team accountability for the goals they’re trying to hit. 

Why should sales be so different? Because they speak individually to prospect? Yes, that’s true, but they’re often not the only person to talk to a customer before they buy. 

Other team members might join sales calls to explain a product, offer a bid defense, or scope a project. So it’s not just the salesperson closing that deal. 

Remember, too, that research shows buyers are spending less and less time with a salesperson ahead of a purchase. Every year, more of each person’s buying decision happens before they reach out to a salesperson. Some studies show that it’s as high as 70%. In other words, before buyers even connect with your sales team, they’ve almost made up their minds about what they need and what they want to buy. 

And they prefer it this way. According to a recent study from Gartner, 33% of all buyers would prefer an entirely “sales-free” sales experience. For millennials, it’s even higher: 44%.

Add all that together and the result is this: The individual sales reps do not have end-to-end responsibility for that sale. So why are we acting like they do?

Instead, we should begin to see sales as a team sport with team goals — and your compensation structure should reflect that. 

How differently would your team approach its work if bonuses were tied to group performance instead of individual quotas?

I’m not advocating taking away individual accountability — just supplementing it with a team approach that encourages cooperation and shared excellence.

This is the way you finally get past the enduring problem of a few sales reps winning big and every other rep just scraping by. 

An approach with shared goals is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

5. The ‘team mentality’ extends beyond the sales team 

This team approach to selling isn’t just about the sales team. If the company acknowledges the role that other team members (marketers, internal subject matter experts) play in any given sale, then, by extension, we start to understand that the entire company is a part of the sales team.

  • These team-first sales reps know that helping the marketing team brainstorm content topics helps them sell
  • They know that checking notes from a services meeting helps them sell. 
  • They know that reviewing customer feedback helps them sell. 
  • They know that meeting with the product teams helps them sell.
  • They know that inviting other teams (marketing, service, leadership) to their sales meetings creates a stronger team fabric. 

Team-first sales teams are integrated into the company in a way most sales teams are not. And, the rest of the company is integrated into the sales teams in way that most are not.

Instead of a “just tell me what to sell and I will sell it” ethos, they recognize that there are dozens of touchpoints before a buyer is in an actual sales call. The smoother and more compelling that experience, the easier the job of the salesperson.

The future of your sales team

I’m not going to pretend this move will be easy. If you walk into your sales meeting tomorrow and tell them that you’re changing the compensation structure to reward team goals instead of individual commissions, there will probably be some spilled coffee and jaws on the floor. But the potential benefits are massive.

Here’s how to make it go smoothly.

  • Start small. Begin by tracking tracking group numbers and focusing on shared metrics. 
  • Create a culture of feedback. Make a point to watch sales call recordings. Together, if possible. 
  • Practice role-playing. Work on challenging situations by practicing them together
  • Generate buy-in. Help your team see and feel the problem you’re trying to solve. 
  • Hire a coach. An external expert can help shift culture in a way that’s extremely difficult for people within the company.

At IMPACT, we help sales teams see a better future of more revenue, better support, and personal improvement. If you believe sales is broken, reach out. We can get started on the work we’ll do together. 

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