Salespeople As Athletes


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Everyone has that picture in his or her head of the prototypical sales rep. I am not talking about the used car salesman image, but the one of the über-successful salesperson. Tall and good looking, outgoing, and probably athletic. However, anyone who has come in contact with many sales reps will see that great sales professionals are not necessarily one shape, size or personality. The only commonality that ties salespeople together is an unhealthy appetite for accepting rejection and an incredible well of persistence.

Awhile back, Jason Lemkin of SaaStr fame stopped in NYC to spend some time with startup founders. He also gave a talk, which I had the opportunity to attend. One of the reoccurring themes I gathered from this talk was the idea of hiring athletes whether to manage product or to run sales.

Now, you might think that hiring athletes is a bit of stretch businesswise. Let’s face it: many folks in tech, even in sales, do not exactly hue to the ideal of being athletic. Besides what does being an “athlete” have to do with closing long and complex deals for nascent solutions offered by startups? Well, if experience is any guide, one’s ability to do triathlons or bench press stacks of weights does not translate into a quote killing, sales comp smashing performance.

However, it is not so much about the physical attributes of the body, but the mental acuity of the mind. The athlete has intense focus and discipline. The athlete has clear and specific objectives. The athlete is driven by results. The athlete is relentless in improving, iterating and practicing. The athlete does not back down from a challenge, but rather, tackles it head on.

This is also the model of the modern sales rep. In a day and age when building chummy relationships and getting by purely from one’s network are gone, there needs to be a better way for sales people to succeed. It is not by being the classic relationship builder. Simply working hard only goes so far because most sales reps can and do work hard. Running purely on gut feeling is too high risk in high stakes sales opportunities. On the other hand, being too data-oriented and too detailed can stifle the innovation and creativity needed to forge new accounts.

The new model of sales is the idea of being a “challenger”. The concept is nothing particularly new—it was introduced by the CEB several years ago. This being said, I have seen many badly implemented programs focused more on the “challenge” part and less on the value to customers or sales advancement. Simply put, the “challenger sale” is not about confrontation, but about a way of introducing new ideas that can change the perspective of the prospective client. These new ideas are novel and contrary to industry currents, are pertinent to the audience and are always tied back to value. In short, the salesperson needs to be well prepared long before introducing him or herself to the potential customer.

What is responsible for spawning this newer approach to sales? It is mostly a function of greater information available to customers through analysts and internet sources as well as the growing complexity of enterprises themselves. This has created better-educated customers who are both in control of the sales process and have higher expectations of the vendor sales teams.

The type of sales people you need are athletes, but the mentally tough kind who have the discipline and perseverance to succeed. Sales is the toughest of jobs in a company, which is why it is the highest paid position, but also the one with greatest turnover. It is no mistake that many famous quotes by athletes work so well in a sales context, like this one from Michael Jordan:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

That could be any sales rep that is prospecting, hitting the streets, and banging on doors. It is drudgery and thankless and often humiliating. It is not a job that one takes if you need instant gratification or to be always liked. You hear rejection almost every single day, which is enough to wear out even the most seasoned professional. This is why it is so crucial to hire the “athletes”, the ones that have the heart to push through the down periods and stretch to reach high points.

I would just like to make one note on the physical side of being an athlete. Many salespeople forget that they not only have a sales quota to reach, but they also have to care for their bobdies. Steak dinners, fast food joints, constant travel, lack of sleep, events with booze and no exercise will take a toll on anyone. This is something that I have personally fallen victim to. Unlike money or relationships, your health is not something you can ever retain.

The best athletes recognize the importance of balance between pushing oneself both physically and mentally. The best salespeople understand the need for hard work intertwined with some down time. If it is good enough for world-class athletes, then it is good enough for any sales professional. Stay sharp mentally and keep healthy physically and you will win those deals!



Reprinted by permission.

Image Credit: CC by Craig Moe

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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