Not all Accounts are equal. Not even close.

Very rare indeed is the salesperson and even rarer still the sales leader with the disciplined habit of ignoring most customers.

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They are also the best sales pros on the planet. I’d also say they are the bravest. In order to follow their internal compass and hold fast to their fervent belief that the good truly is the enemy of the best, they must endure a daily barrage of criticism from their bosses. But year after year, they receive their full bonus and grow sales at a greater rate than anyone else on the team so they stick to their guns and continue to prosper.

A quick story from my own experience. Early in my sales career, I took great pride in the fact that I “knew everyone” in the market – especially within my own sales territory. They knew me and I knew them. Lots of them. I would wake up every day with one mission: find a customer who wasn’t doing business with me and go “close” them. Opening up new accounts was the rush. Far more thrilling than the drudgery of servicing the accounts I’d already sold. I believed my sales manager when he said, “No one ever sold anything from the office.” I measured my own success by the volume of my work.

Then one day, I was on the phone with the big boss of a competitor who was thinking of hiring me. Sitting up straighter in my chair, I challenged the interviewer to “ask around about me.” Typical of my ego in those days, I volunteered the fact that I thought there was no better salesman in the territory than me. Unmoved, he replied, “There are better salesmen than you. Several of them.” It was like a punch in my gut and all I could think of was to ask, “Who? Give me a name?” And so he did.

Now, the punch line of this story is I had never heard of this man. Didn’t have a clue who he was. I then launched into a self-indulgent tirade slathered in righteous indignation. “How could he be such a great salesperson if I’d never heard of him? Why have I never run into him? I’m on the street every day!” That day I set out on a mission to find this man (we’ll call him Bob) and find out what made him, allegedly, so much better than me.

I did indeed find out why Bob was so much better than me and it caused a profound change in my selling style and philosophy that has stuck with me to this day. While the rest of us undisciplined fools were running around the marketplace like headless poultry chasing down anything that moved and naively confusing activity with achievement, Bob was in his office. He was studying, analyzing, and preparing. While I and my hapless peers executed a “fire now-aim later” approach, Bob practiced a ready-ready-aim-aim-aim-fire” style. Bob was a big game hunter. While I saw 10 customers in a day (and sold 6 or 8 cases), Bob saw maybe 2-3 customers a week. But since he had prequalified them as being the very largest customers, he often walked out with orders of 1,000-2,000 cases at a time. Bob understood that not all accounts are equal. Not even close. If fact 80% of the business was being done by 20% of the customers. Bob ignored the 80%, and, instead, focused his time (including preparation time) on the 20% exclusively.

I had never heard of Bob before that job interview and he had certainly never heard of me. Up until that time, I behaved like most salespeople do today. I placed a high value on things like effort, # of sales calls made per day, # of accounts sold, and hard work. I was the busiest person you ever saw. And, in case you didn’t notice, I would tell you about it.

Bob, by contrast, placed the highest possible value on his time. He was very miserly with his time because a) he understood it was limited and b) he expected the maximum return for it. By taking extra time to prepare to sell, his closing ratio was 8-10 times higher than mine. By narrowing the focus of his customer base to only the most attractive accounts in the market, he sold 10-20 times more than me. He blew away his goals every year and received his full bonus every year.

It is a sad (but true) indictment on the typical sales department that we tend to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity. We know this because we like to measure the quantity of work (# sales calls, # of days in the field, etc.) rather than the quality (the end result). How you reach your sales quota should not be nearly as important as IF you reach your sales quote. But, ask most sales people today and you’ll hear horror stories about being micro-managed by their sales leaders. I’ll save this for another blog post, but whatever you measure you’ll get more of. Want more sales calls? Measure # of sales calls. Want more sales? Measure results.

Ignoring 80% of the customer base is very difficult. No question about it. But it is the absolute key to dramatically accelerating salesforce performance! If salespeople are to sharpen the focus of their sales activity to only the most attractive accounts, their sales leaders will have to insist on it. Salespeople who operate this way on their own are extremely rare. Left to their own devices, most salespeople will behave more like the “Ben” in this story than the “Bob.” Moving from Ben’s intuitive approach that says, “Just do it” to Bob’s more systematic approach that considers account sales potential as a key determinant to success must be done intentionally. It won’t happen on its own.

We’re talking a major shift in sales culture and sales philosophy here. So, a good next step is to ask yourself: do you want good results or do you want great results? It is not only possible to accomplish more by doing less, it is mandatory. Time to start focusing on results instead of dedication. And, as always, I’m here to help if you need me.

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