Outside Sales Lessons From America’s Top Companies

Outside sales is a profession in flux. The growth of digital commerce has reimagined the ways reps can reach out to potential customers, as well as how those customers want to make their purchases. And sales as a whole has expanded to incorporate new approaches beyond the basic outside versus inside division. Yet in the face of all these changes, successful companies are preparing their reps in the field to deal with those issues.

What businesses are excelling in this new marketplace? What steps lined their paths to success? We chatted with Paul McCord, president of sales training company McCord Training and Development, to get his insights about what makes these companies tick.

What Are The Leaders Doing Right?

Part of the success for each of these companies comes from a deep knowledge of their markets. For instance, Xerox has long had the reputation of a powerhouse outside sales team. One reason for this success was switching from a product-focused sales organization to a market-oriented one. Rather than have its outside sales reps highlight a single item, the company gave them specific, narrow audiences as specialties. The company’s decision to have reps specialize in a certain audience lets them hone how to build rapport with those people. Better relationships mean better sales results.

McCord highlighted the importance of training in keeping the top performers at the top. “Each of these companies are willing to invest significant amounts of time and dollars in each member of their outside sales team,” he said. “So many companies mistake product training as sales training and they are not the same thing.” A business that puts resources into keeping its outside sales team on the cutting edge will stay ahead of the competition. When Selling Power ranks the best companies in the country to sell for, one of the three criteria is hiring, compensation, sales training and enablement. The best in the business recognize the importance of training. Hilti and UniFirst are in the top ten of the 2013 ranking, and McCord also highlighted them both as companies that are leading the outside sales field.

Another key to great outside sales comes from the broader company culture. “A focused sales process rooted in a commitment from top management to support the sales team with high quality products and great after the sale customer service and attention,” McCord explained. Consider Avon, one of the classics of outside sales. The company’s direct selling approach places a high priority on excellent products, with the sales rep offering consultation rather than a hard pitch to potential buyers. Xerox is again a great example. CEO Ursula M. Burns has been working to adopt a culture that cultivates excellence rather than just niceness among employees. “The top leadership in the company sets the tone for the remainder of the company, including the sales team,” McCord said. “The sales team members will perform to the level set by the company executives.”

What Can You Learn From Them?

McCord said the idea of adopting a company-wide sales approach is often given lip service, but not always implemented correctly. “Too often companies allow each seller or each sales manager to sell in the manner they see fit,” he said. “Successful companies have a well thought out, consistently trained and managed sales process that reflects the values and goals of the company.”

The Girl Scouts of America have nailed that concept. The organization has a thorough process for training its scouts when the time comes for cookie sales. The appeal of young entrepreneurs and supporting a good cause certainly helps in making the sale, but the Girl Scouts also succeed in the cookie drives because they are so well prepared to make those boxes move.

Another important trait of successful sales teams is how much value they place on the individual. Even though the different departments of a business need to work together, brands that want to excel will only hire the best to join that team. Jennifer Trzepacz, former head of human resources at LivingSocial, explained the daily deal site’s rigorous process of vetting new hires, putting them in challenging mock situations to test their abilities. She said the company’s top sellers were able to be resilient in the face of change, in addition to possessing excellent organizational and communication skills.

McCord added that good sales reps will also be proactive in wanting to improve. When their companies aren’t helping them to learning more or surpass a plateau, they’ll make the investment on their own. “Not only will it make you a better seller, but you learn skills that will make you a better seller no matter where you go,” he said. He also focused on keeping good company within the company. “If you want to become a top seller, hang out with the top sellers in the office and emulate what they do,” he said.

What Tools Can Help?

Many of the steps to becoming a top outside sales organization are part of a mental game. But even when your company is making those big shifts, having a good set of tools can give you that extra edge along the way.

For instance, McCord noted the importance of focusing on the sale. “During selling hours, spend time on revenue-generating activities — prospecting and selling — not busy work,” he said. Keeping that level of dedication comes partly from practice, but it also helps to have a reliable, streamlined system for the tangential tasks. A CRM like Base where data entry isn’t a burden and where reports can be generated automatically can free you up to focus on the sales work.

He cited a few other common tools for sales success in any field, such as a file-sharing service, Google Alerts, and social media, particularly LinkedIn. And remember, all your outside sales reps are mobile, so they need tools that will travel with them to client meetings, product demos, and customers’ offices.