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Improving Sales Judgment is Key to Closing More Deals

Oct 29th, 2018

The following article originally appeared in Forbes on Sept. 28, 2018.

It’s fourth and one. Peyton Manning breaks the huddle, surveys the defense and reads a blitz. The running play called in the huddle isn’t going to work, so he barks “Omaha, Omaha!” signaling an audible and changing the play to a pass. The result? A first down.

Football fans saw this scenario countless times throughout Manning’s 18-year career. He showed uncanny judgment reading defenses and changing plays accordingly, which helped make him one of the winningest quarterbacks in NFL history.

While sports analogies are common in sales (sorry for yet another), the parallel here is appropriate: Sales representatives should take a page out of Manning’s “read-and-react” playbook. Think about the series of split-second decisions that happened in the above scenario: judgment about the defense, a decision about whether to call an audible and another one about what audible play to call. A different quarterback, using different judgment, might have seen a very different outcome.

We can equip sales representatives with all the skills and knowledge they need, but without the ability to read — in real time — what is happening in a meeting and make judgment calls appropriately, their success will be limited. It’s important to explore judgment in sales and what sales enablement leaders can do to ensure their reps are “audible-ready.”

What is Sales Judgment?

Reps have to make judgment calls about everything from preparing for meetings and asking the right questions, to answering buyers and more. When elements invariably veer off course, reps usually take one of four actions:

  • Forge cluelessly ahead with the predetermined play.
  • Recognize a change should be made, but lack the confidence to make it.
  • Execute a change — but the wrong one.
  • Recognize shifting dynamics and call the right audible.

Ensuring reps are adept and discerning enough to make the right call is key to closing more deals.

Sales Judgment In Action

In my consulting days, I accompanied a software rep on a call to a head of sales at a manufacturing firm. The rep barreled through an hour-long presentation, while the prospective buyer fidgeted, sighed and focused heavily on his phone.

When we left — with no commitment or next steps — I asked the rep, “How do you think that went?”

“Awesome,” he replied earnestly. “Usually they don’t let me get halfway through the presentation!”

Failing to read the buyer stopped the deal there. Reps need to be primed to recognize three key signs:

  • Where the buyer is in the decision process. The head of sales, in this example, was well on the path to making a decision and did not need the 10 minutes of a “here’s-why-you-need-software-like-ours” pitch. He knew he needed it — he was now narrowing down the list of vendors.
  • The prospect’s communication or buying style. The VP of Sales was a get-to-the-point type of person. He wanted bullet points.
  • The buyer’s recognized (and unrecognized) needs. Reps need to ask the right questions to elevate the needs buyers are aware of and to uncover the needs buyers don’t yet see. The aforementioned rep failed to prod the buyer, so he never got to the fact that his solution would have helped the buyer’s company innovate faster to support a critical product launch.

Can Sales Judgment Be Taught?

Here’s the reality: Great salespeople often innately have good judgment. They pick up on body language and lines of questioning, then adjust on the fly. That’s what makes them A-players. If you can get B- and C-players at or near that level – especially if their product knowledge and skills are already polished, incremental growth will result.

Here are three ways to improve reps’ judgment:

  1. Simulation and role-play. Just as a pilot learns from a simulator, reps can learn to effectively anticipate and respond to unexpected scenarios. Video coaching platforms let managers pose questions to their reps (e.g., “The buyer just made this objection. What do you say next?”) and provide feedback on reps’ video responses.
  2. Peer-to-peer learning. Sales organizations can create a centrally accessible, best-practices library with videos from seasoned reps. One, for example, might cover how and when to push back on disengaged or hostile buyers (something “greener” reps are often reluctant to do). An expert rep could discuss a time when saying, “Let’s step back. I don’t want to waste your time …” actually led to a healthier dynamic.
  3. In-the-field coaching. When managers or coaches accompany salespeople on calls (or review recorded ones), they can provide constructive feedback afterward. For example, a rep may push Product X, when Product Y would have been the better fit. With queries like, “What led you to Product X?” and “What questions could you ask next time?” coaches can help reps gain greater self-awareness. Rather than always jumping in to save a call, managers (at times) need to let reps learn from their mistakes.

Preparing For Critical Conversations

First things first: sales training should focus initially on improving knowledge and skills. But then it’s time to use coaching and ongoing learning to impact reps’ judgment so they’re ready at the line of scrimmage. It’s the right call.

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