Are the best salespeople born with the unique abilities and characteristics required to sale or are they developed? Clearly, there are some personality traits that can make an individual more suited for sales than those who don’t possess them. Those “natural-born” qualities typically include a gregarious personality, the ability to easily connect with people and forge relationships, and a hefty dose of self-motivation.
The concept of the “natural-born salesperson” leads most sales managers to seek candidates with most of the aforementioned traits, convinced they will be perfect for a sales role. It also influences people who aren’t blessed with an abundance of those traits to doubt their ability to be successful salespeople.
So is the natural-born concept a myth? While having certain characteristics can be helpful, there is actually a proven science to sales. Sales is a business process that can be measured, managed, predicted, and improved. The better you understand how the selling process works, the more effective your efforts will be.
Start the process
As a producer, your goal is to convert prospects into customers. That conversion process can be simplified into the following steps:
- Identify and locate a target market
- Reach out to prospects
- Connect with a prospect
- Schedule an appointment
- Conduct the sales effort
- Performing follow-up activity
- Complete the sale
The ability to measure most of the steps and use the metrics to predict future activity makes a process a science. For example, experience may indicate we need to make 50 cold calls to land an appointment, and approximately one of every three appointments results in a sale. That means 150 cold calls are needed for each successful sale, or 1500 calls are needed to add 10 new customers. Your numbers will vary depending upon several factors, but measuring will allow you to test and change approaches to have a greater impact.
Apply the science
To turn the process of selling into a practical approach for your agency, you need to begin by developing a solid, realistic sales strategy. Sales experts Frank Pennachio and Susan Toussaint say that many insurance agencies don’t take the time to develop annual sales plans, which they believe make it “virtually impossible to successfully predict and meet revenue goals” and to provide formal accountability for those goals. 1
The first step in developing such a strategy, say Pennachio and Toussaint, is to analyze your past sales performance and the methods you used so you can determine where you were successful and where your efforts fell short. Once you’ve done that, you can set your goals for the coming year.
Simply guessing at numbers or using overly optimistic estimates is counterproductive, they caution. Goals should be based upon past performance, the individual’s capabilities, current market conditions, and the amount of potential customers in the agency’s new business “pipeline.” 2
The other critical element is regularly measuring your progress toward your goals. You need constant feedback to let you know how you’re doing while you still have enough time to adjust your approach, if necessary. Waiting until the end of the year to gauge your progress will only set you up for surprises and potential failure.
So how much activity is appropriate? Sales trainer Kathy Yeager says the best practices for salespeople in most industries involve spending three to four hours a day with customers and prospects, and as many as eight prospecting calls per day (that’s 2,000 per year). She also recommends that salespeople set aside two hours per week for what she calls “creative thinking.” You can use that time to consider new ways to find prospects or develop new sales approaches.3
Persistence is critical to a successful sales process, but the average salesperson stops trying after two attempts.4 It can be tough to keep trying after you’ve been turned down again and again. But what makes the difference between average salespeople and top performers is a willingness to persist in the face of rejection (or after repeated arrivals at prospects’ voice mail messages).
As consumers become ever more saturated by media messages from more sources, persistence becomes even more important. For example, back in 2007, it typically took 3.68 attempts to reach a prospect when cold calling. Today, you may need to try eight times to catch someone. The same holds true for following up after an appointment. It’s been reported that 80 percent of sales involve five follow-up calls, but nearly half of all salespeople give up after following up just once.4
Use time wisely
Ben Franklin warned early Americans that “time lost is never found again.” Successful entrepreneur Michael Altshuler echoed that with a positive note when he said, “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”5 In other words, although you may not be able to control the pace of time, you’re in complete control of how you use this limited resource.
Because it’s impossible to create more time, managing what you already have effectively is a critical component of sales. It doesn’t happen automatically. You need to be aware of your objectives, and plan the activities into your schedule.
Finally, do your best to avoid activities that seem to be work, but are really unproductive time from a sales standpoint. Sales executive Earl Stevens cites a long list of business activities that are unproductive, from socializing with co-workers, to daydreaming, to trying to do too many things on your own (instead of delegating them to support staff or outside vendors). He also emphasizes that failing to address top-priority tasks first, jumping from task to task instead of concentrating your efforts on one, having a lack of clear objectives and priorities, and spending too much time putting out fires waste a significant amount of your precious time. 6
1, 2 Pennachio, F. (2013, February 20). Strategic Sales Planning: 5 Steps to Success. Retrieved December 2013, from Oceanus Partners Website: http://www.oceanuspartners.com/good-stuff/white-papers.aspx.
3 Yeager, Kathy (Contract Training Edge), “Time Management Best Practices for Sales People” presentation.
4 Quoted in Atwood, Jake, “20 Shocking Sales Stats That Will Change How You Sell.” http://www.buzzbuilderpro.com/blog.
6 Stevens, Earl, “Sales Training Time Management” presentation, August 2011.