The Process for Effective Sales Execution

John Wooden who is one of the greatest sports coaches of all time said “Don’t mistake activity and achievement“. And Lou Gerstner, a former CEO of IBM who turned IBM’s fortunes around, similarly instructed – “Don’t confuse activity with results“.  Being busy and making an effort doesn’t mean you’re actually producing results.  You have to execute effectively in order to produce results.  Execution is everything.

Achieving results is what really matters and all that matters at the end of the day.  We are what we repeatedly do and executing with steady, consistent effort is key.  For the sales team to execute well, everyone must “do their job” as we hear often from Coach Belichick. The fact is that each rep must put in 100% effort every day, day in and day out.  There are no shortcuts, no secrets, no tricks – good execution is hard work and consistent effort and Execution is a Process.

Ultimately, Execution is all about getting things done and that requires hard work – there are no shortcuts.  However, as you will see below, working hard on things that are not producing results is erroneous so knowing what works (what produces results) and what doesn’t is a critical part of execution.  And a necessary part of executing well in sales is experimenting (more in earlier stage companies), tracking, executing and then repeating.

To summarize the below concisely into the simplest bite-size format: focus, prioritize well, focus on the 20% or the 3-5 top High Payoff Activities which produce 80% of the results, work hard and put “massive action” and totally immerse yourself in the work, and celebrate small wins!  It sounds simple but it’s not easy.  And it all starts with the sales manager or the leader (the Head of Sales) to lead the way so that the team can follow.

Note that it is not always the case that all the steps take place every time and not in the same order – but most of these will apply to any organization.

So how do you actually set a system or a process to execute and achieve results?

Execution is a Process – the 9 Steps to Effective Sales Execution 

  • Set the Measurable Goals (Quota Targets, Sales Objectives, KPIs)
    • every CRO/VP of Sales must set correct Quota Targets, Goals and KPIs (to track progress of the goals) for their sales team
      • this is not simple and has to be done right with top-down and bottoms-up financial models, a sales operating model, capacity planning and headcount plan, a territory plan, etc.
    • and every sales professional should have clear goals for themselves based on their quota, daily sales activities, and other KPIs they need to achieve results
  • Focus & Discipline
    • focus is everything and focusing on what matters and what moves the needle is key to progress and success
    • to focus well, you must prioritize
    • also, every sales professional must be good at time management
      • this gets as tactical as blocking out times on the schedule to focus and make progress
      • for example, a sales rep should make a list of just a few top priority things they must do in prospecting or in managing their Opps and have the discipline to do them
    • get in the “the Zone” like some of the best athletes who tune everything else out and focus
      • e.g. read about getting in the “Zone” like the best
      • read about the Zone – Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and others in “Relentless
  • Daily Habits / Routine
    • “Routine sets you free” – it’s important to have a simple and consistent routine every day
      • maintain a consistent rhythm – like a sales “metronome” that is consistent and repeatable
      • be consistent, repeat the key habits every day – read books about athletes training (like “The Champion’s Mind“)
    • the right daily sales habits will lead to results and hitting quota targets
      • We are what we repeatedly do” – Will Durant
      • one of the key things is starting the morning with preparation, reviewing your Opps in the CRM, etc.
    • learn daily – constantly learn to get better – work your top 14 sales skills and become a master at your craft
    • Figure out where you spend the time and where do you prioritize your time
      • Apply the “80/20 Rule” or the Pareto Principle – 20% of actions produce 80% of results
      • Focus only on the 20% of those that are High Payoff Activities (HPAs)
      • Calendar Review / Audit
        • reps should be proactive on what they say yes to and what they say no to – i.e. must eliminate waste
    • Know: What do we do well / What can we do better (how do we improve)
  • Sales Activities
    • executing the key Sales Activities is critical because that is the only set of metrics that a sales rep can actually control and manage every day – you can read more about the “Activities vs. Objectives vs. Results” in the eBook I authored with Jason Jordan and Nick Christman – “Operational Manual for Sales VPs – How To Hit Your Revenue Number” (I also recommend Jason Jordan ‘s “Cracking the Sales Management Code“)
    • as a VP of Sales (for the entire sales group) or any front-line Sales Manager (for their direct team), you must ensure the reps are executing on the needed # of daily sales activities – don’t let down
    • for example, a sales rep must do their sales prospecting daily (or if you are an AE and have an SDR helping you then the SDR must execute on those activities daily)
  • Pipeline
    • a “fat pipeline” is the solution to most problems in sales
      • so, as listed above – ensuring that the Sales Activities and especially prospecting is done is the critical driver of your Pipeline
    • Pipeline Management
      • it is critical manage the pipeline effectively (this is the broad pipeline management process)
      • look for “red flags” in your Opportunities and assess the “top 10 sales forecast killers” to assess what can put your Opps at risk
      • also, regularly review and prune the pipeline of unlikely deals so that you can focus on the “high probability” deals, and not those that we call the “Unlikely & Failing Opportunities” or UFOs (we joke around but mean business when we say “beware of the UFOs” …you don’t want those clogging up your pipeline)
    • Opportunity Management
      • Opp Management is more specific and focused on how to manage each Opp
      • High-Probability Selling – know what types of Opps are your highest probability
        • Your “Strike Zone” – which types of Opps have highest Win Rate % and then focus on your “HPAs” or “High Payoff Activities
        • Focus on only converting leads to Opps which possess the key criteria or “Entry Criteria” that qualifies them really effectively and in accordance to your designed Sales Process to ensure you are focusing on only those Opps that are high probability
        • Do a Win/Loss analysis and understand what the highest probability Opp looks like – for example what is the deal size, the cycle, the Win Sales Cycle vs. Loss Cycle – and then focus on the “Winning” Opps
      • Opportunity Prioritization – every sales professional must know how to prioritize the focus on the correct opportunities
    • look at leading indicators in your pipeline and know when to make adjustments in your execution to be on track towards your intended results
    • also, align with marketing / lead generation to drive 50%-70% of the pipeline since it is far more cost effective than Outbound Sales which should also play a key role too
  • Effort
    • hard work will increase your luck – in business, nothing comes easy and there is no luck without perseverance and working hard at your craft
      • remember what Thomas Jefferson said: “The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have” and one of the greatest golfers Gary Player also similarly said that “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
      • work hard (i.e. you’ll hear folks refer to it as “hustle”)
      • but do not work harder if you are not getting results – you need to pause, assess, and course-correct before working hard on activities that are ineffective because the team will burn out
    • the truth is that it is not easy to succeed and especially in a meritocratic profession like sales or sales management – there is no substitute for effort and hard work and no other way to do it that leads to consistent results
    • Critical: do not work harder on what does not work and focus only on those things that are effective (this is a typical mistake when a VP of Sales wants everyone to work harder but if things are not producing results then it’s erroneous to invest the effort in what is not working)
    • Proactively avoid mistakes
      • Avoid the expected & known mistakes (these are easier to avoid than those that are unanticipated)
      • Use validated “Decision-Making” techniques that focus on avoiding mistakes
        • Avoid any ignorance of facts/data
        • Inversion
      • Avoid making the mistake of working too hard on ineffective activities that don’t produce results – constantly track results and make sure effort is only invested in what works well
      • Figure out what does not work – reduce/eliminate and optimize
      • Note: mistakes will happen and that is a part of sales, sales management and business in general – so there is no way to eliminate mistakes entirely but the point here is to avoid them proactively and thoughtfully so that you can execute effectively
  • Attitude
    • There is a famous saying: “Your attitude determines your altitude” as said by a respected sales writer and speaker H.Hinton Ziglar (aka Zig Ziglar)
    • Positive Outlook, Enthusiasm & Attitude of Gratitude
      • it is critical for each sales professional
      • in sales you lose more than you win (you lose 80%-90% of deals) so it is critical to have a positive attitude reinforced by many different things like celebrating small wins (which is critical no matter how small of a win because otherwise you can burn out)
    • Sales has ebbs and flows so stay positive and believe in yourself and invest in your work and results will come
    • “When the going gets tough, then you should really get going” – John Wooden
    • In sales, just like in sports (and in life), it’s all about emotions
      • You are what you believe – you must believe in what you’re doing and have the confidence, in your abilities as a professionals
      • Just like in Sports Psychology – focus on your Home Runs not your Strikeouts. When you’re at the plate – focus on your prior home runs, not yesterday’s strikeouts. It’s all psychological – learn to focus on the positives and the wins and you will feel authentically better
    • As a VP of Sales, you must coach your reps to be patient with their prospective customers, but impatient with their pipeline (get more pipeline but be more empathetic and patient with each individual prospect)
    • No egos – ego is the enemy
    • Team relationships – the real star player is the one who makes his teammates better
    • Patience – positive attitude founded in patience is critical for success, for a Head of Sales as well as for each sales professional. You have to be realistic about the time it takes and having an attitude of patience is critical. This doesn’t mean that a VP of Sales will be patient with each sales rep indefinitely but every great VP will have a positive attitude with patience while monitoring progress to make sure each person is on the right track.
    • Celebrate “Small Wins” (no win is too small)
      • Small wins in sales are critical as there are a lot more losses (80%-90% of the Opps or Live Deals are lost)
      • Create a culture of celebration – it’s part of the positive forward momentum you create in sales
  • Accountability & Responsibility 
    • If you are a VP of Sales or even a Front-Line Sales Manager (FLM)
      • track and monitor your sales rep KPIs and ensure your reps are accountable for hitting their goals
    • If you are a sales professional:
      • Self-Accountability is key
      • Monitor your own and be on top of your game
      • You are the Mini-CEO of your own business
    • In sales you must “own it” and be accountable for your own work – also, analyze where you are and make situational adjustments
    • There has to be culture of performance and not excuses
    • Every sales professional is a “Mini CEO” (as Aaron Ross calls it / “Predictable Revenue Drives Growth“) of your own business and your sales territory
    • See more about Accountability in Sales – it is a critical pillar of Executing and winning
    • Reflect
      • there is a great insight from a famous business executive and investor Ray Dalio which is “Pain + Reflection = Progress” and this has to do with being accountable and taking responsibility for your work which necessarily requires reflecting on your performance and results and this will lead to thoughtful rumination, better execution and ultimately progress
  • Weekly Dashboard – Monitor & Track Your Execution
    • Inspect what you expect
    • Progress Trajectory – regularly check where you are vs. where you need to be (trajectory)
    • Stoplight Report
      • Green / Yellow / Red – for each of 1. Activities, 2. Pipeline and
      • The key is to monitor the “activities > pipeline > forecasted deals” – there must be regular progress made on on activities which, with a lag time, will produce Opportunities in the pipeline and ultimately will contribute to deals in the later stages of the cycle that will be forecasted for the sales period
    • Look at leading KPIs/indicators (activities, pipeline inflow, etc.)
    • Use metrics & process for either coaching your reps (personalized coaching) or if you’re the rep then to get the right coaching from your manager
    • Look where you are vs. where you need to be (trajectory)
    • Optimize
      • find the weakest link in your execution
      • find the bottlenecks and constraints
      • improve and optimize – have a “continuous improvement” mindset
      • have weekly time on the calendar for learning and improvement
    • Experiment
      • Hypothesis & experiment, track, execute and repeat

Also, there are times that even if you execute consistently and well, every CEO or VP of Sales experienced those situations where you don’t get to the intended and planned goals. There may be one of the 3 gaps between your “plan” and actual results.  When you have a gap and don’t achieve the results, you need to figure out what happened and then lean into that problem and work hard to fix it.

Note that there are many books on Strategy but few on Execution like “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” by Larry Bossidy or “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney.  But the above steps are ones I created through my own work experience and hope you find this helpful.  And remember that ultimately execution is about doing your best whether it is sales or marketing or any other area of the business or even outside of business such as in sports. If you read about John Wooden’s coaching (and all of it is equally applicable to sales and business), then you will have read one of his tenets – “The professional or the team that goes out and does their best is the winner“. Do your best work focusing on the 8 steps above.

What else? What are some other thoughts on executing in sales and achieving results?