If you’re like me, you might’ve recently sat through another conference put on by an analyst firm promising to share “sales best practices” they’ve codified from their observations of hundreds of other companies. And, I wondered to myself, are these thousands of people cramming the halls and breakout rooms actually learning anything that will move the needle?
I recently wrote that following ‘best practices’ may actually be a bad practice — after reading a provocative article on the topic in Fast Company. Then along comes another excellent take on the issue from investment strategist Michael Mauboussin, with a concept he calls “the paradox of skill.”
In his article, Mauboussin says, essentially, that following the sales best practices of others “misses the mark because they fail to consider what competitors may do.” He goes on to say, “Results are a combination of your actions with those of your rivals. If all companies are getting better in lockstep, no company is gaining an edge.”
Or, as he puts it more succinctly: “Getting better in an absolute sense doesn’t matter if it’s offset by the competition.”
In other words, trying to imitate best practices is not a recipe for beating the market or differentiating yourself from the competition. But, ironically, that’s your ultimate goal, isn’t it?
One of Mauboussin’s key rules in the “paradox of skill” is that absolute improvements matter less to success than improvements relative to your competition. In other words, someone could spend a year getting objectively better at stage-acting, ballroom dancing or shooting three pointers. But if your peers are also improving at the same time and in the same ways, your relative advantage will be minimal or non-existent because you haven’t actually increased the skills gap between you and them.
Because sales best practices research and recommendations are based on emulating so-called top performers, there’s a good chance those who subscribe to them are adopting the same skills others have already gotten good at (or worse, already moved on from). As a result, your competitive advantage suffers.
But an overreliance on best practices training may not be the only thing holding your company’s teams back…
The “Spread of Excellence”
Renowned biologist (and baseball enthusiast) Stephen Jay Gould used the term “spread of excellence” to describe how the range of skill between the best and worst hitters in baseball has narrowed significantly since 1941, when Ted Williams finished the season with a batting average of .406 (the last time a player exceeded the .400 mark for the season).
As Mauboussin explains, many cite that the expanding international talent pool, together with better training, as major contributing factors to the shrinking gap or the “clustering” of skills.
The good news for sales professionals? Unlike baseball, sales hasn’t experienced the “spread of excellence.” There’s still a broad gap separating high and low performers. But, like baseball, better, more focused practice and training can play a significant role in closing the skills gap.
A recent Corporate Visions survey found that many companies lack a formal practice, coaching and certification plan for their reps—even though 85 percent of companies agree that their team’s ability to articulate value is the single most critical factor to closing deals. The survey found that:
- Only 41 percent of companies ask salespeople to practice their messaging using stand-and-deliver or role-play scenarios.
- 34 percent of respondents said no one is responsible for coaching and certifying their company’s value proposition messages. The rest indicated they’re trusting their sales managers or trainers to do this in addition to their other responsibilities and regardless of qualifications.
- Meanwhile, only 9 percent of companies regularly expect salespeople to record themselves delivering value messages so it can be reviewed, coached and certified by subject matter experts.
Combined, these numbers show that there’s a lot of room for companies to set themselves apart by adding some rigor and structure to their skills practice program. Make no mistake: The skills gap is still wide between high and low performers. Implement a practice program to ensure your reps are on the right side of the divide. Because, as Mauboussin says, “If you compete in a field where the range of skill is wide, the more skillful will succeed at the expense of the less skillful.”
Check out our new eBook to learn how so-called “best practices” could be leading you astray in your marketing and sales activities.