Master activity-based sales

To succeed in the competitive world of sales, it’s crucial to adopt an activity-based process. Rather than focusing on your business results, you focus on completing a series of specific actions that are proven to work for you.

The more I speak about the importance of this sales management strategy, the more people ask me how they can “master” it.

What is activity-based selling?

Activity-based selling is a sales methodology that focuses on identifying, practicing and optimizing a specific set of behaviors, such as cold calling/emailing prospects, hosting discovery meetings and sending proposals in order to create predictable and measurable sales growth.

Here are the key elements:

Commit the time

This is tougher than it sounds. Many salespeople want to “hit the ground running,” and quickly get frustrated when they face a lot of rejection. I know that feeling.

I started my career in door-to-door sales. People had no qualms about slamming doors in my face, or telling me to “[expletive] off.”

Over the years, I’ve seen many sales managers with good potential soon become exasperated and even give up. If I had done this, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Selling is like tying shoelaces. You can’t master it if you don’t give it time and believe that you will get better.

Malcolm Gladwell has argued that mastering something requires 10,000 hours of practice. That specific figure has been criticized, but the basic idea is accurate: be prepared to keep working at it over a long period of time.

Remember that sales is like a marathon — not a 50-meter dash.

Have a learner’s mentality

Some people believe “great salespeople are born that way.” They’re wrong.

All kinds of people can learn to be masterful at activity-based sales

In fact, data shows that introverts and extroverts can be equally successful.

You see, whatever your personality, the key to becoming a successful sales expert is to take every rejection as an educational experience. What went wrong? Was there anything you could have done differently? Are you choosing the right prospects in the first place?

This process never stops

Masters of activity-based selling keep this mentality as a permanent fixture of their work. Just as the greatest athletes never stop practicing and trying to get better, the greatest modern sales leaders do the same.

See the breakdown

Imagine that you watch a colleague make a cold call that goes very well. Afterward, you can see it one of two ways. You can either think, “Wow, that was a great call.” Or you can think, “Wow, my colleague nailed a whole list of tactics that are crucial in making a great call.”

To become a master of activity-based selling, learn to do the latter. See sales activities broken down into specific sets of learned behaviors. When you see those done well, emulate them.

Notice the first words your successful colleague used to set a prospect at ease and establish a rapport. Observe the tone of voice, the speed of speech, even the way your colleague is sitting or standing — in order to feel relaxed and confident about the call.

Over time, you’ll start to pick up on more and more of these elements. Someone who’s been in sales for a few years might notice five elements; someone with 10 years experience might look out for 15 aspects of a well-executed call. The better you get at something the less you look at things as “just details.”

This same process applies to every stage of the pipeline. If a colleague does an excellent demonstration for a client, can put together a spot-on proposal, or handles clients’ concerns smoothly and efficiently, break down that excellence into a list of understandable factors.

Think of it as putting part of a great painting under a microscope. You’re digging in to see what that part of the painting consists of, in minute detail.

Read people

It isn’t just your actions that you need to watch out for, or your colleagues. Noticing the nuances in your prospects’ behavior is just as important.

If you ask whether they have a moment, they may respond, “Yeah, what is it?” That does not mean they have five minutes to actually listen to you give a spiel.

Developing an intuitive sense of whether people are really ready to listen to you takes not just experience, but also concentration. Pick up on slight verbal cues and intonations in their voices. When meeting clients in person, notice their eye contact, facial expressions, and body language. Work to help them feel comfortable.

One way to do this is to ask specific and direct questions. Get to know each individual. In sales, you should always be learning more about the prospect than they learn about you. Only then can you put together a pitch that works for them.

Find yourself

Ultimately, becoming a master at sales goes hand-in-hand with one of the central tasks of life: mastering being you. As children, we learn behaviors by mimicking those we see — usually, our parents. When we grow up, we try new things and have the chance to become unique, our authentic selves.

It’s very similar for sales.

At first, you’ll learn from trying to copy great salespeople and their techniques. But over time, as you experiment with different tactics and fine tune your process, you’ll find what works uniquely for you. There is you in every sale you make.

You’ll come to see what you bring to the table. You’ll trust yourself to be true to yourself. And that authenticity just may be your strongest asset. Customers respond much better when you’re being real. It’s an essential part of playing to win.

Find your Zen

You may be wondering how it’s possible to be so methodical and patient, given all the pressures you face. After all, you’ve got quotas to hit and bills to pay.

This is why, as you learn to be a sales master, there’s another skill you need to learn: how to be Zen.

Learn to use mantras, exercises, and your own rituals to find inner peace, Get out of the headspace in which you worry, and move into a mindset focused on actions, and moving forward.

Sales has been named one of the most depression-prone professions. By learning Zen techniques, you equip yourself to avoid those pitfalls, and to feel good.

It pays off. Ultimately, more content, relaxed salespeople do their jobs better. Customers sense and reject those desperate to make a sale, but trust and welcome in those who are confident.

It’s not enough only to excel at the skills of activity-based selling. To become a master, you need to build the inner fortitude to carry you through the long haul.

Take these steps, and you’ll reap the rewards.

Learn more

Hear more from Timo Rein, co-founder and CEO of Pipedrive, and Mikita Mikado, PandaDoc CEO, as they discussed how to master activity-based sales and foster a culture of sales enablement that will turbocharge your sales team’s efforts.

Here’s a summary of the two leaders’ enlightening webinar discussion:

1. Strive for “Calmness”

Reps are often awash in anxiety over hitting their numbers and this tension is immediately sensed by prospects who are then forced to question whether a rep has the prospect’s best interests, or their own quota, in mind.

Activity-based selling can help alleviate this stress by creating areas of control for reps. By empowering reps to focus on their performance of activities (that lead to sales), you’ll replace the power into reps’ hands and assuage the anxieties that can jeopardize the relationships that reps are tasked with building.

2. Become a sales master

Sales professionals who want to be successful in their careers must commit the time it takes to truly master the art of selling. For one thing, this means learning how to read people. Understanding the nuances in a prospect’s voice and facial expressions is key. When someone answers your call and responds to, “Do you have a few minutes to speak?” with “OK, what is this about?” you should be able to identify whether that person’s voice is telling you to make an appointment to call back or if now is really a good time to talk.

3. Make investments

In order for activity-based selling to work for your team, you need to equip your sales organization for success. That means making the right investments into two areas.

The first area to invest in is technology. Your team needs technology that supports and facilitates the process of activity-based selling. PandaDoc has recently launched an integration with Pipedrive that perfectly complements the activity-based sales approach and you can read more about it here.

The second area that you need to invest in for success with activity-based selling is content. Most of your sales reps’ activities will center around content — sharing it, sending it, resurfacing it, etc. So, putting in time to collaborate with marketing to ensure your reps have crisp, powerful sales enablement content is crucial.

Your sales proposal is the perfect example. Your proposal should help your reps close deals as a compelling, bottom-of-the-funnel content piece.

4. Practice mindfulness… of your key metrics

Activity-based selling is the very definition of a numbers game. But it’s not a volume game.

What that means is that you need to pay close attention to how prospects and deals percolate down your sales pipeline.

  1. How many prospects do you need to ‘touch’ to generate qualified meetings?
  2. How many qualified meetings does your team need to have in order to get to the proposal stage?
  3. How many proposals close?

Now that you’ve created a benchmark for your core conversion metrics, be mindful of what it is that you can do to improve those conversions.

Also, be mindful of the metrics embedded within any particular activity. How does a particular piece of content perform in the context of that activity’s objective?

For example, if the activity we’re focusing on is getting a proposal that has been presented to be signed and returned, you should consider how long does it take (on average) for one version of your sales proposal to get signed off on vs. another more succinct version of the same content.

5. Develop consistency to build confidence

One of the major advantages of activity-based selling is that by creating repeatable activity-based systems, reps can practice, practice, practice those activities until they can do them in their sleep. Once a rep reaches this level of mastery, they’ll have built consistency in how they perform those activities. Consistency breeds confidence and confidence closes deals.

6. Look closely at the parts of the whole

When you “zoom in” on the individual parts of your activity-based selling system, the activities themselves, you’ll be able to break down the pieces you need to have a successful outcome. This is why pipeline management is so critical to activity-based selling as it forces you to focus on the sales process (qualification, calling, pitching, etc.) that creates a structure for reps’ day-to-day activities.

Timo is the CEO and Co-founder of Pipedrive. He has 15-plus years of experience as a salesman, sales manager, and software entrepreneur. Before Pipedrive, Rein helped build a leading sales and management training house in the Baltics.

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