Startup culture is killing sales teams. Here’s how to save yours.
Startup sales teams: We’ve made a mistake.
In our haste to distance ourselves from the sleazy, Wolf-of-Wall-Street-style salespeople of yore, we’ve over-corrected. Now, instead of being too hostile, modern day salespeople are too friendly; not necessarily with prospects, but with one another.
As a result, startup sales teams have lost their competitive nature. Now, instead of spurring one another on to success, modern sales teams are normalizing mediocrity and justifying underperformance.
So what do we do?
We can’t go back to the way things were. A highly competitive but hostile sales team is just as toxic as a highly friendly but uncompetitive team.
What we need is a middle ground: Sales teams that are highly competitive and highly friendly.
A quick look at the modern salesperson
The culture of a sales team is the sum of its individual members.
This means your problem isn’t having a noncompetitive sales team, it’s having noncompetitive salespeople. But before you can fix that problem, you need to understand it.
So what caused a whole generation of salespeople, who work in what is arguably the most competitive field, to suddenly lose their competitive edge?
Simple: They’ve realized that the sales strategies of the past don’t work today. Sleazy, fast-talking, high-pressure salespeople aren’t viable in our relationship-, accountability-, and experience-driven economy.
In an effort to adapt to this new environment, salespeople have swung in the opposite direction. Instead of the hostile strength used in the past, modern salespeople operate out of what I call friendly strength.
To understand how this new approach works, let’s take a closer look at the two halves that make up it’s whole: Friendliness and strength.
In the past, sales was about extracting as much valuable as possible from your prospect. Today, it’s about delivering as much value as possible to your prospect.
To the modern salesperson, prospects aren’t just commission machines; they’re individuals with specific and genuine needs. Sales reps now see it as their responsibility to provide a viable, valuable solution to that need.
This desire to help is so strong that a salesperson operating out of friendly strength will refuse to sell until they’re certain their product is the best fit for a prospect’s needs.
But here’s the other side: Once the salesperson has qualified a prospect and determined their product is a good fit for their needs, all bets are off. They will sell to this prospect no matter what. If they don’t, that means they’ve failed to help someone in need.
A salesperson with friendly strength doesn’t ask a qualified prospect to buy, they tell them to. Not because they want the commission, but because they know their product will dramatically improve the quality of that person’s life.
Sales teams of the past, present, and future
Although I believe friendly strength is the future of the sales industry, this new approach has had an unexpected consequence: The decline of competition amongst salespeople. Let’s take a closer look at how this happened and what the future holds.
The low ground: Sales teams of the past
Sales teams of the past were fueled by hostile strength. Salespeople were aggressive, overbearing and, in many cases, vicious both with their prospects and their coworkers.
As you might expect, this didn’t create the most enjoyable work environment. But it did create competition, and that competition created impressive results.
When you’ve got a team of people constantly trying to one-up one another, every month will have increasingly impressive metrics (at the expense of company culture). And if there’s too much pressure on the sales team to perform, things can go very, very wrong.
The high ground: Sales teams of the present
Today, salespeople have replaced hostility with friendliness.
And with the rise of startups, more and more emphasis is being placed on the importance of company culture, of creating a work environment where people love their work and who they work with.
For the last few years, this seemed like a win/win situation. Salespeople began to shed negative stereotypes and companies placed increasing importance on employee happiness.
But now we’re seeing an unexpected side effect: As salespeople became friendlier, they became less competitive. And as they became less competitive, they became less effective.
The new face of sales might be comfortable, even enjoyable, but the metrics speak for themselves: It isn’t sustainable. So what’s the answer?
The middle ground: Sales teams of the future
We already knew hostile and competitive didn’t work, and now we’re learning friendly and noncompetitive doesn’t work either. What we need now is a merging of the two: Instead of friendly or competitive, we need friendly and competitive.
In practice, that means salespeople who respect each other, who enjoy working with one another, but who constantly strive to outperform one another.
Although creating this culture does take more thought and effort, friendly competition is the future of sales teams. Here’s why.
The importance of competition in sales teams
When you take competition out of a sales team, all you’re left with is a group of friends who justify one another’s underperformance.
Whether they realize it or not, your salespeople need to compete in order to reach their highest potential. Here’s what a lack of competition is costing you.
1. Losing your best salespeople
What drives professional sports teams to succeed? It’s not just the love of the game. It’s the desire to beat someone else, to crush the other team, to outperform their teammates.
Sales teams are the same way. I’ve never met a successful salesperson without a competitive streak; it’s fundamental to reaching the highest levels of success.
And although a successful salesperson might enjoy the friendly nature of your noncompetitive sales team for awhile, eventually they’ll notice something is missing.
They’ll realize they aren’t being challenged and, as a result, aren’t growing. And if they aren’t growing, they aren’t fulfilled. Then, one day they’ll wake up and realize they can do better, they can be better, and they’ll leave for a more competitive sales environment.
(To hire and train the best salespeople, check out the free ultimate sales management toolkit.)
2. Retaining your worst salespeople
Once your best salespeople leave, you’ll be left with a core group of people who fear competition and avoid being challenged.
Sure, they might enjoy the job. After all, it’s comfortable: They get to work with their friends and they know they can underperform because no one is setting a higher standard.
But it’s your metrics that pay the price for this mindset. These salespeople aren’t driven to grow, they’re driven to maintain. In their mind, all that matters is meeting their minimum quotas.
As long as your sales teams are competition-free, you’re telling your salespeople that this approach to sales is acceptable.
Who your salespeople should compete against
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you don’t want to lose your best salespeople or retain your worst. So how do you fix the problem? Simple: Bring back competition.
I’ve already written extensively about how to increase competition within a sales team. Rather than repeating myself here, let’s talk about the two entities your salespeople should be competing against.
Show me a man consistently driven to outperform his former self and I’ll show you a chart-topping salesperson.
Your sales team’s biggest competition should always be themselves, and no accomplishment should ever be “good enough” to justify stagnation.
Great salespeople are constantly driven to outperform their peers. Not out of ego or spite, but because they know competition is necessary for personal, team, and company growth.
Think about it: When you compete against your peers, they compete against you. When everyone competes, everyone grows. When everyone grows, the team improves. When the team improves, the company grows. When the company grows, the market improves, and when the market improves, the economy flourishes. And when the economy flourishes, the world progresses.
So if you really think about it, your noncompetitive sales team is doing the entire world a disservice. For all our sakes, let’s get your team back on track.
Competition hack: Make sales data public
So how do you get your salespeople competing again?
By making your sales data transparent and accessible. Your salespeople should always know how they compare to both their peers and their own past performance.
The dual identities of a friendly, competitive salesperson
We’ve already determined that sales teams of the future will be both friendly and competitive, but what does that actually look like? How do you combine two traits that seem to oppose one another?
By having your salespeople adopt two separate identities: The friendly founder and the competitive salesperson.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
The friendly founder
When your salespeople aren’t actively selling, they should be planning. And when they’re planning, you want them thinking like a founder.
A founder isn’t concerned with individual performance. Instead, they look at teams as a whole and ask, “What can we do to improve?” To them, success is a group effort where everyone is an equally important part of a greater whole.
Within the friendly founder role, your salespeople should view their team members as co-founders, whose advice and performance are a vital and respected aspect of the company. During these planning sessions, communication should be open and no one should be afraid to ask for help or give feedback.
Once you’ve got a team of salespeople thinking like founders, you create a collaborative, creative environment where each member works together to achieve large, long-term goals.
The competitive salesperson
When planning ends and action begins, your salespeople must stop seeing their teammates as co-founders and start seeing them as competition, as someone to outperform.
In this identity, your salespeople are primarily concerned with their own performance. Instead of asking, “What can we do to improve?”, they’re asking, “What can I do to improve and make sure I’m at the top of the charts this month?”
Keep in mind: This isn’t an invitation to invite animosity back into the sales process. It’s entirely possible to be aggressive and competitive without being hostile, and that starts with the respect your team will develop for one another in the friendly founder role.
Once you’ve got a team of salespeople thinking like salespeople again, you create an “iron-sharpens-iron” environment where each member’s individual performance enhances and multiplies everyone else’s.
The future of sales (is in your hands)
In the conference room, your salespeople should focus on being the best sales team. On the floor, they should focus on being the best sales rep.
Adopting and balancing these two identities might take a little practice, especially if your team has fallen into the “friendly and uncompetitive” mindset.
But the numbers don’t lie: “Friendly and uncompetitive” isn’t sustainable. The future of salespeople is friendly strength, and the future of sales teams is friendly competition.
So ask yourself: Will you be left in the past? Stuck in the present? Or a part of forging the future? The sales industry is at a turning point.
Which side of history will you be on?
Want even more tools to help you build a sales team able to crush it? I've put together the free ultimate sales management toolkit, which contains a sales hiring checklist, sales script, email templates, and more. Get yours now!
Don't like reading? Just watch the video where I walk you through why the sales teams of the future must be competitve and friendly.
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