Sales culture is a fuzzy concept. You can’t measure your team’s culture like you’d measure their monthly revenue; email, call, and meeting activity; average tenure, etc.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

In fact, your organization’s sales culture plays a huge role in all those things: How much your salespeople sell, how productive they are, how long they stay with your company, and more.

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What is sales culture?

The definition of sales culture is the attitudes, values, and habits that characterize your team. It can usually be summed up in 10 or so words.

Here are a few examples:

  • “Competitive,” “intense,” “independent,” “merit-based,” “constant change,” and “long hours.”
  • “Supportive,” “transparent,” “democratic,” “social,” “focus on training,” and “work hard, play hard.”

You can probably get a sense from reading those descriptors which culture is healthy and which is a little dysfunctional.

Which brings me to ...

What does a successful sales culture look like?

A successful sales culture brings out the best in your salespeople. That means:

  1. Healthy competition
  2. Low rep turnover
  3. The ability to quickly identify problems in the sales process and adjust as needed
  4. Collaboration and knowledge sharing
  5. Trust and communication (both within the team and the greater organization)
  6. A common vision
  7. Continual learning and development
  8. Accountability

That’s quite a list. If you know your sales culture doesn’t exhibit all (or even half) of these traits, don’t worry. We’re going to dive into each one in detail.

Sales culture best practices

1) Encourage friendly competition

Most salespeople thrive on competition. The key is keeping it in check -- if you let “competitive” turn into “cutthroat,” your reps might begin withholding useful suggestions and information from each other, trash talking each other, or trying to steal opportunities.

So, how do you perfectly walk the line?

First, give your team an external rival. Having a common “enemy” causes them to work together and grow closer. You can spur them on to outperform another team or outsell your biggest competitors in the market.

Second, encourage them to beat their own records. Direct their competitive energy toward outdoing last month or quarter’s results, and they’ll be less likely to resent their peers.

Third, pair newer reps with more experienced ones. Having a go-to mentor won’t just accelerate the ramp-up period and give your new hires a sense of security and comfort, it’ll also cut down on feelings of isolation.

Lastly, use a variety of sales contests and incentives. Don’t run the same contest again and again; not only will the same people keep winning (leading everyone else to eventually stop trying), but you’ll make them natural targets.

Maybe the first month you host a contest for the rep who can book the most meetings. The next, you reward the person with the fastest average sales cycle. The month after that, you give a bonus to the rep who signs the most deals with a specific type of prospect.

By consistently shaking things up, you’ll give everyone a chance to win and keep things interesting.

You can also run team-wide contests. For instance, you might challenge the entire team to hit a quota for your latest product launch or ramp up activity by a specific percentage.

2) Low rep turnover

It’s a red flag when you’re always losing salespeople. Finding and training new ones is extremely expensive; plus, an ever-changing “roster” is bad for morale.

To decrease rep turnover, make sure you’re carefully choosing the best salespeople. While being selective will extend the hiring process, you’ll save money in the long run.

Your reps should have plenty of coaching support from their manager -- not just when they first begin, but throughout their tenure at your company. Implement a structured coaching routine, and consistently poll your salespeople to see if they’re getting the training and management they need.

Although money isn’t the sole reason reps leave, paying below-market rate will harm your retention. Keep your on-target earnings (OTE) in line with (or better than) typical pay for the role, industry, and region.

Finally, feeling stuck is a huge factor in sales turnover. Ensure you have a defined promotion path in place -- for example, from BDR to AE to Senior AE -- so salespeople can move up as they gain more experience and skills.

3) Agile

In sales, the ability for the team to move fast is crucial. Perhaps the executives decide they want to move into a new vertical. The sales org needs to quickly familiarize themselves with their new customers, figure out prospecting methods, learn the appropriate terminology so reps can earn credibility with buyers, map out the common buying process and org structure, develop soundbites, identify good candidates for customer references and case studies, and more.

If the team is agile, this process will be feasible. If it’s unable to experiment, learn from its mistakes, and adapt, it will fail.

How do you promote agility? Borrow principles from the agile philosophy, such as holding a daily 10-minute stand-up (i.e. a team-wide meeting where everyone stands to encourage sticking to the time limit).

Have every member answer the same three questions -- and nothing else:

  1. "What did you achieve yesterday?"
  2. "What will you achieve today?"
  3. "What do you need to adjust to be more effective?"

In addition, make sure your reps have access to the information they need. Individual and team-wide performance should be available to all. Good decisions don’t happen without good data.

Finally, encourage a “fail fast” culture. Salespeople should take risks -- from trying a new prospecting technique to using different negotiation strategies. As long as they document their results and share them widely, it’s okay if they don’t succeed. The results will help everyone learn and improve.

4) Collaboration and knowledge sharing

Along those lines, creating a sales culture where salespeople collaborate and freely pass along tips and strategies is essential.

Unfortunately, communication roadblocks are common.

First, is there an easy, convenient way for reps to talk? Spontaneous water cooler conversations aren’t enough. Get everyone on Slack or another chat platform so announcing “hey, this new combo of CRM filters is turning up some fire prospects” is as easy as, well, typing that.

Second, are your contests helping or hurting collaboration? You don’t want reps hoarding their learnings. Regularly hold contests that have the team working as a whole, rather than individuals.

Third, are you focusing on the quality of the idea instead of its source? Let’s say your SDR has a brilliant suggestion. Try it out -- don’t shoot her down because she’s new or inexperienced.

Fourth, are you encouraging honesty? Perhaps your salesperson criticized the new talk track. As long as he’s made good points (and he’s expressing them respectfully), this is productive. You never want people afraid to speak up; that’s how bad ideas survive.

Fifth, are you rewarding knowledge sharing? Consider giving points for contributing information. For instance, if an AE comes up with a new strategy that makes prospects 40% less likely to cancel their demo at the last minute, she could win the monthly $250 “Innovation Bonus.”

5) Trust and communication

Reps rarely thrive in an environment without trust. The sales manager is responsible for establishing this trust, which she can do in three main ways.

Step 1: Accept and incorporate feedback

A great manager listens to her team -- and more importantly, reacts to their feedback. Are they frustrated with the way training is currently delivered? She tries to find a better format. Do they want less interference with their deals? She takes a step back (within reason). Would they like more transparency with the higher levels of the company? She works to provide that.

Even if sales managers can’t follow through on everything, showing effort will win them a lot of trust.

Step 2: Don’t micromanage

Proving she trusts her team will lead them to reciprocate. Unless a specific rep is struggling and needs more attention, sale managers should steer clear of micromanaging. That means managing to results instead of activities, letting reps work from wherever they’re most successful instead of requiring their butts be in chairs at the office, and not asking them to spend precious hours filling out reports that aren’t meaningful.

Step 3: Keep your word

When she commits to doing something, she should always keep her word. Reliability is a pillar of trust; once reps know a sales manager is dependable, they’ll become more loyal.

It’s easy to keep track of the larger promises she's made, such as, “I’ll take you guys to a steak dinner at Harry’s if everyone shows up to the weekly sales meeting the entire month.”

But she shouldn't forget about the smaller ones she makes, like, “I’ll send you my feedback by tomorrow night,” or “I’ll put in a request for new presentation software this afternoon.”

These are just as important and contribute equally to the sales manager's reputation for being trustworthy.

6) A common vision

Salespeople are looking for a bigger reason to show up and work hard every day beyond simply “make money.” Although a common vision isn’t a prerequisite for success, it’ll keep reps motivated when times are tough and encourage them to work together.

The mission should be specific and unique. For example, it might be “Become the most successful team within the company,” or “Improve retention by X percentage.” If possible, it should be measurable so everyone knows where they stand. You also want a vision that the team is excited about, so consider including them in the planning process.

Regularly bring up your team’s progress and reference individual contributors. Doing so reinforces the vision and keeps it top-of-mind for your reps. To give you an idea, imagine one of the tenets of your sales vision is “Become industry thought leaders.” When one of your reps launches his own podcast, you bring it up in the team meeting by saying, “Way to go Vincent for starting a podcast; everyone should download it. This will help our company gain recognition as thought leaders.”

When another rep publishes a LinkedIn Pulse post that receives 500-plus likes, you drop a line in the team Slack room: “Congrats Julia on the awesome LinkedIn article that’s taking off. Can everyone like it when they have a chance? Love seeing our reps establish themselves as domain experts.”

Not only will this make the people you recognized feel good, it’ll also inspire the others to follow suit.

7) Continual learning and development

Salespeople should always be picking up fresh skills and strategies. Not only does buyer behavior change, but technology enables new tactics and makes old ones obsolete.

Unfortunately, many training programs are:

  • Interruptive and one-off: Such as a week-long all-day off-site.
  • Product-focused: Mostly about the company’s latest line or service.
  • One size fits all: Generic and not tailored to the industry or niche.

To fix this, make your training:

  • Integrated and ongoing: Coaching should be a part of the sales manager’s weekly check-ins with reps. They should also regularly do call reviews and win-loss analyses.
  • Skills- and product-focused: While product training is important, sales skills usually trumps product knowledge. Make sure you’re spending enough time teaching reps how to sell.
  • Customized: Whether you hire a training firm or use in-house specialists, the program should be specific to your product, market, and company values.

8) Accountability

Keeping people accountable is an important aspect of a healthy team. If reps see poor performance go unchecked, quotas will start feeling more like suggested targets than hard ones. Even worse, if a manager doesn’t communicate a salesperson is in danger of being fired for their disappointing results, the sudden, seemingly unexpected termination will hurt morale and cause team members to wonder if they’re next.

Do you struggle to maintain accountability within your sales team?

First, clearly define your expectations. Each salesperson should know exactly what they’re supposed to do. That might be a certain number of calls per day, meetings per week, or demos per month, or it might be revenue quota.

Having objective standards and making sure everyone is aware of them helps you avoid any nasty surprises.

Second, if someone is struggling, don’t wait to see if things will get better. Step in and ask why they’re not performing. Are they feeling demotivated? Are they struggling with a specific part of the sales progress?

Third, when necessary put them on a performance improvement plan (PIP). These outline a set of specific, unambiguous goals the rep is supposed to achieve within a set window of time.

An effective PIP diagnoses the issue (i.e. where the rep is falling short), what they’ll do to address the issue, any support or tools they’ll need, and how much time they’ll receive.

For instance, if they’re only setting four demos per week, and the quota for their role is 12, their actions might be “Call 50 prospects per day. Do one call review per day. Write a new talk track with manager’s help. Attend a workshop on objection handling.”

Support might be: “Meet with manager for call review; get ticket for workshop.”

Timeframe might be: “Reach 12 demos per week by X date.”

Other common accountability pitfalls sales managers fall into include trying too hard to be their reps’ friends, rather than their boss (which makes it harder to get the necessary results and crack down on mediocrity) and never accepting responsibility themselves (which causes their team to ignore them when they try to manage).

Building and maintaining a strong sales culture isn’t easy. However, it’ll have a greater impact on your results than you could’ve thought possible. You’ll be able to recruit and train great reps, get your desired results, and make everyone on the team happy to work there.

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Originally published Oct 11, 2017 4:21:00 PM, updated November 28 2018


Sales Culture