Sales culture is a fuzzy concept. You can’t measure its quality like you’d measure your team's monthly revenue, email activity, average tenure, or quota attainment — but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Your organization’s sales culture plays a huge role in all of those factors — among several others. How much your salespeople sell, how productive they are, and how long they stay with your company are all functions of your sales culture's quality.
Here, we'll explore what sales culture is, what a solid one looks like, some best practices to refine yours, how to build one at a startup, and how to scale yours as your company grows.
What is sales culture?
The culture of your organization defines not only what you do, but also the who, where, when, how, and why of it all. Understanding sales culture is the first step to figuring out how to define yours. A company culture, good or bad, is an all-inclusive element that you develop, grow, and maintain over time with certain standards and practices in place. It is effectively the sum of the attitudes, values, and habits that characterize your team.
Some words that could be used to describe a culture are:
- "Work Hard, Play Hard"
While those descriptors are all at least somewhat positive, not every sales culture embodies them. And in many cases, a sales culture can be characterized by words like stressful, cutthroat, drab, or unprofessional.
There's no definitive blueprint for a successful sales culture — they come in various shapes and sizes. But while the ingredients of a healthy, productive culture might vary by company, the indicators of one are relatively consistent.
Let's take a look at what you should strive for.
What makes a good sales culture?
Developing a sales culture that creates positive outcomes for your organization will take work on all levels. Each facet and team needs to not only understand the nature of the culture they are participating in but also agree with it. It needs to be universally beneficial or else it won’t stick. A successful sales culture brings out the best in your salespeople. That means:
- Healthy competition
- Low rep turnover
- The ability to quickly identify problems in the sales process and adjust as needed
- Collaboration and knowledge sharing
- Trust and communication (both within the team and the greater organization)
- A common vision
- Continual learning and development
- Fair compensation
What does a toxic sales culture look like?
A negative culture will result in the opposite of everything that is positive about good sales culture. Some common toxic elements could be high turnover, mistrust, individualism, low motivation, and other factors that contribute to an unhealthy work environment. A toxic sales culture will also be very difficult to change once it has been established, as new employees are unfortunately likely to assimilate instead of work against it.
What is a high performance sales culture?
Sales is often a fast-paced, competitive environment. It’s important that your reps can keep up. A high performance sales culture will demand the effort, execution, and growth required to be successful. It focuses on clear goals, researched strategies, concise actions, and impactful feedback. This type of culture also features trust and respect that prevents competition and authority from becoming toxic or judgemental.
How to Build a Sales Culture
- Foster friendly competition.
- Combat high rep turnover.
- Commit to agile philosophy.
- Effectively collaborate and share knowledge.
- Build trust and communication.
- Share a common vision.
- Require ongoing learning and development.
- Maintain accountability.
- Highlight individual accomplishments and talents.
1. Foster 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 one another, or trying to steal opportunities.
So how do you keep a spirit of healthy competition alive without turning your reps on each other?
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's or quarter’s results — by shifting their competitive energy to their own numbers, you'll make them 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.
Finally, use a variety of sales contests and incentives. But be careful not to 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 the winners natural targets.
Try something like hosting a contest for the rep who can book the most meetings during the first month. Then, reward the person with the fastest average sales cycle the next. The month after that, 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. Combat high rep turnover.
Constantly losing salespeople is a major red flag for prospective candidates. Plus, finding and training new ones is extremely expensive — and an ever-changing "roster" is bad for morale.
To decrease rep turnover, carefully choose the best salespeople. Being selective will inevitably extend your hiring process, but you’ll save money in the long run.
Your reps should have plenty of coaching support from their managers — 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 a below-market rate is bound to take a toll on 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, you might want to have a clearly articulated career trajectory from BDR to AE to Senior AE. That way salespeople can move up as they gain more experience and skills.
3. Commit to agile philosophy.
In sales, a team's ability to move fast is crucial. For instance, if a company's executives decide they want to move into a new vertical, everyone within its sales org needs to quickly familiarize themselves with a new base, learn some industry-specific terminology to help build credibility with prospects, collectively adjust their sales messaging, and take several other steps to better approach its new target prospects.
If the team is agile, this process will be feasible. If it’s unable to experiment, learn from its mistakes, and adapt, it's bound to fail.
How do you promote agility? Borrow principles from the agile philosophy, such as holding a daily 10-minute stand-up — 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:
- "What did you achieve yesterday?"
- "What will you achieve today?"
- "What do you need to adjust to be more effective?"
Give your reps 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. Effectively collaborate and share knowledge.
Creating a sales culture where salespeople collaborate and freely pass along tips and strategies is essential — but that's easier said than done. Communication roadblocks are one of the more common obstacles obstructing successful sales cultures.
You need to create an environment that's conducive to open communication. Ask yourself, are there easy, convenient ways for reps to talk? And those lines of contact need to extend beyond casual water cooler conversations.
Add everyone to Slack or another chat platform so that announcing something like, "Hey, this new combo of CRM filters is turning up some fire prospects!" is as easy as, well, typing it.
Second, create contests that promote collaboration. You don’t want reps hoarding their learnings. Try holding contests that have the team working collectively — not as individuals.
Third, focus on the quality of ideas, not their sources. Let’s say your SDR has a brilliant suggestion. Try it out! Don’t shoot them down because they're new or inexperienced.
Fourth, encourage honesty. Perhaps your salesperson criticized the new talk track. As long as they've made good points and expressed them respectfully, you should see their contribution as productive. You never want people afraid to speak up — that’s how bad ideas survive.
Fifth, reward 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, they could win a monthly $250 "Innovation Bonus."
5. Build trust and communication.
Reps rarely thrive in an environment without trust, and it falls on sales managers to establish it. There are three main steps to making that happen:
Accept and incorporate feedback.
A great manager listens to their reps — and more importantly, reacts to their feedback. Are they frustrated with the way training is currently delivered? A good manager tries to find a better format.
Do they want less interference with their deals? A good manager takes a step back — within reason. Would they like more transparency with upper management? A good manager works to provide that.
Even if sales managers can’t follow through on everything, showing effort will win them a lot of trust.
Building trust is a two-way street. If you can prove to your team that you trust them, they'll be inclined to reciprocate. Unless a specific rep is struggling and needs more attention, sales managers should steer clear of micromanaging.
That means managing results instead of activities, letting reps work from wherever they’re most successful instead of requiring them to be at the office, and not asking them to spend precious hours filling out pointless reports.
Keep your word.
When you, as a manager, commit to doing something, always keep your word. Reliability is a pillar of trust — and once your reps know you're dependable, they’ll become more loyal.
It's easy to keep track of the larger promises you make — such as, "I’ll take you all to a steak dinner at Harry’s if everyone shows up to the weekly sales meeting the entire month."
But you can't forget about the smaller ones, 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. Share a common vision.
Salespeople are looking for a bigger reason to show up and work hard every day beyond simply making money. Although a common vision isn’t a prerequisite for success, it keeps reps motivated when times are tough and encourages 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 their 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, drop a line in the team Slack room, like, "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 recognize feel good, it’ll also inspire the others to follow suit.
7. Require ongoing 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 trump 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. Maintain 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 that 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.
To address these trends, 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 quota attainment.
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 process? Find out what's going on, and do what you can to address it.
Third, when it's 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 (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 the manager’s help. Attend a workshop on objection handling."
Support might be: "Meet with manager for call review; get ticket for workshop."
Time frame 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).
9. Highlight individual accomplishments and talents.
A positive sales culture should reward being a team player and focus on working together for a common goal, but rewarding individuals is an important motivator. Take notice whenever someone reaches a big goal, comes up with an impactful idea, or is strongly excelling in a certain area. Those are moments to make reps feel valued and seen. Celebrating individuals encourages everyone to continue striving for greater.
How to Build Sales Culture at a Startup
Building a sales culture from scratch can be exhausting. To help give you some clarity on the process, we reached out to some sales leaders for their take on how to do it right.
1. Lead with empathy for the customer.
Karim Bouras, Founder of Nile, recommends startups build their sales cultures around their customers. He says, "Focus on the customer and start to build a culture of customer-centricity and transparency.
"Rather than consuming time for developing a sales pitch with a sales deck or going after the latest growth hack, meet your prospective customers, record and document the conversations you have with them, identify the most frequently asked questions, and train your first sales hires to genuinely answer all of them. Train them to show empathy and to listen rather than selling."
2. Focus on a specialty.
"You should go a mile deep on an inch-wide problem. The world lacks 'best in class' solutions but is flooded with 'jack of all trades' toolboxes. Focus the product on a single core competency, and do it better than any other solution on the market."
3. Set an example, and sell the dream.
Rakefet Yacoby From, CMO at Mayple, tells startup founders and leadership, "Everything starts with your personal example as a leader. Personally make good on all the expectations you have, and give feedback to your team members if they don't."
She also recommends that you lead with a vision and encourage buy-in from your team on your brand identity. By her account, "Your team members will have to sell your brand all day long. They won't do it right without passion. Keep manifesting your brand to them. When they dream with you, customers will buy."
4. Build company-wide esteem via recognition and openness.
Sales Leader Nathan Niebergall stresses the importance of building company-wide self-esteem. He says, "Focus on recognizing people. Your team wants to work hard and make a difference — so acknowledge the hard work and good things they are doing.
"Do this relentlessly. Be as transparent as possible with company and team numbers. Everyone likes to know how the new company is doing and how they are contributing to the success."
5. Have fun — don't just work.
Niebergall also recommends that startup leadership prioritizes some degree of fun within a sales culture. He says, "Find ways here and there to engage with your team that don't have to do with work. That can be as simple as a quick stroll outside to grab a drink and talk."
6. Foster continual learning and development.
He says of his personal experience, “No matter how long you've been [at my company], we require everybody to train the same way. It's about 45 minutes a day of training in the office — plus probably 20 minutes that they're required to do on their own with our online programs. We want them to be masters of the product.”
7. Forge your own path.
As a startup, you’re new to the game and often following the lead of your successful predecessors. Be mindful, however, of your unique journey. A good sales culture involves innovation, which can often feel risky if you’re trying something different. So, don’t be afraid to try and try again until you find what works best.
How to Scale Sales Culture as Your Brand Grows
It's one thing to establish a sales culture — it's another to ensure that you sustain those values as your business grows. Here are some tips on how to do that right.
1. Have leadership set the tone.
Scaling a sales culture starts with commitment from company leadership. Executives and upper management at your business need to commit to and project the values that define your organization's sales culture. A brand's culture comes from the top, and you can't lose sight of that premise as your business grows.
2. Communicate effectively.
If you want to successfully scale your sales culture as your brand expands, you need to keep communication clear and accessible throughout your organization. Make sure your employees can easily connect with one another to create and sustain a cohesive, communicative culture that abides by the values you try to embody.
Investing in company-wide communication resources like Slack, encouraging camaraderie between employees outside the context of the workplace, and having managers routinely meet with their direct reports are all ways to help this cause.
3. Maintain a base of accessible, company-specific content.
Your ability to scale your sales culture as you grow rests, in large part, on your ability to convey your values and brand identity to members of your organization.
One way to get there is by keeping a centralized base of company-specific content. A resource like a company wiki can provide a forum for you to collect and display customer testimonials, mission statements, exemplary employees' stories, accounts of company history, and other valuable reference points for bolstering your sales culture.
4. Bring the right people with you.
As your business continues to grow, accept that not everyone is meant to come along for the journey. As things change and the sales culture evolves, some reps may no longer align with it. If someone is consistently showing that they are not on board with participating in the sales culture, then it’s likely that they won’t be a positive asset as you scale it.
Building Your Sales Team With Culture in Mind
As you begin forming your sales dream team, consider the culture you want it to embody. This is especially relevant as you are recruiting salespeople. Skill set and experience are important, but how is their attitude? Are they passionate? A team player or an inspiring leader? Presenting your team as one with a positive, healthy culture will also attract the best of the best in sales.
Building and maintaining a strong sales culture isn’t easy, but it can have a tremendous impact on your employee satisfaction and bottom line. You’ll be able to recruit and train great reps, get your desired results, and make everyone on the team happy to work for your company.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2021 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.