What Sales Teams Can Learn From the Washington Wizards


In 2009, the Washington Wizards completed one of their worst seasons in the franchise's past 50 years. But since then, the professional basketball team has undergone a complete transformation. Last year, they made it to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, and they're currently in second place in the Eastern Conference.  

Being in sales, I'm always interested in how miraculous turnarounds are achieved. After I researched the steps the Wizards took to reverse their fortunes, it became clear to me that many of these actions are also applicable to sales teams. Here are the four plays from the Washington Wizards' playbook that I think sales organizations could also benefit from.

1) Draft new talent and invest in development.

The Wizards have been presented with the choice to trade their high draft picks and acquire proven NBA players many times, but they've instead opted to roll the dice on new potential: John Wall (drafted first overall in 2010), Bradley Beal (drafted third overall in 2012) and Otto Porter (drafted third overall in 2013). All were new with raw talent and limitless potential. This bold choice is paying off big time. 

The same holds true for hiring sales talent. I would much rather "draft" a rookie intrinsically-motivated sales rep than a veteran salesperson with a mediocre track record. While newer reps have less experience, they're often more coachable and carry less baggage. Take a gamble on new sales talent and invest in their development.

2) Blend veteran talent with new.  

Throughout the past couple years, the Wizards have aggressively picked up veteran free agents to complement their new team. Rasual Butler, Drew Gooden, Kris Humphries, Andre Miller, and Paul Pierce have all been in the NBA for over 10 years. Not only are they all still contributing to their team's success with valuable minutes, but they've also expedited the new talent's maturation. The rookies are rejuvenating these veterans as well (Paul Pierce in his 16th season is playing some of his best ball since the Celtics won the NBA Championship!).  

I've been a member of several sales teams and the absolute best ones are composed of veteran sales reps as well as up and coming rockstars. Newer reps generally know the most cutting-edge tricks for prospecting and filling the top of the funnel, while veteran reps know the intricacies of navigating complex sales processes from inception to close. The lesson here: Don't segment your sales meetings by seniority! New and veteran reps can learn a ton from each other and by creating barriers to entry, you're missing out on bidirectional best practice sharing. 

3) Watch and learn.

NBA teams take their film review very seriously, and the Wizards are no different. At home or on flights to their next game, each player watches custom cut video on their iPad that includes all their individual minutes from the previous game and recent clips of the players they'll be matched up against in their next game. The team also reviews film as a unit before hitting the court, at halftime to see what set plays their rival is running and determine ways to break the opponent's defensive scheme, and post-game to learn what they did right, and what adjustments they need to make.

In my opinion, sales reps don't watch enough video. I've recently been assisting on new team members' demos and recording them. Immediately after the demo, we'll grab a conference room and watch it back together so I can provide constructive criticism. The immediacy of positive and negative reinforcement is critical. I've noticed rapid improvement with this approach and consequently recommend that sales managers get more serious about film review.  

4) Employ a coach who's been a player. 

Washington Wizards' Coach Randy Wittman played college ball at Indiana University -- enabling the Hoosiers to win an NCAA Championship in 1981 -- before playing nine years in the NBA. Because Coach Wittman has actually been in the players' shoes, his team respects him and he respects them in turn. He gives them freedom on the court, but he's not reluctant to confront them when they "drop the ball.”  

Like Coach Wittman, sales managers are most effective when they have successfully performed the same position as their sales reps, grant their direct reports the autonomy to run their own businesses, and provide guidance and candid feedback. Without a skilled leader, even the most talented teams are vulnerable. The best managers I’ve worked for coach rather than manage. 

However, although great players can become great coaches, this is not always the case -- in both sports and sales. I've seen rockstar sales performers become lackluster sales managers because while they know how to sell and close, they are not great teachers. Here's a tip to avoid promoting the wrong person: A leading indicator of a great coach/sales manager is when the player/veteran sales rep naturally assists newer team members, without being paid or asked to help.

In conclusion, sales VPs should treat their sales teams similarly to how general managers of sports teams draft their players and coaching staff. Strategically draft a well-balanced team with a healthy amount of new talent, surround your less experienced team members with veteran sales reps, prioritize video review, and give the reins to a fearless, battle-tested leader. Diversified sales teams will outperform homogenous sales teams, just like the Washington Wizards will win the Eastern Conference finals (just watch). 

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