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Need a Sales Performance Boost? Look Inside Your Own Organization

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Wed Oct 07 2015

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Need a Sales Performance Boost? Look Inside Your Own Organization-8e2d04f7c5571083c235d4c39d89fbd6b7bc5cee867ddd331b848be29d9b2430

Nearly everything we know about a sales performance is based on salespeople’s behaviors with customers. (Think: customer questioning strategies, handling customer objections, building trust with customers, and so forth.) This makes a lot of sense as a starting point for developing a systematic understanding of the process of professional selling. After all, customers make the final decision to purchase (or not!), and they are the most obvious target of efforts to improve our understanding of the drivers of salesperson performance. 

That said, an unintended side effect of focusing on salespeople’s customer-directed behaviors is that we have ignored other important performance drivers. Specifically, we have ignored the impact of the internal resources available to salespeople in their own organizations. This is true in terms of the typical research and writing on the topic of sales performance, as well as in the corporate training often provided to salespeople. 

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In research I have conducted with Cinthia Satornino (Northeastern University), Doug Hughes (Michigan State University), and Gerald Ferris (Florida State University), which is soon to be published in the Journal of Marketing, we identify that certain patterns in salespeople’s internal social networks can provide important resources that play a profound role in driving sales performance. There are two specific relationship patterns (we call these centralities) that we identify as performance drivers: relational and positional centrality.

Figure 1: Visualization of Key Network Centralities

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Need a Sales Performance Boost? Look Inside Your Own Organization-2604d49c87b5238260a6396e3024164b4afef2678279a0421bd861817e7a327b

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(Figure reproduced from Bolander, Satornino, Hughes, and Ferris, 2015)

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Relational Centrality 

Relational centrality exists when a salesperson has strong relationships with other people in the organization who are themselves well-connected. In other words, the salesperson is connected to influential co-workers in the organization and derives “reputational resources” from these connections. Our research shows that relational centrality drives sales performance because those who occupy such positions in their organization’s social networks are able to leverage their social status and connections to get things done for their customers. 

For example, a salesperson with relational centrality may be connected to a co-worker who is especially well-connected in the organization. Having a highly visible relationship with this sort of influential worker bolsters the salesperson’s own status in the firm. Consequently, this salesperson may have better access to assistance from others—because they want to be connected in some way to this powerful social network or because they fear disappointing these socially influential coworkers. The salesperson, then, is able to leverage this social status to improve his or her sales performance. 

Positional Centrality 

Positional centrality exists when a salesperson has strong relationships with other people in the organization who are not otherwise connected. In other words, the salesperson is connected to co-workers who are relatively isolated and derives “informational resources” from the unique perspectives possessed by these connections. 

You could almost think about this type of a salesperson as a bridge between disconnected parties in the organization. Our research shows that positional centrality drives sales performance because those who occupy such positions in their organization’s social networks are able to identify creative new ways of doing things and develop unique solutions to customer problems that are not obvious to other salespeople. 

For example, a salesperson with positional centrality may be connected with a co-worker from finance who is not otherwise connected to the rest of the salesforce. As a result of this unique relationship—and the unique information that this relationship provides—this salesperson may be able to gain a better understanding of financing options available to customers in special situations (such as perhaps certain types of purchases qualify for lower interest rates). The salesperson, then, is able to leverage this knowledge to identify new ways to close business and enhance his or her overall sales performance. 

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In Practice 

So what should you do with this information? Here are a few ideas you can try. 

  • Broaden the content of your sales training beyond just what salespeople should do with customers. Spend some time showing them the performance benefit (not to mention intangible benefits like a more cohesive work environment, more supportive culture, and so on) of strong relationships within your firm. Then encourage them to seek out these types of relationships. 

  • Encourage salespeople to allocate some of their (admittedly limited) time to building relationships with those inside your firm. Of course, they need to be in front of customers to achieve short term performance objectives, but make sure they are also investing time in building relationships internally. It is this effort that will equip them with the resources needed for long-term performance gain. 

  • Require all salespeople to reach out to someone new from the company phone directory once a week (or month) and have the two parties get to know each other and discuss how they might be able to mutually benefit one another. Then have the salespeople report what they have learned back to you.

  • Turn internal network building into a game. For example, hold a contest to see which salespeople can meet the most new people in the organization and award and recognize the winner. As an extension, perhaps offer a second award to see who can uncover the most interesting fact about a coworker. This way, salespeople are rewarded for the breadth of their effort (the number of new people with whom they connect) as well as the depth (the actual information they learn).

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