The Myth of Team Selling

Team selling is an oxymoron – like government assistance. It exists in concept only. The reality is that, like government assistance, the intentions are noble, but the execution is difficult.

Even the term “sales team” is a misnomer. In my mind, the word “team” conjures up a vision of people working together towards a common goal. There are all sorts of sports analogies to illustrate the team concept in a competitive environment.

In the fall, you have the vision of football teams passing and kicking the ball to one another. In winter you have hockey with its highly competitive (and highly paid) players, cooperatively passing the puck with the purpose of assisting a team member score a coveted goal. When spring comes, baseball teams take to the field.

While baseball isn’t so much a team sport because it’s one team (on the field) against one player (the batter), the teamwork is on the field where team members cooperate to get the other team’s player out.

No Such Thing

Frankly, I don’t believe that selling is one of those “sports” that lends itself well to team play. Selling is more like golf or tennis where the individual and his or her skill and talent are the key to success. With golf, which I consider more of an aggravation than a sport, you often play as part of a foursome and combine your scores at the end of the game but it’s still the individual’s skill and talents that make the difference in the end.

In sales “teams” it’s rare to find salespeople assisting the other players on their “team” to make a sale. Unlike highly competitive sports people, most salespeople are not only competitive but are basically highly individualistic people who prefer to work alone. They aren’t keen on sharing the glory (or the commission) with someone else and often see other members of their sales team as competitors instead of teammates.

I’ve seen salespeople in the midst of a sale who are obviously a personality mismatch to the prospect but would rather lose the sale than turn the opportunity over to another salesperson that might be a better match to the prospect and therefore would have a better chance of making the sale.

As a sales manager, I’ve had to arbitrate numerous commission splits where two or more salespeople couldn’t or wouldn’t give up anything to their internal competitor. They’ll argue for hours over who did what, who did the most, and why they deserve the lion’s share of the commission, without regard to the facts. Sometimes it’s their egos that get in the way and sometimes it’s just plain pigheaded stubbornness and an intense desire for a personal win and to hell with the “team.”

Sales Team vs Team Selling

Does this mean that the concept of team selling or sales teams is doomed to failure? Well, yes and no. I’m inclined to replace the term “sales team” with “sales mob,” and arm myself with a can of pepper spray and get on with the job. “Team selling” is another matter.

Team selling can work in situations where egos are in check and major sales are the order of the day. A major sale is usually a large-dollar opportunity where several players need to be identified and sold before the opportunity is closed. A major sale can take several weeks, months, or even years to consummate. Contact with the prospect will take place on several levels and by different people within the selling organization. In situations like this, one salesperson usually called an account manager will spearhead the effort and organize the efforts of the sales team. Sort of a team captain as it were.

Lone Ranger and Tonto

Then there is the Lone-Ranger-and-Tonto approach to team selling. For those of you who are too young to remember them, the Lone Ranger was a comic book hero and Tonto was his trusty aboriginal sidekick.

The Lone-Ranger-and-Tonto approach to selling is where you team up an outside salesperson (the hero, comic book or otherwise) with an inside sales support person (trusty sidekick, not necessarily an aboriginal). Usually, a company will put several of these teams in place. What you end up with isn’t so much a sales team but a bunch of two-person, four-legged sales teams. Providing you have a mature outside sales rep and are careful to not hire an obvious personality mismatch with the inside person, you can end up with a powerful combination.

When building this type of mini sales team, it’s wise to hire or select the outside salesperson first and then let that person have a say on who gets hired as the support person. You have to be careful when hiring the outside salesperson part of the team. Don’t hire a loner (versus a Lone Ranger) who will have difficulty working with an inside support person, or anyone for that matter.

Herding Kittens

There isn’t a sales manager alive who wouldn’t kill for an effective sales team. Unfortunately, most sales teams aren’t like a team of dog sled huskies who all pull their weight and support one another in their quest towards a common goal. Most sales teams I’ve been involved with over the years are like a bunch of kittens and we all know how difficult it is to control or herd kittens. If they’re not hanging from the curtains, you just know they’re getting into trouble somewhere!

Leading the Team

Sometimes, whether a team exists or not depends solely upon the leadership of the group. A leaderless group is just that, a group of individuals moving somewhat in the same direction.

So, whether you’re managing a bunch of kittens or a herd of thoroughbred horses, your job as sales manager is to rein them in and get the best out of them. Your job is to provide the leadership that creates the team. The frustrations are many as are the rewards.

Bottom Line

It’s up to you to turn the myth of team selling into a reality.