Not too many years ago, the concept of driving sales through the use of data drew ridicule from sales professionals. “Data-driven sales” was viewed as an oxymoron, since so much of the selling process depended on the talents and instincts of sales people.

But supremely talented sales people with keen instincts are in limited supply. The rest of us need all the tools we can bring to bear to succeed at selling. And as the amount of data we can collect about the selling process has grown, sales pros have changed their tune. Now even the mega-talents of the selling world are tapping into the vast torrent of prospect data available to them.

Using the Past to Guide the Future

The pendulum can swing too far. An emphasis on data-derived selling insights can blind sales pros to the one thing their talents have provided consistently: a wide-ranging understanding of the context of the deal in its entirety, including emotional cues from buyers. Emphasizing the data often means examining data points outside of the context of the deal, which can lead to misleading conclusions and a negative impact on sales results.

How do you avoid this? First, be careful about your data sources. What data you’re examining and how much weight you’re giving that data can distort your view of the prospect, especially if you’ve picked the wrong metric and made incorrect assumptions about its value to closing a sale. A good example of this comes in lead scoring — taken out of context, repeated visits to product pages might suggest customers who are on the verge of a purchase. Without a deeper examination, these “leads” may be passed to sales, only to reveal that the visitors are students (their failure to look at a pricing page might have tipped marketing off to this) and have thus wasted your sales team’s time. Choose the type of data you use to trigger sales activities very carefully.

As you’re adding data sources to your arsenal, don’t ignore the data you’re already collecting about sales. Your compensation system is a fantastic source of historical data on how sales has performed on an individual, team and company-wide basis. Using this data with a predictive platform can offer a window into future performance that can help with forecasting, coaching, planning and identifying areas where changes to the sales process can boost sales performance. 

Unfortunately, few companies realize the value of this data, and fewer still employ it to look forward rather than backward to merely understand what has happened in the recent past.

Don’t get me wrong — there is genuine value in understanding what has happened in the immediate past. It’s the key to forecasting what will happen in the future. But without a forecasting component to the way you look at this data, you’ll be stuck forever in a reactive mode. Past performance is a good indicator of future behavior, but a better indicator combines past history with an examination of the potential impact of improved training, new incentives or changes to sales territories.

Keeping Your Sales Limber

One side effect of the big data era is that it will force smart companies to also enter the era of the agile business. If the demonstrable facts point that your sales operation must go in a new and surprising direction, you must be ready to change — and, perhaps more important, be willing to change. 

Just as we’re seeing some companies dismiss the benefits of insights revealed through data, there will be companies who take the first steps toward becoming more data-driven but then find their new processes are just as ossified as their pre-data processes were. Don’t allow today’s use of data impede the evolution of tomorrow’s sales techniques — they must drive each other, and that means the way you’re harnessing data is very likely to change regularly. Be prepared for that change, and have a process for change management in mind.

Avoid dismissing startling insights when the data present them. Sometimes, confirmation bias toward our established ideas can cause us to dismiss or even disparage data that contradicts them — “If your data is so good, then why doesn’t it confirm my assumptions?” The very reason we’ve come to depend on data is to find aspects of the selling process we can improve. 

If the data provides a refutation of something critical to your sales process, investigate it — make sure that the insight is from the right data, and not from your misuse of the data — and if you find it to be valid, use that insight to drive change.

And be aware of the swing of the pendulum. In many companies, the pendulum is still strongly pitched toward sales reps’ talents and sales managers’ intuition. In other companies that are more tech savvy, the pendulum swings too far the other way, overemphasizing analytics. 

Your task is to get the pendulum centered, bringing in the technologies that augment the A-players’ sales skills and filling in the gaps in knowledge for the B players, while also capitalizing on the human talents sales brings to the table.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  emilio labrador