Hockey lessons: Selling is a team sport

November 29, 2016 Jason Halstead

Leadership utilizes hockey model to develop winning sales strategy.

hockey and sales plays

For Mark Holdsworth, Director Sales of Signature Customers at MTS, there’s plenty to take away from the hockey rink and apply to his own team’s business approach.

“I often use hockey analogies with my team,” says Holdsworth. “I tell them selling is a team sport. It’s not all up to one person — everyone has a different role and we all have to play them effectively.”

Holdsworth, who joined MTS in January 2016, says his team works with the largest customers at MTS including the provincial government and Crown corporations, school divisions, special operating agencies and large enterprise customers such as Great-West Life. Far from likening his squad to a young group of players like the current Winnipeg Jets, Holdsworth would compare his group to a team of seasoned veterans.

From the minors to ‘The Show’

“We tend to have the more seasoned, grizzled vets, who’ve been around a while,” says Holdsworth. “There aren’t as many younger staffers working on the larger accounts. It’s people who have moved up from small accounts to mid-market and eventually up to the large enterprise accounts. It’s like going from junior to the minor leagues and into the NHL.”

Beyond simple allusions to team spirit, Holdsworth points to other important facets of any successful squad: coherent strategy, clear communication, setting team goals and effective analytics to truly understand performance.

Holdsworth explains that if you’re the account executive, which is a bit like being a top-line centre, you have to have a good working relationship with everybody on your team.

Stick to the game plan

“You have to keep them informed – they have to know the game plan, the strategy and the playbook so you’re all working as one,” he explains. “A lot of what we do are custom solutions in the larger accounts, so there’s plenty of adjustment on the fly. What the education sector needs might be very different from what credit unions need.”

Having a game plan everyone buys into is crucial for success — and for diagnosing what went wrong in a loss.

“It’s about getting that cadence and consistency throughout the sales organization so everyone is doing the same thing,” Holdsworth says. “Otherwise you get 10 people out there all doing things differently. It’s kind of hard to coach them and hard to develop metrics to measure things if everyone is doing everything differently.”

Everyone take a knee

Constant communication plays a huge role in success, and sometimes it’s important to pause and meet with your teams more formally.

“The sales managers will meet with their teams on a weekly basis and there are ad-hoc meetings every day, either with the manager or at the director level,” says Holdsworth. “It’s that ongoing communication that removes roadblocks and lets us handle issues. It’s very important. The sales person should be building the strategy in their own account, but it should be in conjunction with their sales manager. The sales manager is more like the coach, to use a hockey analogy.”

Play with passion

Just like specific role-players form the core of a winning team on the ice, Holdsworth points to the important contributions of many to a winning sales strategy.

“You’ve got the account executive who is your lead into the client, but then you’ve got your supporting wingers, who are the sales engineers and the sales specialists,” he says. “And then you’ve got the back office support and ASR’s which you could equate with your defence.”

The engineers and specialists serve as a technical resource, so call them the “advanced stats” cadre of the sales team.

“They’re there to help configure and price complex solutions, and help design complex sales,” says Holdsworth. “Specialists focus more on individual product lines and the engineer would help define what the solution is – and also look at the network and how everything fits together.”

It’s also about keeping team members’ skills sharp.

“If you think about athletes honing skills, we’re trying to introduce that into our sales organization through a program we’re calling ‘Sales Excellence’ that’s being kicked off and launched as we speak,” says Holdsworth. “It’s going to entail a bunch of different sales training for the entire sales force, so they become more effective at closing business, along with access to improved processes and tools. It’s about making sure they have the right equipment and they know what they’re doing when it comes to making them more effective.”

Set out to win, but learn from loss

Developing a winning spirit — but also knowing what to take away from a loss — is key for Holdsworth and his team.

“With our Sales Excellence program, we talk about developing that winning attitude,” he said. “It’s about the need to win all the deals we’re in and creating an environment where people don’t like to lose. That’s no different, whether you’re playing a sport or you’re in sales. …

“It’s developing that drive to succeed. But when there’s a major loss, or small one, it’s just like a team that will go back and review game tapes. We’ll do loss reviews and try to understand what could have been done differently – and how we’d do it over or what we’d do to win next time. Those are regular things for us.”

What other plays can your business teams learn from hockey? Share your ideas in the comments below.

About the Author

Jason Halstead

Jason is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photographer who has been published across Canadian media.

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