Why Chasing “Best Practices” Might Not Always Be the Best Approach

The Dolly Phenomenon

Meet Boba & Dolly. Boba Fett is the clone of his “father”, Jango Fett, which supposedly occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Closer to home and a bit more recently, Dolly made the news in a big way in the late 1990’s as being the first mammal to have been cloned — for real, this time — by human beings. Here on earth, Mother Nature has been cloning things for millions of years, but Dolly was the first time mankind has been able to do so with a mammal.

Hollywood and farmers aren’t the only ones interested in cloning, however. Businesses have latched onto cloning too, except they use the phrase “best practice” — and they use it seemingly every chance they get. Sales organizations especially love to discuss having everyone in the sales force emulate the top sellers in their or other’s sales forces, creating a virtual clone army of deadly sellers! Seriously though, I’m not sure I can remember the number of times over my career when I’ve been in discussions about the methods used by top sellers and how to get other sellers to sell like them.

Assuming everyone is trying to do just this very thing, and since the data tells us that quota attainment is generally flat or declining across the board, that the majority of sellers on sales forces still struggle to even hit quota, and that selling is becoming increasingly more complicated, complex, and difficult, I have a question: How’s that working out for everyone?

Unconscious Competence

It’s easy to identify who the best sellers are on a sales force. They rarely if ever miss their numbers and always blow away their quota, have great margins, bring in the majority of the company’s revenue… Whichever metrics are being associated with “what good looks like”, a few keystrokes into a CRM will produce a ranked listing of the best to worst performers. I can’t tell you how many spreadsheets I’ve created over the years doing this very thing, like a guinea pig on an exercise wheel, running the numbers every month or quarter, looking for the commonality between the best and how they differ from the rest. What I’ve discovered is this: We can easily determine who the best players are, what they do, and how they do it. We can reverse engineer and codify their processes for others to follow. We can train, coach, cajole, incentivize, compel, threaten, and practically beat other sellers into behaving the way the top sellers do, and still barely move the needle. The reason a “best practices” approach sometimes fails is actually fairly simple: We can observe the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, and the “how” — but we too often can’t understand the “why”.

Top performers demonstrate something called unconscious competence. Unless they’re an extreme outlier and have some uncanny and innate abilities, top performers usually reach the top of their game through repeated practice and experience to the point where what they do becomes second nature to them. They’re often capable of making the most difficult tasks look easy. However, when asked “why” they do something, the response can be, “I don’t know, I just do it that way.” What separates the best from the rest isn’t necessarily the processes and methods they apply; rather, what separates them is how and why they react to certain situations, seemingly intuitively, and almost always in the most effective and “correct” manner, when circumstances don’t fit the model for which the process was designed.

To be fair, there are some top sellers who approach their craft more as scientists than artists. Rather than others needing to reverse engineer the “what” and the “how” to arrive at a “best practice” through direct observation, these scientists can help us map out their processes. In my experience and observations, scientific rainmakers are rare, and still have a difficult time explaining the “why”. To complicate things further, top sellers rarely if ever use any single methodology, instead preferring to use a hybrid of various processes and techniques they’ve acquired over the years. They may use something resembling Challenger for this part of the sales process, Solution Selling for another, and Sandler for yet another stage; they don’t call them out as such, but the actions they take are recognizable and somewhat predictable. Rainmakers break the various sales methods down into their modular parts and toss those modules into their toolboxes, pulling them out when they fit the occasion, and the person, at hand. Like a good carpenter or mechanic, over the years they’ve become proficient at the use of each tool, and can apply the tool expertly, effectively, and efficiently. However, it’s reading the situation and the client, and knowing when to use each tool, which is the art form even the most scientific of sellers have a difficult time explaining. There’s a certain amount of intuition and risk associated with what exceptional sellers do which simply does not fall into something called a “best practice”, which is the reason results of applying best practices can be so mixed.

All best practices will work some of the time, and a very few may even work most of the time. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to distill best practices from the top performers, but we need to adjust our expectations and keep in mind that no two sales situations, and no two customers, are exactly the same — and in fact, our customers and the sales environments in which we operate are constantly evolving. There’s a high probability, therefore, that today’s best practice might be of limited or no use tomorrow.