skeleton graphic How the Sales Process Compares to Olympians Spiraling Head First at 80mph

I had no awareness of my surroundings. My eyes were focused on the television and without realizing it, I was holding my breath, neck extended forward. If cameras could be in the living rooms of families around the world at that very moment, I suspect they would capture millions in the same moment of repose.

I was about to watch women jump—belly down, arms flat along their sides—onto a thin board supported by two metal tubes attached to the under-side, hurtle themselves head-first down an icy tunnel, navigate 5g-force-producing curves, with nothing to control the sled but subtle shifts of their heads and bodies. WHO DOES THIS?! At the Sochi Olympics, there were 20 brave women (and 27 men) from around the world who do it and the “it” is called Skeleton.

In the Skeleton event, the most critical part of the race is the start when the racer pushes the sled the first 50-meters toward the spiraling tunnel before jumping on for the ride. This is where the racer builds the momentum and in good part, it’s where the winner of the race is determined. If the athlete doesn’t have a starting time at least within a tenth of a second of the fastest, a medal finish is next to impossible.

I’m in awe watching these dare-devils risk life and limb for the thrill of the competition. They aren’t the only ones at the 2014 Winter Olympics who do. In fact, nearly all of the events at these games involve speed and danger; some, like Snowboarding and Freestyle Skiing add in-air acrobats at staggering heights while others add sharp steel blades and rock-hard ice to the mix.

While the profession of sales (usually) doesn’t put one at risk, it can certainly feel that way. And I know plenty of people who when asked, would say they’d rather race down an icy tube at 80mph then put themselves in the vulnerable position of having to close a deal in order to earn a paycheck.

Mastering the art of selling, I imagine, is not unlike mastering the sport of Skeleton. Both require a deep passion, a desire to be the best, and a fierce competitive nature. There are also similarities in what’s required to win.

The start matters

I wanted to know what percentage of time racers who have the fastest start at Skeleton go on to win the race, but I couldn’t find it (if anyone knows, please post a comment). I did find the stat listed before, that unless you start within a tenth of a second of the fastest, a medal finish is next to impossible. In B2B sales, the start is just as important. Those that are first in the door go on to win the deal 63% of the time. You can imagine this has to do with several factors. The first is that the beginning of the sales cycle is when buyers conduct their due-diligence. This is when they form biases and opinions and settle on their purchase criteria. Sellers who are involved during this formative stage have more influence over the decision criteria.

Questions to ask yourself:
– Which of your opportunities (and what percent) were you first in the door?
– Of the deals you won, which were you first in the door?
– Of the deals you lost, which were you first in the door?
– What are you doing to ensure that you are first in the door?

Steering dictates speed

In Skeleton, steering is done with subtle head, shoulder and leg adjustments. Over-steer and the sled will skid, adding time. Steer too little and the racer is at the mercy of the track, causing slow times at best, and a crash at worst. Skeleton racers talk of the “feel” needed to race well and the sense they develop of when to let the sled run and when to steer. Selling is very similar. Push too hard or at the wrong time, and you can put the sale in jeopardy. Push too gently and you will find yourself flying through the buyer’s journey with little control and with high risk of a crash and burn.

Questions to ask yourself:
– What are common signs that can tell me I’m losing control of the sale?
– What are the different types of adjustments I frequently use to keep an opportunity on track?

Only one score counts

There are no judges assigning points for higher technical skills, beautiful choreography, or nailing a landing. The only thing that matters in Skeleton is that you have the fastest speed (averaging two runs). In the sales profession, what matters is that you hit your revenue assignment. Very few managers will judge you (in the end) by whether you entered data into CRM, or whether you got your expense reports in on time. Salespeople are measured on one thing and that’s the amount of revenue they book. Now if you’re smart, you’ll know that your skill-set, your knowledge level, how you choreograph a sale, will all determine the end result. But don’t get caught up thinking that they matter in and of themselves. They matter only to the extent that they lead to more revenue.

Questions to ask yourself:
– Am I putting too much focus on the outcome of one race (one deal, one account) and losing sight of the season?
– Am I focusing on a skill-set that I’m great at or enjoy most when I should be improving other skills that will lead to more wins?
– Have I struck the right balance between training and execution (e.g. do I spend too much time conducting pre-call research and not enough time making actual calls)?

Sellers have to be athletes of a sort. You need a deep desire to win, a fierce competitive spirit, and a relentless drive to be the best. And you also need the mental toughness to pick yourself back up after a loss. Think of selling as a sport. Think about what you can do to get a faster starting time with your prospects, how you can execute the run better than your competitors, and how you can continue to improve your rankings. Athletes train hard, analyze and assess what they do wrong and how they can get better. When they stop reaching for faster, better, further, they lose their competitiveness. And so will you.

Nancy Nardin is the foremost expert increasing sales productivity through the use of tools. As President of Smart Selling Tools, she consults with many of the top sales productivity software vendors as well as end-user organizations looking to select the right tools. Click to get Nancy’s What & When weekly digest with invitations to complimentary webinars and informative publications. Follow Nancy on Twitter @sellingtools or subscribe to her Sales Productivity blog. Nancy can be reached at 916-596-3035. To schedule a free 30 minute consultation click here.

About the author

Nancy Nardin

Nancy Nardin is a recognized thought leader on sales technologies and building a sales stack. Smart Selling Tools reviews the latest sales and marketing software across multiple categories, including Inside Sales, Sales Intelligence, Sales Acceleration, Pipeline Management & Deal Flow, and Predictive Sales Analytics. It's been named a Top Sales Blog by HubSpot, and Nancy Nardin has been named alongside Forbes’ top 30 social sales influencers in the world. Follow Nancy on Twitter @sellingtools