How to Build a World-Class Sales Academy

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Some people are born to sell. But selling a complex product, like a SaaS enterprise solution, requires more than natural-born talent. It takes a lot of coaching and skill. We’ve been coaching our sellers through the Adobe Sales Academy with great results, but technology is evolving at a pace faster than ever before. How could we best prepare our sellers for the demands of the future?

We knew we wanted to work more closely with each individual, so now we on-board people in smaller groups than before. We wanted sellers to have strong relationships inside their regional organizations, so we moved training from our headquarters to our major field offices. And we wanted to make sure all our sellers, whether they’ve been with us a day or a decade, can continually improve their skills. So we came up with a strategic vision for the future of the Adobe sales team with the help of Jacco VanderKooij and Domenic Levin from sales transformation consultancy Winning by Design.

Scott Bartell, our senior director of Americas Inside Sales, says, “We’ve transformed the Adobe Sales Academy into a hands-on coaching organization. Our job is to help each seller recognize their strengths so they can own their own businesses and thrive.” With that in mind, we decided to figure out what an awesome sales professional looks like.

Personnel: What Does Awesome Look Like?

We tasked ourselves with figuring out what makes a great sales pro, and with a lot of research, soul-searching, and help from our amazing talent partners, we came up with this list:

1. Emotional intelligence

2. Self-motivation

3. A focus on the customer

4. The ability to manage the technology ecosystem

5. Grit

Notice what’s missing from this list? That’s right, a four-year degree isn’t as relevant as it once was. What matters most is whether someone can deliver. We’d rather see someone with high emotional intelligence, grit, and the ability to apply these traits in everyday work because we’ve found these are better indicators of success in a sales career than a college education. We want our sales team to be a meritocracy.

Progress: Track Activities to Get Better Results

A lot of sales organizations only track information after the fact. Did we hit our quarterly goals? Did we hit our annual quota? By the time they have enough information to get answers, it’s too late to change the results. These are lagging indicators, and using lagging indicators alone is no way to build excellence. Excellence comes from action, not reaction.

At Adobe, we track more than results—we measure activities, behaviors, and coachability. If we want to hit a certain quota, we figure out how many opportunities we’ll need to reach it. When we know how many opportunities we’ll need to make our number, we figure out how many discovery calls we’ll need to get those opportunities. By knowing how many discovery calls we need, we arrive at how many qualification calls we need first, and so on. By paying constant attention to these leading indicators, we know if we’re on track long before the end of a quarter.

To track activities and behaviors at that granular level, the right technology has to be in place, and the face of all that technology needs to be a powerful dashboard. Sales reps and their managers need to understand at a glance how they’re performing and what they need to do to make improvements. When people understand which of their activities deliver the highest value, they know where to spend their time.

Revenue Generation: Moving the Needle with High-Value Activities

In Adobe’s sales organization, we look at individual activities as parts of a whole. For instance, if a rep makes 50 dials in a day and converts a high percentage of those dials into appointments, we want to know how and why that rep succeeded. Did they spend a lot of time laying the foundation for calls with account prep and social selling? Did they have an empathetic tone and ask perceptive questions? What is that seller’s secret recipe?

Every seller has a secret recipe. The ingredients a seller uses are the same as everybody else’s, but the way an individual puts them together will be different. Maybe one rep is fantastic on the phone, while another has a broad network that churns out introductions. In the end, each rep needs to know what their unique recipe looks like so they can identify and focus on their high-value activities.

KPIs: Coaching Makes Them Unmissable

A lot of sales departments build KPIs based on lagging indicators. That sort of KPI conversation may sound like this: “You need to make more calls, work harder.” That’s fine if your goal is solely to identify underperformers. That’s not fine if you’re goal is to coach excellence into your team.

At Adobe, we build KPIs based on leading indicators, so ours may sound like this: “You’re making a lot of calls that aren’t turning into appointments. Let’s coach you on hold rates and conversion.” We use technology to understand where a breakdown is occurring; for instance, we use an artificial intelligence tool called Chorus.ai that listens in on calls to measure a rep’s tone and word choices. Then we use the results to develop individual coaching plans. Our goal isn’t to shed underperforming reps. Because we’ve hired people with the traits specific to selling ability, we know everyone on our team has the potential to become a star. Our job is to help them get there.

Scalability: When Something Works, Push It Across Your Organization

Once KPIs are defined, they need to be scaled out to the team. That means teaching them during on-boarding and making them available for re-boarding. We do not want to create tiers of sales professionals, where only the newest employees are taught the latest technology and coached on skills. The whole team needs to be getting sharper all the time. To accomplish that, we use wikis, online and classroom training, videos, role playing, certification programs, and other techniques that allow us to push education on a continual basis.

The Science of Sales Success

Sales is not just an art anymore. Sales is very much a science.

Yet, according to Jim Dickie, a cofounder at CSO Insights, fewer than 10 percent of organizations have standardized official on-boarding and coaching programs. Companies that don’t update their training and ignore coaching, or don’t invest in a technology stack that tracks activities in real time instead of results when it’s too late to make corrections will find themselves falling behind in a competitive market. We’re not just talking about missed quotas. We’re talking about missing out on the best sales talent.

Today’s sales professionals have their choice of employers, and they know what they need to succeed. When you’re interviewing them, they’re interviewing you, and what they want to hear about is the powerful technology you have in place to make their jobs more manageable and the hands-on coaching that you’ll provide so they can become the best at what they do. Maybe you don’t have these things in place right now—if so, you’re not alone. But you can map out a path to get you where you want to be and take a step in that direction. That alone will put you ahead of more than 90 percent of your competitors.


Jake Reni is head of Adobe Sales Academy and Sales Transformation. With 15 years of experience in high-tech enterprise sales, he helps develop the future sales leaders in SaaS and is also an adviser for hyper-growth sales technology SaaS start-ups.

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