Fostering teamwork has long been a holy grail in business culture, and, on the surface, the selling function is as committed to this ideal as any area of the enterprise.

What major sales organization hasn’t featured a legendary coach on the podium of their annual sales meeting? We even call it a sales team to vaguely imply that the performance of the group is greater than the sum of its individual parts, that it can enhance the organization’s ability to adapt to new challenges and develop innovative solutions for customers.

At the same time, the culture of most sales organizations includes a healthy dose of internal competition. When it comes to incentives and compensation, we actively nurture competition because it works. Where would we be without our track, rank and publish; without our President’s Club?

The science of sales leadership continues to evolve, and there’s a significant opportunity to address the elephant in the room. There has always been an unresolved tension between our twin cultural goals of internal competition and teamwork. I’m of the opinion that more of both is better, so long as they remain in relative balance. To express this idea I’ve adopted the term “coopetition.”

Historically, coopetition has been used to describe how two competitive companies in the same industry become more successful through collaboration. In recent years, the term has been extended to describe the behavior of individual competitors, such as NASCAR drivers drafting one another on the racetrack.

Sales leaders often make a stab at encouraging coopetition by including team or company goals in their incentive plans alongside measures of individual performance. We now have the tools to go further than this, to be more targeted in creating incentives to drive coopetitive behavior. There’s even a patent on it.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway transportation device, is also the founder of FIRST, an international program that promotes interest in science and technology in young people through robotics competitions. It’s successful; more than 350,000 students will participate in FIRST competitions during the 2013-14 season. True to his inventor persona, Kamen captured how FIRST works in U.S. patent 7,507,169. The invention is “a system and method for creating cooperation and gracious professionalism during a competition.” In a nutshell, part of the genius of FIRST is that points are awarded not just for a team’s own robot accomplishing tasks, but for the other team’s robot, as well. Thus, the competitors are motivated to collaborate to achieve the highest score on the playing field.

Kamen’s invention works because he designed a clear field of collaborative play and a simple and transparent collaboration scorecard. Here are a few ways you can leverage key learnings from FIRST:

  1. Assess the degree of coopetition that exists in your sales organization. Start with a simple online survey that asks questions such as “I’m comfortable asking other salespeople for help” and “I routinely share my sales best practices with anyone who asks.” Depending on results, engage a third party to delve deeper into an understanding of the culture and suggest ways to optimize it.
  2. Review your incentive plans through the lens of coopetition. Are you rewarding individual performance to the exclusion of team performance? Recognize that it may be time to rebalance the mix of behaviors you want to encourage. The days of relying upon lone-wolf selling are probably over in your industry.
  3. Schedule routine sales opportunity reviews in teams of four or five people. Do this by adopting a standardized process to develop action plans for sales opportunities. Recognize and reward each individual on a review team that contributes to a successful win.
  4. Implement a CRM add-on that creates an enterprise social network for collaboration around customer needs. The best known of these is Salesforce Chatter. With a successful Chatter implementation, internal collaboration occurs more often, happens faster and is more transparent than via e-mail.

Being intentional about engineering the culture of collaboration and competition in your company can create competitive advantage in the marketplace. It’s time to optimize that balance within your sales team. Start now by contributing to the dialog on this idea in the comments section below.

Everett Hill helps clients grow. He partners with CEOs and sales leaders to take all-star B2B sales organizations to world class. Prior to founding his consultancy, he built a career as a sales leader and general manager with significant P&L responsibility. He can be reached at CatalyticAdvisors.com.

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3 Responses to “Sales performance isn’t just about teamwork”

  1. I realy like your post. Thank you for sharing

  2. I completely agree regarding some points, but you certainly have a unique perspective.

  3. paul nelson says:

    Thanks for sharing.