8 Principles for Better Agility in Sales

Some sales trainers believe that there is a finite number of rules for selling effectively—and thus that any sales problem must be the result of breaking one of them. At one point in my life, I liked the idea of ironclad laws, ones you shouldn’t break. But if the last two decades of constant, accelerating, and disruptive change have taught us anything, it’s that the rules may not be as durable as you believe. You are better off with a set of principles, ones that guide you towards the outcome you want—even if it means giving up your rules. In that spirit, here are eight principles for developing a more agile approach to selling.

Give Up Your Existing Rules

You will never be agile if you stick to a set of inflexible laws that constrain your actions. The idea that you should do something in a certain way just because “we’ve always done it this way” means that you are not adjusting to the world around you. The decision not to change and adapt will harm your results, even if it you don’t recognize the damage until it’s too late.

The longer you have done something in the same way, the more urgently you should evaluate whether it is still the best approach. To improve your results, you have to be willing to change what you are doing now.

Be Flexible in Your Approach

Agility means the ability to move and adjust quickly. One way to enhance it is to recognize when something isn’t working and try to create the same outcome through a different approach. Agility may mean changing the outcome when necessary, but mostly it means that you need to be flexible in your approach.

When something isn’t working—or isn’t working as well as you want it to—you need to be willing to change your approach. Being agile requires being resourceful, continuing to identify new ideas until you find a way to create the results you want. It also means realizing that you may not have cracked the code: what works in one scenario may not work in a similar one.

image of woman and man looking at sticky notes on a board to represent trying something different

Everything is an Experiment

Much of what we do in sales is a series of tests. One conversation tests whether you are relevant, whether you can create value. Another one may test preference to buy: does your prospective client have a strong reason to prefer you and your solution? Because you sell to different people with different needs, you are trying to find effective approaches to these tests, knowing that the answer key changes based on the individuals and the context of the conversation.

The principle here is to treat everything like an experiment: try something, measure the results, and if it fails, try another set of variables until you find one that works. As you get more data, you’ll start recognizing common factors in successful experiments. The situational knowledge you acquire by running these experiments is what allows you to be agile.

Respond to What’s in Front of You

Boyd would tell you to Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. An agile approach to sales includes observing what’s around you, then experiencing and orienting yourself. Agility means you can change quickly, adapting to the circumstances.

To decide what action you might take to pursue an outcome, start with the patterns. Familiar patterns often lead to easy answers because you recognize trends and possibilities. But when you see something new to you, you need to respond to what you see and trust your intuition.

Plan Ahead without Depending on the Plan

Napoleon said, “Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go. Nothing is more difficult, and therefore, more precious, than to be able to decide.” You certainly want to plan your approach to a meeting, for example, as the gift of your prospective client’s time is precious and not to be taken for granted. But when your plan is no longer valuable, you have to adjust.

Now more than ever, the nonlinearity of the “sales conversation” (my way of combining the sales process and the buyer’s journey) requires agility. Your best path to success might not show up on the map you drew, so don’t count on getting turn-by-turn directions.

image of light bulb coming out of ipad to represent a new idea

Be Willing to Create a Novel Solution

When there is no direction about what you should do, you will need to create a novel solution. That solution might be right for the problem you are trying to solve now, but solving another problem may require a different approach altogether.

Because we are always trying to answer the question, “How do we win this big deal,” you should be used to spitballing ideas about what you might do, whether it’s overcoming some obstacle or outplaying an aggressive competitor.

Accept Failure and Adjust

Agility comes with a price: failure. As Bruce Hornsby put it, “Not everything everybody does works all the time, son.” What you do may not work the first time you try it. It may not work in all cases. But when it comes to agility, failure is nothing more than feedback.

When your approach doesn’t work, adjust the strategy. Try again, to discover whether you should change your direction or keep working at it until you line up something that allows you to succeed. Agility is mainly adjusting on the fly.

When in Doubt, Act

None of these principles should constrain your activity, except for eliminating the idea that you must continue to do things the way you have always done them. Instead, they should remind you that you should adjust and improve your approach: the reality of sales is not going to be easily reduced to a set of rules that cover every issue, challenge, or scenario you might encounter.

Not acting is the opposite of agility. Even if you fail, you are better off taking some action than allowing yourself to lose without even trying something you think could work.

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