When I built my first sales team, I made all the mistakes in the book. I’d find a great salesperson and bring them in. They’d fail miserably and I’d fire them and hire someone else. I implemented training that would give us a temporary boost, and a few months later we’d be back where we started. We implemented CRM and still didn’t get the results we wanted.

We had top-notch people, the latest technology, and access to world-class training. And we were still killing deals.

The Root of the Problem

Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, proposes a thought experiment: What if you built a car using all the best components available in the world? Such a vehicle might have a BMW chassis, a Porsche engine, and a Volvo body. The result, he says, would be a very expensive piece of junk.

That is essentially what many sales organizations build. They purchase the most well-known CRM (“nobody got fired for choosing…”), engage the best sales methodology training, hire salespeople with great CVs, and still end up with a very expensive piece of junk.

Gawande says the missing key that makes a great vehicle great is a system that makes it all work together. And he should know. He’s the surgeon credited with decreasing surgery-induced deaths among patients in hospitals all over the world by 47%–with one simple solution.

As he explains it, while surgery has come a long way since the early days, it still carries significant risks, many of which are due to human error. Doctors are very smart people who know a lot and are extremely skilled at what they do. Hospitals contain the most advanced medical technology available. Medical staff engage in the most rigorous ongoing training in the world. Yet patients still die because of simple human mistakes such as failing to wash hands or swab an IV injection site.

Gawande turned to the world of aviation to devise a solution. Commercial pilots are also among the world’s most highly trained and skilled individuals, but unlike surgeons at the time, they very rarely kill their “patients” (passengers). The difference, he discovered, is that pilots consistently follow a rigorous set of pre-flight steps (a system) that they are held accountable to by checklists. The checklists reinforce the process that makes the system work.

Gawande asked a Boeing engineer to work with his hospital to devise a similar set of pre-surgical checklists for surgeons, then empowered nurses to hold doctors accountable to them. The result was a staggering 47% decline in surgical deaths. The experiment, when repeated at hospitals on nearly every continent, returned the same result.

The Anatomy of an Effective System

Can Gawande’s breakthrough for surgery be applied across industries into sales organizations? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the anatomy of an effective system, as Gawande defines it. Such a system, he says, has three “skills”—or capabilities:

Capability One: The ability to recognize success, and the ability to recognize failure. Traditionally, sales organizations have recognized “success” primarily by win/loss rates. A world-class system, however, analyzes and recognizes success and failure at the process level, allowing reinforcement of specific behaviors that impact the ultimate success of the system.

Capability Two: The ability to devise solutions. Successful systems not only identify success and failure, but include the ability to quickly devise solutions to address problems as they arise, and to improve on the system as weaknesses are identified.

Capability Three: The ability to implement. In order for a system to deliver the promised results, it must have built-in capability to get colleagues across the entire organization to actually follow the process that makes the system work.

It turns out that top performing sales organizations consistently implement systems that meet these criteria. They track and analyze progress through a process in order to define success at each step, the process provides solutions for problems that arise, and the system holds salespeople accountable to that process.

The challenge many organizations face in implementing such a system, however, is the same one that many hospitals faced. The professionals responsible for implementing the system frequently feel themselves to be “above” the system, and those responsible for holding them accountable, lack effective means to do so. While traditional CRMs are good at tracking compliance with specific activities, they don’t reinforce movement through a process, or provide visibility for managers to hold salespeople accountable to that process. In other words, they lack effectively designed and enforced checklists to provide reinforcement and accountability at each step.

The Anatomy of an Effective Checklist

Nearly every sales organization has documented activities that they expect salespeople to engage in. Having a list of activities, however, is not the same as instituting an effective checklist. When Gawande spoke to the Boeing engineer who helped design the hospital checklists, he learned that pilot checklists are not simple lists of activities. Instead, they identify what he calls “pause moments”—points in the process that represent an opportunity to review critical activities and check them off. For pilots, pause moments include “pre-taxi” and “pre-take-off.” For surgeons, the pause moments include preparation before entering the operating room, pre-surgery after entering the room, and post-surgical activities. For salespeople, the pause moments coincide with steps in the sales process.

In addition to “pause moments,” effective checklists don’t simply list everything the pilot or surgeon or salesperson should do, but rather focus on “killer” items: The most important things he or she must do to avoid “killing” the passengers, patient, or deal.

A Blueprint for Sales Teams

Like the surgeons in Gawande’s hospitals, sales teams already have top-notch components available: Technology, methodologies, and training. The missing piece for developing the components into a system is an effective set of checklists. These checklists must make it simple for salespeople to follow the process without it being boring or time-consuming, and provide sales managers the ability to recognize successful behaviors, reinforce them, and create solutions to address failures.

Once you have the checklists and sales process in place, then organizations need to have the technology to support it. Their technology should allow sales organizations to create built-in checklists inside their CRM, customized to their process. It should provide reminders and triggers to salespeople based on where they are in the sales process, identify problems as they develop and include the ability to recognize and analyze successes and failures as it develops – while there’s still time to do something about it.

While sales is, fortunately, not a life or death matter, the sales organization’s effectiveness can be life or death for the business. Clearly, companies who want to succeed have got to implement successful systems so their sales teams can stop killing perfectly healthy deals. By putting the right sales processes and systems in place, SalesStar was able to increase their win rates by 63%.

Click here to read the SalesStar case study.