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Why You Should Throw Your Sales Playbook in the Trash (And What to Use Instead)

Pavel Dmitriev

November 1st, 2018

ab testing modern sales playbook image

Sales is an extraordinarily difficult job. It requires a level of mental toughness that many cannot even fathom. Because it such a challenging role, salespeople deserve the best sales resources and tools to help them succeed. Yet, they don’t get them. In fact, today’s sales resources are sorely lacking.

Consider the centerpiece of any sales resource kit: the sales playbook. The sales playbook is a tale as old as time, and that’s exactly the problem. This time-honored tool is now dusty and dated. Yet it continues to be the main resource for many organizations. Let’s look at why this is, why it’s problematic, and learn about the powerful new sales resource that can transform the traditional playbook: data.

Two Problems with Traditional Sales Playbooks

  1. They are anecdotal. Why is the traditional sales playbook ineffective? The main reason is that it is often based on anecdotes and myths from one person’s experience. Once upon a time, someone tried a certain template or a phrase in their email. They got a reply. They told others, and soon everyone started using it. And just like that, a new template got added to the playbook. Surely if everyone’s doing it, it must be good, right? Not necessarily.
  2. They are non-transferrable. Let’s say, by some twist of fate, a play in a playbook really did work in your sales executive’s last organization. Time and time again, the same email was sent to your prospects in the pharmaceutical industry,  and it always got replies. So, of course, the same email will work in manufacturing, right? Wrong. Even successful plays are usually non-transferrable to other industries, so you end up starting from scratch once again.

Why Sales Playbooks Persist

Although the evidence against sales playbooks is compelling, it is also understandable why sales playbooks are so entrenched as the bedrock of many sales organizations. Sales executives have been relying on sales playbooks for decades, and we can see why.

For one thing, sales executives get judged on quarterly performance. This differentiates them from many other executive roles. One bad quarter, and they can be out the door. This harsh environment makes testing and experimenting with their playbook feel like a luxury most sales executives can’t afford–literally. Sure, it would be nice to try something new, but what if it doesn’t work? Many modern business organizations do not have the tolerance and the patience to let an experiment play out, or interest in sacrificing short-term gains for long-term gains, no matter how valuable those gains might be.

So really, it is a broken system that is to blame. We still need to ditch the traditional sales playbook in favor of a more effective approach, but we need to do so in a way that is realistic and doable for a modern sales organization.

Scientific and Realistic: A/B Testing is The Powerful Weapon That Every Modern Sales Playbook Needs

The good news? That approach is here. It’s called A/B testing, and it allows organizations to test performance of key sales communications in a low-risk, high-impact way that does not endanger their executive’s day jobs.

Why it works: it’s scientific and realistic.

A/B testing is scientific. Rather than relying on a single person’s experience, A/B testing analyzes a large sample of data (often hundreds or thousands of emails) to see which template really performed the best. This scientific approach creates a surefire, repeatable template for success, which in turn results in the Holy Grail for sales executives: predictable revenue.

A/B testing is fast. A/B testing can be executed quickly and you can get results in a short time. This method is swift and powerful, so a sales executive can draw definitive conclusions in no time and still be able to implement them in time to make the quarter’s number-or exceed them.

RELATED: How I Built a High-Performing Data Driven Sales Team [And How You Can Too]

Just Checking in one of the Most Popular Sales Playbook Tropes

As a data scientist, it is consistently exciting to witness the power of A/B testing. I have seen conventional wisdom debunked time and time again. Here is just one recent example. One of the most well known “best practices” in sales is to never contact prospects to “just check in”. For example, one article makes fun of the colleagues who use this expression, and sales managers even putt signs in the office to remind everyone to never use this phrase.

Every sales manager and executive we asked about it at Outreach said the same thing – never do it! It turned out, however, that there was one – just one – email template at Outreach that opened with “just checking in”. No one knew who created it, and everyone was shocked when the template had a 13% reply rate – an unexpectedly high number!

Intrigued, we then ran an A/B test to see if emails with “just checking in” were more successful than we thought. We selected our templates – all bumper e-mails, ie follow-ups on an initial cold e-mail, and simply added the phrase “just checking in” in the beginning, right after “Hi {{Name}}”. We ran the test for 4 weeks, accumulating over 2,000 emails in each group. What we found is that for each one of the templates the result was the same: the variant with ‘just checking in” consistently produced a higher reply rate, a statistically significant average increase of ~86% across the templates!

What is the takeaway from this story? Is it that we should all go and start adding “just checking in” to all our templates? Absolutely not! It is quite possible that in your scenario “just checking in” does not work. For example, another experiment we ran where we put “just checking in” into the subject line of our templates did not show any gains. The real lesson is to not trust “best practices” blindly.

Hey Data Geek; what about my 20 Years of Experience?

I know what you’re thinking: so my twenty years of experience counts for nothing? My decades of experience amount to just personal myths and anecdotes? Not at all. The tribal knowledge and best practices you’ve gleaned in your decades of business are an excellent starting point. The way to incorporate best practices is to use them as a hypothesis and conduct an A/B test to prove it out.

Once data validates that yes, just as you thought, prospects respond better to mentions of vanilla ice cream than chocolate (fake example: of course, chocolate is better), then you will know you are really on the right track. Either your idea will be validated (a great feeling) or you’ll learn something new that helps you sell better–either way, it’s a win/win.

In conclusion, no modern sales playbook is complete without a documented A/B testing process. By implementing this scientific, realistic weapon, you add a critical ingredient for a truly modern sales playbook, one that harnesses the power of data to create predictable revenue every time. Even I don’t need data to know that’s a game-changer.


Also published on Medium.

This is a sponsored guest post from a Sales Hacker partner.

About the author

Pavel Dmitriev

Pavel Dmitriev is a Vice President of Data Science at Outreach, where he works on enabling sales reps to do more and do it better with the help of machine learning and experimentation. He was previously a Principal Data Scientist with Microsoft’s Analysis and Experimentation team, where he worked on scaling experimentation in Bing, Skype, and Windows OS.

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