Everyone has personal goals and challenges--outlets that give them a chance to push themselves and see what they can do outside of a professional context. It's a rare and valuable opportunity to aim for something without worrying about the repercussions if you fail. My personal challenge happens to be triathlons. I like triathlons because, unlike marathons, they're not just about pushing the body to its absolute limit. Instead, they force the athlete to test his or her ability in different ways and adapt to new environments--much like sales.

The sales triathlon involves getting the right opportunities, engaging them, and finally seeing the deal through to completion. It can be challenging at times, but by taking it one leg at a time salespeople can set themselves up for sustainable success.

Swim: Starting Ahead of the Competition

For competitive triathletes, the first swim represents an all-out battle to take a leading position from the offset. It is the first sport, and often takes less time than the bike or run. This results in something of an elbow fight to be first in the water, an exhausting sprint to get to the first buoy and then constant strain to stay ahead and emerge from the water first. In many ways, this first sprint is like the initial outreach phase of a sale.

During the first stages of outreach, when a lead comes in, time-to-contact is critical. Salespeople haven't yet had a chance to develop a relationship, the buyer is still relatively speculative and unbiased, and responsiveness is the only real means of differentiation. My company's Ultimate Contact Strategy study, which examined 3.5 million leads, found that responding to an incoming opportunity within one minute boosted chances of conversion by nearly 400 percent. If you don't make contact on the first call attempt, don't give up. Most salespeople give up on a prospect if they haven't made contact after just one or two attempts, yet research shows the optimal number of call attempts to make before putting the prospect back into a nurture program is six. Getting a head start and maintaining your lead - both in triathlons and in sales - can set the tone for the rest of the race.

Bike: Establishing a Rhythm

The key to being a strong cyclist is establishing a rhythm; in no other sport do people focus more on cadence. Getting the right cadence (based on the gear chosen) produces the maximum amount of power to go fast in each situation, whether that be uphill, downhill or on the flat. The key to being a successful salesperson is roughly the same. Experienced salespeople quickly learn the techniques that work best for them and the more streamlined they get, the more productive they can be. But a wrench gets thrown into that rhythm when there is misalignment with other stakeholders.

One of the most common areas for misalignment is between sales and marketing. In most organizations the relationship between these two departments is complicated--each party depends on the other for success, yet they can also have different priorities and ways of working. This is especially true when it comes to lead qualification.

Start by establishing an agreement on what qualifies as a sales-ready lead and then build a process to support that agreement. For example, a lead scoring and lead nurturing process might be something marketing puts in place to help filter out the tire kickers from the quality opportunities. In fact, nurtured leads produce 20 percent more sales opportunities than non-nurtured leads, according to Gleanster research, which saves salespeople time spent trying to vet opportunities or pursue them too early. Once sales and marketing are in alignment, they become a conversion machine--but it's still only one part of the sales race.

Run: Pushing Hard Through the Final Leg and Closing the Deal

The work salespeople do only truly counts if the deal goes through, just as accomplishing a triathlon means running through the finish line. Breaking down that final barrier can be tough, and this is where the best triathletes, just like salespeople, must dig deep to prevail. When prospects are teetering at the edge of making a decision, the factor that will most often sway them is tenacity from the sales rep. This is where salespeople need to simultaneously negotiate with procurement, facilitate a super-responsive legal approach to contractual redlines and get every sponsor aligned for a highly orchestrated and efficient offensive on the decision-maker. This last leg of the sales process--gaining final approver commitment--is where everything comes together, just like the final sprint towards the finish line in a triathlon. Salespeople, like athletes, finish the race exhausted and invigorated but know that they can be overtaken by their competitors if they don't haul it across the finish line.

Finishing a triathlon is a major accomplishment for me--it's rewarding every time. Sales feels the same way. It's a long road between opportunity and conversion but getting to the end couldn't be more satisfying.