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Building Capability

Defining & Building Sales Capability for High-Performing Businesses


Without a sale, you don’t have revenue. Without revenue, you don’t have a business. With so many “award winning sales trainers” around today, and LinkedIn sales gurus as common as a windy day in Chicago, what a high-performing sales department does set their sales capabilities needed for success.

In this guide we’ll talk about how you can define and develop your sales capabilities, including how to identify capability gaps and maturity, how you can optimise L&D to build capability, and how you can be proactive about the continuous transformation of your sales capabilities.

What is sales capability? 

Sales capability is the skills, behaviours and knowledge of sales professionals. A strong sales capability set helps organisations identify and target potential customers, creating effective sales processes sales strategy and driving revenue growth.

3 steps to define sales capabilities

There are three steps you need to follow for effective sales capability creation in your business.

Step 1: Define the landscape

The first step in sales capability creation is to define the need. There are three questions for you to consider here.

  1. What is your organisation’s greater mission, purpose, and values?
  2. What is the role of the sales department in that mission?
  3. What value does your sales function generate for the business, now and into the future?

We get it, bullet points two and three are revenue. Cash in the door. But it’s more than that in today’s complex B2B sales environment—your sellers today are brand ambassadors, word of mouth leads, and employer branding.

But it’s important to remember that your business strategy needs to be aligned with capabilities to drive business success. So, having a specific vision of desired organisational outcomes and how sales capabilities fit into that is just the first step towards building capability.

Step 2: Define the purpose

Now you need to really define the purpose of sales capability within the organisation. This is going deeper than merely knowing the role of sales in your company mission. It’s about the different factors that feed into the true purpose of a capability in the context of a business. In general, there are five factors to consider.

  1. Company strategy: How well does the capability feed into business outcomes?
  2. Market demand: Is there demand for the capability in the market?
  3. Available resources: Does the company have enough budget, people, or equipment to sustain the capability?
  4. Existing capabilities: Does your sales capability complement or compete with the current capabilities?
  5. Risks: What are the potential risks that could arise (such as to finances or reputation) from building the capability?

Step 3: Define the outcome

When you go about naming your capability, you need to make sure of two things:

  1. It’s defined in language aligned with your company’s voice and values.
  2. It’s descriptive of how it actually functions and affects the business.

In other words, a capability name is really just a description of a desired outcome within the context of your organisation.

As an example:

If you’re still having trouble defining your capabilities, we’ve created a list of sales capabilities for you here, complete with different levels of sales competencies. And, if you’re looking for adjacent capabilities, we also have lists of customer support and marketing capabilities as well.

Strategies for building sales capability

When it comes to developing sales capability in your organisation, there are a few steps to work through before you reach development.

  1. Gaining leadership buy-in
  2. Building co-ownership between HR and sales
  3. Assessing sales capability gaps
  4. Assessing sales capability maturity
  5. Building sales capability
  6. Tracking progress.

Engaging leadership

Building capability and gaining employee engagement in capability building begins with leaders. And we don’t just mean that they have to be involved in capability development initiatives. We mean that there needs to be buy-in from leaders before capability development can even go ahead, because 70% of change programs fail without leadership buy-in.

You have to make the need for capability building clear to business unit leaders for them to commit to it. This isn’t about convincing them of the importance of capabilities, which vary in importance for the business (more on that later), so much as giving them a clear understanding of how capabilities will solve their pain points.

In other words, you need to have an idea of what KPIs your leaders want met in order to make a case for capability development. Their desired outcomes could be:

It’s about understanding the business value these outcomes are generating for your business, and communicating how your sales capability can add to that.

Co-ownership between HR and sales

But you can’t just stop at gaining buy-in from business and business unit leaders. Capability creation can’t be effectively developed without building co-ownership between HR and your business units.

Change programs don’t have permanent effects on a business overnight. In fact, they’re an ongoing process of training and development initiatives which generate small, incremental changes to employee behaviour (and expertise) over time, until that transformation becomes permanent. Why do we mention this? Well, when you don’t have clear co-ownership between HR and business units (in this case, your sales team and sales managers), responsibility for the development of L&D becomes siloed. And silos, in turn, create disjointed capability-building initiatives that are misaligned with business performance.

If HR is solely responsible, capability creation and development programs may not be relevant or connected to the needs of your organisation’s sales teams, resulting in poor sales management skills in your team and therefore, poor sales performance. On the other hand, resting responsibility for sales capability creation on your sales department alone means development activities might not be correctly aligned to your organisation’s business strategy and priorities. Which, in turn, negatively affects your overall business performance.

So, it’s important that organisations build co-ownership between sales business units and HR to ensure better sales capability development for the business.

Understanding sales capability gaps

This is where you can work on understanding the discrepancies between the full potential of your sales capability framework and the current reality of your capability landscape. Capabilities are measured in terms of competency, or proficiency.

There are a few ways to assess existing sales competencies, but you shouldn’t use them in isolation. Instead, you should utilise all three capability assessment methods to create a clear overview of your currently available sales capabilities.

  1. Have employees do self-assessments. They can evaluate themselves based against a sales capability framework.
  2. Compare them to manager assessments. Managers will have a more objective view of employee competency.
  3. For specialist capability sets, compare one or both of the previous assessments with a competency assessment from subject matter experts.

You should be consistent with the way you grade competency. We suggest using a grading system based on proficiency level or room for improvement, like:

A competency assessment will show you the current proficiency of your sales capability, and should have logical room for improvement to close the gaps between current and desired capabilities.

And remember, this isn’t just about how well your sellers can recount the steps in your sales process. This is about all the parts that build out a high performing sales department, from seller business acumen to sales operations through to sales tech stack analysis.

Assessing sales capability maturity

Maturity is different from assessing capability gaps in that it looks more towards the overall proficiency of capabilities in the business. This allows you to prioritise which sales capabilities should be developed first to increase sales productivity, based on the risk to business and sales performance.

Capability maturity generally exists on a linear progression of five levels:

  1. Reactive. Capability performance is unpredictable and ad hoc.
  2. Managed. Capabilities are managed project to project.
  3. Defined. Capability performance is managed through org-wide guidelines.
  4. Qualitative. Capabilities are aligned with business processes and objectives.
  5. Optimised. Capabilities are optimised through continuous improvement and talent stability.

Ultimately, the point is to have your sales capability at the highest level of maturity.

Methods to build sales capability

Now it’s time build your sales capability. The important thing to remember here is to align your sales capability needs with your L&D activities.

Your sales capabilities are crucial to ensuring a continuous sales pipeline and maintaining your advantage competitive advantage, in constant, ongoing processes. So, it’s essential that you create sales training that effectively develops sales capability in the moment, allowing for learning in the flow of work.

Tracking progress

As we mentioned before, it’s a competitive market, and you want to maintain your competitive advantage. This is why capability building needs to be continuous. Monitoring the progress of your sales-focused L&D initiatives allows you to see how your sales competencies have improved (or not) as a result of your L&D efforts.

There are a number of different methods you can use to track progress here.

Key takeaways

Given that the market and industry landscape changes quickly over time, it’s important that you create a process of continual development for your sales capability, optimising sales productivity and ensuring your sales success. This doesn’t need to be hard—you just need to:

  1. Get buy-in from leaders
  2. Establish co-ownership between HR and leaders
  3. Identify your sales capability gaps
  4. Assess sales capability maturity and prioritise capabilities to develop
  5. Embed L&D with everyday work
  6. Monitor progress for continuous improvement.

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