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The Ultimate Guide to Sales Play Development

Published Date: Thursday, Nov 16, 2023
Last Updated on: Monday, Nov 20, 2023

Building relationships. Delivering sustained revenue. Accelerating growth.

Those are the key objectives of any high-growth sales team.

In the hyper-intensive B2B climate, they’re rarely achieved without a heavy lift. Buyers expect more, across an ever-increasing number of channels and at unprecedented pace. 

For the average sales rep, navigating this reality alone is tough. In fact, only 28% of sales professionals expect to meet or exceed their quota in the upcoming year.

As businesses look to drive quota attainment forward, many are turning to a more strategic approach to build team confidence and competence: sales plays. In this article, we’ll delve into the concept of sales play development, and its role in scaling pipeline and converting prospects into loyal customers.

What is a sales play?

A sales play is a structured, multi-step series of touchpoints and activities designed to guide prospects to a purchasing decision. It involves a well-defined set of actions, tactics and communication methods – usually across multiple channels – tailored to address the unique needs of a particular customer segment.

Plays are designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of sales efforts and can be customized for different scenarios, such as targeting a specific industry, addressing a common customer pain point or pursuing a particular market opportunity. They provide sales professionals with a clear roadmap and a situational cadence to follow, helping them better understand how and when to engage with prospects or customers.

Marketing team discussing the importance of sales play development

Why are sales plays important?

To achieve steady quota attainment from revenue programs, you need consistency in your sales approach. Trying to scale without consistency will lead to outliers, missed targets, low return on investment and limited revenue predictability as a result.

With plays, businesses can add this level of consistency to their processes. Reps work with a clear, established sense of direction and the exact touches they need to make to deliver value at every stage of a customer conversation. This approach harmonizes the sales process with the buyer persona and customer journey, equipping both new and experienced sellers with data-led tactics to successfully forge connections and move leads through the pipeline.

The benefits of sales plays

Plays are not just about consistency and control. When implemented correctly, they’re highly effective tools of engagement. According to Harvard Business Review, leading sales operations attribute more than 60% of pipeline to actively designed and deployed plays. 

Here’s why:

Coaching and onboarding: Sales playbooks provide a structured framework for training new team members, making onboarding more efficient and effective. By leading with data-led recommendations, leaders can help newcomers quickly understand best practices and deliver key value propositions with prescribed messaging – reducing assumptions and slow ramp-to-quota.
Data-led processes: With continual analysis and validation, strategists can determine the highest-impact plays to run for any given niche, buyer or opportunity, and replace gut feelings with statistically informed routines. Equally, teams can assess the strength of their messaging in accordance with outlined KPIs and continually refocus messaging, propositions and tonalities for better return on effort.
Agility and adaptability: Plays can be created or adjusted based on performance data and changing market conditions, helping teams stay agile and responsive. A cycle of selection, creation and activation ensures teams are able to serve attractive shorter-term opportunities and emerging buyer demands. It’s faster (and easier) to adjust processes at source than to re-coach an entire team each time a new opportunity arises.
Targeted outreach: Plays enable teams to segment customers and present key decision-makers with the value proposition that matters most to their niche. By personalizing en masse, based on shared industry pain points, sellers can deliver more targeted touches without investing time to craft 1:1 messaging for each prospect – accelerating purchase propensity and differentiating service quality to competitors.
A team of marketing experts discussing the benefits of having a sales play

Types of sales plays

Plays are adaptable and can be customized to suit a company’s specific goals, products and industry, making them versatile tools in the sales process. The choice of the type of play depends on the unique sales objectives and challenges faced by a business.

From upselling to net-new nurturing, plays can serve many purposes. The most common include:

Prospecting plays: Focus on identifying and reaching out to potential leads or prospects to build pipeline. They involve strategies for finding and engaging with individuals or companies who fit a predetermined ideal customer profile (ICP) or buyer persona.

Nurturing plays: Plays designed to retain rapport and drip feed content to low-intent or not-quite-ready-to-buy prospects. They involve ongoing communication and engagement to keep the prospect’s interest and trust over time.

Upsell and cross-sell plays: These plays focus on increasing the value of the sale by encouraging existing customers to upgrade packages or invest in additional products or services. 

Product launch plays: When introducing a new product or service, these plays focus on creating awareness and driving initial early interest through targeted communications tailored to the product’s unique value propositions.

Inbound follow-up plays: These plays provide guidelines for effectively following up with marketing qualified leads (MQLs) generated through inbound marketing, ensuring that no potential opportunities slip through the cracks.

Authority and referral plays: These strategies leverage existing buyer relationships to generate referrals and word-of-mouth business based on positive customer experiences.

Sales and marketing experts discussing the different types of sales play.

The B2B essentials

Successful play implementation relies on a number of established ideas, sales technology, documents and resources. It isn’t as simple as writing a cadence based on what you perceive a buyer’s preferences to be. Here are some key materials sales teams should look to collect prior to developing and distributing.

Ideal customer profile (ICP)

A detailed description of the type of company or organization that is the best fit for a particular product, service or solution. It's a strategic tool used by B2B businesses to identify and target high-potential prospects and avoid pursuing customers who may not derive significant value from the product or service.

Buyer persona

A detailed and semi-fictional representation of an ideal customer for a product, service or play. Buyer personas are created based on market research, data analysis, and insights gathered from actual customers or potential buyers. They are essential tools for businesses and marketers to better understand and cater to the specific needs, preferences, behaviors and pain points of their target customers.

Buyer intelligence and customer segments

Segmentation is essential to play effectiveness. It enables sales teams to tailor messaging to specific customer subsets without extensive 1:1 content creation or personalization. To segment effectively, strategists need to procure specific insights about prospects, their motivations and their preferences. This typically includes intent, demographic, firmographic and psychographic attributes.

Established value propositions

Concise statements that communicate the unique benefits and value that a product, service or offering provides to customers or clients. A well-crafted value proposition is a fundamental element of marketing and sales strategies, as it can effectively capture the attention of potential customers and help differentiate a business from its competitors.

Assets & content

A selection of materials that support or accelerate the execution of a sales play. Assets like case studies, articles, white papers and testimonials provide tangible “proof points” for representatives, helping them to deliver meaningful value at the various stages of a touch pattern.

The four phases of sales play development

Strategy phase

Strategy is the prerequisite to any successful play. That usually starts with understanding the purpose of the play: What are you looking to achieve? As a granular strategy, plays need to be tailored and targeted not just to specific prospects and decision-makers – but also specific outcomes or objectives. An upsell play for existing customers won’t work for net-new prospects, for example. 

Consider the attributes that contribute to buyer interactions and intent: seasonality, saturation, economical influences, market fluctuations. Is there a need that directly warrants play execution? 

Many sales leaders use the SPIN (situation, problem, implication, need-payoff) methodology to assess opportunity potential:


What is the condition of the current target market? 


What pain points are key players grappling with in the market?


What are the consequences of ignoring these issues?


How can a specific solution solve these identified pains?

Marketing experts discuss strategy as a part of the sales process

Design phase

Designing a sales play involves a systematic process that aligns your sales strategy with the specific objectives and customer segments outlined in the strategy phase. Play design requires data-driven creativity. It should provide repeatable templating for reps to use, hitting multiple value propositions and pain points with targeted messaging. 

Strategists looking to excel in the design phase should consider the following key attributes:

Messaging: Messaging needs to be purposeful, delivered in a way that is authentic, consultative and honest. If you know that a message, tonality or touchpoint has been effective for a particular industry or ICP previously, that will give you a good foundation to build on. It’ll also help you diagnose where your industry-specific messaging misfired in the past, and save you from repeating the same mistakes in the future. 
Touch pattern: A touch pattern is a roadmap sequence outlining play communications, cadence length and proposed activities. The intensity of a touch pattern will vary based on prospect intent and messaging variation. If the segment contains active in-market prospects, for example, leaders may choose to increase touch frequency to serve urgency or deliver maximum value in the early play execution stages. 
Cadence length: The length of a sales cadence, or the duration of a structured sequence of sales interactions, is an important consideration in the play design process. It should align with the typical length of the buyer’s journey. If the cadence is too short, it may not provide sufficient time for the prospect to move through their decision-making process. If it’s too long, it could become intrusive and cause prospects to become disgruntled – damaging brand reputation in the process.
Channels: Using a variety of channels ensures that you reach prospects where they are most active. By selecting the right channels, you can tailor your outreach to match the preferences of each prospect, leading to a more personalized and engaging experience. Equally, if one channel doesn’t yield results, others may be more effective. This redundancy helps leaders maintain engagement and increases the likelihood of responses.
Assets: Prospects want to see, not just hear. The proof is in your anecdotal experiences: case studies and use-case examples in their industry or similar. These give you a competitive advantage that matters to the buyer, based on their industry and preferences. Consider the assets that directly flesh out the value proposition and serve the interests of the influencer.
Offer and call to action: Each touchpoint requires an additional reason for the prospect to engage: an offer. This may include a discount, competitive proof of concept (POC), demo or anything else that adds an attractive edge to your message. This offer should be clearly woven into the call to action, providing clear, actionable next steps prompting the prospect to take the desired action. A well-crafted offer and CTA will eliminate any ambiguity and naturally guide recipients toward the next phase of the sales cycle.
Marketing team discussing the design phase.

Execution and adoption

Once a play strategy and content pattern are established, leaders need to put these frameworks into action. This is very rarely as simple as plug-and-play. If a company is rolling out new value-based plays or messaging, they must equip, train and coach sellers to drive the needed behavioral change.

There are a number of attributes that go into effective play execution. Here are three core considerations that are essential:

Benchmarking: Define the key performance indicators (KPIs) that will measure the success of the sales play. Benchmarks and baselines are also critical – though they need to be informed and achievable. Assigning a 30% call-to-conversion rate needs to be justified based on similar programs and known historical data. Many businesses choose to invest in third-party benchmarking data to understand whether they are performing above or below expectations comprehensively.
Coaching: Firms where salespeople use the company’s methodology and get consistent coaching see 73% quota attainment. As plays are developed, it is imperative that sellers understand their purpose and role in the execution. Effective coaching and roleplay-based exercises can enable a more seamless transition into the field, helping reps to gain competency, learn the value of specific touchpoints and understand the expectations set for them. 
Measure adoption: If your sales team can’t recognize the benefits of your sales messaging, you’ll see huge reductions in adoption. There’s a real business case for teaching reps to read and understand the analytics behind a play. With most sales enablement tools, this data is readily available at their fingertips. If they don’t understand, or can’t interpret this data, take the time to demonstrate.
marketing team discussing the execution of the sales play

Test and learn

To maximize value from sales play performance, leaders need to routinely assess and optimize plays based on engagement, ROE and ROI.

Testing involves methodically conducted experiments aimed at enhancing different aspects of your plays. These “tests” typically include the collection and analysis of data to validate assumptions regarding play performance. The ultimate objective is to boost engagement and improve outcomes over time. These tests serve as means of measuring, scrutinizing and substantiating the performance of your current processes, playing a pivotal role in maintaining the freshness of your touch pattern and continued relevance of your data.

In practice, testing can assess a wide variety of comparisons within your strategy. This may range from subtle adjustments to elements such as email subject lines and calls to action (CTAs) to more extensive experiments, such as A/B testing two plays targeted at the same audience, with varying value propositions, messaging, touch frequency or cadence lengths.

marketing and sales team test the sales process.

Key considerations & best practices

Collaborate beyond sales: Impactful plays rely on more than just insights from sales professionals. Every single department offers unique experiences, unique data and unique expertise based on the context available to them. Marketing and business intelligence may see a different picture of the same objective – and those inputs are invaluable to the creative process. 
Integrate feedback: Gathering quantitative and qualitative feedback from all customer-facing teams is essential to improve and refine play execution. Salespeople are running plays every day. Their insight is truly invaluable. Survey those on the floor to understand their objections, where believed improvements can be made, and gain sustainable insight into the shortcomings of your strategy. When sellers feel like their contributions are taken seriously, they are more likely to buy in to new processes and propositions.

Final thoughts

Sales plays are not just a trend; they are a fundamental shift in the way businesses engage with prospects and customers. By implementing them effectively, you can find new heights of success, meet your quotas, and create lasting connections that drive your growth and prosperity in an ever-evolving business landscape.

Looking to outsource? We can help. Harte Hanks is highly experienced in designing winning sales plays. Powered by our commitment to routine testing and experimentation, our plays are specifically targeted plans of outreach, designed to transform prospective customers into buyers. We uncover your prospect’s pain points and deliver meaningful messaging that solves their challenges and drives them toward conversion.

Contact us today