Sales Manager Roles and Responsibilities in 2019
In many companies, “Sales” is looked at as one big issue. When things are not going well, people make blanket statements like “Sales is broken.” Often, when I’m brought into a company whose sales team is underachieving, senior executives and Sales managers will express their frustration at being truly overwhelmed by the enormity of fixing “Sales.”
Sales Manager is responsible for the effectiveness of a sales team, and increase sales. This blog explores 50+ Sales Manager Roles and Responsibilities like Sales leadership, Culture Management, and Sales Process.
Sales Management Categories
When I set out to improve the health and effectiveness of a sales team, and ultimately increase sales, I deploy a very simple grid, a filter if you will, that helps sort the myriad of potential sales issues into three main buckets.
Sales managership and Culture
I view each of these buckets as essential pieces of the sales management framework. Beyond using this grid as a lens to guide my coaching and consulting, I also work hard to help clients adopt it as their own sales management framework. In other words, I go beyond simply using it myself to improve a sales organization.
My bigger objective is for Sales managers to own this framework and to know with 100 percent certainty that if they focus on these three essential sales management categories, they’ll see a marked improvement in their sales team and results.
Sales managership and Culture is where we start the Sales Management. Simplified. journey. The first dozen or so years of my sales career, I worked only in pro-sales environments. Unhealthy, unhelpful, and unproductive sales team cultures were a foreign concept to me.
It wasn’t until I took a job at a company with goofy Sales managership and a bizarre culture that I began to even ponder the effect of culture on sales performance.
This was a necessary awakening because I discovered over the past dozen years that those healthy cultures I benefited from early in my career were the exception, not the norm. In fact, it is so uncommon to stumble upon an extremely healthy sales culture that it is almost shocking when I do find one.
Two years ago, I did a project for a firm outside of Philadelphia that had the single healthiest culture I’ve encountered. It was so wonderful and so rare that I’ve been talking about it ever since.
I was also a bit slow on the uptake regarding the importance of leadership and culture in sales performance because I came into consulting as an expert sales technician mistakenly believing that if I coached the heck out of every individual salesperson and sales team, I could transform performance.
Confident in my content and ability to persuade and coach, I naively ignored how the sales organization’s leader and culture factored into the performance equation.
Today, I laugh looking back at my youthful ignorance. I now believe that the team’s leadership and culture are more critical to a business’s sales success than are the skills of its producers.
“Leadership and Culture” may seem like a vague or general catch-all phrase. Let me offer some questions to guide you down the path and to set the stage for upcoming sections on this important first piece of the framework.
What does it feel like to be part of your company’s sales team?
Is it a high-performance culture? Why do you feel that way?
Are team members laser-focused on goals and results?
What’s the vibe in the sales department (whether it is local or based remotely)?
What does accountability look like on this team?
How often, how big, and how loud are victories celebrated?
Is the manager leading the team or just reacting to circumstances?
A Simple Framework Provides Clarity to the Sales Manager
Are our sales team meetings valuable? Do salespeople leave those meetings better equipped, envisioned, and energized, or drained and discouraged?
Do members of the sales team feel supported, valued, and appreciated?
Does the existing compensation plan make sense and does it drive the desired behaviors and results?
In what ways is the manager putting his or her fingerprints on the team?
How much of the Sales manager’s time is devoted to non-sales activities and executive and administrative burdens?
What’s the level of intensity, passion, and heart-engagement of team members?
I don’t believe that anyone would doubt that we can create significant lift in a sales organization by improving the answers to these questions.
Talent Management is the next piece of the sales management puzzle. Senior executives and sales managers agree that talent is a huge issue. No one contests that assertion.
Yet, while executives give lip service to giving talent management it's due, lip service is often all it is. Some leaders have trouble tackling “sales talent” because they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
The situation is similar to how “Sales” feels too big to attack; Sales managers tell me they’re not sure where to even begin addressing talent management.
While working with a senior executive a few years ago, I created a mini-framework to help us better segment, strategize, and address the various talent deficiencies in her sales organization.
Breaking talent management into the following four sub-categories was so beneficial on this project that I began using this process as my go-to model for all things sales talent. I call it the Four Rs of Sales Talent Management:
Right People in the Right Roles
Retain Top Producers
Remediate or Replace Underperformers (coach up or coach out)
Sure, remediate isn’t really the ideal word there, but I was looking for something easy to remember that keeping with the alliteration.
But before we dive deeper to explore each element, my hope is that just seeing those four categories serves as a catalyst for you to begin gaining clarity on your sales talent issues and opportunities.
Sales Process, particularly new business development sales process, is my favorite piece of the sales management puzzle.
The truth is that I love sales. I bleed in sales. For all the time I’ve now spent as an executive, as a consultant, and as a speaker, deep down I’m still a sales guy.
I love the chase and the art of selling. Even when I’m drowning in work, I’ll pursue a lead or referral because the competitor in me wants to win and because I strongly believe that I’m the best solution for the prospective client.
There are certain key sales management responsibilities when it comes to the sales process. Managers must help point team members in the right direction to strategically target appropriate customers and prospects.
After pointing the team, the manager ensures that the sales-people are armed with the necessary sales weapons and that they become proficient at using them.
And because victory is dependent on successful execution at the point of attack, the manager must monitor the sales battle, checking that the troops are executing their plans and staying on course.
While the sales process may be my favorite piece of the Sales managership framework and the one that comes most naturally for me.
it is also intentionally third in the order—squarely behind leadership and culture and talent management, during my first stint in consulting I learned from experience that you can’t transform sales organizations by coaching everyone into better salespeople.
To create meaningful, lasting sales performance improvement, it is critical to get Sales managership and culture and talent management right first.
A Healthy Sales Culture Changes Everything
We had fun, energizing, and helpful sales team meetings. Salespeople wrote and presented annual business plans that became living documents. Sales reports were published and public.
So when a salesperson won big, it was because the company was also winning big. Commission and bonuses were delivered with smiles, not resentment. Sales were king at this company; everyone knew it and everyone benefited from it.
It took fifteen years, four employers, and almost 150 consulting engagements until I found a company with a stronger sales culture. That’s how amazing that company was, and what a treat it was to work there. Little did I know how spoiled I was or how unique that environment.
I find these definitions very helpful as I launch into defining a healthy sales culture. But first, I’d like to ask you to consider the following questions concerning your current sales team culture:
What are the predominant shared attitudes across the sales organization, including the sales manager?
Could your team members articulate agreed-upon share values? If so, what are they?
Which shared practices are hallmarks of your sales team?
Is there is an accepted, understood, and enforced way of thinking and behaving that characterizes your salespeople?
During those fifteen years, I (un)fortunately had the opportunity to work for, observe, and consult for a wide variety of organizations with less-than-ideal sales cultures. A good number of those observations made their way into Part One of this blog.
Pain can be a very good teacher. The first authentic anti-sales culture I encountered was at a software company with an enterprise learning management system that I joined just as the Internet bubble was bursting in 2000.
It was my first real exposure to an executive team who truly didn’t understand sales. This small company was run by entrepreneurial software guys, and the cubicles were filled with, you guessed it, software developers.
That combined with frenzied Sales managers who ran around with their hair on fire and wouldn’t or couldn’t offer clarity about which specific target markets the sales team should attack.
As a consultant, I’ve been in the company after company with less-than-ideal sales cultures. The reasons vary greatly. In one organization it’s the heavy-handed CFO who doesn’t even pretend to hide his jealousy of the sales team’s compensation or his general animosity toward all things and all people sales related.
In other organizations, it’s the project managers who specialize in accusing salespeople of “selling and dumping,” and taking potshots at top producers for setting client expectations unreasonably high.
In some organizations, the unhealthy sales culture manifests itself in more subtle ways. In these cases, it’s not jealousy or dislike of sales, it’s more a lack of appreciation for what the sales team is supposed to be doing to drive revenue. I see companies that regularly take advantage of what they perceive as a salesperson’s “free time.”
Salespeople are often used as “free labor” to participate in projects, to assist those managing programs, to essentially help out customer service, operations, and other areas. The shame is that it’s typically the weaker salespeople who best accommodate these requests. They’re not bold, strong, confident, or outspoken enough to resist.
The result? The salespeople who can least afford to sacrifice their “selling time” end up doing so the most, which, naturally, translates into even lower sales production.
And then when the quarter ends, the same management assigning salespeople non-sales work turns back around to blame the salesperson for not hitting sales goals.
That maddening scenario is more common than you might think, and beyond anything else, it is a culture issue. When the sales function is not respected bad things happen to sales results.
Again without prompting, he extolled the value of the regular manager to salesperson one-on-one meeting, where he saw it as the manager’s job to better understand the salesperson, to review goals and results, to help remove obstacles, and to stretch the salesperson.
The management at his company was more concerned with repelling the wrong people (who wouldn’t fit) than with hiring the very best talent available. In fact, much of the lengthy interview process was designed to scare away candidates. I can’t tell you how different that approach is from what I see in so many companies with lame cultures.
I just recently sat in on a group interview for another client. Key executives and I were meeting with a candidate for whom we had mixed feelings. But fifteen minutes into the two-hour interview, the CEO interrupted our questions and started selling the candidate on joining his wonderful company.
I mention that here only because the contrast is so striking between the one company with a phenomenal high-performance sales culture that strenuously screened every hire and this other company with an unhealthy sales culture whose leader chose to fill an empty chair with the warm body in front of him.
It was a blast, but the experience of day one paled in comparison to day two. The following day I spent about six hours facilitating a sales team meeting that only confirmed my initial thoughts about the firm’s powerful culture.
Sure, as planned, we sharpened the sales story and worked through how to incorporate elements of this improved messaging into the team’s various prospecting and sales weapons. But what I’ll never forget was the opportunity to watch the culture in action throughout the course of this meeting.
The communication in that meeting room was the most direct, transparent, blunt, confrontational, helpful, hysterically funny, loving, and healthy I’ve ever seen in any company for any type of meeting. This company used the role to play in ways I never thought possible.
Sales team members were constantly needling each other, and management provided brutally honest feedback to salespeople throughout the day. At first, I was taken aback, even uncomfortable with a very direct communication style.
But as the day wore on, I understood the fundamental reasons why such strong critiques and tough words were taken in stride, and I gained even more clarity about why this team was so outrageously successful.
The good-natured teasing and brutal feedback were so well received because it was never personal; it was business, and on top of that, there was love and trust in the room. These very well compensated top-producing salespeople knew that management had their best interests at heart.
How much easier would it be to attract and retain top talent with a pro-sales culture?
If I confidentially polled your salespeople, would the majority state that the leadership of your company is “for” the salespeople or against them?
Is your current sales culture anything like what I described in my “sales heaven” job and at Robert’s company, or are you light-years from that type of environment? How radical a shift in priorities and time allocation would it take to begin moving the sales culture needle in your organization?
Sales Managers Must Radically Reallocate Their Time to Create a Winning Sales Culture
The Sales Manager’s Biggest Time Drains Hold Them Back from Leading Their Teams and Creating a Healthy Culture
I have a friend who’s become an expert on the attributes of successful leaders and why certain executives are so much more productive than others.
We got into a deep conversation about time wasters and how much time senior-level people spend on low-value tasks. I told him about a senior executive client of mine who was spending hours coordinating the travel and logistics for an upcoming corporate meeting.
That led us down a path, and before long he was grilling me about how sales managers “invest” (waste) most of their time.
There is much lip service given to planning calendars and supposed sales management priorities. Best intentions are one thing, but the reality is often another.
After I closely observed a handful of managers across varying industries and company sizes, my initial suspicions were confirmed. As a whole, this disparate group of leaders not only spent their time in scarily similar ways but, unfortunately, spent it mostly in what I would consider low-value ways.
These are the five biggest time suckers/sins that keep sales managers from effectively leading their teams:
They are slaves to email, perpetually checking and replying while living in reactive mode.
They sit in on a ridiculous number of meetings and conference calls that often have little to do with driving revenue—death by meeting!
They get caught up playing either Assistant GM or Firefighter-in-Chief.
They are buried with administrative and non-sales crap, get
Sales Managers Must Radically Reallocate Their Time to Create a Winning Sales Culture asked to create or plow throw an obscene number of reports and live with their heads constantly buried in CRM screens.
5. They don’t own their calendars, protect their priorities, or plan well.
I list them here to drive home one big point: When Sales managers, either by force or choice, spend most of their working hours in these areas, by default they are not leading their teams, not building a winning sales culture, and certainly not driving new revenue for the company.
Save your rebuttal; I’m not interested. Instead of offering your rationale for why you have to devote so much time to non–Sales managership, non–revenue producing activities, maybe you should ask if there’s a causal relationship between where you invest your time and the sales culture and performance of your team. I would argue that there most certainly is.
Just as we have no trouble bluntly informing the struggling sales-person that it’s not about how busy he is or how hard he’s working but that he gets paid to increase sales, Sales managers must preach that message to themselves! Somehow, some way, too many organizations have completely lost sight of the Sales manager’s mission.
There are only so many hours in a week, and when those hours are consumed by work that doesn’t contribute to leading the team, driving revenue, or enhancing the sales culture, then it’s really hard to see how that’s the best use of a Sales manager’s time.
The Sales Manager’s Highest-Value Activities Should Be Obvious
My goal is not to cause you heartache; it’s to help you. And I have good news: It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no law against good sales management. You are free to change your approach, behavior, and, most important, how you choose to spend your time.
I know you will have to swim against the current, and fight against tradition, against the existing culture, and maybe against truly clueless executives with bizarre views of the sales manager’s job. But I promise you that it’s worth the fight.
The battle begins by acknowledging that in order to create the healthy, winning sales culture you so badly want, you must commit to radically altering where you spend your time.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the Sales managership and culture battle is begun and won when you successfully transition to spending the majority of your time in high-value, high-payoff Sales managership activities.
Sales Managers Must Radically Reallocate Their Time to Create a Winning Sales Culture
Let’s start with these three favorites:
Conducting one-on-one meetings with individual salespeople
Leading sales team meetings
Working alongside (observing, coaching, helping) salespeople when they are with customers and prospects
Is this list patently obvious? Probably. But you’d never know it if you logged how most sales managers spend their time. Sure, they’d give lip service to the importance of these critical activities, but their calendars would tell a very different story.
Going back to my simple framework for sales lift, in order to create sustainable sales performance improvement, we must improve the company’s sales culture and how the team is led, the way sales talent is managed, and the sales process.
The best way to attack these essentials is to meet individually with members of the team, meet with the team as a whole, and invest time to work alongside salespeople in front of real customers and prospects.
The next three sections dive into each of these critical sales management activities.
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting Between the Sales Manager and Each Salesperson Will Transform Your Sales Culture
I am fully aware that upon seeing this blog’s title, many of you will think, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” Before you dismiss this topic and move on, please believe me when I write that this stupidly simple, über powerful, sales management best practice has the potential to transform your culture.
In every coaching relationship, I intentionally ask the sales manager a very simple, yet slightly vague question: How often do you normally meet 1:1 with each of your people? Invariably, I get an assortment of responses, but they typically include some version of the manager proudly sharing that she’s in regular contact with her people.
She’ll tell me she speaks or emails with just about everyone all the time. I’ll respond by saying that it’s great that she keeps up with the troops, and then narrow down my question: “Let me be a bit more specific.
How often do you have a formally scheduled meeting (either by phone or face-to-face) with each salesperson specifically to review their results and their pipeline of future sales opportunities?” That response doesn’t
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Sales Meeting come quite as fast and usually involves a bit of stuttering combined with a lengthy circular answer.
Every single month this meeting began exactly the same way. The Sales manager and the salesperson both knew that before anything else, we were going to look at last month and year-to-date results versus goal and relative ranking versus the rest of the sales team.
If the previous month and year-to-date results were phenomenal, the meeting was essentially over. Donnie would pat you on the back, tell you to keep it up, and then encourage you to go buy that fancy new car you’d been eyeing. Meeting adjourned.
But the reality is that the meeting almost never ended after the results phase. In the example above, sure I was doing pretty darn well, but I had missed the month and was trailing two other salespeople who were beating their goal for the year by more than I was.
Donnie wasn’t going to let me off that easy. “Mike, you missed the mark last month and it cost you. You’ve fallen to third in the rankings. What are you going to do about it?”
Out came the legal pad with his notes from last month’s meeting. “Where are you on these deals that didn’t close last month as projected? What else is hot? Tell me what materialized from your Memphis trip last week? Take me through your most significant opportunities; let’s talk dates and likelihood of closing.”
Sure, today we have slicker tools, we communicate much faster, and everyone is kept better abreast of the status of deals in the pipeline. But don’t let that distract you from the bigger point here. When the results weren’t what they should’ve been, Donnie dug into the pipeline.
If he liked what he heard from me—in other words if my pipeline was healthy and it appeared to have sufficient volume and movement of opportunities to exceed my goals in upcoming months— he was satisfied and the meeting would then be over.
However, if Donnie was not pleased with the condition of the pipeline, then it was time for the third and least pleasant phase of the 1:1 sales manager meeting with the salesperson. No one liked it when it got to that part of the meeting. “Mike, results aren’t what we need them to be, and your pipeline is weak.
We both know there are not enough good opportunities to produce the revenue you need over the next few months. You’ve left me no choice but to ask: What the heck have you been doing?
Grab your calendar. What was your activity last month? How many meetings did you have? What does next week look like and the week after? Let’s pull out your business plan.
Are you hitting the levels of activity you committed to hitting? Who are you targeting right now and what are you doing to fill your pipeline and get sales back on track? I’m here to help. Is something in your way?”
This Sales Accountability Progression
I’ve experienced that 1:1 results-focused sales manager–salesperson interaction from three angles. First, I benefited from being a well-managed salesperson. Having to face my manager every month showed me what this meeting, when done well, could do for the sales-person.
Later, as Donnie’s consulting partner, I benefited by observing him coach our client Sales managers on the importance of regular 1:1s with every team member.
Finally, over the past ten years, I’ve witnessed the transformational power these regular, formal, scheduled, results-focused sales manager–salesperson meetings have had on my clients’ sales cultures.
These meetings have such an impact on culture and performance that often months after concluding an engagement, a Sales manager will contact me to share how implementing this one simple practice significantly improved her effectiveness as a manager and the results-focus of her team.
What makes this simple twenty-minute meeting so effective? To answer that, let’s go back and deconstruct the phases and progression of the meeting.
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THE SALES MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTABILITY
It’s not just that these are the right elements for a regular 1:1. There is some magic in the order. The progression matters—a lot. Why? Because nobody likes to be micromanaged, and it’s not fun having your boss ask you about your activity.
Sure, we all know that key activity metrics are important. As I’ve stated earlier, I’m a big proponent of a high-frequency sales attack. In my experience, it’s typically
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting the salesperson who turns over the most rocks who finds the most opportunities. But when it comes to managing the salesperson, there are several good reasons activity is not the place we want to start.
Results is the first phase in the accountability progression because, well, sales is all about results. It’s that simple. I have repeatedly referred to this as a “results-focused” 1:1 intentionally.
As leaders, if we want to build and maintain a results-focused sales culture, then we had better be talking about results every opportunity we get. Frankly, our people should tire of hearing us talk about results.
Something else wonderful happens, too, when we lead with results. It stops all the nonsense and bullshit that salespeople love to throw out at managers attempting to hold them accountable.
Not sure about you, but I lose my patience very quickly when underperforming sales reps create a verbal smokescreen hoping to confuse and baffle sales managers with everything they’ve got going.
Salespeople not hitting quota tend to get really good at dazzling their manager by reciting all the opportunities they’re working. These 1:1s I’m advocating are not deal strategy meetings. They’re not catch-up sessions. Their main purpose is to review past results and ensure that the sales-person will have good future results. Period.
In my opinion, 1:1 is the best venue for accountability. Sure, we are still going to publish, post, and distribute sales reports. And we will look at these reports in sales team meetings. If those not making numbers and ranked toward the bottom of the report are uncomfortable with that, good; they should be.
But I’m not a fan of shaming or embarrassing people by calling out their poor performance in front of others or having those who are struggling explain their results publicly. That creates an awful, negative, and demoralizing environment. In-your-face results accountability best takes place in a private session.
That’s why it’s unfortunate that so few managers conduct this type of 1:1 today. Hence, the lack of accountability for the results we see in so many organizations.
Starting off these meetings by reviewing results provides other benefits as well. When done regularly and properly, these meetings need not be overly emotional. I work with some managers who tend to shy away from hard conversations and the potential conflict that may arise during an accountability meeting.
What I love about this type of 1:1 meeting, and specifically about starting with results, is that these meetings shouldn’t be emotional or dramatic at all. There is no need to raise voices, use profanity, flail our arms, or make bold threatening statements. Nope.
No histrionics required. We simply pull out the sales report and review actual results.
Results for the month (or whatever finite period makes sense for your business). Results year-to-date. Relative results and ranking compared to the salesperson’s peers. Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.
Once we’ve reviewed the salesperson’s past results, it makes sense that the next phase of this meeting should look at future results. Obviously, we can’t change the past, but we certainly can affect the future.
The second phase of this suggested accountability progression is to do a quick, joint review of the salesperson’s pipeline.
I use the word pipeline in a broad sense here. The pipeline, to me, means potential deals or sales opportunities that are currently in this salesperson’s funnel. Again, I don’t want this “results-focused” meeting devolving into a long deal strategy discussion or coaching session.
That isn’t my intention. The main goal in this phase of the progression is to get a handle on the general health of the salesperson’s pipeline.
The big question I am looking to answer is whether this sales-person has enough going on—enough deals in the hopper—for her to hit her sales goals in upcoming months. So from a macro perspective, I’m looking at the number of opportunities, their stage in the sales cycle, the dollar volume, and the likelihood they’ll close.
I intentionally used the words quick and joint to describe this phase of the meeting. Again, we are not looking to do a deep dive into the status of every opportunity. We simply want to review the overall health of the individual pipeline with each salesperson.
In just a minute, I’ll offer you two of my favorite questions to pose when you’re really looking to ramp up accountability and better judge a sales rep’s effectiveness quickly.
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting
If we like what we see and are pretty confident that this salesperson has a robust funnel filled with a sufficient number of opportunities, it’s time to wrap up the meeting and offer a few closing comments.
However, if after having reviewed this salesperson’s less-than-stellar results, and now has found her personal pipeline rather anemic, it is time to move on to phase three of the sales management account-ability progression: activity.
The reality is that there is nowhere else to go as the manager. The salesperson with poor results and a weak pipeline is forcing you to ask hard questions about her activity level and how she is spending her time.
Before jumping in further on sales activity, let me address something you may be thinking about. I recognize that there might be a talent fit question about this underperforming salesperson.
And sometimes it’s not a talent issue, but more of a skills deficiency that requires training or coaching. Remember though, for now, we are still talking exclusively about Sales managership and culture.
I am intentionally remaining focused on results and accountability, not looking to problem solve. Yes, causes for underperformance need to be explored, but I firmly believe that this formal 1:1 meeting works best when its sole purpose is forcing the manager and the salesperson to confront the salesperson’s results, pipeline, and activity.
Too often, when sales managers and salespeople get together, the meeting gets sidetracked with ancillary topics, philosophical sales conversation, and excuses. As managers, it’s our job to prevent that from happening.
The typical salesperson, and the struggling one even more so, does not enjoy getting the third degree about sales activity. No one likes to have his or her work ethic questioned. It doesn’t feel good to be asked how many calls you made, appointments you had, or where you spent your time.
That is why it is absolutely imperative that we start the progression by reviewing results, and when results are not what they should be, then we move to the pipeline.
When account-ability progresses in that order, all but the selectively blind and deaf self-protective salespeople to understand that managers have no choice but to ask about the activity. It’s logical. It’s our job.
Still, some underperformers will make a stink when questioned about their calendars and activity. They get defensive. Some go on the attack. Others have a premade, rehearsed list of excuses ready to roll off their tongues. They are prepared to defend their lack of activity before we even start asking about it. That alone should tell us something, shouldn’t it?
Underperformers are quick to tell us that they don’t do well when they are micromanaged. In response, I have a message for you, the sales manager, and another message for the salesperson who chooses to play the micromanagement card: First, to the manager, let’s be crystal clear.
This is not micromanagement. When results are poor and the pipeline is weak, asking a salesperson about activity is simply good management, not micromanagement.
Don’t for a minute let a struggling, defensive salesperson manipulate you into believing otherwise. And to the salesperson attempting to tell us you don’t perform well when being “micromanaged,” I say this: It doesn’t look like you were doing too well on your own before we stepped in attempting to help you.
Asking Just Two Questions Will Help You Quickly Weigh a Salesperson’s Effectiveness
A few years ago, I was helping a company attempting to turn its reactive regional territory managers into proactive, new business develop-ment–focused salespeople. It was not an easy engagement.
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting through 2010, but during that time it did away with whatever little accountability was in place for the sales team. Two years later, the economy had rebounded but Sales managership was still rather complacent when it came to holding team members accountable to deliver results.
The CEO was committed to changing the culture, raising the bar on what was expected of the sales team, and sending a clear message about accountability for results. I invested some time coaching various managers on how to conduct the type of 1:1. After a couple of months,
I realized it was not working. The members of this seasoned sales team were masters at finger pointing, appearing busy, and making excuses. They were also slippery and really good at taking control of these 1:1 meeting.
The managers trying to hold the salespeople accountable were getting a load of crap thrown at them and were too inexperienced to respond effectively. I made the decision to jump into the fray and conduct these 1:1 meeting with every territory manager myself for two consecutive months.
My hope was twofold. First, I’d prove to the sales team that it truly was a new day and that the CEO was dead serious about accountability.
Second, by having sales managers sit in on these monthly accountability meetings with the salesperson and me (either on the phone or in the room), they would pick up some of my approach and the questions I asked to cut through the crap and get to the truth.
When playing surrogate sales manager, I don’t have the time or patience to let salespeople go on and on blowing smoke during accountability meetings. They quickly learn my preferred pace and process for accountability.
We spend about two minutes talking about the sales report and results before I jump into reviewing progress in their personal pipelines.
I then review their pipeline in whatever format that the company uses and ask a few key questions to ensure that I have a good feel for what business is coming down the pike. And then I ask these two critical questions to get a very fast snapshot of how effective this particular salesperson is:
1. Can you name for me the new opportunities that are in your pipeline today that were not here when we met last month? In other words, can you tell me what fresh opportunities you have identified or created in the past month?
2. Can you name for me the existing opportunities that you moved forward in the sales process since we reviewed your pipeline together last month?
These two questions not only send a very direct message to the person with whom you’re meeting but also prevent the salesperson from burying you with bullshit in hopes you won’t notice how ineffective or unproductive the last month has been!
If you ask a particular salesperson these two questions three months in a row, you get a very good handle how (in)effective he is at both creating new opportunities and advancing existing sales opportunities.
In the months I played surrogate sales manager for this client, we not only set a new standard for what accountability should look like, but we were also able to rapidly make talent decisions about members of the team who clearly were not getting it done.
Use clearing meetings to advance self-organization
This section discusses how to use the idea of a clearing meeting to advance the team slowly toward the ability and skills needed to solve their own problems without you. I’ve found this technique useful in my own teams.
In this blog, you learn how to slowly move your team into self-organization while measuring your progress. To reiterate, self-organization is achieved when everyone on the team learns how to solve their own problems and they don’t need you to solve their problems for them.
One crucial tool that I’ve found invaluable in driving the team toward a state of self-organization is clearing meetings.
I first learned about clearing meetings when one of my managers introduced the idea to our management team. He then implemented this as a standard weekly meeting for our team, and I’ve experienced this for more than two years with my own team as well as with other teams.
Clearing meetings can have several goals:
To introduce important issues everyone should know about
To pull the “and on the cord,” a stop-the-line trigger that makes everyone pay attention to an important issue and do something about it
To give everyone the chance to air issues that bother them
To gauge the current level of the team’s self-organization
To create more trust in the team
To flex the team’s self-organization muscles and remind them to solve problems on their own
It’s called a clearing meeting because you uncover all the stuff the team knows is not working, any bad feelings they’re keeping buried about the job, and actual information that should be shared. And then you actually do something about it.
To understand how it works, let me describe a typical session:
The structure of the Sales meeting
The structure that worked for me follows a rather simplistic process and can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, depending on how burning and passionate the issues discussed are:
“What has not been working for you this past week?”
Possibly having “detours” during the answers
“What are you going to do about it?”
“What has been working for you the past week?”
Your closing words
Let’s take a closer look.
The Sales meeting
I started the integrity meeting by asking these three simple questions, going around the room with each one before moving to the next one. “What has not been working for you this past week?”
This question is very open-ended. The idea is to see if there is anything that has been missed either at the personal or team level. People can get frustrated with so many things in the software world, and if you let them talk about things that frustrated them, even if they feel small, you might be surprised at how much they’re willing to share.
Things that you might look for are:
“The build keeps failing.”
“Team X is giving us a hard time.”
“We are doing the wrong thing.”
These or other things related to the current work environment, people, or process are valid. Looking at this question from the self-organization point of view, this question is really asking, “Is there anything that hurts the team and needs correcting?”
However, it is a question that the people being asked should learn to ask themselves. You are asking this question because it’s part of the almost invisible process of training people to think about the current status quo and continuously contemplate what next changes should be done. Avoiding blind acceptance of the status quo is one of the things you want your team to learn.
People might at first say, “Nothing went badly this week.” Try to persist a little bit. Give examples of what it might sound like. Try not to accept “nothing” for an answer, especially from the first couple of people being asked.
Other people in the meeting will follow the lead of the first few and, if the first ones are silent, will shy from saying anything, most of the time.
Also, note that this kind of question can raise some demons that might have been previously been kept in backroom meetings. If an argument starts, try to keep it going. Embrace conflict.
People who have been heard are more willing to make a commitment even if they don’t like the decision made by the group or the leader.
For a self-organizing team, having the personal realization for each team member, that they are not simply stuck in a situation but can always choose to do something about it, is one of those turnaround moments.
A team can begin turning proactive instead of reactive. A team can begin anticipating and preventing problems, and people on the team can stop thinking they have to be miserable to do their jobs.
This question, normally in connection with a problem statement, is a core lesson: the skill you are teaching is for them to ask themselves this question when something bothers them.
This is the core of self-organization: when the team finds something that needs to change, they look within to begin solving the problem, instead of forwarding the problem to a manager. “What has been working for you the past week?”
Once you’ve gone around the room and all the bad energy has been emptied, and you’ve made sure anyone who had a problem is doing something about it, start asking this question.
There are several reasons for this question for each person answering:
Clear the air and have a positive feeling.
Acknowledge people for their actions and efforts.
Share good news and information with the team.
There should always be something good to say. Don’t let people not say anything. If they cannot think of something, return to them at the end of the round. This is a lesson in noticing others and being social enough to share a compliment.
Your closing words
Now that everyone has said what didn’t work and what did work for them this week, it’s your turn. You answer the first question: “What didn’t work for me this week?” Now, it’s possible that there was something that really didn’t work for you this week and you still haven’t begun doing anything about it. This is a good time to bring it up with your team and say what you’re going to do about it.
Keeping the meeting on track
What happens if you notice personal attacks, stubbornness, helplessness or other negative behaviors in the meeting? If you haven’t had many meetings yet, this could just be the underlying team dysfunctions appearing before your eyes.
If this is the first time this has happened or the first meeting, sit back and perhaps write notes about behaviors you found problematic.
I would not necessarily do anything to stop things. If a new member in the team suggests changes and gets attacked in the meeting, let them handle the fire on their own. Don’t stop the meeting and take things offline.
Let the team member learn how to handle themselves in a team argument. Later, after the meeting, you can sit with them in a one on one meeting, and coach them on handling future meetings better.
Conflict is not bad at such meetings. In fact, if you have no conflict, you might not be talking about the truly important subjects.
A beta reader asked if seeing those behaviors means the team is not mature enough to have that meeting. I think that the purpose of the meeting is to take an immature team and make it more mature. So making the team stay away from the meeting until the right time is just prolonging the wait for a mature team.
The Absence of Clarity Dooms the Sales Attack
After this ridiculously talented sales superstar CEO digested my observation that his team required just a wee bit more support and a significantly more concrete plan of attack than he did, I asked a few more pointed questions about the clarity of his strategy, and he wrapped up the meeting by asking me to come back in a week.
I was back at the glass table a week later as my charismatic new friend (and now a client) started the meeting by saying that I caused him to lose sleep. I usually help my clients sleep better knowing that we are going to systematically address their sales issues, so his statement took me back.
He went on to share that one thing I said really upset his apple cart, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. During our first meeting, I was recapping my frustration at another client and with my most recent employer.
Each company was operating in a highly entrepreneurial mode with strategies that were in flux and about as clear as mud. This lack of clarity created havoc for the sales team. The little phrase I used that bothered the CEO was my declaration that “sales follows strategy.”
That’s where we picked up the conversation and I expanded on my premise that clarity from the top was a non-negotiable prerequisite for a successful new business development sales attack. The job of the sales force is to execute the company’s strategy to perfection, not to create it on the fly.
Clarity is absolutely essential when asking salespeople to execute a proactive new business sales attack. I have yet to see an individual salesperson or a sales team succeed in the marketplace without a crystal-clear picture of the mission.
Salespeople can’t be making up their strategy as they go. It’s the job of senior company leadership to clearly point the sales force in the right direction:
Which markets should they be pursuing and why?
Exactly what are we asking the sales force to sell and, specifically, to whom should they be selling it?
You may chuckle thinking that these are obvious or ridiculous questions, but I assure you they are not. I’ve been in enough companies in a state of transition where senior management couldn’t clearly articulate these answers.
Yet what is intriguing, and frankly infuriating, is that these very executives are quick to blame the sales team when a business doesn’t come in at the desired rate. Excuse me, but when did a business’s strategy fall to the sales force? I must have missed that day in business school.
Often, what’s portrayed as a “sales problem” isn’t a sales problem at all. The company and its senior leaders have a responsibility to provide the sales organization with strategic direction. As I’ve written before, “[CEO Name], please do your job so we can do ours.” That request is not intended with any disrespect.
It’s simply a plea for help (and direction) so we can succeed. In early meetings with my own prospective clients, I make it a habit to ask about the company’s strategy and the demand for its offerings in targeted markets. I try to make it abundantly clear: I don’t do strategy and neither should your sales team.
If you can’t clearly tell us where to pursue new business and don’t have evidence that there is demand for what you sell, then it’s a strategy problem, not necessarily a “sales problem.”
Sure, many entrepreneurs and visionaries tend to be comfortable in those free-flowing, entrepreneurial environments where they are forced to build their strategy on the fly.
They love operating in those conditions. But that doesn’t translate into success for the sales team. Time and time again I’ve seen salespeople flounder and fail without clear direction from the top.
We’re all suckers for the quick fix, and if those of us in Sales managership roles were truly honest, we’d have to admit that we might be the biggest suckers of all. Good Sales managers are all about return on effort and return on time.
When we hear about a new methodology or tool promising more results with less effort, you better get out of our way, fast, because here we come in droves!
While Sales managers have likely always had this tendency, the danger (and resulting chaos) today is that new technology has enabled lighting-fast development, promotion, and proliferation of new tools and toys.
The perpetual barrage of new sales ideas, theories, processes, and tools combined with the loud voices of the hucksters marketing them can overwhelm Sales managers. Many live in constant fear that they’re going to miss out so they chase after shiny new toys hoping to find the magic bullet for all that ails in sales.
More recently, social selling has dominated the headlines, sales blogosphere, and LinkedIn discussions. I’ve never witnessed a buzz-word take an entire profession hostage as social selling has. Just do a Twitter search on #socialselling to get a feel for the incredible volume of tweets and nonsense being spewed on the subject.
A new set of “experts” has emerged, and because they are, well, social media experts, they’ve made an incredible amount of noise using various social platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and others) to build strong brands and large followings.
Unlike inbound marketing, which was promoted by firms with offerings in the space, the banner for social selling is carried predominantly by individuals promoting their own names, content, and consulting. Social selling has become a cottage industry all its own.
Here’s where it gets weird for me. In and of itself, social selling is a good thing. Using every available method to learn more about a prospect makes great sense. If there’s an opportunity to connect on a social network, to be hanging out electronically where the prospects are, to plant a seed, to start a relationship, then, by all means, do it!
Who wouldn’t want to supplement their traditional selling efforts with new, fresh approaches? Every opportunity I get, I write or say that social selling is a wonderful supplement to, but not a replacement for, traditional prospecting and new business development efforts.
I must have said enough positive things about the value of social media, or used it effectively enough in my own business because in 2014 Forbes named me a Top 30 Social Sales Influencer and called me “one of the top 30 social sales-people in the world.”
What’s ironic and somewhat amusing is that, since bestowed the honor of being named to that list, I’ve become a frequent outspoken critic of the one-trick-pony social selling pushers whose names also appear on the Forbes list.
Ignore the Fundamentals of Sales Management at Your Own Risk
As I wrap up the straight truth about why sales teams underperform in Part One and prepare to dive into the practical help offered in Part Two, let me share a profound realization that did not hit me until sitting down to write this blog.
Having worked with approximately 150 different sales organizations, I have yet to encounter a sales team that failed to deliver what was expected of them because they were missing some newfangled sales tool or process.
Sales managers and sales teams are not falling short of their revenue goals because they’re being outsold by others deploying the latest and greatest toys and techniques. Quite to the contrary, sales teams underperform because Sales managers ignore or botch the very fundamentals of sales management.
Before forging ahead, let me ask you to consider spending time reflecting on the common causes of sales team underperformance and assess which are potentially hindering your team’s results:
Lack of focus on goals and results
Not publishing sales reports; sales managers not regularly reviewing results with individual members of the sales team
Burying the sales manager with non-sales responsibilities
Sales managers playing desk jockey or CRM jockey
Managing the team via email and CRM screens
Prioritizing CRM task management above sales results
Player-coach selling sales managers trying to juggle opposite worlds
Sales managers competing with their own people
Sales managers with a hero complex deflating salespeople
Sales managers losing sight of their primary job and replacing the battle helmet with a firefighter helmet, trying to personally tackle every problem. Having the same person head up sales and operations and default to addressing urgent operational issues instead of pushing hard for sales growth
A one-size-fits-all approach to talent management; poor role definition
Asking farmers and engineers to pick up a weapon and become sales hunters
Leadership turning a blind eye to perennial underperformers Silly, counterproductive compensation plans
Sales managers Chase Shiny New Toys Searching for the Magic Bullet
An anti-sales culture—arbitrary commission deductions, lack of appreciation, and constant complaining about salespeople
High-ego senior executives who deflate the sales team by pontificating, micromanaging, and behaving inappropriately in front of customers
Entrepreneurial, charismatic leaders who don’t realize that their teams require more direction, clarity, and support to sell than they do
Sales managers not mentoring and coaching on selling skills, or working in the field with salespeople
Salespeople being perceived as nothing more than vendors or commodity sellers because of they:
Live in reactive mode and are not proactively pursuing prospective customers, and therefore arriving late to opportunities
Lead with their product instead of the customer’s issues
Conduct amateurish and ineffective sales calls
Do whatever customers request, including delivering premature presentations and proposals
Sales managers ignoring fundaments while perpetually chasing shiny new toys in search of the magic sales bullet
The motivation in offering so many blatant examples of sales mismanagement (or lack of management) was simple and pure: to help you identify the areas in your own sales organization that may be getting in the way of its success.
Align, Equip, and Energize the Team
Sales team meetings are critical to building a winning culture. They foster competition, cast vision, share best practices, challenge the team, conduct training (sales or product), build relationships between team members, and allow salespeople to see that they are part of something bigger than just themselves and their own territory.
I have participated in or observed what seems like countless sales team meetings. Some are wonderful. Many made me squirm in discomfort. I’ve been part of a few I’d rather forget. Lately, I have also noticed a trend in several smaller and midsize companies.
They have stopped holding sales meetings altogether. It sounds odd, doesn’t it? No weekly meeting or conference call. No monthly meeting. No big annual meeting. Nada. Nothing.
Sure, sales meetings take work, energy, and time to plan. And some of these companies have intriguing reasons why they’ve gotten away from gathering their salespeople together.
But if the sales leader's mission is to create and foster a healthy sales culture, or possibly even turn around a sales team’s performance, the team meetings are an important component of making that happen.
There Are Simple Reasons Sales Meetings Miss the Mark
Sales managers should not dread leading regular team meetings, and salespeople should not see it as drudgery to attend. Far from it. Our goal should be that both managers and salespeople alike should look forward to sales meetings. Crazy thought, I know.
There are a host of simple reasons why sales meetings miss the mark. At some companies, the meetings have no stated purpose. People aren’t even sure what the objectives are or why they are there in the first place. Honestly, who wants to attend a meeting with nebulous goals? No one, that’s who. In other cases, there is zero respect for time.
Salespeople wander in or join the call late. Worse, the manager shows up late claiming he was “tied up” with an important matter. Worse still is when meetings do not conclude at their scheduled end time. It’s hard to respect the meeting or the manager when there is no respect shown toward the attendees.
In addition, salespeople can demean team meetings in not-so-subtle ways. Many come in with sour attitudes. Others are distracted. As it has become fashionable to say lately, they are present but they’re not present.
Their bodies are in the room or on the call, but their hearts and minds are not. They continue playing on their smart-phones, checking email, updating social media, or “working” a customer issue.
There is also an interesting group dynamic that tends to occur when salespeople come together. Instead of using their outspoken personas for good, they turn these gatherings into bitch sessions.
One person makes a complaint (often an excuse couched as a complaint), and others smell blood in the water. Before long, it becomes a feeding frenzy of negativity.
I’m all for direct conversation and making needs known to management. But too often these bitch sessions are unproductive, get out of control, and are allowed to go on for way too long.
Practical Help and a Simple Framework to Get Exceptional Results
One of my biggest recent complaints about client sales team meetings is that they’re not sales meetings. Oh, the sales team is meeting, but it sure sounds and feels more like a project status meeting, a delivery scheduling meeting, or an executive strategy meeting. Late last year, I was visiting several regional offices to assess sales management health for a large client.
In office after office, I sat through painful “sales” meetings, many of which went for hours. The length of the meeting wasn’t the biggest problem, however. It was that only about 20 percent of the time was devoted to sales!
The entire sales team was forced to sit through conversations about inventory levels, service issues, and the status of custom projects. Friends, that is not a sales meeting; that’s an operations meeting from which no salesperson is walking out with more energy than he or she walked in with.
While on the topic of a salesperson’s energy, let me address something I’ve touched on in passing. Team meetings are not the appropriate venue to beat up individuals. My personal goal is for every salesperson to leave the team meeting better equipped and more energized to do their job.
Is it acceptable to yell at the team or for the manager to express disappointment with results, attitudes, lack of professionalism, or other issues? By all means, yes it is. A team scolding is one thing, but calling out, berating, and embarrassing an individual is another.
The final reason for less-than-ideal sales meetings is that the sales manager carries too much of the burden. He does all the planning and prep work and then also plays host, facilitator, teacher, trainer, and motivator during the meeting. That’s crazy. Nowhere is it written that the manager needs to carry that entire load by himself.
Just as on a good sales call, where the salesperson is speaking only a third of the time, sales team meetings shouldn’t be monologues conducted by the manager.
He’s the quarterback who calls the plays and owns the meeting, but that does not mean he should play lineman, receiver, running back, and water boy, too. He can and should distribute the prep work and content that will be presented at meetings.
Sales Skill Coaching/Training
Sales Skill Coaching/Training. This can be done by the manager or you can bring in an outside expert, but it needs to happen occasionally. Way too much sales meeting time is wasted on non-sales topics and too little is spent sharpening the sales skills of the team.
Carve out time to review the basics, like prospecting by phone, conducting effective sales calls, asking great probing questions, and delivering presentations.
Business Plan Presentations (or Reviews). Individual business plans are powerful tools for the salesperson and a gift to the sales manager. Have salespeople prepare and present their annual individual business plan to the team.
Or, if you’ve done that already, have them do a midyear review of how well their plan is working and how closely they’ve followed it.
Brief, Controlled Bitch Session. As ugly as an all-out bitch session might be, sometimes allowing team members to point out obstacles impeding their success can be very productive if done in a positive, controlled way.
Every so often, allow for a brief “airing of grievances” where salespeople can vent about silly policies or point out areas where they feel unsupported or ill-equipped. Management can score major points by listening, and even more points for successfully addressing an issue the team brings up and removing that obstacle.
Non-Sales-Related Inspiration. Watch a powerful movie clip. Read an inspiring story about someone who beat cancer. Have team members bring in a picture of something that keeps them motivated. Bring a local war hero veteran in to tell his story.
Takeaways. At the conclusion of the meeting, have people share their two big takeaways—one thing they learned or that they can incorporate immediately, and another that will require some time and work on their end to implement.
I hope this list will serve as a catalyst for those looking for a few fresh ideas. By no means is it intended to be exhaustive. There are many other productive topics that can be covered in team meetings.
Earlier, I told the story of how one particular client extensively used role play as a development tool with phenomenal results.
If the environment is conducive and the culture is “safe,” role play can serve as a great way for salespeople to practice new techniques and increase their effectiveness when facing live prospects and customers.
Managers should call regular targeting time-outs to help their sales team stop doing milk runs or flying on autopilot. Remind yourself and your team members that the big goal is always to grow revenue, and the most effective way to accomplish that is to ensure that you’re pursuing the right targets.
Yes, a high-frequency sales attack is preferable to a low-frequency effort, but that principle applies only when the sales force is attacking the best targets for new business.
When It Comes to Targeting, Less Is Often More
Salespeople typically prefer longer target lists and larger territories. They not only feel more important when charged with what feels like more responsibility, but they also feel protected. The common wisdom is that the more accounts on your list, the better chance that one will raise its hand and present a new opportunity.
Many salespeople react negatively when asked to narrow their focus or give up certain accounts. They fear “missing out” should an opportunity emerge from some dark corner of their territory or from a prospect they’ve yet to meet.
Much like a toddler, salespeople like to put their arms around their giant territories (lists) and scream “Mine!” when in danger of losing any target accounts.
Similarly, sales managers and company executives gain a (false) sense of comfort when they think the sales team is attacking a large swath of potential customers. They (mistakenly) believe that more is better: The bigger the list, the busier the salespeople will stay, and the greater the chance of growing the business.
As you’ve surmised by now, I maintain a contrarian view on this topic. When it comes to targeting, and even more so when specifically hunting for new business, less is often more. Shorter, finite, workable target lists provide the proactive salesperson the best chance of creating new opportunities and winning new business.
When the target list is too long, salespeople have difficulty focusing their attack. Over-whelmed by the volume of targets, they often end up shooting randomly in various directions.
This scattershot approach prevents a sales attack from gaining traction. Particularly when prospecting, it can take multiple touches (attempts) to grab a prospect’s attention.
Unfocused salespeople, distracted by the sheer volume of targets on their lists, rarely take repeated shots at the same target. Instead, they deploy a “one and done” strategy. They’ll take one shot at one account and move on to the next. This shoot and run cycle continue.
Shoot and run, shoot and run, shoot and run. Unless they’re incredibly lucky with these random one-shot attempts, this feeble type of prospecting usually fails to uncover opportunities.
However, when a salesperson, with management’s input, commits to a focused sales attack against a strategically selected, finite, workable list of targets, good things happen! Less produces more. A wider spray shotgun approach may work well for marketing, but the sniper rifle is the preferred sales tool.
Across a variety of industries and sales roles, I regularly see salespeople become more effective and create more new opportunities when they narrow their focus.
The reality is that you can only proactively pursue a finite number of targets. That number will vary depending on the complexity of the sale, the length of the sales cycle, and how difficult it is to earn a target customer’s time and attention.
So, while I can’t offer a generic number that is right for your specific situation, the two words that I find most helpful are finite and workable.
We want each salesperson to have enough targets to work, but not too many that she can’t take repeated shots at the same targets over a dedicated period of time. Very often it takes multiple attempts on the same target for the salesperson to earn her way in and begin the sales process.
Instead of taking for granted that your team members are aiming at the right targets, take advantage of this important opportunity to point them in the right direction.