Effective Sales Techniques
This blog explain all the sales techniques for better sales. The first two steps in our simple sales process model, strategic targeting and arming the team, are preparatory in nature. Both are foundational to launching an effective sales attack. This third step, monitoring the battle, is an ongoing process.
Any good commander keeps abreast of how the troops are performing and intercedes as necessary. The same is true for sales leaders who monitor the sales battle through personal observation, sales reports, pipeline reports, 1:1 and team meetings, and individual business plans.
Individual Business Plans Are a Gift to the Sales Leader
One of the most powerful sales management tools is an annual business plan prepared by each member of your sales team. Yet, few companies have salespeople write and present individual plans. And of the few that do, even fewer use those plans as a living, breathing management tool throughout the course of the year.
I am a huge proponent of creating a basic template and assigning each member of the sales team to draft and present an annual plan. Too much good comes from this exercise not to do it, and even beyond the initial benefits, these plans end up being an incredible long-term gift to the sales manager.
We’ve all heard of studies concluding that people who put their goals in writing are more successful. But getting specific sales goals on paper is just the tip of the business plan iceberg. Drafting plans force salespeople to step back from the daily grind to think about the big picture. It also helps reinforce the point that it’s their territory or blog of business, and they must take ownership of the strategies they will employ and the results they’ll produce.
This exercise also causes sales-people to reflect back on the previous year to determine what worked and what didn’t. It’s so basic, yet I often hear profound answers when sales reps are asked what worked in the past year that they need to do more of, or what strategies or techniques flubbed and should be abandoned.
We like to joke about the definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result), but it’s no laughing matter. How many struggling salespeople continue down the same path hoping things will change? Too many.
There is no one-size-fits-all business plan template. Each manager has the freedom to tailor his team’s plan to his own preferences and what makes the best sense for that particular business. Let me offer a simple template for an individual salesperson’s plan that has proved helpful as a starting point:
Goals—What are you going to achieve? We always start with the end in mind. Possible categories in this section would include total revenue or gross margin goals for the year, number of new accounts or new pieces of business acquired, dollars sold to both existing and new accounts, and specific product-mix goals. You might even ask the rep to “name and claim” the monster account or dream client he or she will nail this year. As an aside, it is amazing how many salespeople actually, close a deal with a dream client in the year they named it in their plan.
Strategies—How are you going to do it? Where is it going to come from? In this section, I like to ask questions about market focus, target account lists, major cross-sell opportunities, most growable, and most at-risk accounts. I want the sales-people to articulate what new approaches will get them in front of prospects, and how they will better penetrate current customers.
If it’s a territory management job, I ask the sales-people to revisit their yearly planning calendar and discuss how they can be more intentional in segmenting accounts and covering the territory.
Actions—What are you going to do? In this section, we want to hear about activity and metrics. What’s “The Math”? How many calls, initial face-to-face meetings, presentations, etc. will the salesperson commit to making? How will the salesperson block calendar time to prospect and pursue pure new business? To what key activity goals will he or she be accountable?
Obstacles—What’s in the way? I don’t believe in excuses and, as the sales manager, neither should you! I firmly believe that almost every salesperson could tell you on day one what is likely to get in the way of achieving goals for the year. So ask for a list of known obstacles right up front, in the business plan.
This allows management to address and help remove these obstacles, or call them what they are—lame excuses. Failure is not an option. The last thing you want is to discover an issue nine months into the year that the salesperson was concerned about on day one. Obstacles take many forms: lack of training or knowledge, prohibitive policies, travel budgets, old technology, the anti-sales department, family issues, etc.
Just ask. Believe me, your people will have no trouble making a list.
Personal Development, Growth, and Motivation—How do you want to grow this year and what will keep you motivated? If we are not growing, then we are dying. Salespeople need to take responsibility for their own personal development. Ask them how they intend to do that. Are there courses or conferences they would like to attend?
Will, they seek a mentor or outside coaching, or possibly commit to reading certain sales blogs or blogs? Are there areas where they need to develop professionally? It’s also beneficial to have salespeople share some of their personal philosophies about sales and what they will do to keep themselves motivated throughout the year. You will get some really fun answers and learn a lot about what drives your people.
Simply having your team write plans is powerful in and of itself. However, there are even greater benefits when salespeople present their plans in front of the sales team and management. Team members learn from each other as strategies are shared. Smart strategies are applauded while foolish ones are challenged.
The very act of publicly declaring a plan creates a feeling of instant accountability. Many benefits accrue to the sales manager from these presentations. You get a great read on who gets it and who doesn’t. Which of your people invested the effort to draft a thoughtful plan, and which waited until the last minute and threw something together the night before the meeting?
Even better, you have the opportunity to see who presents well and who is awful in front of the room. It should concern you when one of your people bombs in front of his peers. If that is how he comes across in his own conference room, how bad might he be when presenting to a customer?
My favorite aspect of the individual business plan is that it is a gift to the sales manager that keeps on giving all year. Before heading out to work with one of your people or when you’re concerned someone on your team is off track, grab the person’s business plan. Take a quick glance at the first few sections and make mental note of a few strategies he proposed and actions to which he committed. When you sit down with him ask some very simple leading questions. The conversation might go something like this:
“Hey, Doug, you seem a little unfocused. Let me ask you, in your business plan you committed to two strong strategies everyone really liked. The first was inviting prospects to one ‘lunch and learn’ event per month, and the other was intentionally pursuing three meetings with existing customers that have significant cross-sell upside. How are those strategies working for you? I haven’t heard much about these cross-sell meetings and I don’t remember seeing an expense report with food for even one ‘lunch and learn.’”
Doug stumbles a bit and then tells you he hasn’t gotten around to inviting prospects to a “lunch and learn” because he has so much else on his plate. You stop him dead in his tracks.
“Hold on, Doug. This was your business plan. You wrote it. You were the one who declared you would execute these strategies in order to achieve your sales goal, not me. So if this is no longer your plan, what are you going to do to make your numbers? And if this is your plan, it’s time to start executing it!”
Take advantage of the fact that you have these plans from each of your people. They wrote them; they need to execute against them. Use these plans to regularly check up to see if team members are doing what they declared was necessary to succeed. What makes it so powerful is that you are able to use their own words to monitor their progress and hold them accountable. As I said, written individual business plans are a gift to the sales manager!
Insist on Getting the Reports You Need to Lead Your Team
Sales managers require accurate, timely, usable reports to monitor sales results and the pipeline. Do not compromise on this. There is zero excuse for your company not being able to furnish you with just about any report you desire. There is more computing power in the phones in our pockets than there was on the Apollo spacecraft that went to the moon. If you need a report, someone can create it! Oh, you’ll get excuses from accounting people or the IT folks.
They’ll tell you that they don’t have the data in a usable format, or that the company ERP system (like Oracle or SAP) makes it challenging to get a report the way you want it. Some joker will tell you, “We didn’t purchase that module of the CRM system so we’ll have to do a workaround if you really must have it that way.”
Sales manager, please hear me on this: Insist on getting the exact reports you need in the exact format you want them. It’s okay if it takes some programmer a day to figure it out or an accountant has to crunch numbers into a spreadsheet and manually import some data. Be unreasonable. Do not compromise.
Let them struggle with the workaround. Why am I so direct with this advice? Two easy reasons: First, if you truly believe that you need a particular report to monitor the sales attack, make good decisions, and help drive the business, then you should have it. Believe me, if you were the CEO and asked for a report that required lots of effort to create, you’d get it no questions asked.
The second reason you should insist on getting what you need is that these very same people whining that you’re creating work for them will be the first ones pointing the finger at you when your sales team doesn’t deliver as promised.
These same accountants who don’t want to be hassled with your report requests will be amazingly quick to generate their own reports showing that your sales team is dis-counting too frequently, spending too much, or falling short of sales and gross margin projections. I’ve seen this exact scenario play out and it’s infuriating.
Yes, I’m being extreme, and, no, I don’t have a personal vendetta against accountants. I’ve just been around too many anti-sales organizations where the sales team, starting with the manager, doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Figure out exactly how you would like to see sales results every month, by territory or salesperson or product line or customer or supplier, versus goal and versus last year, or any combination thereof that makes good sense to you. Then take your accounting or IT colleagues out to a nice lunch and tell them what you need. You pay for lunch and say please and thank you when making your request. And do not take “no” for an answer.
Successful Sales Managers Are Selfishly Productive
The sales management role can be one of the most challenging jobs on the planet. Everyone wants a piece of you. Bosses, colleagues in other departments, and sales team members don’t think twice about asking for your time or putting work on your plate. If you allow these people who don’t really understand your job to dictate how you spend your time, you’ll not only be more overwhelmed and more miserable, but you will fail at your most important job—leading the sales team to victory.
Working a bazillion hours and jamming your calendar with an obscene number of meetings doesn’t make you more valuable. Or more productive. Living in a perpetually overwhelmed state should not be worn like a badge of honor. When caught in the daily grind, it’s easy to forget this guiding principle: You were not hired to do work; you were put in your position to produce results. Let me say that again: Your job is to drive results.
There is no prize for handling a bigger load, reading and sending hundreds of emails, attending endless meetings, or even planning monthly birthday parties. Being busy, even extremely busy, as such, can be worthless. That is particularly true when we’re busy because we’re playing good corporate citizen, putting on the fire chief’s helmet, and burying ourselves in non-sales-leadership activities!
Today’s reality is that everyone is busy. We’re all over-connected, over-meeting-ed, over-emailed. So allowing yourself to live even more out of control and more out of breath doesn’t make you better and more valuable, or even provide you with more job security. In fact, it may do the opposite.
The most successful, productive, effective executives exhibit a characteristic that I’ve termed selfishly productive. They are incredibly selfish but in an incredibly good way. These highly effective leaders are ruthless with their time. They jealously guard their calendars and protect their time as if it’s their oxygen supply. They become absolute masters at saying that simple two-letter word: No.
Selfishly productive people outperform others for one simple reason: They maximize their time on high-value, high-payoff activities. These highly effective leaders time-block their calendars, filling up their days with undertakings they feel are most important. Time-blocking serves as both a defensive and offensive purpose.
From a defensive posture, filling your calendar with what you know you should be working on prevents that space from being available to others. It’s freeing and energizing when someone invites you to a non-essential meeting to look at your calendar and see the time already reserved by you. “Sorry, I’m bloged that afternoon with a high-priority project.”
As an offensive weapon, time-blocking ensures that you have sufficient time carved out to invest in those high-value activities you’ve identified. You feel empowered when you take back control of your calendar. There is this wonderful feeling that comes from deciding for yourself how you will spend your time.
I don’t live in a fantasy world or alternative universe. I am fully aware that there are demands on your time over which you have no control. There are mandatory meetings, people who need you, deals requiring approval, legitimate emergencies that disrupt your day. I get it.
But what I also recognize (and observe in way too many companies) is that sales managers could work sixty-plus hours per week but never once get to their own priorities, and barely sniff work that might actually move the revenue needle. Isn’t it fair to conclude that something is fundamentally broken when a drowning sales manager whose team isn’t hitting its numbers is too busy to work in the field with his people or conduct a regular monthly 1:1 meeting with each sales person?
Sales Managers Must Get Out in the Field with Salespeople
It sure seems like “fieldwork”—going out in the field to work along-side salespeople—has become a lost art.
Before going any further, let me quickly address those who lead inside sales teams so they don’t feel slighted or annoyed by my use of the term fieldwork. Inside sales teams continue to grow in popularity. I have consulted for and coached a number of exclusively inside sales teams over the past few years and have tremendous respect for them and their managers. Inside sales are real sales—a full sales job. By field-work, I am simply referring to the act of working alongside a salesperson as she does her job.
The same truths and principles presented in this blog absolutely apply to both inside and outside sales managers. Of course, you don’t get the “windshield time” to talk life and sales with an inside salesperson as you do with someone who manages outside salespeople, but my hope is that after reading this blog you will be convinced of the need to spend more time in and out of the office with team members.
My colleagues in the sales improvement business give me a funny look when they discover that I will occasionally fly to a salesperson’s market and jump in their car to spend a full day in the field observing and coaching. I didn’t realize how few consultants, speakers, and coaches head out to work in the field.
I don’t do it as much as I’d like to, but I still love to get out there whenever possible. I probably learn ten times more about the business and the sales talent in the field than in the office. When working with a salesperson, I’m fond of saying that every day out in the field selling is better than any day in the office. That’s where sales happen!
You Can’t Lead a Sales Attack from Behind Your Desk
I’m sorry, but you are not commanding pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones) who sit in bunkers flying aircraft on missions thousands of miles away. Air Force commanders are able to evaluate and coach UAV pilots by observing their work on a monitor, but you cannot manage salespeople, whose primary job is to interact with other people, by staring into your CRM screen.
A CRM screen does not permit you to see, feel, and hear how your people do their most important job. Let me repeat one more time that you manage people whose primary job is to interact with other people! It’s not possible to properly lead your troops by working solely from your ivory tower.
When visiting a client’s office, I like to wander around the sales department to get a sense of the interaction and activity. If it’s an inside sales team, I get concerned when there are really long periods where a salesperson isn’t making outbound calls or proactively email-ing customers and prospects.
Similarly, I scratch my head when the majority of people on an outside team are sitting around inside the office. I like to tease the reps in an inquisitive tone. “What are you doing here? There are no customers or prospects in the office.” Frankly, that same question needs to be asked more often to the managers of these teams, who should be out working alongside their people and meeting with important clients.
Listen, I get that you have other responsibilities, that there’s work to be done and internal meetings to attend. But the cold hard truth is that to do your job effectively, a significant portion of your time must be spent in the field, where business is conducted.
Let me be even more direct with this exhortation. Fieldwork is not just another activity that would be “nice to do.” Or, as some managers explain when asked why they spend so little time out working with members of their team, “I’d like to, but I just can’t get to it.
There is too much else on my plate.” Hear me clearly: This is a “have to” not an “I’d like to get to it someday” task. Fieldwork is your job. It’s not optional. This isn’t like trying to decide if you want the push-button start and heated seats when buying a car. This is the transmission! No transmission = no car.
Powerful Benefits Accrue to the Sales Manager Who Gets Out in the Field
Working with your people is one of the highest-value uses of your time because it pays huge dividends to you as the leader, to the sales-person, and to the business. Each of the following benefits, in and of themselves, would be worth your time and attention, but you usually can accomplish all five every time you’re out in the field.
1. Riding along with your salespeople provides the opportunity to observe them in action. There is no substitute for watching and listening to your people prepare for and conduct sales calls. And that’s just the beginning of what we’re looking for when traveling with and evaluating them. Beyond getting to see how they handle customers and how the customers respond, it helps you get a feel for how they plan their days and handle other aspects of the job.
You also need to pay attention to the professional and more intangible aspects of being in sales. Is the car clean? Is your salesperson dressed appropriately? Does she know her way around the territory or town she’s supposedly working? Is she prepared? Does she show up on time? When a rep dresses poorly or bombs conducting a sales call in front of me, I wonder if this is her best effort when she’s trying to impress an important guest, what must she be like when no one is watching?
When you hop in a salesperson’s car that feels like a pigsty or finds him wearing a threadbare company logo shirt that should have been retired about thirty washes ago, it’s hard to view that person as a professional who represents his company well. I once headed out to work with a salesperson who was on the bubble.
The president and I put a giant question mark on this guy’s chest and were working to figure out if he was going to make it. I flew into a city where he was already working. The plan was for the rep to pick me up curbside at the airport. He arrived twenty minutes late, leaving me standing out in the cold waiting for him.
That’s what known as a CLM, a career-limiting move. Again, the natural questions: How often do you keep customers waiting if you show up twenty minutes late to pick up a VIP visitor? Do you have trouble managing your time on a daily basis? How screwed up are your priorities? FYI, that salesperson did not survive at the company much longer.
2. Working in the field presents a priceless opportunity to coach your salesperson before and after sales calls. Earlier I mentioned how much I benefited from sales managers riding with me early in my career. I am forever indebted to those guys. What took place twenty-five years ago I remember like it was yesterday.
Often, we’d do pre-call planning before leaving the office, or at the hotel is out of town. Even so, when I’d pull into the customer’s parking lot, I can recall reaching to turn off the ignition only to have my manager reach out to stop me, “Not so fast. Leave the car on; I need the air conditioning.
Let’s go over this one more time. Remind me of the names and personalities of the people with whom we’re meeting. And what are their expectations for the meeting? Tell me what’s a win for us coming out of here today? What’s your plan for the call and what are the biggest challenges we’ll face?”
The coaching continued during the debrief following the meeting. One of the lessons I picked up from a mentor was to always let the salesperson share her take on the meeting first. Instead of jumping right in and providing feedback, ask her how she thought it went. Once we’re back in the car, I’ll prompt the salesperson with simple questions like, “How’d we do?” or “Well, what do you think?” I want to hear the rep’s assessment so I can compare it to mine. Sometimes it helps to lead a bit: “What did you do well, and what might you have done differently?
Once I’ve pulled as much information as possible from the sales-person, I’ll share my observations. Being the third person in the room is one of my absolute favorite things to do; it’s amazing how much you can absorb when you’re not burdened with conducting the call but just observing.
I take tons of notes during sales calls. It looks great because the customer and salesperson both think I’m making business notes about the customer’s issues or the opportunities we’re uncovering. That’s far from the case. I’m writing down observations about the salesperson, the interaction, specific things that were said (or should have been), and more.
I even track the percentage of time the salesperson talks against the amount the buyer talks. Salespeople are often horrified when I inform them they spent 80 percent of the meeting talking. As one of my mentors liked to say, “You did a nice job presenting, but you talked too much. When you’re talking, you’re not learning.” That particular mentor is worth over $2 billion today, so maybe we should heed his advice!
Even sales managers who wouldn’t be considered sales gurus can share helpful observations with their people. You don’t have to be a sales trainer or author to provide honest feedback on how the sales-person built rapport, shared her agenda, positioned the company, asked probing questions, presented a potential solution, and attempted to flesh out potential obstacles, objections, and next steps.
Coaching in the field is invaluable. Some may argue that managers can debrief a salesperson without having been along for the meeting. Sure they can. But they’d have only one perspective. Can you really coach a salesperson based solely on what that person shares with you from his own perspective? Of course not. Would you want your golf instructor to coach your swing based on how you told him you were playing, or might it make more sense for him to actually see you in action before offering suggestions?
3. Windshield time and mealtime provide a rare opportunity to learn more about your salespeople and make you a more effective manager. As much as I love the whole coaching dynamic surrounding making sales calls with salespeople, some of the most valuable time comes when we are not discussing business. Truly good managers get to know their people on a deeper level. No, I’m not advocating personal friendships between managers and their team members.
There are obviously inherent dangers with that, although I’d admit that friendships are often formed and that they can be more positive than negative. But friendship is not the goal. The main objective is to get to know what makes each of your people tick so you can best help them succeed.
Your job as the manager is to win by helping your people win. If you can help a salesperson win, you will be not only admired and respected, you’ll be considered a great leader—and a leader for whom that salesperson will run through, around, and over walls!
You do not need to talk business 100 percent of the time you’re with a salesperson. It would be weird if you did. If you showed no care or concern for the human being behind the salesperson, what would that communicate to your team members? Nobody wants to go the extra mile or put out a supreme effort for a robotic manager.
This is sales, right?
We’ve already looked at how heart-engagement is critical. So take advantage of a full day (or days) with someone to engage in personal dialogue. When driving from place to place or sitting together over a meal, swap stories. Ask penetrating questions. Show interest. Find out what’s important to this person.
It may sound trite, but these things matter. If you discover your salesperson loves a certain sports team or NASCAR driver, make a mental note of it. Then when you see that team or driver make the news, shoot a quick text message to the rep. It shows that you listen, that you actually have the person on your mind, and that you care about more than her sales numbers.
4. Getting out of the office provides you with a firsthand look at what is taking place in the market. The truth is that sometimes you just need to see and hear things with your own eyes and ears. One of the biggest complaints salespeople make about their company’s senior leaders is that they’re clueless about what’s going on in the trenches.
As mentioned earlier, most salespeople have no trouble speaking up to bitch about policies, product, programs, or pricing that make no sense. The problem is that because they are known for doing this, and for exaggerating how tough it is, their pleas often fall on deaf ears or are simply viewed as excuses. That’s why it’s imperative that frontline sales managers and senior executives get out in the field with salespeople so they can get a read on reality in the marketplace.
5. Fieldwork helps you develop important relationships with key customers. This fifth benefit of getting out with your people may be the most compelling of all. Getting face-to-face with your company’s largest, most growable, and most at-risk accounts can pay huge dividends.
When a sales manager or executive visits with customers, the dynamic in the room changes. The leader brings a gravitas representing the company alongside the regular salesperson. Your presence not only communicates to the customers that they’re important, it also tends to elevate the conversation beyond the typical buyer-seller exchange.
The truth is that executives and managers are perceived and treated differently by the salesperson. Some of that is attributable to the way we carry ourselves and the approach we take. But honestly, much of it is simply due to the title. Wearing the mantle of sales manager carries certain benefits. Customers see you as an authority and tend to be willing to discuss higher-level issues.
There is both a strong offensive and defensive rationale for the sales leader to build relationships with key customers. From an offensive posture, your involvement often creates access to more senior people within the customer organization. It’s just logical that when you show up, there is a better probability of securing time with higher-level executives.
And from a defensive posture, maintaining relationships with key customer contacts can be crucial should the salesperson fall out of favor with the account or leave your company. When you have a relationship with the customer, the transition is much smoother and much less risky than if you’re an unknown commodity.
When with Your Salesperson, Be Present with Your Salesperson
This should go without saying, but in today’s hyper-connected, smart-phone-addicted world, it truly does need to be said. Just admit it: You’re addicted. And if you’re a sales manager, you’re likely double addicted!
These are new challenges of the past decade. Back in the “old days” when I was selling and my manager or an executive would join me in the field, when they were with me—they were with me. If my manager was in the passenger seat of my car, or a rental car, he didn’t have his head down thumb-scrolling through his email or Twitter feed. In fact, if we go way back to my early career, neither my boss nor I even had a phone, let alone email and the Internet.
Brace yourselves, young people. You know what we did a couple of times a day to keep up with our messages and respond to a customer’s request? (Key phrase: a couple of times a day.) We’d find a bank of payphones, hopefully just off the lobby in an upscale hotel. The manager would grab one phone and I’d grab another.
We’d each call into a central voice-mail system to retrieve our messages. There would be a handful of items requiring a response but nothing like the dozens and dozens of emails our own company and customers send us today. And invariably, by the time I got through my messages, there would be one more new message that wasn’t there initially.
This one would be from the sales manager, of course. He would hear something in a message that required distribution to the sales team. Or even better, he’d forward a success story message that another salesperson left for him. Oh, those were the days!
After checking our messages, we’d agree that we each needed about ten minutes to return a couple of calls. When we were done, we’d jump back in the car. Why do I tell this story? I share it because there are some very practical lessons about productivity and courtesy, and how we used to respect each other’s time. When my manager was with me, he was with me.
He wasn’t participating in corporate conference calls while we were driving to see an account. He wasn’t pre-occupied reading and answering emails sent to him all day long by other sales team members and various people inside the company. Nope. For the majority of the day, I was his focus.
Don’t Do Your Salesperson’s Job
By all means, you should actively participate in meetings with clients and prospects. And when you’re mentoring people on how sales calls should be conducted, whether they are new or simply need to improve, it is absolutely fine to model for them how you would like to see it done.
In other words, it makes sense to demonstrate good sales technique for people you are coaching. But that should be the exception, not the rule. For the most part, you go in the field to observe and coach, not to do the salespeople’s jobs for them. Be especially alert for this behavior if you have that tendency.
Listen, everyone understands if once in a while you have to toss your salesperson a life preserver because he’s drowning in front of an important customer. Feel free to rescue your person and save the deal, too. But if you find yourself doing that more often than not, then you’re the problem, not the salesperson.
Plus, we all know that painful failures create powerful learning opportunities. So, while I’m all for maximizing sales and saving most opportunities, there can more be long-term benefit by letting your salespeople suffer through their own mistakes and the agony of defeat. After a good flop, people tend to be more open to coaching.
The best coaches model the way and then get out of the way. You’re the coach and the manager, not the player. Don’t do your salespeople’s jobs for them. That is not a reproducible model. This hackneyed proverb really does apply here. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Leverage your personal sales prowess by building it into your people. As one sales leader, you cannot possibly cover the whole world.
Go with Your People, and Go with Them Often
I have two concluding exhortations about your work in the field. It’s surprising this first one is even necessary. When you go in the field, go with a salesperson. I know, that sounds obvious. But I’m aware of several cases where sales managers headed out to see a salesperson’s account without her.
There are rare occasions when that might make sense. If a big customer complained about the salesperson, I could see why we’d go learn more without the salesperson present. And at times there are meetings for “executives only.”
In the situations I discovered recently, that was not the case. At one company, management did not like the salesperson and was on a mission to discredit him. Various executives would intentionally interact with the customer. It was an underhanded way of rationalizing their refusal to give credit to the salesperson for the success he was having.
I’ve seen other companies’ management meet with a customer and then not update the salesperson on what took place. That creates mistrust and often diminishes the salesperson in the customer’s eyes because it looks like she’s in the dark. If you have an issue with a salesperson, deal with it like an adult. Confront it head-on. Don’t do the passive-aggressive thing or play games. No one wins that way, and you risk creating mistrust across the entire sales organization.
Other cases of the sales manager flying solo are more innocent. Sometimes it is just a matter of speed or convenience. The manager badly wants to see a particular market or customer and makes his own plans irrespective of the salesperson’s availability. The manager’s intentions may be good, but the consequences to the manager-salesperson relationship usually are not.
My bottom line is this: If you are the full-time manager or executive over sales, and you are not the day-to-day owner of the customer relationship unless it’s one of those special occasions mentioned previously, it’s hard to make the case that you should be calling on the customer without the salesperson. Every time you do, you’re missing an opportunity to mentor and influence your salesperson. Plus, you run the risk of damaging her trust in you and taking the wind out of her sails.
The final encouragement is regarding how frequently you should get out in the field. There is no one “right” answer to that question. It depends on a lot of factors, including the size of your team, how much support you have in the office, and, of course, how much other non-sales crap you or your company piles on your desk.
I’m convinced that your three highest-value, highest-payoff activities as the sales leader are meeting 1:1 with your people, leading productive sales team meetings, and working in the field alongside members of the team. This I can share: Of the approximately 150 companies I’ve worked with, only twice have I been concerned that a sales leader was spending too much time away from the office, out in the field.
Both of those managers were literally traveling upwards of 90 percent of the time. They were constantly on the run. One guy was attempting to play Superman and single handedly grow the business across the entire United States. And the other guy appeared to be on the run from his home life and his administrative responsibilities back in the office.
I’m all for field work, but the other two high-value activities plus corporate responsibilities require your focus as well. I hesitate to toss out a number for how often a manager should be out in the field. Different businesses place different types of burdens on the sales leader.
However, I am very comfortable declaring that in almost every case, the manager could stand to get of the office more often. In some businesses, that might mean being in the field two-thirds of the time; in others, one-third might seem a high bar to set. For a true sales leader, every day of fieldwork is better than any day in the office.
If you are serious about leading your sales team and establishing a winning, high-performance culture, talk constantly about goals and results, and get with your salespeople 1:1, in team meetings, and in the field.
You Can’t Effectively Run a Sales Team when You’re Buried in Crap
1. What the heck is going on?
2. And how much worse is it than I think it is?
In one region, the maintenance staff was short-handed, so the sales manager was asked to physically prep the facility for arriving clients. In another, the local executive insisted that the sales manager regularly participates in employee appreciation events, even though they conflicted with her own sales management responsibilities.
Due to aggressive cost-cutting, the company was profitable despite flat sales resulting from a protracted slowdown in that particular space, the sales team’s lack of leadership, and its reactive, pessimistic mode of operating.
Diverting and distracting the sales manager is a problem of epidemic proportions, and companies are reaping the consequences for what they’ve sown. They are losing out on sales and they’re losing key talent, too.
You Can’t Effectively Run a Sales Team when You’re Buried in Crap
I would challenge senior executives to take a hard look at the burden they’re placing on sales managers. And I specifically ask them to compare the amount time their “sales leaders” spend playing assistant general manager, customer service agent, errand boy, email slave, and committee member versus the amount of time dedicated to the high-value, revenue-driving activities described in Part Two.
There is no more ubiquitous sales management tool over the past decade than the customer relationship management (CRM) system. CRM come in all shapes and sizes, from companies new and old, big and small. None is more widely recognized, talked about, accepted as the standard, and loved and hated than the 1,600-pound gorilla in the space, Salesforce.com.
Playing CRM Desk Jockey Does Not Equate to Sales Leadership
Salesforce revokes my guest blogger status once this blog is out. And this piece of software, albeit wonderful and powerful, has caused a dramatic, and not necessarily positive, a shift in where many sales managers focus their energy and attention. Salesforce.com Will Fix a Broken Sales Organization Just Like Having Kids Will Fix a Bad Marriage
Earlier this year I was having lunch with the president of a midsize local (St. Louis) company whose sales team was not firing on all cylinders. I’m pretty familiar with this organization and have relationships with a handful of key employees. The company’s sales team is disjointed, lacking clarity on which markets to pursue and how to pursue them.
There are significant challenges with the company’s value proposition, sales process, and compensation plan. Morale is not great (no surprise), and sales management is inconsistent in its approach. Aside from that, the sales organization runs like a well-oiled machine J.
The president shared with great excitement that the company had just committed to adopting Salesforce.com: The Customer Success Platform To Grow Your Business, and he began to tell me how this would be the fix for much of what was wrong with the sales effort. I smiled politely, mentioned that it was a big commitment to his company and that I hoped it would pay dividends.
I bit my tongue to prevent me from telling this wonderful man (not a client) what I was really thinking. What did I want to scream loud enough to disrupt the whole restaurant was, “Are you crazy? Your whole freakin’ sales engine is broken. I know it. You know it. Everyone knows it.
Installing a CRM without addressing the many underlying issues and root causes of your sales problems are akin to a couple with a marriage on the rocks deciding to have children thinking that will save their relationship!” Having children adds stress and exposes weaknesses in your marriage. A CRM can be a wonderful tool, but it doesn’t have supernatural healing powers, fold your laundry, or make customers run to your doorstep with cash in hand.
Confused Managers Track, Evaluate, and Reinforce the Wrong Behaviors
While CRM systems can, and often do, bring many benefits to both management and salespeople alike, they unfortunately also create their own set of problems. One of the most common (and amusing) changes I observe is that sales managers become CRM jockeys with their heads constantly buried in CRM screens.
It’s almost as if CRM adoption causes sales managers to change how they see their job. I can’t decipher whether it’s because of the pressure managers feel to rationalize their decision to purchase the system (in smaller organizations) or whether they’re afraid of being called out by senior management (in larger companies) who made the significant investment. In both cases, I see many sales managers who become obsessed with the sales team religiously updating activity and opportunities in the system.
In and of itself, enforcing CRM compliance across the sales organization isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s essential. But the way it plays out in the real world is where it gets dysfunctional. The sales manager who develops OCD around his new CRM begins sending really weird and unhelpful messages to his team.
Without actually saying the words, the CRM-addicted manager continually preaching about the need to keep the CRM updated is communicating that it is more important to enter tasks and opportunities swiftly and properly than it is to actually move sales opportunities forward and close deals.
You may snicker reading that assertion, believing it’s absurd. Surely, you might think, there isn’t an executive or sales manager on the planet who believes that it’s more important to keep CRM data fresh and clean than it is to actually sell something. That may be true, but many sales executives’ words and actions belie that fact.
I’ve consulted for organizations where members of the sales team would sacrifice putting time, energy, and creativity into advancing significant sales opportunities because they were behind updating tasks in Sales-force. Said differently, these salespeople were making a conscious the choice to complete administrative tasks rather than actually selling because they worked under a management philosophy where the consequences were harsher for not updating the CRM than for missing sales goals.
Email and the CRM Are Not Replacements for Personal Leadership
We are now experiencing a new breed of sales managers who were raised in the era of email and CRM systems. Many in this generation of “leaders” did not have the benefit of being mentored by seasoned sales managers, who back in the day not only didn’t have these wonderful high-tech tools but saw it as their personal responsibility to develop the sales skills of their team members.
If old-time (mid-1990s and earlier) sales managers wanted to evaluate how a salesperson sold—i.e., opened a dialogue, conducted an initial sales call, advanced an opportunity, built consensus, delivered a presentation, handled difficult buyers, etc.—that manager would go into the field and actually get in the salesperson’s car. Scandalous, I know.
It’s beyond comprehension how it has become the norm today to judge a salesperson’s ability by solely overanalyzing each of his deals and what percentage of opportunities advance from stage to stage in the CRM. It’s as if we’ve decided to replace true sales experts with quantitative mutual fund managers. Just stick the manager behind a large screen with lots and lots of data under the guise that if she stares at it long enough she’ll figure out which stocks to buy . . . I mean which salespeople can sell.
A blog picking on sales managers for morphing into desk jockeys would not be complete with addressing another huge leadership issue: email. Maybe I missed the memo on this, or possibly the decree was buried on page 2,344 in the Affordable Care Act legislation. But when did it become acceptable to manage people who manage people and relationships via email? Please reread that last question slowly to truly ponder what I am asking here.
We’ve got salespeople on the front lines (in various capacities from territory managers to hunters to inside salespeople) who live and die based on their ability to connect with people relationally. All these attributes and behaviors—EQ, empathy, being a good listener, resilience, enthusiasm, and the ability to engage in productive dialogue— are critical for them to be successful.
Yet somehow, some way, we’ve arrived at the place where it’s acceptable for the people managing these salespeople to do so via email? We’ve got sales managers email-ing either individual reps or the entire team on a regular basis. “I need this. I need that. Where are you on this deal? You’re behind; are you going to hit your number this month?”
If I showed you some of the emails forwarded to me by salespeople you’d cringe. You’d be angry. You’d scratch your head. These are emails from desk jockey sales managers who spend almost no time face-to-face with their people. Emails with threats. Emails sent on Sunday mornings asking for an immediate reply. Emails asking for status updates.
And of course, emails with harsh words about overdue tasks in the CRM. Again, this is all one-way communication from a manager who likely isn’t meeting one-on-one regularly with his people, isn’t conducting productive sales team meetings, and certainly isn’t spending anywhere near enough time out in the field (or the inside sales office) where the work actually happens.
Playing CRM Desk Jockey Does Not Equate to Sales Leadership
Newsflash for sales managers: Living with your head buried in CRM screens is not akin to leading your sales team. And your ability to craft a high volume of sharply worded emails does not substitute for actually managing the people who work for you.
The CRM Is Supposed to Work for You, Not the Other Way Around
Before moving on, let me make this clear. I’m not anti-CRM. I’m simply sharing what is happening at all kinds of companies using CRM systems. In no way am I opposed to using data to help manage the sales process or people. I have forever preached that “the math works” and that a high-frequency sales attack almost always trumps low activity levels.
It is essential to monitor key metrics and track opportunities through the pipeline. The cloud-based software and systems available today are incredibly powerful and we’d be foolish not to use them— particularly because there are so many choices making it easier to find the solution that fits an organization’s needs well.
But let me make this equally clear. A CRM will not, in and of itself, fix your sales issues. If you’re not careful, it will not only create an incredible amount of work (installing it, training people on how to use it, and increasing the administrative burden on managers and reps alike), it also might actually slow your sales effort.
It is not uncommon for me to ask a sales manager or executive for details about a particular sales opportunity or if I can see a certain sales report and get this answer: “We don’t have that module yet.” Or, “We only purchased the base version so we don’t have that functionality.” Or, “I think that information is available, but we haven’t figured out how to retrieve it in a usable format.” Oh my.
We all know that salespeople love to whine and bitch, particularly when asked to incorporate something new into their routine. So it’s pretty common to get an earful from sales team members about the (in)effectiveness and burden of their new CRM. Sometimes, it’s exactly that—just bitching for the sake of being heard.
But often, their beef is legit: Cumbersome systems. Predetermined stages of the sales cycle that don’t align well with their reality in the field. Difficulty making their legacy methods play nicely with the new system. Hours spent entering information. Inability to get the desired info at the desired time. And maybe the most frustrating beef of all, getting asked to provide information again that had already been entered into the CRM because someone in management can’t get what he wants so he asks for it in a different format!
Hearing similar complaints over and over and over again prompted me to start asking this question: Is your CRM working for you or are you working for it? Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s the latter. And that’s a problem.
You Can Manage, You Can Sell, But You Can’t Do Both at Once
People do crazy things in the name of efficiency. Just look at all the idiots driving on our busy roads while staring down at their phones. It’s insanity! The lure of multitasking is quite seductive. Requiring key employees “to do more with less” is as fashionable now as it has ever been—particularly during periods of economic contraction.
Under the banner of multitasking with the mission of being as lean as possible, many companies are making the serious mistake of asking their part-time “sales manager” to both carry a personal quota/sales goal and lead/manage the sales team. That decision may not create the life-safety risk that texting while driving does, but it certainly can destroy sales momentum and the health of the sales force.
I’m all for attempts to be as efficient as possible, and I am in no way in favor of a bloated management structure. In fact, with several small-company clients over the past few years, I’ve actually argued against adding a full-time sales manager because of the cost and risk involved. However, even in those cases, I have never been in favor of deploying what I refer to as the “player-coach” sales manager who sells part time and manages part-time. Why never? Because I’ve never seen it work, and there are significant reasons why.
The Sales Manager and Salesperson Roles Could Not Be More Different
This may sound like an extreme statement, but I don’t mean it to be. There is almost nothing similar about being a sales manager and being an individual producer in a sales role. Almost nothing. I thought I understood this principle, at least in theory. But it wasn’t until I was tasked with serving as a player-coach selling sales manager that the magnitude of the difference between these two roles crystallized for me.
The successful individual sales producer wins by being as selfish as possible with her time. The more often the salesperson stays away from team members and distractions, puts her phone on Do Not Disturb (DND), closes her door, or chooses to work for a few hours from the local Panera Bread café, the more productive she’ll likely be. In general, top producers in sales tend to exhibit a characteristic I’ve come to describe as being selfishly productive.
The seller who best blocks out the rest of the world, who maintains obsessive control of her calendar, who masters focusing solely on her own highest-value revenue-producing activities, who isn’t known for being a “team player,” and who is not interested in playing good corporate citizen or helping everyone around her, is typically a highly effective seller who ends up on top of the sales rankings.
Contrary to popular opinion, being selfish is not bad at all. In fact, for an individual contributor salesperson, it is a highly desirable trait and a survival skill, particularly in today’s crazed corporate environment where everyone is looking to put meetings on your calendar and take you away from your primary responsibilities!
Now let’s switch gears and look at the sales manager’s role and responsibilities. How well would it work to have a sales manager who kept her office phone on DND and declined almost every incoming call to her mobile phone? Do we want a sales manager who closes her office door, is concerned only about herself and is for the most part inaccessible? No, of course not. The successful sales manager doesn’t win on her own; she wins through her people by helping them succeed.
Think about other key sales management responsibilities: Leading team meetings. Developing talent. Encouraging hearts. Removing obstacles. Coaching others. Challenging data, false assumptions, wrong attitudes, and complacency. Pushing for more. Putting the needs of your team members ahead of your own. Hmmm. Just reading that list again reminds me why it is often so difficult to transition from being a top producer in sales into a sales management role.
Aside from the word sales, there is truly almost nothing similar about the positions. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on corporate responsibilities like participating on the executive committee, dealing with human resources compliance issues, expense management, recruiting, and all the other burdens placed on the sales manager.
Again, I knew these facts intellectually. But it wasn’t until I assumed a sales leadership role at a company in addition to serving as sales hunter in a new business development capacity that I really came to understand how impossible it was to effectively do both jobs simultaneously.
As much as I knew about both sales and sales management, I could not find a way to perform both functions well. It was impossible to gracefully transition back and forth between these roles with their opposing demands. How do you jump from playing selfish individual producer one minute to being a fully accessible manager the next without becoming a total schizophrenic?
How do you laser focus on personally developing new business (in and of itself an incredibly challenging position requiring a seller’s full devotion) and yet at the same time concern yourself with the heart engagement of the people on your team? How do you create space in your brain to worry about others’ results when you’re under extreme pressure (and rewarded) to achieve your own personal sales goals?
I consulted for three very different organizations in the past year that deployed some form of the player-coach selling manager dual role—a large mortgage lender, a heavy equipment distributor, and an IT services company. All three were sales management disasters. In one, the selling managers also happened to be the top producers at the company.
Ninety-five percent of their energy and time was dedicated to their own production. These “managers” pretty much abdicated all management responsibility in the hopes that their people would simply manage themselves. In the second company, the sales manager was a recently promoted top producer with no management experience.
Despite the promotion to sales management, his company leadership asked him to continue carrying a bag, prospecting major accounts, and managing key customer relationships. Because personal selling was his comfort zone and a security blanket, that’s what he defaulted to—shying away from asserting himself as the team leader and avoiding the necessary hard conversations with his seasoned reps.
In essence, he was simply acting as another salesperson, not providing any meaningful leadership at all. So what was the point of promoting him in the first place? Not only didn’t the company fill its sales management vacuum, but there was also tension created because several sales veterans perceived that they were now competing with their manager.
It’s Deadly when Managers Compete with Their Own People
The situation in the third organization perfectly illustrated how the player-coach selling manager role can create mistrust and bad feelings
You Can Manage, You Can Sell, But You Can’t Do Both at Once across the sales organization. At this company, the sales manager had no shame in cherry-picking the best leads and sales opportunities for himself! The very person who was supposed to be leading the team was using his advantageous position to effectively steal from his team-mates. In essence, the manager had become a threat, a formidable internal competitor.
Aren’t trust and integrity two of the most important characteristics we seek in our leaders? How in the world can you build trust in your sales organization when the guy in charge is effectively taking food off the table of the people entrusted to him? It doesn’t take much to see how the health of an entire sales team can be destroyed in a New York minute in situations like this.
I understand that it’s tempting to ask a key employee to handle more than one role, but just like sports teams abandoning the notion of the player-coach position, so must sales organizations. There is no place for a selling manager because the dangers are too great and the two roles are incompatible.
If a smaller company can’t afford a dedicated manager, I’d rather see the president or another key executive serve in a part-time sales management capacity. While that is not an ideal situation, it certainly is preferable to having a schizophrenic player-coach selling manager whose conflict of interests may sabotage the health of the entire team.
A Sales Manager Either Wants to Make Heroes or Be the Hero
The extensive research done for Multipliers concluded that there are essentially two broad categories of leaders—those who are “Multipliers” and those who are “Diminishers.” The Multiplier makes everyone around him better, smarter, and more productive. He challenges those on his team to raise their game. He asks hard questions.
He paints the big picture and shares what needs to be accomplished. He multiplies his effectiveness and that of his team by engaging their hearts and minds. Everyone wants to work for a multiplier, and Wiseman’s blog cites the example of how employees will run through, around, and over walls to achieve victory for this style of leader.
Are you the hero or the hero-maker?
The answer to this question is so important to the health and success of a sales organization that if I was asking you this from the front of the room during a workshop, I’d pause for an uncomfortably long time to let the awkward silence build as you pondered the enormity of your answer. It’s that important.
The Sales Manager with a Hero Complex Destroys the Energy of the Team
The sales manager with a hero complex reveals himself in various ways. Early in the sales cycle, we see him play hero on sales calls. Instead of letting the salesperson lead the preparation, plan the strategy, and conduct the meeting, the manager acts like the overzealous flight instructor who plans everything for the student pilot and at the slightest misstep or point of indecision immediately takes control of the airplane.
Continuing with the cockpit analogy, this manager isn’t content to sit in the right seat and simply play his role during a meeting with a customer or prospect. No, he looks for every opportunity to grab the yoke and call out “my airplane,” taking control of the flight. He’s quick to figuratively jump into the left seat to run the sales call. He knows he has this habit but covers up for it by telling the salesperson afterward that the opportunity was too important to fumble.
The sales manager with a hero complex will also use the excuse that he wants to “model the way” for salespeople so they can see how it is supposed to be done. Sure, there are times that call for the senior person to jump in or bail out the junior one. But does the baseball manager run out of the dugout to grab the bat from the batter in the middle of an at-bat and jump into the batter’s box himself? No, that would be absurd. Beyond being against the rules of the game, that surely isn’t the best way to develop a player’s skills, is it?
Later in the sales cycle, the hero complex manager will find other opportunities to swoop in and save the day. I’ve seen sales managers discover a truly hot deal that didn’t require their involvement up to that point. Somehow, right before the big deal closes, the manager manages to insert himself into the situation just in time to get his fingerprints on the paperwork.
Other managers are masters at finding “flaws” in perfectly fine presentations and proposals. Their hero complex compels them to suggest often unneeded changes—again, so their fingerprints can be seen on the deal. It is laughable.
If those sins aren’t bad enough, what’s even more sickening is how some managers describe a deal and parcel out the credit following a victory. Whether it’s standing up at a big company meeting or talking about the win in front of the executive committee, somehow the sales manager, instead of the salesperson, always ends up as the hero.
He’s the one who opened the door in the first place. He overcame the prospect’s insurmountable objection to altering the course of history. He fixed the awful presentation at the last minute or, even better, flew out to deliver it himself. He resurrected the deal from the dead by jumping in to get it back on track. Hand me the garbage can because I’m getting nauseated reliving these examples.
My former sales manager, Donnie Williams, who later became my consulting partner, taught me a long time ago that sales is as much about the heart as it is about the head. And if there’s anything guaranteed to deflate the heart of a salesperson, it is the manager stealing the glory and limelight.
The very best sales managers are Multipliers. They subdue their own egos for the sake of their people. They understand that their mission is to win through their salespeople. They don’t micromanage every detail. When necessary, they ask insightful questions that challenge the status quo and a salesperson’s approach.
Instead of jumping in and taking over at every chance, they look for coaching opportunities. Great sales managers deflect the credit; they don’t steal it. And they often jump in front of the bus to protect their people rather than throwing them under it so they look good themselves.
The Lack of Coaching and Mentoring Produces Ineffective Salespeople
Back in the day, sales managers were responsible for developing the sales skills of their people. Most managers took great pride in mentoring those under their care to greatness. Today, not so much.
Managers Are Working Less in the Field and Not Developing Their People
Coaching salespeople, particularly on basic selling skills, has fallen by the wayside. Sales managers seem to be more consumed with pleasing the executive committee, plowing through their huge administrative burden, and managing the team via the CRM and email. Managers are spending less and less time in the field with outside sellers, or alongside members of the inside sales team.
It’s as if the “ride-along” is now a lost art. And sales team meetings are rarely used for sales skills training anymore. When training is on the agenda for a sales meeting, the majority of the time is spent on product training, not sales skill training.
The resulting reduction in sales effectiveness is having devastating effects on many sales organizations. Most salespeople have not had good consultative selling modeled for them, or benefited from having a seasoned seller along on sales calls.
I have great memories and stories of being mentored as a young sales pup. In fact, I am still using many of the skills and techniques showed me by sales managers and executives who personally invested in my development. Much of that mentoring happened out in the field, where they’d join me on trips to see customers and prospects.
They’d coach and prepare me before sales calls, and following the meeting, we would discuss what went well and where I could improve. In addition, having the sales manager or head of sales out in the field was an opportunity to expose them firsthand to the reality of what I was facing in the marketplace! It’s one thing to tell management why you’re struggling to grow the business in certain markets. It’s another altogether when you can show them in person.
Sales leaders early in my career helped mold me into a professional. Twenty-five years ago my first manager taught me how to prepare for a trip: where to get a shoe shine, how to pack, how to use plastic dry cleaner bags to keep clothes from wrinkling, and why you should always, always, always bring an extra dress shirt along for those mornings you discover a stain or a missing button.
Just this month I was in a hotel room getting dressed for a keynote talk I’d be delivering to 400 people. As I went to get the shirt off the hanger, the neck button crumbled in my fingers. Without skipping a beat, I reached for my spare shirt, chuckled, and said aloud, “Thank you, Bob Smith.” Bob was a classic old-school sales manager. Dark suit.
Salespeople Are Not Raising Their Game as Fast as Buyers
Across the board, sales skills are degrading, not improving. Recently, two client executives from completely different industries shared the same fear with me. Both lamented the fact that buyers were learning, growing, and adapting faster than sellers. Buyers were better trained and possessed better business acumen and skills than those attempting to sell to them. I agree and believe that if the current trajectory is not altered there is big trouble ahead for the sales profession.
We’ll take a deeper look at best practices for sales managers working in the field. But for now, I would like to challenge you with this question: If you’re not teaching selling skills in sales team meetings, and the sales manager is not out of the office and working in the field rotating through members of the sales team, then who is helping your salespeople become more proficient? Who is developing their skills? And how would you even begin to know how your salespeople come across in front of a customer?
In many industries, selling has never been harder. The Internet, which can be a powerful sales tool, also works against salespeople by empowering buyers with more information than once thought possible. Potential customers have reams of data available at the click of a mouse. Salespeople used to be a great source of information for buyers. Customers needed salespeople. That fact alone made it easy to get appointments.
Today, that is not the case. Buyers gather and process copious amounts of information long before a salesperson ever gets there. To compound the issue, prospective customers are busier than ever. They are being asked to do more with less. Time is at a premium. The last thing a buyer wants is to take a meeting with a salesperson who only supplies information but doesn’t create value during the interaction.
“Are your people making the kind of sales calls where the customer would write a check for the sales call . . . because the sales call did something so useful for the customer that the customer values it?”
Sure, that’s a very high standard, but what a great question and powerful challenge from Rackham. Based on my own observations, in just about every case, the answer to that question is no. The majority of salespeople are not conducting that kind of sales call or being perceived by customers as creating that level of value.
In the next blog section I unpack several common reasons salespeople are being perceived as nothing more than vendors/suppliers/product pushers and not the value-creating, consultative sales professionals we so badly want them to be.
Amateurish Salespeople Are Perceived Simply as Vendors, Pitchmen, and Commodity Sellers
Sales leaders and businesses are paying a hefty price for not developing the selling skills of their people. They’re not only selling less than they could be, they’re also being forced to sell at lower prices than they should be!
Sure, some of this is caused by better-trained buyers armed with better information. Many large organizations now employ professional procurement departments that specialize in a unique form of torture: putting the salesperson in a figurative vise and tightening the grip until all the life and margin are squeezed out of him and the deal. Commoditization is ugly indeed, and being treated as nothing more than a “vendor” is insulting and de-motivating to any professional seller.
The real problem, however, is not the more sophisticated customer and its procurement processes; it’s that there are so few in sales who are truly professional sellers. It’s salespeople’s own approach, attitude, and behavior that is shooting their sales effort in the foot while Amateurish Salespeople Are Perceived Simply as Vendors, Pitchmen, and Commodity Sellers causing buyers to perceive them as nothing more than vendors and commodity sellers rather than the professional problem solvers and value creators we so badly want them to be.
Salespeople Living in Reactive Mode Are Arriving Late to Opportunities
Probably the most common and damaging driver of salespeople being perceived and treated simply as vendors is being late to a sales opportunity. Sales leaders allow their teams to spend way too much time operating in reactive mode. Sellers are waiting for leads, waiting for customers to raise their hands, waiting for beautifully teed-up opportunities. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
There are a plethora of reasons salespeople are so often last to a deal and late to the party. For one, many of today’s prevailing sales theorists mistakenly promote the notion that proactive prospecting is dead. These new “experts” tell us that it’s fruitless to pursue a prospect that isn’t coming to you. They quote crazy statistics, telling everyone that today’s modern buyer is 70 percent through the buying process before engaging a salesperson. “Don’t call them; they’ll call you when they’re ready” is what these experts declare.
I take issue with the many loud voices preaching these deadly lies. These theories are not only wrong, they’re dangerous. They’re particularly dangerous because today’s under-mentored and under-coached salespeople are gullible. The sole reason prospects get that far along in their buying journey without having engaged with a salesperson is that reactive salespeople are sitting on their butts waiting for the prospect to raise their hand and call them in!
The oft-quoted statistic above is a bogus straw man propagated by supposed experts with an agenda. This nonsense that sellers shouldn’t be pursuing prospective clients is exactly what lazy, reactive salespeople want to hear, and it’s killing them.
Whether it’s from listening to bad advice or simply from practicing bad work habits, the end result is the same. Reactive sellers are often slow arriving to a new sales opportunity. By the time they’re involved, the buyer is far down the path. Buying criteria have been established.
Even worse, these reactive sellers end up way at the back of the line. Often, they find themselves playing catch-up to their more proactive competitors’ salespeople, who got there first, who were building relationships before the buyer started shopping, who were in what I call “Position A”: sitting in the consultant’s seat, bringing value, sharing insights, and helping define the buyer’s requirements.
Can you see why being late to the opportunity often relegates your salesperson to vendor status? How hard is it to be seen as a value creator and consultant to the prospective customer who is already far down the path? Very hard. It’s no fun selling from behind, eating the dust of your competitor who already has a relationship and earned a seat at the table because he was in the opportunity early.
In fact, it might very well be that your competitor actually created the opportunity by proactively targeting the customer. Unless your solution is so radically different from and superior to the competition’s, which I hate to tell you is rarely the case, it is very hard to come across as a consultative, value-creating salesperson when you’re tardy. Typically, from that position, it takes a very low price to earn the buyer’s attention. And that’s a game we certainly don’t want to play.
Salespeople Who Lead with Their Product Are Asking to Be Commoditized
Adding insult to injury, after they’re slow to get involved in a potential sales opportunity, many salespeople further reduce their effectiveness by leading with their product or solution. Again, it’s untrained or poorly trained sellers who don’t know any better.
They put their product out front and make it the focus of the conversation when meeting with potential customers. What are the consequences of making the offering the hero of the story? That approach communicates—loud and clear—to the customer that the salesperson is self-focused, more concerned with what he’s selling than with the customer’s issues,
Amateurish Salespeople Are Perceived Simply as Vendors, Pitchmen, and Commodity Sellers needs, and desires. Think about it. It’s a truly horrible message to send. When salespeople lead with their product or service, it is impossible to be perceived as consultants or trusted advisors. It makes it as clear as day that the salesperson believes the relationship and sale are centered on his offering, not the customer and its needs.
It’s as if the salesperson is begging the customer to put his offering’s features and price on a spreadsheet to be compared against every competitors’ features and price. The salesperson might as well show up wearing a company logo golf shirt embroidered with these words: WE ARE ALL ABOUT OUR PRODUCTS!
Hear me clearly: When you live by the product then you die by the product. Salespeople who lead with their offering are admitting that they bring zero value to the equation, and they’re essentially telling customers to commoditize the purchase decision.
Salespeople Conducting Amateurish and Ineffective Sales Calls Are Dooming the Salesperson to Vendor or Product-Pitcher Status
Who’s teaching salespeople how to plan and conduct sales calls? If what I’m seeing is any indication, nobody is. So much sales training today is focused on macro theories. Popular sales blogs and LinkedIn posts are filled with articles espousing the virtues of macro sales theories like social selling and insight selling.
But there are few sales experts writing about how to better execute the day-to-day basics, the fundamentals. Talking about sales call structure may not be sexy, but it has never been more needed, especially as sales managers are spending less time in the field coaching people.
Here are some of the most common sales call sins:
The salesperson doesn’t establish herself as a professional or assert control by setting up the meeting, sharing her agenda, and getting buy-in from the customer.
Sellers approach the sales to call already in presentation mode and are too quick to jump to a demo or presentation.
Salespeople talk way too much and listen way too little. It’s very hard to come across as a professional problem solver when you don’t discover the customer’s real issues. As I’m fond of repeating: Discovery precedes presentation—always!
Salespeople give off the vibe that they are there to “pitch at” the prospect, which creates an awkward, adversarial dynamic and often provokes a guarded, even cynical, posture from the customer.
Take some time now to replay in your mind the last dozen or so of your people’s sales calls that you observed. Were the salespeople coming across as consultative professionals or product pushers? Did they do more talking or listening? Was their objective to learn as much as possible as to improve the customer’s condition, or to launch into presentation mode as quickly as possible? And, most important, if you were the customer, how would you view the salesperson—simply as a self-interested vendor or as a true value creator, advisor, and trustworthy business partner?
Amateurish approaches doom the salesperson to vendor and product-pitcher status. You don’t earn a seat as the expert or consultant at the customer’s table when you’re viewed as a pitchman better suited to doing infomercials than to helping your customer address business challenges.
Salespeople Doing Whatever the Customer Requests Come Across as Order Takers
When the customer or prospect tells a salesperson to jump, a majority respond with the traditional “How high?” and typically do so with great excitement. They think, what could be better? The customer wants me to do something and I will show him that I’m the best, I’m the fastest, I’m the most compliant, I have the best attitude, I follow instructions better than anyone, I’m likable, I present better than anyone, and I’ll provide the most creative and in-depth proposal.
The super-responsive or highly relational salesperson is probably incredulous reading this, shaking his head in disbelief that I’d actually go there. Well, based on what I am seeing across a very wide variety of sales roles and industries, I have no choice but to go there.
The harsh reality is that when the seller does whatever the customer asks and is more concerned with being liked than respected, it often lowers instead of raises the perception of the salesperson in the buyer’s eyes. Sure, that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.
Please don’t read more into this than I’m writing. In no way am I declaring that responsiveness is unimportant. It’s hugely important. And I’m not advocating that salespeople behave like obstinate unlikable jerks. Not at all. But I am strenuously making the case that in today’s sales environment, where the value is the yardstick by which all potential providers are measured, it is imperative that we think hard about how sellers are perceived by buyers.
Too often, the very likable, highly relational, super-responsive, overly accommodating salesperson gets blown out of the water when going up against a true sales killer who owns his sales process and isn’t afraid to push back against the buyer.
Even more damaging and time-consuming than premature presentations are premature proposals. How often is your sales team faced with the following scenario? A salesperson is on a first date with a prospect who appears to fall madly in love with your solution after only twenty minutes.
The prospective client loudly exclaims how thrilled he is that your company pursued him, and he asks for a comprehensive proposal ASAP. Does your salesperson fall all over himself thanking the prospect for the opportunity and run back to the office to spend hours crafting the proposal? Or does he continue his probing in order to discover what’s truly needed to write a good proposal and determine if this prospect is even qualified to buy from you?
Let me close this blog where we began. Ill-equipped salespeople are hurting sales and profit performance because they are consistently perceived by customers as nothing more than vendors. Contrary to what many weak salespeople believe, customers are not looking for subservient order takers; they are seeking help and value. And it’s just about impossible to come across as a value creator when you’re late to an opportunity, leading with product, pitching instead of probing, and presenting and proposing prematurely.
Sales Suffer when the Manager Wears the Fire Chief’s Helmet
It’s pretty common to see the sales leader play a number of roles. In most cases, I don’t think that it is as much due to the hero complex discussed in the previous blog as it is because sales managers tend to be highly driven and possess useful talents. Most are more than willing to wear a variety of hats and contribute as needed.
Looking for someone to emcee the all-company meeting or serve as host of the annual awards dinner or company holiday party? Who better than the sales leader? The executive retreat is coming up and HR needs someone to lead the team-building exercises? Of course, the VP of Sales fits the bill. Honestly, those are great uses for the head of sales to deploy her many talents. But oftentimes, the sales leader’s competitive nature and strong desire to solve all problems that affect sales get in the way of doing her primary job: leading the sales team.
The Sales Leader Should Not Be Firefighter-in-Chief
It is entertaining to watch sales leaders grab the fire hose and don the firefighter helmet. Many relish the opportunity to jump in and put their strong problem-solving skills to work. They are often very good at attacking problems, even ones only ancillary to sales.
The issue, however, is the opportunity cost of having the leader of your forward-deployed special operations forces remove her battle helmet and replace it with one of a firefighter. Sure, your sales leader is a highly valuable resource who may even excel at solving manufacturing or workflow challenges. But that is neither her primary job nor the most valuable use of her time.
When the Same Person Heads Up Sales and Operations
There is another huge issue that often hurts sales results. This particular problem is most prevalent in smaller companies (or divisions) with revenue typically under $50 million. In these situations, it is not uncommon for there to be a general manager who heads up both sales and operations for that division, branch, or company.
Just about every time I run into a struggling sales team where the boss runs both the operations and the sales departments, he defaults to solving operational issues over sales leadership. It might be as simple as the fact that operational challenges tend to be right in front of the manager and urgent, as opposed to sales problems, which are less easily diagnosed and whose consequences won’t be felt until the month- or quarter-end sales report gets published.
I was doing a consulting project for a Midwest client that had recently acquired a company in another city (which I won’t name to protect the guilty). The CEO engaged me to help change the sales culture and better equip the various sales teams to hunt for new business. The newly acquired company was left to operate as a mostly independent division with its own president and the general manager kept in place.
This division was given significant growth goals, and the marching orders from the CEO were as clear as day: Sell like madmen; hunt for new customers; make the sales numbers. Period. End of story.
I would make regular visits to the office of this out-of-town division. I’d spend time with the inside sales team, the outside salespeople, the president, and the GM. I would facilitate sales team meetings and also work one-on-one with its various members. After a few trips, the problem with the sales effort became abundantly clear. The people on the sales team weren’t acting like salespeople. The general manager had an operational bent, rather than a sales bent, and that bias permeated the sales force.
One day we were in a sales meeting where I was coaching the team on conducting more effective sales calls. The salesperson who managed some of the largest accounts started to play on his phone. At least I thought he was playing. Once it became evident that he was no longer present with us, I stopped what I was doing to let the awkward silence build.
The salesperson figured out pretty quickly that he was the cause of the silence in the room. He looked up and apologized, and then shared that he was working to get a crew scheduled for a customer’s major service the next day. I scratched my head because I was under the impression that this was a salesperson and we were in a sales meeting.
Why was one of my client’s most valuable salespeople worried about scheduling service work? The general manager was not in the meeting with us at the time, but I strongly suspect he would’ve condoned the account manager’s choice to work on an operational issue instead of honing his skills.
As I dug deeper into that division, I began to notice more of the same attitude and behavior. The inside sales team was having a difficult time hitting the daily activity goals for outbound calls and emails that everyone agreed were reasonable. Not only were their results nowhere close to planning week after week, but their activity levels made it look like they weren’t even trying. I headed back to their office ready to dedicate two full days to work exclusively with the inside sales team.
I was bound and determined to figure out what in the world was preventing these sellers from doing their selling. Well, it took about two hours, not two days, to see what was happening. The general manager had tasked the inside sales team with all kinds of non-sales work. The team members were responsible for picking a certain type of custom order from the warehouse that took an inordinate amount of time.
They were also charged with managing shipping logistics on international orders. On top of all of that, the customer service reps were offloading a portion of their incoming calls to these inside salespeople. I was relieved that it wasn’t laziness or neglect getting in the way of selling. But it was infuriating that the operational-minded GM created a situation where it would be almost impossible for the sales team to hit its aggressive goals. Below are excerpts from a summary I sent to the president and CEO:
Said simply, the sales reps (account managers) self-described their roles as very broad, complex, comprehensive “catch-all” positions that included selling new business, maintaining existing business, serving as lead customer service reps on their current accounts, and in some cases, either concerned with scheduling crews or responsible for shipping product….
(Name redacted—large account salesperson mentioned above) feels completely responsible for the entire experience of his customers, and he carries the burden of ensuring that service crews are deployed on jobs… he sounds more like an ops guy than a salesperson in his words and expressions. His plate appears very full, and under the current model, it is hard for me to see how he could have succeeded in developing new business.
I could regale you with more stories from this company, but suffice it to say that it was an uphill battle forcing change on this division. Its GM was constantly diving deep into office management and operational issues while either ignoring or working against the new business development sales effort. Having been given a green light from the CEO to boldly confront him, I was ready to take the gloves off and share some blunt truth.
When I got to the office to meet the GM early one morning, I found him in the server room holding a handful of Ethernet cables. He shrugged his shoulders and told me that the network was down. What a perfect visual to illustrate my point! I’ll never forget the image of him standing there holding those blue cables. And I’ll never stop preaching about the dangers of the person heading up operations also leading the sales team.
The sales world works a lot better when sales leaders focus on their primary job: leading the sales team and helping to drive revenue.
Simple observation: Many sales organizations’ sales problems are really more of a talent problem. It’s not just that they don’t have enough top producers or true salespeople; it’s that they haven’t done the hard work to truly define the sales roles in their business.
A salesperson is not a salesperson is not a salesperson. There are as many types of sales roles as there are colors of crayons. The territory manager. The servicer. The inside prospector. The outside big game hunter. The route guy. The sales engineer. The industry specialist. The pure business development person. The merchandiser. The account manager. The retail floor person.
Beyond the various types of formal sales roles, there is a myriad of talents, preferences, and styles that sellers bring with them to their positions. Some are natural networkers. Others thrive at prospecting. Many are good with transactional-type sales. There are those who master serving existing accounts and those who aren’t the best maintainers but do a heck of a job roaming the halls to meet new people and uncover new opportunities.
There are salespeople built to quarterback long-term complex deals that require patience and political deft. There are individuals who are comfortable walking in the back door or leaning over a piece of heavy plant equipment. And for all the talk about selling to the C-Suite, there appear to be only a rare few sellers who can truly hold their own going toe-to-toe with senior executives. And that is why a one-size-fits-all approach to salespeople and sales roles hinders revenue growth.
There were some enormous sales challenges at this company, not the least of which was the very wide range of responsibilities and requirements placed on the typical territory salesperson. For perspective, one day a salesperson might be lugging heavy tools and tile samples to spend hours sweating to build a new display, and the next day he might find himself sitting with the owner of a seven-store chain to negotiate terms of a major annual program.
It not only made no sense to me, but it also presented a huge compensation problem. How could the same person be expected to be good at such divergent jobs? And where do you find someone happy to play merchandiser on Mon-day, yet capable of winning a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar deal on Wednesday?
Be Wary of the Big Reputation, Wily Industry Veteran
If I’ve seen one company burned by shelling out a large guarantee to bring on a big reputation, a veteran salesperson from within her industry, I’ve seen twenty. The lure is strong. The decision seems like a no-brainer. How could this long-time producer for someone else in your space not hit home runs for your company? Let me count the ways!
Companies I’ve worked for and companies I’ve consulted for have made this painful, expensive mistake. Word gets out that one of the top dogs at a competitor or similar company is available. She’s been around forever. Everyone has heard her name. She sells three times what your average person does, or so the rumors go.
This cycle of nonperformance, confusion, and frustration continues for months, the only difference being that these meetings with her become more emotional and more combative because you are acutely aware how much you’re paying her each month. Eventually, you realize you made a mistake. You’re out a lot of cash.
Your CFO, who was opposed to the deal from day one, is now asking if you should keep throwing good money after bad, and you can just sense your salespeople thinking “I told you so.” But because you’ve invested so much in this person and she came so highly regarded, you decide that it doesn’t make sense to cut your losses yet.
So you keep her around another six months hoping and praying she hits the jackpot. Or maybe you decide you’ve had enough and send her packing. Either way, this sure thing turned out to be a bust.
Why did it play out like this? What were the lessons? Why did I feel compelled to drag you through that lengthy chronology? Because it is a great illustration of what happens when sales roles aren’t properly defined and management doesn’t match appropriate talent and skill sets to those clearly defined roles.
In the disastrous sales star scenario just presented, here are some key puzzle pieces that the executive did not discover until it was too late. Because Sales Star had been with her previous company for so long, she was the alpha seller. She received preferential treatment. Sure, back in the early days she’d hunt for business. But it was easy then. The industry was hot and the economy booming.
The senior executive got big eyes upon learning she was available. He became so enamored with the possibility of luring Sales Star to his company that he didn’t bother to ask how she became and stayed the top producer for so long. He had happy ears and couldn’t discern that she was no longer hungry or interested in the hard work of hunting for fresh game.
And maybe worst of all, he never clearly defined and laid out his expectations for how she’d invest her time and truly hunt for new business once coming onboard. Almost none of the recruiting and interviewing rigor that would have been applied for interviewing regular candidates was used with Sales Star. The company paid a heavy price and learned a painful lesson. It’s the kind of mistake you make only once.
Farmers and Engineers Often Resist Picking up a Weapon
There is one more critical one-size-fits-all talent issue that drastically hinders sales performance: True sales hunters are a unique and rare breed. The majority of sales teams are composed mostly of farmers (account managers) and engineers (product/service experts). One of the most common causes of sales team underperformance is when All companies deploy farmers and engineers in hunting-type sales roles, expecting them to pick up a weapon in search of new prey to kill.
Hunting for new business and acquiring new clients is a very different job from managing existing client relationships. I spend a great deal of my coaching time helping farmer-type salespeople to become more proactive. Yes, you can equip sales farmers with better sales weaponry and coach them on how to proactively pursue new business.
But the challenge is more complex than simply helping or forcing traditionally reactive sellers to be more proactive. It’s a sales DNA thing; we all have different natural tendencies and behavioral styles. And the makeup of successful sales hunters is often the opposite of that of salespeople who thrive as account managers or technical sales experts.
Hunting for new business involves risk, conflict, and rejection. Those three elements are ever-present. The beauty in that? Top sales hunters know and accept the conditions of the role. They are energized by the risk, love the battle, look forward to the conflict, and could not care less about being rejected.
But the vast majority of people who gravitate toward account management, sales support, or sales engineer roles are polar opposites. They tend to be uncomfortable with risk, conflict, and rejection. Some are even honest enough to admit that conflict makes them sick. To the highly relational or analytical person, rejection is not just personal but paralyzing.
It generally doesn’t go very well when asking super-relational or super-analytical/technical sellers to pick up a weapon and go on the hunt. Recently I worked with a company whose sales team fancied themselves sales and application engineers. These were technically competent field salespeople.
Often they would sell a piece of production equipment to a customer and then come back to install it themselves. These guys (100 percent male sales force) were gearheads and application experts in their space. And while that was a huge advantage when it came to servicing existing customers, it was as big an obstacle when they were challenged from on high to develop new business.
The type of people who gravitate to technical field engineer-type sales positions thrives when machines go down but tend to either panic or hide when asked to find and open new accounts. The more pressure from senior management to find new business, the better these sales engineers get at finding service emergencies at the existing customers requiring their immediate attention!
I know it’s hard to believe, but it was amazing how many machines started going down around their territories that prevented these guys from selling new business. Coincidence? I think not.
An Anti-Sales Culture Disengages the Heart of the Sales Team
There is an interesting phenomenon that contributes to anti-sales cultures in many organizations. People tend to be more jealous or unappreciative of those in sales than in any other role in a business. Non-salespeople, be they C-Suite executives, members of the finance department, or production line workers, can be disposed to believe that sales are easy, that sales are glamorous, that salespeople make too much money for what they do.
What’s so intriguing about these popular opinions is that when the stone throwers are offered the opportunity to try their own hand at sales, they are quick to decline. They may love to critique and poke fun at sellers, boldly declaring how easy and wonderful it must be to be in sales, but deep down they know they couldn’t do it themselves. And the voices, attitudes, and policies emanating from these jealous critics often do significant damage to the heart-engagement and performance of sales organizations.
A Miserable Accountant Can Still Do Great Work; the Same Is Not True for a Miserable Salesperson
The sale is a unique type of job. To do it successfully, you have to want to sell. Think about that statement for a minute. A salesperson has to want to sell. There is no way to effectively prospect for new business or penetrate a challenging existing customer if your heart is not in it.
A miserable salesperson cannot represent her company, her solution, or herself well. If her heart is not engaged, she won’t fight to get in. She won’t be able to woo a prospect. She won’t go the extra step to ask the hard questions, push past initial resistance, fight back hard against objections, or continue to pursue deals that seem to have gone dark.
This may come off as harsh, or even biased, but it’s true: a miserable accountant can still do great work. An accountant doesn’t require passion to close the blogs at month-end. An accountant can literally hate her job and yet produce accurate, timely, and valuable financial statements.
But good luck trying to find a miserable salesperson who is bringing in new business and delivering her numbers month in and month out. You’ll be looking for a long time because she doesn’t exist. Miserable, mistreated salespeople don’t sell. There are no miserable top performers in sales. Why? Because when their company’s anti-sales culture gets out of control, top producers go elsewhere.
Arbitrary Commission Deductions and Compensation Adjustments Result in Miserable Sales Teams
The ironic twist to this discussion about how heart-engagement affects different types of employees differently is that it’s often an out-of-control accountant (or accounting department) creating misery for the sales team. Now, I won’t go as far as declaring that misery loves the company and that there are people in finance departments intentionally trying to get the goat of salespeople, but it sure seems that’s the case in a lot of companies!
Nothing will suck the life, energy, and trust out of a sales team faster than an over-empowered accountant making arbitrary commission deductions. I’ve seen this time and time again and it is infuriating. The controller at the last company where I worked was notorious for this. My sales team already had plenty of issues with this woman because there was zero confidence in the way the company costed out jobs at a time when there was an initiative to switch from revenue-based commission to a gross margin–based commission.
It was bad enough that we didn’t trust her numbers, but the animosity and mistrust skyrocketed when she began to regularly make one-sided adjustments to monthly commission statements. Every month there would be a complaint line outside my door on the day commission statements were issued.
There Are Consequences for Not Appreciating and Acknowledging the Sales Effort
In companies with healthy attitudes toward sales, salespeople and sales victories are celebrated. Sure, there are always the few detractors or those who snicker when a salesperson gets recognized. That comes with the territory. But in these healthy situations, there is at least a general understanding of an important fact: The livelihood of everyone else in the organization is dependent on the sales force doing its job and doing it well. It makes good business sense to recognize and thank the sales team for a job well done.
A lack of appreciation for the sales team manifests itself in various ways—sometimes rather subtly, and sometimes more overtly. One of the most blatant examples I’ve experienced transpired a few years ago following a client’s record sales quarter. During the company’s quarterly meeting/conference call, which included the sales leader, the sales team, and employees from every department, the outspokenly anti-sales CEO reported the record revenue numbers with much fanfare.
Sales is as much about the heart as it is about the head. We have talked about this extensively, but it is not sinking in at (Company Name redacted). While I have been around many organizations with anti-sales cultures where salespeople are belittled, micro-managed, or even abused, your company is the first I’ve seen categorically deny credit to individual salespeople for successes to this extent. You may feel that the salespeople do not deserve credit for the results at certain accounts.
And you may even be partially correct in some cases, but there is no way to have a healthy, energized, fully engaged sales team when the norm is to blame salespeople for issues (i.e., slow pricing turnaround, etc.), yet completely deflect credit to others in the company for sales successes.
You can identify a company with an anti-sales undercurrent pretty easily. Not only is the sales force routinely not recognized for what it achieves, but in these companies, it is also fashionable to openly complain and criticize those in sales with a broad brush. In New Sales. Simplified. I offered a sampling of things I hear when it’s open season to pick on sales. This sampling bears repeating here:
“The salespeople use too many samples.” “The sales team isn’t using the materials we gave them.” “The sales team is authorizing too many returns.” “Your people are not attending the all-company meeting on Tuesdays.” “How come he took that million-dollar client to such an expensive dinner?” “Have the salespeople do their paperwork and admin on weekends.”
“Did you see the proposal we sent out? It was awful.” “The plant really screwed up this big order; grab a few salespeople to help unpack and repack these boxes; they’re not doing anything anyway.” “Why did he fly to Nashville when it’s only a five-hour drive?” “Tell the salespeople they can ship out their own sample requests.” “She tipped 18 percent, and our policy clearly states that we should only tip 15 percent.” “That customer is complaining that the salesperson didn’t return his call within 38 seconds.” And so on.
Important people in your organization may think it’s cute or fun to pick on the sales team. Jealous non-salespeople appear to get pleasure from doing it. But nothing good results, and when it goes too far or happens too often, your top sales producers are going to walk. As mentioned earlier, there are no out-of-work top salespeople because there is such a shortage of excellent sales talent.
So, if you foster an environment that under-appreciates sales, understand that you’ll very likely lose those A-players on your team that you most want to keep, and disengage the hearts of those who stay.
If I’m being completely transparent, I must admit that this is a difficult blog to write. But the blog’s subtitle promises the “Straight Truth,” and what’s included here needs to be shared—for the benefit of both those who will be offended and the sales teams they lead.
Talent Management Can Make or Break the Sales Leader
Talent changes everything. The right talent can make your life a joy; talent deficiencies can make your life miserable and destroy your sales effort. It’s that big a deal. Next, to leading your team well and building a healthy culture, talent management is the most critical aspect of the sales manager’s job.
Some sales experts would make a strong argument that talent trumps all other factors. They say that the right talent finds a way to win regardless of circumstances. My only disagreement with that assertion is that poor leadership and an unhealthy culture will eventually overcome even the strongest people, and over time cause top producers to pack their bags and take their talents elsewhere. Nonetheless, talent is the second essential element of the sales leadership framework, and without it, you have almost no chance to win the game of sales.
On that note, let’s shed some light on sales talent management by diving into the Four Rs first mentioned.
1. Right People in the Right Roles
2. Retain Top Producers
3. Remediate or Replace Underperformers (Coach up or coach out)
Get the Right People in the Right Roles
Getting the right people in the right roles is your first and most challenging talent priority. Those eight words may be simple to say, but you will encounter two significant hurdles in attempting to accomplish that task.
1. There is a shortage of solid sales talent.
2. Most companies lack the desire, insight, and patience to properly define sales roles.
It’s a widely accepted reality that there are not enough good sales-people to go around. If you doubt me, try to find an unemployed A-player salesperson. You won’t; they don’t exist. I won’t quote empirical data because I’m not a big proponent of most sales studies and statistics. There is often a fair amount of chicanery to produce the study’s desired outcome.
Isn’t it amazing how supposedly unbiased studies by “experts” in the sales improvement profession seem to magically point people to serious problems for which these experts have the perfect remedy? Call me a skeptic, but I’ve learned to be wary of studies and statistics quoted by purported experts.
A lean talent pool forces us to become smarter talent managers. Here are three practical ways to increase your talent IQ and catalyze getting the right people in the right jobs.
1. Do away with the naive deployment philosophy that there is one catch-all generic sales job. Believing that a sales job is a sales job is as foolish as declaring that a doctor is a doctor. Would you want to see a proctologist for a problem with your feet, or a podiatrist to resolve an issue in that awkward place the proctologist works? Didn’t think so. So why do the majority of companies settle for a one-size-fits-all sales role?
I challenge you to step back and look at the job description you use for the basic sales position in your company. Read that description and ponder the natural talents and acquired skills necessary to do all phases of that job well. Then chart out the phases of your sales process from Genesis to Revelation.
I mean it. Write down every phase of what’s expected of the typical salesperson from the earliest stage of trying to get a prospect’s attention and secure a meeting; through the middle stages of conducting discovery sales calls, probing, building consensus, and presenting; to the latter stages of proposing, negotiating, and closing.
Don’t forget to include what you expect your jack-of-all-trades “salesperson” to do after the sale, which for many businesses includes onboarding new clients, serving as the main contact, maintaining key relationships, quoting additional work, entertaining, cross-selling new offerings, and, of course, fighting customer service fires and providing Mach 1 response time to the customer’s every request. I’m out of breath just from reading that list of responsibilities!
My hope is that relooking at the job description and the over-whelming list of expected duties causes you to pause. Are these realistic expectations of what one human being can do? Just out of curiosity, may I ask if there is even one other position in your entire organization tasked with such a wide range of responsibilities?
My guess is that there is not. Need I even bring up that this isn’t any old position we are talking about here—this is the sales position, the one you and every employee are counting on to bring in the new customers and new revenue that are the lifeblood of any business.
Beyond just the “capacity” issue that I’m begging you to reconsider, there is a bigger impediment to success that deserves even more of your attention. Reality is that it would require a uniquely talented and extremely versatile individual, a superhuman, to be competent at everything most companies ask their generic salesperson to do.
Sales results suffer because we spread salespeople too thin, and even more so because almost no one is good at both extreme ends of the sales spectrum: prospecting and hunting on the front end and account management and maintenance on the back end.
2. Stop pretending that zookeepers will be successful hunters. There may not be a wider sales talent management blind spot than this one. We’re all familiar with the standard hunter-farmer sales role conundrum, yet so few companies demonstrate the patience and desire to further define sales roles. The hybrid hunter-farmer role
dominates most business-to-business sales organizations today. One guy or gal does it all: create, open, and close deals, and then manage the customer relationship. It’s the default model. Everyone uses it. Why bother creating more work for ourselves to create something different? I’ll tell you why: because the model sucks. Putting it more diplomatically, it’s suboptimal. It’s not the best of both worlds; it’s the worst. And it’s absolutely killing your sales team’s ability to develop new business for two irrefutable reasons.
Free up your excellent sales hunters so they can maximize their time hunting. Even more perplexing than management asking zoo-keepers and farmers to hunt is that most companies require their best hunters to spend an inordinate amount of time on nonhunting activities. This makes me crazy because it is crazy.
Who decided this was a good idea? Companies that are hurting for new business and are short on true sales hunters burden the precious few they have with excessive nonhunting responsibilities. It’s the absolute dumbest thing I see in sales. Okay, maybe the second dumb-est next to paying salespeople the same commission rate to babysit accounts that were sold ten years ago as they earn for acquiring new accounts.
Why would we ever consider taking someone away from a highly important task at which they excel, something that we badly need (new business development), to put them on lower-value tasks that many others are more capable of doing and more willing to do? Even more maddening is that I rarely get pushback about this assertion. Executives agree with the premise that sales hunters should be freed up to hunt. Yet most refuse to better define their company’s sales roles or do the hard work of revamping how their sales force operates.
Making this as plain as possible, most organizations have an over-abundance of account manager/farmer/zookeeper salespeople and a dire shortage of true sales killers/rainmakers/hunters. In order to maximize the impact of your hunters, maximize the amount of time they get to spend hunting. And the best way to do this is to strip as much account management and service responsibility away from them as possible.
Make Darn Sure to Retain Your Best Salespeople
Almost nothing hurts a sales leader as much as losing a top producer, especially because they are almost impossible to replace. Next, to ensuring that you have the right people in the right roles, Job #1 is keeping your best people on your team and fully engaged. Here’s a simple list worth running through every so often:
Who are your very best people who would devastate you if they left?
How happy are they?
How do you know they’re as happy as you think they are?
What are you personally doing to communicate their importance to you?
What are other key executives doing to demonstrate appreciation for these stars?
In what ways are you demonstrably working to make their work lives easier and put them in a position to even further maximize their results?
Do not take for granted that your top people are happy because they’re on top of the sales rankings. Smack yourself any time you start thinking that they wouldn’t leave because they’re making too much money. That’s a silly thought. Top salespeople are typically the most driven people on your team—driven to win, driven to sell, driven to earn. That’s also why they can be rather demanding or high maintenance.
Speaking from experience (mine and others), your top producers can actually be the first to jump ship when incredibly frustrated or if they sense something fundamentally wrong at the company that could reduce their chance of winning in the future. Just like we see professional athletes leave teams where they are the beloved star to join a championship contender, competitive salespeople want to play for a winning team.
Do not ignore your best people. I know many will think that’s an odd, unnecessary proclamation, but it’s very common for managers, particularly inexperienced ones, to forget about their top performers. Most managers have too much on their plate and their hands full. They’re buried in corporate crap and administrative work. When feeling pressure to make numbers, they naturally (and wrongly) focus on their underperformers.
It’s so easy for a manager to think to himself about a top producer, “She’s doing great and blowing her numbers out of the water.
Talent Management Can Make or Break the Sales Leader
I can forget about her in order to deal with my problem children.” That is awfully flawed reasoning on multiple levels. First, there’s the retention issue we’ve been reviewing. Beyond that, though, is a management philosophy that does not get enough attention: In many cases, it is your best people who have the best chance to grow the business. If you need more sales, who is best suited and most like to go get them? Your top producers, that’s who!
My father was always preaching that managers make the mistake of overinvesting in their worst performers at the expense of their best people. He would make the case that your top people deserve more, not less, of your attention and focus because they’re the ones who know what to do with it. Want to keep your best people super-happy and drive more sales as quickly as possible?
Over-support your A-players, clear the decks to remove obstacles in their way, and focus them like lasers on the biggest and best new markets and opportunities. This seems like the appropriate place to offer a gentle reminder: The job of the sales manager is not to manage the sales department. Your primary job is to drive sales. There is no extra credit for dividing your time equally across all of your people, but there are fame and fortune for the sales leader who consistently over-delivers on results.
Set aside specific time blocks in your calendar for the sole purpose of investing in your A-players. Find creative ways to show them they’re loved. Think outside the box. Maybe you create a Top Dog Retreat for a few of your very best. Take a trip with a handful of senior executives and the Top Dogs.
Spend half of the retreat playing and treating these salespeople like royalty. Use the other half for serious meetings to get their input on a variety of topics and also have them ask management the hard questions. Can you imagine how pumped and loyal top producers would be following that kind of experience?
Nothing hurts worse than losing a top-producing salesperson. Smart sales talent management dictates that you invest the time and creativity to retain your best folks.
Remediate or Replace: Coach Up or Coach Out Underperformers
While I am advocating that managers invest more time with top performers, in no way does that imply they should ignore underperformance? Too often, sales managers let underperformance go for too long before addressing it head-on. Sales are about results; it is not about being busy, productive, or a good corporate citizen.
Sales team leaders are judged by the results their teams deliver, not by how nice team members are or how hard they work. The manager has no choice but to address those on his team whose results fall short of expectations.
Sales managers tend to fall into two extreme camps when it comes to dealing with laggards. On one hand are those that are quick to cut and run. They have an anxious trigger finger, and at the first sign of weakness, they’ll send someone packing. Then there are the overly patient managers who avoid hard conversations at all cost, or the extremely optimistic types who perpetually hope their underperform-ers are just about to turn it around.
I believe there’s a better way—a happy medium—that would help managers in both camps become more effective talent managers. For lack of a better term, I simply call it remediation. Remediation has two stages, informal and formal, and one goal: to coach up or coach out those whose results are not acceptable. Informal remediation comes first.
It’s when we let a salesperson know that his performance is unacceptable and we are going to work with him to address it. Formal remediation would follow if results did not improve, and it’s typically nothing more than the formal process for removing a team member.
The beautiful thing about a well-executed remediation is that it always works. Both possible outcomes are good for the company, the manager, and even the struggling salesperson. Either the underperformer improves to a level that’s acceptable, or he doesn’t and is then set free from failing so he can succeed elsewhere. The manager wins regardless of the outcome. He either has the satisfaction of having helped turn around someone’s performance (and possibly entire career) or the opportunity to replace someone who couldn’t succeed, even when helped, with someone who can.
If the manager believes the underperforming salesperson is a “keeper” with true potential to succeed, then the goal of the informal remediation is to coach up the salesperson to an acceptable level of results. However, if the manager, for whatever reason, is convinced that the underachiever is not a “keeper” (attitude, work ethic, integrity issues, a misfit for the role, or just a complete miss-hire) I would suggest skipping informal remediation altogether. Save the grief, effort, time, and opportunity cost and move straight into a formal remediation to speed up the termination process.
There are various triggers indicating that it might be time to start a salesperson on an informal remediation plan. Every company, sales cycle, sales manager, and the salesperson is unique, so it’s almost impossible to make a blanket declaration about when to begin remediation. But having said that, here are some indicators that very well could mean it’s time to begin an informal coach-up or coach-out process with one of your people:
Results are not what they should be; the individual’s performance lags behind that of the team.
Something in your gut is telling you to put a giant question mark on this person. You’re not exactly sure what is wrong, but you know something is not right.
The salesperson does not seem to be getting it that you and the company are serious about results.
You’ve had frustrating back-to-back 1:1 meeting with this person and she is not responding to your inquiries about her pipeline and activity in a way that reassures you that she is going to turn it around on her own.
You become convinced that this salesperson needs not just a wakeup call but also clear marching orders and more intense direct supervision to have a better chance of succeeding. You truly believe that, for a period, overinvesting in this person (coaching and fieldwork) will pay significant long-and short-term dividends.
My coaching to sales leaders is simple: If you are not sure whether it’s time to put someone on an informal remediation plan, then it’s time. Do it. Early is better than late. Nothing good comes from allowing underperformance, particularly mysterious underperformance, to go on longer than it should.
Plus, as already mentioned, there is practically zero risk from beginning informal remediation with someone who is struggling. But there is much put at stake by waiting too long. Isn’t it better to identify a problem when there is still time to fix it, or before it causes significant damage?
When your car’s engine doesn’t sound right, is it wise to turn up the radio, ignore the indicator that something may be wrong, and hope the issue resolves itself? No, the smart move is to get that car in the shop and a qualified technician under the hood diagnosing the situation as quickly as possible. And that’s exactly what you should be doing when there are warning lights on the dashboard for someone on your team.
Most managers wait too long to address underperformance. They suffer from poor results longer than they should. Nobody wins by ignoring potential failure. The culture suffers. The team’s results suffer. And the team member who is not producing suffers while the situation typically worsens to the point that it’s beyond repair. That is management malpractice, plain and simple.
Do not hesitate to begin an informal remediation. By its very nature, it is informal. You should not need to involve other executives or Human Resources. I am not saying you should actively avoid them; you just don’t need to include them at this point. By all means, seek counsel from wise colleagues if you that feel would be beneficial. All I am suggesting is that you do your job by managing your team. If there’s a sales team member requiring remediation, then start the process immediately.
This is made easier when you have already begun establishing a high-performance, results-focused culture, and only seems natural when you are holding regular 1:1 results and pipeline-focused meetings with team members. Said differently, no one should be surprised that you, as the manager, are looking closely at results and are concerned about repeated underperformance.
Schedule a meeting or phone call with Johnny (the underperformer), and start it with something like this: “Johnny, it should not be a surprise that we are having this conversation today. I’ve discussed with you on numerous occasions that your results are not acceptable, and
I am concerned that you are not turning it around as we both hoped you would. I want you to succeed. I believe you want to succeed. So we’re meeting today because I want to help you get on the right track starting right now because the status quo is unacceptable.”
There are two critical characteristics of a successful remediation. First, there must be crystal clear expectations of what the manager is requiring the salesperson to achieve. It is not acceptable to tell the salesperson that he needs to “show improvement.” Spell. It. Out.
Specifically, what kind of improvement? “Johnny, I understand that you may not necessarily be able to close X number of new deals or Y dollars in the next sixty days. However, we need to put a firm stake in the ground to evaluate your progress. Here’s what I am asking you to commit to as a demonstration that you are serious about turning around your performance (the following numbers are for illustration purposes only and have no meaning):
In the next sixty days, you need to have
1. Secured eighteen discovery meetings with named target accounts
2. Created eight new opportunities in the pipeline, two of which need to reach Phase M and two more need to get to Phase N.
“Johnny, are we clear on the expectations?” Johnny nods. You continue, “I’d like you to write up a mini-plan naming the specific existing accounts and prospects that you are going to pursue those eighteen meetings. Within two days, I also want to see your planning calendar for the next two months so I can arrange to spend some time working with you in the field.
And you and I will begin meeting every week instead of every month. When we meet each week, first you’ll update me on your progress and then I’ll be happy to spend the rest of the time helping and coaching you. All right, Johnny, repeat back what we just agreed on so I know we’re on the same page.”
The second critical characteristic for a successful remediation is that the salesperson fully grasps that he is 100 percent responsible for hitting the targets you establish with him. Salespeople are really good at making excuses and deflecting blame—particularly when put under the microscope. The manager’s job is to ensure that the salesperson “owns” his future results and understands that you have no interest in hearing his rationale if he does not accomplish what was agreed to.
Last year I worked with a young national sales manager who had just taken over a team of veteran regional managers. This sales team had lived without serious accountability for decades. The new manager had his work cut out for him. One of the perennial underperformers managed an important territory on the West Coast.
In every coaching conversation, I’d ask how it was going with Fred out west. The manager was becoming increasingly frustrated because Fred had an excuse for everything. I figured at some point that the manager would lose his cool and put Fred in his place, but it wasn’t happening. Finally, he asked me how to handle Fred’s continual excuses.
I spend very little time consulting about formal remediation. The reality is that once informal remediation and coaching up has failed to create the desired change, it’s time to coach out. Quickly. While I encourage sales managers to put their heart and brainpower to work in efforts to save a “keeper” salesperson during an informal remediation, once that fails, it’s time for the manager to pull back.
I’ve yet to see an underperformer who didn’t turn it around with help during informal remediation do so on his own during the formal stage. In other words, formal remediation is now a formality to remove that person from your team. You made your best reasonable effort to no avail. Get HR involved and follow your company’s termination procedures with a clean conscience. Turn your attention to replacing that individual and coaching other team members. Your work with this person is done.
Recruiting Top Talent Requires Intentionality
I get a little nervous when executives brag that they have almost no turnover on their sales teams. While I appreciate their pride in a highly tenured sales force and satisfaction in the fact that people don’t voluntarily leave their company, that isn’t always indicative of a high-performance team. Often, it’s the opposite.
A sales team with zero turnovers typically values longevity over results. Not that I’m advocating a Jack Welch approach of pruning the bottom 10 percent of employees each year, but it is hard to conceive that a high-performance culture wouldn’t push laggards out the door—either by force or by choice.
It follows, then, that leaders who do not tolerate underperformance must excel at replacing those departing their teams. If you take seriously the responsibility of remediating or replacing underperform-ers, it is only logical that recruiting and placing new talent becomes an important part of the job.
Recruiting for the manager is much like prospecting for the sales-person. It’s very important but typically not perceived as urgent. Recruiting, like prospecting, doesn’t call you; you need to call it. We don’t default to recruiting mode. There’s always something easier, more attractive, or more urgent vying for our attention.
There are two critical keys to becoming a better recruiter. The first is to maintain a list of key referral sources and potential candidates. Just like a top sales hunter can always put her fingers on her target account list, the sales leader must be able to do the same.
It would be too daunting to face starting from scratch every time you leaped into recruiting mode. Maintain a segmented list. In one section, list your best referral sources for new sales hires customers, industry contacts, suppliers, your own salespeople, and other highly networked people in your sphere of influence.
In the other segment, create a running list of actual candidates. Some managers refer to this as “building their bench.” Managers who excel at recruiting monitor the depth and strength of people on their bench. They want to ensure that there is always a healthy pool of candidates available to them when the need arises. Think how different that approach is from that of the typical sales manager who ignores recruiting until he urgently needs to fill a hole.
The other key to becoming a successful recruiter is to carve out regular time on your calendar to focus exclusively on recruiting. As I just said, recruiting rarely calls you; you need to proactively pursue it. Similar to how we ask salespeople to dedicate specific time blocks for proactive prospecting, we must do the same for recruiting.
The only way you’ll dedicate time to recruiting is if you schedule appointments with yourself to actually do it! Open your calendar and plug in a few hours of recruiting time (or however long you deem appropriate for your situation) each month. That will ensure that you have “time” set aside to work both referral sources and candidates.
Many of you are likely wondering why I have not addressed three of the most popular vehicles for recruiting: job board services like CareerBuilder or Monster Jobs - Job Search, LinkedIn, and search firms. My honest answer is that I stay away from consulting clients in these areas. Searching for candidates is a unique specialty and enormous industry. There are experts in all three of those search methods much more qualified than I.
Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, and a cursory review would not do the topic justice. This editorial comment I will make, however: In my experience, sales leaders who were really good at finding and attracting top talent were masters at working referral sources, and they dedicated significant chunks of time to recruiting.
While I do not help clients find candidates, I do love meeting with and interviewing prospective new hires. Everything around interviewing fascinates me—from the varying approaches taken by managers and companies conducting the interviews to the way candidates present themselves.
Aside from all the obvious qualities to evaluate during an inter-view—Is the candidate qualified, likable, trustworthy, professional, a good fit? Would I buy from this person? Will she raise the bar for my team?—I am looking to determine if this person can sell by observing how she handles herself and how she responds to two very specific questions.
First, I want to see if this salesperson makes the interview about herself or about the company. In general, I find that most interviewers talk too much and provide too much guidance to the interviewee. We are interviewing someone for a sales position, so let’s see how she handles a sales situation. Is she comfortable?
Does she have a plan? Is she prepared with great questions? Does she seek to truly understand what the company needs or why people succeed or fail in the role? Is she looking to determine if she is a good fit, or just interested in promoting herself?
Ask These Two Killer Questions During Every Interview
I save two sets of questions for the end of every interview. One takes us beyond theory and philosophy and provides a clear look at how the candidate has sold in the past. The other question offers a glimpse into how the candidate thinks and will approach the job.
Tell me about the last two significant deals you won due to your own proactive sales effort. Share the whole story from beginning to end. How did your identify or create the opportunity? How did you “get in”? Describe the discovery process. Tell me about the various stakeholders. How did you build interest and consensus? Take me through the chronology of the various conversations and meetings all the way through presenting, proposing, negotiating, and closing the deal.
From there, I’m trying to ascertain whether this is a true salesperson who understands how to create and advance opportunities, or if this candidate is just an order taker. How this question is answered either causes me to fall deeply in love with the candidate or has me throwing out a giant yellow caution flag. I’m looking for sales winners who have won in the past and know what to do and why they do it.
The company’s business was actually pretty darn healthy because it had done an excellent job growing the top line by cross-selling new products and penetrating deeper into existing customers. But its new business development effort was rather anemic. The sales reports they shared with me demonstrated that almost all growth was a result of expansion within current accounts. That spoke well of the company’s ability to deliver value and manage relationships but not so well about its ability to open new accounts.
Salespeople Are Not Paid by the Hour for Good Reason
Sales is a somewhat unusual job. Salespeople are not paid by the hour or measured by the quantity of “work” they do. Quite simply, the job of sales is to produce results. And by results, I specifically mean to increase revenue, grow the top line, acquire new customers, and net new pieces of business.
What drives me bananas is something that is particularly prevalent in smaller organizations, especially where the founder runs the company as CEO or has a heavy hand in sales management. More often than you’d believe, I face down these controlling CEOs who are more concerned about a salesperson’s activity level than whether he is hitting his numbers. These micromanagers’ report of choice is the call report, not the monthly or quarterly sales report.
That’s right. I’m telling you there are chief executives and owners of companies creating a sales culture where producers are not judged on production versus the goal but on activity. These executives would rather read details about what took place on sales calls and how many customers the salesperson is seeing than dive into actual sales results or opportunities in the pipeline. This is wrong and self-defeating on so many levels.
Let me drive home the main point of this blog right here: You cannot build a sustainable product, healthy sales culture without a laser focus on goals and results. And that’s especially true if you want to maintain a high level of sales talent within the organization. A-players want to be pushed, expect to held accountable for exceeding goals, and won’t tolerate being micromanaged.
Before moving on, let me ask: Are the goals of your sales team and each member of it clear? Do all members of your sales team understand what is expected of them and how they’ll be evaluated? What processes are in place to monitor progress against specific goals? How are you creating a results-focused culture in your organization?
Be forewarned. I’m a rather emotional guy, and after reviewing my notes for this blog, I am already angry! The barbs that follow are directed squarely at the senior executive to whom the sales manager reports. But before I begin the tirade, allow me to let you in on one of the dirty little secrets of my consulting practice.
It’s Not Rocket Science: Little Effort = Little Results
I get brought into all kinds of companies to help improve the sales effort. On the rare occasion, senior leadership at a high-growth company with a very healthy sales organization will bring me in to help them get to the next level. That’s truly a joy and a treat. But as I mentioned, it’s also pretty darn rare.
Typically, I’m engaged when the sales team isn’t working the way it’s supposed to; results aren’t what they should be—particularly when it comes to bringing in new business—or sales management is stuck and seeking an infusion of energy, along with a fresh perspective and outside ideas.
Regardless of the size of the company, industry, or even type of sales role, do you know what I almost always find? (The only reason I say almost is that I’ve taught my kids that whenever you say always or never you’re probably not telling the truth.)
The dirty little secret of this highly paid consultant is that with almost every sales team I’ve worked who struggle to develop more new business, from SAP consulting firms to printing companies, from OEM truck manufacturers to mortgage lenders, from a highly respected defense contractor to a software company, one of the main causes of underperformance is that the very people charged with selling new pieces of business and acquiring new clients spend a surprisingly low percentage of their time selling new business.
That’s it. The secret is out. No matter how complex the business, how tenured the reps, how long the sales cycle, how compelling their sales story, or how well they conduct sales calls, make presentations, or tailor proposals, one of the biggest culprits detracting from sales performance is that salespeople forget their primary job.
Quite simply, they get all caught up in doing all kinds of seemingly important activities: playing corporate ambassador, safety committee member, customer service advocate, delivery boy, assistant to the operations manager. You get the point. Salespeople regularly fall short of delivering their numbers because of Little Effort = Little Results. It’s not that they’re not working. They’re just working on the wrong things.
So why take all this space to expound on why salespeople fail when this blog is supposedly about companies burying the sales manager? Because sales managers commit the very same sins, but with one huge difference:
While salespeople choose to take their eye off the new business development ball and are often happily distracted from their primary job, in most cases, sales managers are typically kept from doing their primary job and highest-value activities because their company buries them with an unimaginable amount of crap that has little to do with leading the sales team or driving revenue!
Senior Executives Divert and Distract Sales Managers from Their Most Important Job
The sales manager’s role is already hard enough. People and projects incessantly vie for the manager’s time and attention. This happens even though the sales manager is the key leverage point in the organization to drive sales success. Somehow it has become permissible, even fashionable, to pile a large load of non-revenue-driving tasks and responsibilities on this person as well.
During the first day of the retreat, I sensed something was amiss. While the managers were intellectually assenting to the sales leadership principles I was espousing, I could tell they weren’t truly buying in. In other words, they believed that what I was preaching was true, but they were not reacting like sales managers usually do when I share this content.
On the second day, I set aside time for a closed-door session with just the sales managers. Within a minute of the executive team leaving the room, the twenty-five of us were seated informally in a circle. By this point, they knew enough about me to understand that things were about to get very real. You could visibly see the angst on several managers’ faces. I took a deep breath and exhaled loud enough for everyone to know that I was tracking with them emotionally. I then asked two questions that opened the floodgates:
The Sales Manager Must Ensure That the Team Is Armed for Battle
Once targets are selected, the manager has two primary responsibilities. The first is to ensure that the troops are armed with the necessary sales weapons to head into battle. And, second, the manager must make sure that team members become proficient at firing this weapons. Similar to how sales managers often take for granted that their people are focused on the right targets, it’s not uncommon for managers to simply assume that team members are properly equipped for battle.
Assuming is dangerous, and sending your troops on the attack without the proper weapons or training on how to use them is even worse! Sales leaders, please hear me: If you want to hold your teams accountable for producing results, then you must be fully accountable for equipping them to win.
The Sales Manager Does Not Need to Be the Sales Expert
Before diving further into this topic, let me make an important point that will give some of your comforts. I don’t believe that you need to be a sales expert to effectively lead a sales team to victory. You’ve already read about the power of a healthy, results-focused culture where the manager regularly meets 1:1 with each salesperson, con-ducts productive sales team meetings, works in the field alongside team members and becomes a master at managing talent (the Four Rs).
All of those aspects of sales management can be beautifully handled by someone who is not a sales expert. While, in this blog, I am absolutely making the case that you are 100 percent responsible for your team being properly equipped to sell, that does not necessarily translate into you having to be the local expert, sales coach, and trainer. You need not be the sales technician who builds the weapons and then trains your people how to fire them.
I’ve observed many situations where very effective sales leaders possessed little sales acumen or experience. This is most common in smaller organizations where an owner or senior executive also serves as part-time sales manager.
And while it’s less common in larger companies with professionally run sales teams, I’ve met quite a few people who ended up in big company sales management roles without having been a salesperson first. These executives had no problem admitting that they were not sales experts and were glad to seek the help of others when it came to equipping and training their sales teams.
The larger point I want to convey here is that while you need not be the expert, that is not a pass to look the other way when it comes to arming the team. The sales team requires a full arsenal of essential weapons and help to become proficient at using them, whether it comes from you, an associate within your organization, or an outside expert. You are responsible for making that happen.
There Is No More Critical Weapon than the “Sales Story”
There are a few dozen weapons in the salesperson’s arsenal, ranging from email, LinkedIn, and voicemail, to probing questions, presentations, facility tours, and references. None, however, is more important than what I call the “sales story.” What some call a value proposition and others refer to as an elevator pitch, I call the story.
Basically, it’s a collection of compelling talking points that when used properly becomes the single most valuable sales weapon. Part of the reason the story is so critical is that bits and pieces of it end up in every other weapon. Talking points from the story make their way into LinkedIn profiles, proactive telephone call outlines, voicemails, face-to-face sales calls, demos, webinars, presentations, and proposals. If it involves any aspect of selling, there’s a really good chance that the sales story makes an appearance.
The most popular blog in my first blog is titled “Sharpening Your Sales Story.” It seems that just about every company, sales team, and salesperson admits that their story has room for improvement. What astonishes me (and keeps me employed) is that when I go into a company and ask a handful of executives and salespeople to “Tell me about [your company name],” I get as many versions of the story as the number of people I ask! Even worse than the wide variety is that so little of what I hear is compelling.
There are three common sins salespeople commit when sharing their story. The first sin is that most stories are too complex. They take too long to tell and are not easy to follow. That’s a problem indeed. It shouldn’t take ten minutes or ten PowerPoint slides to get someone’s attention, share how you help your clients, and succinctly explain your offering.
The second and third common story sins go hand-in-hand. Sales-people are often boring and self-focused. They begin by talking about their company and their offerings. What could be less appealing to a potential customer than the salesperson leading with what his company does and how long it has been in business?
You chuckle reading it, but that is exactly how most salespeople start their sales story. “We do this, that, and the other thing. We’ve been in business thirty-nine years. We are privately held. Here are pictures of our facilities.” I may injure the next salesperson who puts a picture of his company’s buildings in a presentation!
If one of your primary jobs as the sales leader is to arm the team with effective sales weapons, then sales process priority number one has to be sharpening the team’s most critical weapon. A succinct, compelling, customer-issue-focused, differentiating story changes everything. An effective story:
Gives salespeople confidence to prospect
Changes the dynamic of the sales dance and positions your salespeople as experts and consultants
Gets the customer or prospect’s attention
Helps customers to see clearly and quickly that what you sell addresses the very issues they face
Enables the salesperson to better articulate the true value your solution delivers
Warms up the customer to respond to probing questions
Justifies your premium price and position in the market
Differentiates your company from competitors
Makes salespeople even more proud of their company
If that list of benefits doesn’t compel you to put forth a supreme effort to sharpen your sales story, nothing will. It’s hard to think of a better gift to your salespeople (and company) than equipping them with a killer story and helping them put it to use in all of their other weapons.
Stop Hoping for the Magic Sales Bullet and Focus on the Basics
It’s amusing how much energy is spent searching for the magic sales bullet. Executives and salespeople alike seem to live in the perpetual hope that they’ll discover the new secret that guarantees unlimited qualified leads, a full pipeline, and the ability to close every deal at full price. Well, I’ve got bad news, good news, and a rather transparent confession to share.
The bad news is that there is no magic bullet or secret sauce. Despite all the hype about the latest and greatest new sales approaches, processes, techniques, tools, and toys that you must have to win at sales today, there’s no one thing or new thing that will alter your team’s performance or the course of history.
I’m sorry to break it to you, but there is no sales leadership shortcut that will magically change everything, and the people peddling that nonsense are nothing more than liars and charlatans looking to capitalize on your desire for a quick fix.
There is also some very good news. The basics of selling still work! The overwhelming majority of widely accepted sales truths are still true today. Contrary to what we read and hear from the nouveau experts, sales leaders who focus on the tried and true fundamentals of selling, and have their salespeople do the same, experience significant success.
My hope is that sharing the bad news, good news, and that confession motivates you to take a hard look at not just the sales management basics presented in Part Two of this blog. I hope that you’ll also reevaluate the strength of your sales team’s most fundamental weapons as well. Along with the sales story, there are a handful of others deployed by your people on a daily basis. How much more effective could your team be if they became highly proficient at firing these weapons?
For example, when was the last time you did a thorough review of how your sales team members prepare for, structure, and conduct initial/discovery sales calls? Do you even have some type of “standard” sales call structure in place or minimum expectations for what should take place before, during, and after a sales call?
If you don’t, you should. That initial sales call with a prospective customer can set the tone for the whole relationship. We work so darn hard to get in front of the right people at the right company. Wouldn’t it make sense to put our best foot forward when we finally get there? And wouldn’t you feel better as the leader knowing that your people were all operating under a set of standard expectations for how sales calls should flow?
This blog isn’t the venue to include a treatise on how to structure and conduct winning consultative sales calls. But let me offer some helpful questions to encourage sales leaders to start tackling the topic:
What is the minimum acceptable amount of research and information gathering that must be done during pre-call planning?
Does your company have some type of prescribed structure for sales calls that outlines the various stages from beginning to end?
What materials and tools should salespeople have with them on sales calls? And which tools are better left at home or saved for later in the sales process? (Hint: a projector.)
Have you worked through the best way to set up the sales call by sharing the agenda and seeking the customer’s input and buy-in?
How well do your people share a succinct version of the sales story to position themselves as customer-issue-focused expert problem solvers before launching into probing questions?
Are team members armed with insightful probing questions that not only help them learn more about the customer’s situation but also demonstrate your company’s familiarity with the kinds of issues likely on the mind of the customer?
Is every person on your sales team clear that discovery must precede presentation, and do they know how to respond when a customer insists that they start with a capabilities overview?
How comfortable are salespeople at fleshing out potential objections or securing a customer’s commitment to next steps?
What processes are in place following a sales call? What information gets shared or recorded and what happens with that information?
Obviously, those questions just scratch the surface of what takes place during sales calls, but it is a safe bet that a good portion of the sales management population would not be confident or comfortable with their answers. Honestly, that’s the point I’m trying to make. Too many managers are caught up in their underwear sitting in corporate meetings and doing all kinds of non-sales-leadership activities. Or, they’re buried in statistical minutiae spewing from their CRM.
Or worse, they’re out shopping for some new sales enablement tool that promises to turn underperformers into quota-crushers. All the while they’re playing good corporate citizen, CRM jockey, or sales tool super-shopper, their sales team is out making pathetic sales call after a pathetic sales call.