Seven strategies to enhance your sales force
In an earlier edition, I wrote about how fundamental changes in corporate America were eliminating the need for the traditional salesperson. A similar fate awaits the traditional route sales manager.
You can easily spot a route sales manager, whether you’re an executive or a business owner, or you are the sales manager yourself. Is her time dedicated to “administrivia” – shuffling paper, auditing expense reports, writing fictional forecasts to show senior management just how well things are going in the field? How much of her time and energy is dedicated to – no, wasted on – quota enforcement?
And if those are the top two priorities, mentoring salespeople probably runs a distant third. That may be just as well; most companies promote the superstar salesperson, hoping to create clones. That strategy is as disastrous as it is pervasive. The qualities that make a superstar salesperson are typically incompatible with being a superstar sales manager.
Like the route salesperson, the route sales manager functions in selling’s old paradigm: as a vendor or problem-solver. But if you want your sales managers to function in selling’s new paradigm – the sales force as a business resource to customers – there are seven responsibilities that should make up their job description.
1. Remove internal obstacles: Most corporate cultures are hostile toward the sales force. Not deliberately or maliciously – it’s just the way they are. To create a world-class sales force, hire the best raw material, develop them with training and support, and create a friendly environment for them to succeed.
A good sales manager needs polish and organizational savvy to fight the internal battles – over compensation, technical support, conflicts over sales channels and cross-territory sales, to name just a few examples – freeing the sales force to do its job.
2. Develop and implement a system of accountability: We used to equate accountability in sales solely with numbers. The problem with that was exemplified by a sales manager who told me she was going to promote one rep who was blowing the doors off the numbers and put on notice another who was performing below quota. Having seen both at work, I was puzzled: I viewed the rep about to be put on notice as more effective than the one designated for promotion.
A closer look at the data showed a territory discrepancy: The quota-buster had been around for a while and had inherited a gold-mine territory with large, producing accounts that required scant selling ability.
The under-performer’s territory was filled with promising, yet underdeveloped accounts.
The “over-achiever” called on purchasing agents and merely went in and picked up orders, while the “under-achiever” was doing all of the right things, including getting to senior levels of management.
Measuring numbers isn’t enough to hold a sales force accountable. You also have to consider the quality of their day-to-day activities. But don’t get trapped into trying to quantify all they do, or you’ll end up with a staff that fills out weekly reports on how many brochures they’ve left in a customer’s lobby and how many phone calls they’ve made.
3. Reinforce a common sales methodology and sales message: The rules and language, steps and milestones of the sales process should be common throughout the sales organization.
Too many sales forces suffer from anarchy. A common methodology helps salespeople learn from each other and ensures consistency in positioning your product.
Customers and prospects can rarely make objective judgments about what we sell. Instead, they’re making judgments more on how we sell, and how we position what we sell.
It’s senior management’s responsibility to develop your company’s core positioning message, and the responsibility of the sales force to take convey that message consistently out in the marketplace, thus strengthening the company’s brand. Otherwise you risk making the same mistake as a technology company I consulted with. While some reps sold strategic technology solutions, hardware and consulting to senior executives, others were more comfortable selling tactical hardware-only solutions to lower level individuals. This unintended strategy meant the company was selling two different messages, damaging its brand.
4. Create realistic account bases: Salespeople want the solar system for their territory, while senior management would prefer they focus on the eastern half of Elm Street.
Remember my client who was going to promote the wrong guy because of disparate territories? A good sales manager must be familiar with the geography and accounts into which the company is selling so that they get distributed equitably – all the while fighting off the constant toadying of salespeople coveting plumb assignments.
A sales manager with the best interests of the company in mind must not allow salespeople too many opportunities to cherry-pick – and at the same time, needs to work against corporate America’s unfortunate tendency to penalize successful, hardworking salespeople by cutting their territories or raising their quotas excessively. In short, one more internal obstacle to navigate.
5. Provide the sales force with market and competitive data and qualified leads: It frustrates me no end to see highly paid salespeople sitting at their desks paging through a manufacturer’s guide in search of prospects. That is just plain crazy, and a horrible waste of the salesperson’s time.
It is the responsibility of the selling company and the sales manager to provide reasonably qualified leads – an easier task today with so many sources of information. Sales managers also must take responsibility for arming the sales force with good information about competitors. How else can we justify telling salespeople that, in order for them to win, they have to be able to make a competitor lose?
6. Be a conduit for best practices: One of selling’s dirty little secrets is that even salespeople on the same team are not naturally disposed to help one another. They’re driven more by recognition than by financial reward.
When Mary cracks the code on selling a particular solution or acing out a wily competitor, she’s likely to share at most only part of what worked. Again, there’s no malice; it’s not even conscious. It’s just the nature of salespeople: They want to win, and that’s always just a little harder when their peers are as successful as they are.
A good sales manager can work closely with salespeople to extract and share best practices. One way is to hold monthly best-practices meetings, with salespeople required to contribute to the discussion in an environment that is at once friendly and competitive, giving salespeople recognition for their contributions.
7. Take responsibility for mentoring and personal development: When you promote a salesperson to manager, evaluate closely that person’s skills and attributes. Does he or she have what it takes to mentor others?
Too often superstars promoted to manager don’t mentor or coach at all – they simply take over the sale. The consummate manager is able to draw out a salesperson’s own ability to develop and execute the strategy – and repeats that to ensure the entire sales force implements the same process.
Jerry Stapleton is president of The IBS Group, a large-account sales consulting firm based in Brookfield.
May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee