By Walter Rogers, USDR Contributor
Without a doubt, there is relentless, almost unbearable, pressure wearing down on most sales organizations these days, as the ailing economy and shrinking margins make it harder and harder to retire quota and drive revenue. Sales reps – the front line first responders who carry the future profits of the company on their backs – are taking on bigger territories, facing higher quotas, and making more customer contacts than ever, and in many organizations they are still losing ground. Where does the sales rep turn to for support, revitalization, encouragement and direction in the middle of such challenging times?
The answer, of course, is the sales manager, who is charged with providing the insights, resources, accountability, and coaching the sales rep needs to succeed. Unfortunately, most sales managers have their own set of pressures to deal with. Executives want updated sales accounting data, and they want it yesterday. Meetings across departmental lines eat up huge amounts of the day without transferring any real value back into the sales process. Even meetings with the sales team seem counter-productive most of the time. And the underlying mantra that plays daily in the back of the sales manager’s mind is: produce more, produce faster, do it with less, do it now.
In the face of all this pressure, it is easy for the sales manager to become overwhelmed and distracted to such a degree that they have nothing left in the tank to deliver the kind of input to the sales team to help them succeed. Eventually, sales reps – especially those who haven’t achieved “super star” status (most of them) – start to flounder, feeling like they have been pushed into the deep end and left to sink or swim on their own. Ultimately, production – already underperforming –continues to gradually trend further down and the pressure on everyone keeps getting worse.
Evidence repeated shows that turning around a sales team starts with turning around the sales manager. Sales managers are uniquely positioned to influence and empower sales reps to greater levels of success, but sales managers sometimes become so busy and distracted that they neglect their own professional development as they get caught up trying to survive the latest fire drill. Often it only takes a little adjustment and new insight in one or two key areas to dramatically increase the positive impact the sales manager can make on the whole sales team.
As we continue to work with successful sales organizations all around the world, we have discovered that highly effective sales managers have a set of skills and characteristics in common that set them above all the rest, and which enable them to help their teams to achieve results that are also way above average. These characteristics are defined in the topics below:
1. Too many sales teams are over managed and under led, which is to say that many sales managers rely too much on metrics and deadlines to drive performance. Highly effective sales managers find numerous ways to come alongside team members to motivate and inspire them on a personal level and bring out the best in them.
2. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. This is just a way of saying that highly effective sales managers don’t rely on theoretical or arbitrary programs to drive sales team performance. Yes, every team should have a sales process and set goals and measure pipeline, but it has to be set against the sales culture we all struggle with today. The realities of current market conditions and the human limitations of individual team members will converge to shred theories into confetti. Highly effective sales managers know the importance of accounting for the real world conditions their team members face every day.
3. Building the team; finding and hiring talent. Effective sales managers are committed to hiring the best talent available. If you want the best, hire the best, and save loads of time and money on training while protecting yourself from failure six months down the road. It costs more up front, but it definitely pays off over time.
4. Cadence and Consistency: Set and manage the heart beat of the team. In just the same way that children thrive and grow in a stable family where they don’t have to guess what the rules are from one day to the next, a sales team also thrives when all the components of the sales and management process follow regular standards and schedules. Sales reps can give more energy to selling when they don’t feel a need to watch their backs at the office.
5. Key Performance Indicators: The glue of your communication strategy. An integral part of cadence and consistency is the tone and the topics of your communications with your sales team. Nothing is more important to sales makers than knowing what is expected of them and when it is expected. Effective sales managers keep their communication clear and their expectations well defined, so that team members know what to aim for, and understand what will happen if they hit it (or not).
6. Manage the Forward Pipeline: The difference between pipeline and forecasting. Most sales managers understand the necessity of communicating regularly with team members about pipeline and forecasting. However, highly effective sales managers understand that there is a difference between the two. Forecasting is focused on late stage deals. It does little to help with future quarters. Pipeline is focused on the future development of sales, which ultimately impacts later forecasts. Most managers don’t differentiate or understand the difference between the two.
7. Process: Don’t over engineer it, but don’t ignore it. Every sales team works within a standardized process which defines how to approach, qualify, work with and close the customer. This is a good thing. However, highly effective sales managers know it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Highly regimented, complex sales processes can confuse a sales rep and tie their hands, so an effective sales manager will enable and support the sales process without making it a “strait jacket”.
8. Coaching: In the day – in the moment. Coaching is the responsibility most neglected by sales managers, because it requires them to borrow time from their already busy day. Highly effective sales managers realize that placing a high priority on coaching will build confidence and drive production for their team better and faster than any other single practice. Therefore, they take advantage of every opportunity, scheduled or unscheduled, to provide feedback that will make their sales reps better
9. Herding cats: Dealing with the mavericks and high performers. It takes a special kind of person to thrive as a sales professional. The highly competitive – some might say even slightly narcissistic – profile of a successful sales rep can make them a challenge to work with. Highly effective sales managers know how to work with this unique breed of cat, to maximize performance and minimize conflict that can take a good sales professional and help them become great.
10. Leading Indicators: Worrisome patterns of behavior. Effective sales managers are always thinking ahead; they can recognize what small trends indicate before they become big problems. By noticing small changes in sales rep performance in what otherwise might look like still “reasonably” good numbers, the sales manager can be proactive with coaching before it is too late.
11. Protect their time: You can’t sell if you aren’t spending time with customers. Highly effective sales managers practice good time management habits, and they enable their sales teams to make the most of their time by eliminating demands on their time that don’t directly help drive revenue.
12. Celebrate: Winning is fun. Celebrate it! This ought to be self-explanatory, but some sales managers wait too long and then don’t celebrate enough. Effective sales managers understand that the best way to dispel some of the pressure is to spotlight wins – even small ones – as often as possible and use it as an opportunity to give everyone a little boost. A little positive energy goes a long way.
As we arrive at the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice when the young, talented, and inexperienced US Olympic Men’s Hockey Team beat the vaunted team from the USSR and went on to win the gold medal against all odds, every member of that team will tell you that it wasn’t their talent that made them winners, it was the highly effective strategies of their coach, Herb Brooks. He knew how to help his team to ignore the odds and do the work that would accomplish the impossible. That is what good coaches do. Highly effective sales managers do it too, except they do it every day, 24/7/365.
Walter Rogers is the President and CEO of Baker Communications. Baker Communications is a sales training and development company specializing in helping client companies increase their sales and management effectiveness. He can be reached at 713-627-7700