Updated May 15, 2019
We like to say that in sales management, you have two choices. You can develop your leadership skills to catapult your professional success and that of your teams or you can continue to perform at status quo. Today, a company needs every possible efficiency, effort and effectiveness from its sales management and salespeople to get ahead and emerge at the forefront of industry. Those companies that innovate are growing, filling pipelines, closing more business sooner, forecasting accurately, and meeting their targets. And then there's everybody else.
What does it take to get there? For sales managers specifically, how would you have to "show up" as a leader of your team to make consistent improvements that lead to sales management mastery? What changes would you need to make? What beliefs about yourself and your team would you have to embrace? These questions apply to executive leadership roles as well. But let's take a look at the top five steps to sales management mastery from which to choose at least one new skill on which you can work, or encourage your managers to work, to help you or them become even better in the role on the journey to mastery.
Five Critical Steps to Sales Management Mastery
1 Model Success
If you didn't know about the invention of the wheel, given enough time, you might figure it out and learn how to move things around more easily. Pushing large rectangular stones is too tiring. However, if you started with a wheel early in your career, how far ahead of the pack would you be today? People who try to figure out sales management by trial and error might eventually figure it out. To save yourself years, however, find someone who is already there and do what they are doing. Find a friend, mentor, or coach who has already demonstrated success. Everybody else is blowing smoke.
2 Choose the Right Role
Find a managerial role in which you will be able to think and lead at one level above your team members. You should know their job well and understand their strengths and weaknesses so that you are able to challenge them just enough to stretch them without breaking them. If, on the other hand, you are operating from a similar level of thinking, it's easy to fall into the twin traps of either micro-managing them or doing it for them. Neither works well. They won't learn, you'll be overloaded, and it will be hard to meet your goals, let alone leverage your time. Make sure the role and corresponding level of managerial responsibility is right for you.
After publishing this article and asking for comments, author, sales executive, and former colleague Frank Belzer added that one's passion for helping others and passion for the company and products makes a huge difference in your success. He made the great point that "if you don't have that gene, then change roles."
3 Know What Motivates
Motivating your people starts with knowing what already motivates them. Use language consistent with their goals and motivational triggers. Do they love to win or hate to lose? Do they like recognition or are they more self-satisfied? Do they like close management or do they prefer to manage themselves? Do they like extrinsic rewards like money and recognition, or intrinsic rewards like a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment? The language you use will reinforce one or the other of these choices.
Equally important is motivating yourself. Coupled with that motivation is your desire for success in the role and your commitment to doing what it takes, ethically, to succeed. Is your own "grit" for the role strong enough to drive not only your own success, but the success of those whom you manage? How you feel about your job, the company, the people and the products, and how well all of that aligns with your identity is hard to miss for anyone who interacts with you.
4 Make Coaching Your Most Important Skill
Coaching is not mentoring. Coaching is not a pipeline review. Coaching is not just about answering questions when team members ask them, though all of that is useful. It's not the blocking and tackling part of the job. Coaching is not even training and it's not about theory. Coaching is an opportunity-specific deconstruction of a sales call (either before or after it happens) for the express purpose of improving effectiveness. Coaching is about practicing selling skills in the safety and comfort of an internal meeting. It's about following process, trying out language, and practicing how it should sound. It's about role playing. It's about conditioning the mind to respond unconsciously in selling conversations. I know not everyone is comfortable with role playing but it is the single most important tool in a coaches toolbox. Managers who coach their team members on a set and consistent schedule create a culture of constant improvement that simply cannot lose.
5 Create an Environment that Supports Success
Winning sports teams in almost all cases have a positive atmosphere. Team members trust each other, respect each other, and help each other. They believe in their coach and she believes in them. When any of that erodes, so does performance. On the evening of the big national championship win, you never hear this from the winners, "I don't know how we won with all the excuse-making, finger-pointing, name-calling, and discontent on this team." It usually sounds more like, "These guys/gals are my family. We have each other's backs. There's an intuitive sense on the field of what's needed when and where and it seems there's always someone there to make it happen when it counts. Even off the field, we just like hanging out together. This whole year was so much fun and the coach made us all feel like we could do anything!"
In this article I posted several weeks ago, there were a few statistics revealed that should frighten any manager:
"Forbes recently published data from a number of sources. For example, A Harvard Business Review study revealed that 58% of people say they trust strangers more than their own boss. 79% of people who quit their jobs cite "lack of appreciation" as the primary reason. The Conference Board reported that 53% of Americans are currently unhappy at work."
Many managers are missing the chance to channel energy in the right direction. Teams with a poor environment lose. They don't meet their numbers. They make excuses and point fingers. In the worst situations, performers leave and non-performers are stuck. Look at your team, person by person, and make a list of any areas in which the relationship is not supporting a positive and healthy environment. Seriously, make a list. You can do it on one sheet of paper and it will take a half hour. Do it now. I'll wait. Then, decide how you will address each deficient area with each person one by one until there are none left. Do this and I promise you that because of the cascade of all the activities, attitudes, and behaviors the exercise will trigger, you will hit your numbers.
6 Leverage Technology
There are numerous tools available to managers to help them do their jobs and to help their people do theirs. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems work when everyone uses it and keeps it 100% up to date. If less than 100%, the information reported from the data is almost useless. Managers that report 100% compliance also report that it is one of the most useful technology tools in the kit. Another is their pipeline tool.
Let's make an important distinction. CRM is not Pipeline and most CRM tools talk the pipeline talk without walking the walk. CRM focuses on customers whereas Pipeline focuses on opportunities. If you're visual, imagine the two dimensions of customers and activities. That's CRM. Now add a third dimension of opportunities and you have Pipeline.
Client after client ask me how they can turn their CRM tool into a pipeline tool. In Salesforce, for example, thanks to integration with Membrain and other pipeline tools, that's possible. If you don't want to spend money on both, err on the side of pipeline because it's more helpful to salespeople. Many companies use industry-specific CRM tools. E.g., Media companies, or heavy equipment sales, etc. They don't always have the luxury of tossing out a sub-par CRM tool because it is interwoven into many other parts of the business. In that case, either we are able to rig up a Pipeline tool within the structure of their CRM or we set up a separate Pipeline tool. Thanks to the integration tool, Zapier, sometimes we can even save the step of double entering customers.
Another effective tool for managers is the use of video for asynchronous communication. A video challenge can be sent to a rep who then responds with a video of their own. The manager asks a question such as, "Describe product x in detail," or, "Open a conversation with a positioning statement," and the rep responds so the manager can critique and provide feedback. Refract is an example of this kind of technology.
7 Hold People Accountable
Sales Managers often look at sales revenues as a primary data point for management. As we know, however, sales is a trailing indicator. To improve forecasting, we look ahead by examining activities and behaviors that are likely to lead to more sales. If we focus on behavior that is within the control of the salesperson, we can bring more accountability to our leadership.
Here's my Thursday-Afternoon Test: Imagine that you are meeting with your team Friday morning and you want them each to report on what they accomplished yesterday. What expectation could you set for team members such that it has the power to change their behavior on Thursday afternoon? That's the test.
Here's an example: You want them to sell more and you have a three-month sales cycle and an average monthly sales number of $100,000 per month per rep. (Let's keep it simple.) You give them the metric of selling $25,000 per week and reporting to you Friday morning. Does it pass the Thursday-Afternoon Test? Let's see. It's Thursday at 3:00 pm and they've only sold $15,000 so far this week, and many of the deals were started two to four months ago. Can they make up the difference in a couple of hours? Probably not, so are not likely to change whatever it was they were doing on Thursday afternoon. They usually can't magically make $10,000 in revenue appear just by working harder for a few hours. That's not to say it isn't possibly, just that it isn't likely to change behavior.
They do, however, have control over many other activities. For example, making calls, following-up, setting up a new meeting, identifying a potential referral source, etc. These kinds of activities have two important features. 1. They are leading indicators. Doing more of them leads to more sales later. 2. They are within the control of the salesperson. Using our example of a Friday morning meeting, let's say we ask our team members to set up six new meetings per week and report on their progress during the meeting. Does it pass the Thursday-Afternoon Test? Let's see. It's Thursday at 3:00 pm and they've set up five meetings. What will they do? Mostly likely, they will get on the phone for next few hours and get that last meeting set up so they can report accomplishing the goal at the meeting the following morning. It passes.
Creating accountability starts with setting expectations that are within the control of the team member. What is doable? What is reachable, within the time frame? How is being reported? Is there a peer component (the morning meeting; a daily huddle; a group chat or email, etc.)? And are their consequences for not meeting metrics goals, activity goals, and behavior goals? And how do those consequences change for one or two violations versus a pattern of missed metrics?
When the goal is sales related or any other trailing indicator, the assumption that poor performance is due to a lack of ability, drive, commitment, or concern can only be established with an appropriate amount of time. Maybe they are doing the right things well, but sales didn't reflect that this month. When the goal is activity-based, doing it or not doing it is more of a choice, and therefore easier from which to hold people accountable.
Becoming proficient with all 7 Critical Steps above will ensure mastery of the sales management role. There are many other strategic and tactical skills, of course, that help define sales managerial success. Territory management, compensation, and sales team structure are a few of them. The elite sales leaders that I help in the course of my daily coaching and training practice understand the basics of the role, but spend much of their learning time mastering these 7 components. Which one are you willing to work on next?
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Photo Credit: Jakub Jirsak (123 RF)