Interview Questions for Sales Managers

In November's newsletter, I answered a question from a sales leader concerned about having worked for three different companies over the past five years. My advice ran the gamut from speaking with reps he'd previously managed to taking a sales management assessment to determine his strengths and challenges.

Sales leaders also need to give serious thought to the interview process. Many (though not all) of the issues they struggle with once on the job might have been uncovered during these conversations. 

My suggestions focus on five key areas: current sales force, hiring process, departmental procedures, career development and the direct supervisor's management style.  

Here are questions you should consider asking:

Hiring Process

  • Could you describe your company's hiring process for sales reps?
  • Are candidates asked to take a pre-hire sales assessment?
  • Do they meet executives from other departments?
  • Do the current sales reps get an opportunity to interview the candidates?

Departmental Procedures

  • Can you tell me about the new hire orientation program for sales reps?
  • Do new reps receive any formal sales training?
  • Is the company affiliated with any type of formal sales training program?
  • Do the reps receive on-going sales skills training?
  • Is there a career path for salespeople (Senior Sales Rep; Key / National Accounts)?
  • Does the company sponsor sales contests?
  • Is there a President's Club?
  • Does the company have a performance improvement plan or warning process?

Current Salesforce

  • Can you tell me about the current tenure and level of experience on the sales staff?
  • How many of the reps are currently at or above quota?
  • What is their greatest strength as a group?
  • What do you think makes the top performers excel?
  • How many reps are below quota?
  • Of those below quota, how many are on written warning?
  • For what period of time have they been on warning?

Career Development

  • Tell me about the new hire orientation program for managers.
  • Does the company provide on-going coaching / training?
  • What is the budget for joining sales leadership groups / off-site meetings?
  • How and how often am I evaluated?

Management Style

  • What level of involvement do you have with the sales organization?
  • How often would you and I meet one-on-one?
  • Which sales reports are critical to you?
  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • What would be your ideal working relationship with the sales leader?
  • If you are not satisfied with a direct report's performance in a particular area, how do you have that conversation?

Positive Signs

When a company has a proven hiring methodology, annual President's Club, or formal probation process, executives answer questions about those topics in some detail. They're proud of those programs and want candidates to understand they'd be coming to work for a proactive, sales-oriented organization with structure and formality. Sales leadership candidates should view this as a positive sign.

Questionable Statements

If you get a lot of, "Er, um well we never actually put reps on probation and um well, there's really no training program per se, but we're looking for someone to come in and, you know, do that type of thing ... uh," ask questions like:

"It seems like you want the next sales leader to create a new hire orientation program (or President's Club, formal warning plan, hiring process etc.) for the sales department."

  • Can you tell me about any recent initiatives or policy changes involving the sales department?
  • What is the approval process like?
  • If I did want to make some changes that affected the sales department, how would that work?
  • What kind of support would I receive?
  • What type of budget would I have to address the issue?
  • Who would I work most closely with?

Organizations serious about hiring a leader to enact positive change take inquiries like these seriously and answer in some detail. They've given the matter a lot of thought.
Vague responses should bring into question how much support you'll receive once you've accepted the job.

Final Thoughts

Job interviews are an imperfect art. Always have been, always will be. Asking the right questions, and listening closely to the verbal and non-verbal responses, helps you and the organization determine whether or not you're the type of sales leader they've been looking for - or filling the empty slot for the next 18 - 24 months.

Best wishes to all of my readers.
Enjoy the holidays!
     - Suzanne

Short Sales Leadership Tenures

A reader writes, "In the last five years I have had three different sales leadership positions at three different companies. I was laid off from the first position, resigned from the second to accept a job at the third and got laid off again. This experience has been stressful and damaged my confidence. More than anything, I want to stop this from happening again. What steps should I take?"

Let's start with some simple math. Five years equals 60 months. With three different jobs, you've averaged 20 months per stay. Regrettably, you're right on track. Sales leaders last, on average, less than two years in the job. Sometimes, it helps (a little, anyway) to know you have company. Sales leaders (sales managers, directors of sales, VP's of sales) rarely enjoy long tenures.

Take an Assessment

Before you accept another position, make sure you have the necessary competencies and skills. Talented reps (of which you were probably one) don't necessarily make talented sales leaders. If you haven't already, take an assessment specifically geared toward the sales profession. Avoid general personality assessments or deals that seem to good to be true.
  
Should the assessment show you not to be a strong candidate to manage others, take that seriously. You'll have to work hard to succeed.

If it shows you have the capabilities to manager others but shows some areas of weakness, pay close attention. Hone in on those and get some training or coaching to help you address any problem areas.

Conduct Your Own 360°

Go back two jobs, contacting your direct supervisor and a few reps you managed. People sometimes speak more freely when enough time has passed. Ask them for a candid evaluation of you management abilities. 

Be brave. Include a rep you suspect didn't enjoy working for you. We're talking about your career here and you need to understand what's happening. Explain why you need this information. Not everyone will agree to participate, but some will, especially if enough time has passed.

Once you've completed this exercise, look at the notes you took when speaking to the different individuals. What did you learn? Were there any "Aha!" moments and patterns?

Break Down Past Interviews

Think about the interview processes you went through for you prior positions.

  • What questions were you asked?  
  • Which ones did you find to be the most effective and thought provoking?
  • What questions did you ask?
  • What did you not ask that you should have?  
  • Did you get the answers you were looking for?
  • Who interviewed you and how many times?  
  • Did you meet a wide range of employees or remain almost entirely in the sales department?  

If you kept notes from past interviews, look them over. Be aware of inconsistencies or red flags.

Reality

When you formally accepted these three jobs, did the responsibilities you took on bare any resemblance to what you learned in the interview process? What came as the biggest surprises (negatives and positives)?  Did you experience any significant let downs? Think about any "If I had known this beforehand" moments.  

Create columns on a spreadsheet for the three past sales leadership jobs. List the various pros and cons for each one. Again, look for patterns.

Final Thoughts

The four exercises I recommend should help you develop a better understanding of yourself as a sales leader as well as what might have gone wrong with past jobs. It's important work.

In next month's newsletter, I will address the job interview itself, making specific recommendations about questions you should ask throughout the process.

Preparation for Effective Prospecting

A reader writes, "Recently, I accepted a Director of Sales position at a new company. A few of the reps on my team just 'wing it' before placing a prospecting call, while others get bogged down with endless social media exploration. What's the proper amount of pre-call research?"

The vast amounts of data available on the web makes managing pre-call research a challenge for most sales leaders. 

Make a Distinction

Different types of sales calls require different types and amounts of pre-call information:

  • Prospecting - factual, broad based
  • Existing customer- updated, relevant
  • Presentation - in depth, detailed

In this newsletter, we'll talk about the introductory or prospecting call.

Developing an Approach

Clarify for yourself how much time you find to be reasonable for this activity.

Never having been a proponent of exhaustively researching a company before making a call or sending an email, I typically recommend the following:

  • Website: Learn about what the company does / makes / produces and to whom they sell their product. Read the bios of the company leaders. Review the products and services offered.
  • Press releases: Read the most recent ones. Pay attention to those with information on new product launches, changes in leadership, or recent problems.
  • Blogs:  If one or several employees blog regularly, read a few, especially the customer- and sales- oriented ones. If not, I'd skip it.  
  • LinkedIn:  Look at the profile of the person you'll be calling as well as the leaders within the company.
  • Phone:  Call into the department most relevant to your product or service. Introduce yourself and ask a few questions of whoever you reach. See what you can find out.

Put your research guidelines in writing and include it in the department handbook or sales training manual.

Recording the Information

Once they've completed the research, I recommend reps record the information in the notes section of the CRM system. They should include a description of the company's product(s), the names of key leaders, and anything of interest they uncovered. As an example, maybe they learned they attended the same college as the CFO.

Share Your Expertise

When sales leaders tell me that they've told the reps, over and over, not to spend an inordinate amount of time on researching a company before calling or emailing, I always ask them, "Have you tried researching a potential customer together?" They almost always reply "No."

Select a company and walk them step-by-step through your research process. Then, ask them to take the lead and research another two or three companies as you observe.  They'll begin to understand the proper protocol for this activity.

Review the Information

After they've completed research, ask the rep to tell you a little bit about the organization. When they can articulately speak about the company, customers, and competitors, and why they might be interested in your product, you can pronounce them good to go.

Peer Training

On your sales staff, which reps do the best job with pre-call research? Have the struggling reps work alongside them.  Ask the proficient reps to take them through their process, modeling what they do and how they do it.

Root Cause

The fear of rejection might cause a lot of the pre-call analysis paralysis. If your efforts to coach them on proper techniques come up short, broach the subject. Share your thoughts and experiences on the difficulties of prospecting.  See what they have to say.  

Might they need some additional training on cold calling?

Final Thoughts

As with most everything in sales, there's an art to pre-call research. You want to encourage reps to add their own personal touch to the activity.

However, some salespeople just don't know when enough is enough. They keep looking, clicking and reading, afraid of missing a crucial piece of information. At some point, all reps have to let go of the mouse and either call or walk into an account and introduce themselves.

More Listening Tips

To succeed in a sales position of any type, you must be a proficient listener. This comes more easily to some reps than others. To help salespeople continue to develop this ability, sales leaders should run listening exercises during staff meetings, recommend books and articles on the subject, monitor sales calls and offer targeted coaching.

Becoming a better listener takes practice, practice, practice.

For more tips on this all important skill, I turned to Laurie Schloff, a career communication coach and author of "Smart Speaking," who works for the Speech Improvement Company in Brookline, Massachusetts. Laurie's clients include Fidelity Investments, The TJX Companies, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Laurie generously shared her advice about listening.

Talking / Listening Ratio

Laurie often gets asks how much reps should talk on a sales call? She says, "Every customer is different. Some prospects talk your head off, while others speak less. During the first meeting it should be no more than 50/50 (rep/customer), ideally 25/75. In subsequent meetings the ratio may shift, but always be aware of attending to your customers needs and reactions."

Asking Questions

"Everyone you call wears a sign that says 'Make me feel special,'" Laurie says, "And clients feel special when the salesperson focuses on their needs and challenges." To do just that, she recommends that salespeople have protocol for each situation in the form of a list of questions to include: 

  • Before I tell you about our company, I'd like to get to know you and your business better. Do you mind if I ask a few questions?
  • Tell me about a week in the life of a [prospect's position at company].
  • What's going well for you regarding [topic]?
  • It sounds like you're doing well. What would be even more helpful or effective to get the results you'd like to see?
  • What's your current level of satisfaction with [topic]?  (Five being fantastic and one not so great.)
  • How do you feel I can add to your positive results?

Persuasive Listening

It's one thing to ask questions and another to really hear customers. Laurie advises salespeople to evaluate their persuasive listening (her term) skills by asking themselves, "Am I:

  • Showing non-verbal interest? (Making eye contact / nodding.)
  • Focusing on them without distractions? (Even a cell phone on the table makes a client feel as if you aren't paying complete attention.)
  • Validating what the prospect is saying through paraphrasing information or feelings? ("I'm hearing that you're experiencing a lot of frustration regarding changes that took place during the reorganization and it's affecting the needs you have now. Am I correct?")
  • Asking check-in questions ("Am I on track?" "Do I understand you correctly?") Laurie advises using these questions sparingly. Ask them too often and it becomes annoying.
  • Observing facial expressions and body language.  (Sudden shifts in position, leaning back and forward.  Shoulders aligned.)

Laurie suggests conducting a self-evaluation after each call, rating yourself on your question asking and persuasive listening skills.

Final Recommendation

"For anyone who talks a lot for a living," Laurie says, "picture the letters WAIT on their forehead. This stands for Why Am I Talking?" She feels (and I concur) that high-performing salespeople have a fundamental belief that being a very effective listener is key to succeeding in the profession.

Attack the Maybes

A reader writes, "Between vacations, long weekends, and other downtime, I find it difficult to consistently manage and motivate my sales team during the summer. Any suggestions for keeping salespeople engaged?"

I've always been a big advocate of starting September strong. Here's a suggestion for a great late summer project: how about scrubbing the rep's pipelines and sales forecasts of all the "maybes."

Define "Maybes"

"Maybes" originally showed promise as potential new clients, progressed through the pipeline at a good pace and then just stopped moving forward. No matter where they're stuck, something has gone wrong.

Profile of a "Maybe"

Prospects landing in "Maybeville":

  • Don't return calls or emails
  • Return calls days or weeks later
  • Continually ask for more information
  • Avoiding committing to specific dates
  • Repeat excuses like:  "The president is still reviewing the pricing you sent," or "The committee needs more time to review the proposal."

Ironically, if reps make contact, "maybes" go overboard to convince the salesperson they're still interested. For different reasons, including company politics or budget cuts, "maybes" avoid being candid with reps.

The Damage "Maybes" Do

Nothing stings like losing a sale. It's hard to make that customer visit or phone call right after hearing the news.  But reps eventually call the prospect, ask which vendor was chosen, and uncover the reasons why. Hopefully, both the rep and the company learn from the loss. Everyone moves on. 

Not so with the "maybes." These potential deals stay in the pipeline and on the forecast for months. Reps try to contact the "maybes" week after week. The lack of responsiveness drains their energy.  

Decide for Yourself

Go through each rep's recent sales reports. Based on the length of your company's average sales cycle and other metrics, assemble a list of deals you feel meet the criteria for being a "maybe."

Meet with the Rep

Review the list you've compiled with each salesperson.  Explain your reasoning, and then hear the rep out on each potential deal. Where they make a strong case, let them keep a company in their pipeline or on their forecast. But let those be the exception to the rule. 

Remember, reps never voluntarily give up on "maybes." It shrinks the size of their pipeline and forecast. In some instances, it showcases how few closable deals they really have.  

Coach

The rep needs to contact the "maybes" and determine where they stand in terms of purchasing your product or service.  I suggest using a script like this:

"On (date), (I sent / you participated in) ___.  At that time, you expressed a lot of interest in ___ (product). We agreed the next step was ___ (proposal / second presentation / in-person visit). Since that time I haven't been able to reach you. Could you please give me a call and let me know where you are in the process?"

Select several of their "maybes" and role play with each rep until they feel confident making the calls.

Get Ready

Prepare yourself for push back. Rep's comments will run the gamut from "That's rude and pushy" to "I would never speak to my customer's like that." Really, they're afraid to make the call because they might find out the truth. 

Stress the positive. Surprisingly, many (but not all) "maybes" respond to a message like this and speak candidly about where the deal stands. Sometimes this information allows the rep to take action and get the deal moving again. A "no" means they've saved the company time and resources by moving on from a sale that was never going to materialize.

Indirect Impacts

By going through this pruning exercise you accomplish three things:

  • Cleaning-up pipelines and forecasts
  • Prepping for September
  • Engaging reps productively during a slow period

As an added benefit, reps with noticeably reduced pipelines and forecasts will see the need to start prospecting sooner rather than later.

Final Thoughts

Sales leadership responsibilities include turning in forecasts to upper management that represent deals with a high probability of closing. Culling out the "maybes" shows strong sales leadership ability.

Making Small Talk

A client writes, "With my reserved personality I struggled as a sales rep to casually chat with customers, mostly sticking to business conversations. Whenever possible, I avoided taking customers out to lunch or dinner. Despite all this, I was a successful salesperson. Now a sales manager, I see some of the salespeople struggle with small talk the same way I did. How do I help them with something I am so bad at?"

Many successful salespeople lack an extroverted personality. The stereotype of the outgoing rep lives on, but all types of people do well in sales.    

The good news:  sometimes it's easier to coach from our own weaknesses. We have a greater awareness of and had to work hard to overcome them. With strengths, we often don't know why we're good at certain things, and struggle to coach others. 

Throughout my own career, I've always had positive responses to the questions below:

How long have you been in your position?

Customers answer this enthusiastically. They've just started, been there five or more years or worked for the company quite a while. No matter, they enjoy talking about their career trajectory.

What's the biggest difference between your prior position and this one?

I ask this question if they've been in their current role for less than two years. Most people pause and then give an interesting answer. Their insights help me understand them as an all-around professional.

What changes have you seen over the last several years?

I make this inquiry of those with tenure of three or more years. Most think for a moment, and then offer a thoughtful response.  While the information they provide often has little to do with my product or service, I learn more about their overall industry views. It makes me better informed.

Are you from this area originally?

When you ask this question, you win either way. People take pride in the area they've chosen to live.  If they aren't from the area, they might have accepted a job out of college or moved with a spouse. Others might have lived in that very town (or nearby) their entire lives. This question allows you to get a little more personal without being in any way inappropriate.

Warning Signals

As a young rep, while scheduling a follow-up appointment with a customer, he mentioned going on vacation soon. I made note of it and told him to have a good time. He smiled and thanked me. 

During the next call, I asked about his vacation. He gave me a cold stare and changed the subject immediately. I have no idea what happened, but it was a good lesson for me. No matter how well-meaning your question, you have to watch your level of familiarity. It differs with each customer and can change at a moment's notice. 

Over the years, I've learned to record things customers mention such as:  weddings, children's / spouse's names and activities, vacations, and hobbies. But I don't ask about these events directly unless I know them particularly well.  Instead, if it feels right, I'll say something like, "The last time we met you mentioned your daughter's volleyball game." They either talk about it enthusiastically because they want to, or acknowledge it quickly and we move on.  But I never get a cold stare. No one seems offended.

Final Thoughts

Some of us excel at small talk. Others find it difficult and stressful. If you know it's a weakness of yours or a rep's, help them assemble a list of questions that get conversations started. Try them out on joint sales calls (inside or field). See which ones work and which ones don't go over so well. In that way, you're helping them create a toolkit of solid questions.

Master Listening Skills

As sales leaders, we coach reps to ask strong, impactful questions of customers and prospects. While that's a critically important skill, we often forget to devote equal time to developing the other side of the equation - listening to the answer. 

We've all managed the rep who asks a question, then pays little attention to the customer's response. They're usually thinking about what they will say right after the customer finishes speaking. Once the customer pauses for a moment or takes a breath, this rep starts talking again immediately. 

Top producing reps listen very effectively. They never interrupt, encouraging the customer to say more by asking follow-up questions. These salespeople know that what the customer says after they pause contains some of the most important information of the sales call.   

Most people consider themselves good listeners. Few of us actually are. For the summer reading list, I am recommending books on the art of listening.

Just Listen

by Mark Goulston, M.D. 
AMACOM (2015)

A Clinical Intervention psychiatrist and UCLA professor of psychiatry, Dr. Goulston wrote this concise but highly informative book on the art of hearing other people. Over 100,000 copies have sold. Using examples from all walks of life, he provides ideas, techniques, sample questions and tools to make improvements in this all important area.


The Lost Art of Listening

by Michael P. Nichols PhD
The Guilford Press (2009)

Considered by many to be an essential read, this book receives consistently strong customer reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.com. Dr. Nichols, a Professor of Psychology at the College of William and Mary, helps us understand why we do some of the things we do (like interrupting people) and offers practical techniques to help us improve.  He tells us we have to learn to let others speak.


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

by Douglas Stone Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
Penguin Books (2010)

From the Harvard Negotiation Project, the group that authored Getting to Yes, this book has been on the New York Times Business Bestseller list. It serves as a practical, easy to follow guide for approaching tough discussions - instead of avoiding them - as many of us tend to do. I used this book with a client I coached and still practice some of the tactics we learned.


Listening as a Martial Art: Master Your Listening Skills for Success

by Cash Nickerson JD MBA
Cash Nickerson Media (2015)

Great leaders have strong listening skills, often speaking less frequently than anyone in the room. Nickerson puts forth that we'd all benefit from talking less and listening more. A JD, an MBA and an avid martial artist, Mr. Nickerson (President and Principal of PDS, Inc. a $400 million dollar engineering and IT staffing firm) shares what he's learned in business and in life. You don't have to be a martial arts expert to appreciate what he has to say about listening. 


Sales is a challenging and competitive profession. Successful salespeople look for ways to set themselves apart from all the others. Encourage reps to distinguish themselves by being that rare, sincere listener.  Listening demonstrates poise, gains trust and most importantly enables your salesperson to do their best to meet customer's needs.

Sales Practices - Don't Do This to Your Business

What happens when a sales organization is not managed thoughtfully and effectively? Potentially, severe damage to the company's reputation and the loss of customer confidence. More so even when the failures of that company become public.

That's exactly what happened with Wells Fargo. Their "Sales Practices Investigation Report," issued by the company's board in the aftermath of the company's sales management failures, is fascinating.

Approximately 2 million bank accounts or credit cards were opened or applied for without customers' knowledge or permission from May 2011 to July 2015. When theConsumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) fined Wells Fargo bank $185 million in 2016, the public began to learn about the scandal involving the bank.  Between 2011 and 2016, more than 5,300 Wells Fargo employees lost their jobs.

Most of my readers work for organizations far smaller than Wells Fargo. But there are plenty of lessons to be learned from this report.

Lack of Oversight

Wells Fargo adopted a decentralized system after it merged with NORWEST, giving local banks autonomy for determining revenue quotas and managing the sales effort.  The locally-based executives set high sales goals. With little oversight from their superiors at corporate, these executives put a lot of pressure on bank reps to achieve the inflated goals. This pressure forced reps to close low quality sales and engage in unethical behavior.

In some smaller companies I see a sales model where one or two reps report into the CEO, a few report to a sales manager in another part of the country and a manufacturers rep independently handles another area.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with a decentralized system, all salespeople serve as the face of the company.  Therefore, the overall corporate vision and sales department policies and procedures need to be clearly communicated from the top on a regular basis.

With loose or no oversight, sales reps start to interpret rules differently. As time goes on, valued clients may inquire about questionable orders and/or return unwanted merchandise. Company reputations get damaged and customers start to buy elsewhere.

Periodic audits of how salespeople conduct business need to take place routinely. Red flags of any type should generate prompt attention.

Unrealistic Sales Goals

In the new decentralized system, local Wells Fargo bank executives began setting very high sales numbers. When questioned by regional leaders, these executives insisted the inflated revenue goals were absolutely achievable.

Companies of varying sizes and industries set aggressive sales revenue goals all the time. That's fine - so long as leadership has a plan for reaching those numbers - and communicates it effectively. Whether it involves:

  • increasing advertising budgets
  • generating more white papers
  • improving webinars
  • launching new products
  • prospecting into untapped markets
  • offering sales skills training
  • hiring an outsourced appointment setting group

potential new customers have to come from somewhere. 

Once companies reach those potential new customers, realistic expectations must be set around close ratios and initial new order sizes.

If aggressive sales goals get set with no corresponding increase in supporting activities, another problem occurs...

Turnover

Companies often contact me and say, "We have a turnover problem." I think to myself, "No, you have a problem and it's causing turnover."

Sales reps at Wells Fargo watched their peers achieve high sales numbers - and receive lavish praise for their efforts.  They saw other reps fail to reach the inflated sales quotas (or refuse to use unethical tactics) and either quit or be terminated.

As a result, between 2007 and 2013, turnover increased steadily. To counter this problem, Wells Fargo hired more and more inexperienced reps. Many "did as they were told" and the culture of opening fraudulent bank accounts and credit cards continued.

When given unreachably high quotas, reps in smaller companies either get terminated for failure to achieve their goals or become discouraged and quit. Over time, companies start to get a reputation as a high turnover organization. When this happens, fewer applicants express interest in open positions.

Final Thoughts

What happened to the financial services company that Henry Wells and William Fargo founded in 1852 carries a lot of drama: coverage on the national news, expensive fines, derailed or ruined careers, damaged reputations, and diminished profitability.

Most companies don't see their sales woes exposed to this degree. But what happened at this prestigious bank serves as a reminder about creating a system of checks and balances within the sales organization and holding strong to ethical business practices.

Provide More to Your Largest Accounts

A reader writes, "A sales rep just closed the biggest deal in our company's history. This is a high profile client and the largest one we've ever worked with. I want our company to rise to the occasion and prove to this new client that they didn't make a mistake in doing business with us. How should we go about this?"

Caught up in the excitement of closing a major account, many companies forget to ask, "What do we need to do to retain them? How should we interact with them going forward to ensure we keep their business?"

To answer your question, I'm turning to Lisa Magnuson, author of "The TOP Seller Advantage: Powerful Strategies to Build Long-Term Executive Relationships" and Founder / CEO of Top Line Sales, a company focused on helping Sales VP's develop and close their largest prospects and retain and grow their most important existing accounts.

Suzanne: First of all, why should we treat our largest account differently than our other customers?

Lisa: Whether you're a small company, mid-sized company or work for a large company yourself, if you land a "whale size" customer they will expect more. More resources, more attention and support, and more expertise.

Suzanne: How do you determine what "more" looks like for your biggest customer?

Lisa: I recommend that you analyze and rank your top customers and then determine the support investments you're willing to make for each level. For example, your top tier (which might only include one account) could qualify for:  a dedicated account manager, an executive sponsor from your company, and access to all top-notch resources.

Suzanne:  What are the risks to doing nothing?

Lisa:  The risks are great. Just a few include:

  • Putting your company at risk with a disproportionate amount of revenue tied up with a small number of customers without a pro-active account management model to retain those customers. 
  • The embarrassment of your competitor snatching the account out from under you.

Suzanne:  I know that you talk about pro-active account management structures in your book. What are these and why are they important?

Lisa: A proactive account management framework, co-developed with your customer, is essential to drive desired results. At a minimum, the joint development of a shared plan (i.e., partnership plan) should include several elements:

  • Alignment of goals, priorities, mission, and vision - the objective of this part of the plan is for each party to share their goals, mission, and vision to identify their shared vision, mission, and goals.
  • Rules of engagement - this is developed to agree on the points of engagement (i.e., who, what, where, and when). In other words, how will you work together?
  • Relationship plan - the purpose of this part of the plan is to identify the who's who from the customer side and the supplier side to align like roles within both organizations. The relationship plan can include a primary contact and secondary contact if helpful.  It's important to include executive relationships in the plan.
    • Meeting cadence - the benefit of outlining a meeting cadence is to have regular communication and progress towards goals and priorities:
    • Monthly Status Meetings - cover immediate opportunities and issues with day to day contacts
    • Quarterly Review and Planning Meetings - review the plan and priorities with day-to-day contacts and other interested parties or stakeholders
    • Annual Strategic Visioning Meetings - strategic planning to review accomplishments and set direction with executive sponsor

Lisa adds the following advice, "Putting the correct focus and investments around your biggest account will always pay big dividends."

Qualifying Questions - A Sales Manager's Best Friend

A reader writes, "One of my reps gets really excited after meeting with a potential new customer. He then puts in a request for a sales engineer to accompany him on the next visit to this prospect. Unfortunately, he usually gets very incomplete information from the decision maker. It's costly for me to send the SE out to speak with poorly qualified possible buyers.

"Having accompanied him on several unproductive visits, the SEs have lost trust in this rep, pushing back about visiting clients with him. I can't blame them. How do I make this rep understand the importance of getting certain information from prospects before I commit additional company resources?"

Many of my clients struggle with a lack of proper qualifying information from their reps. These suggestions should help.

The Root Cause

This goes back to the fear of rejection. First, reps worry about asking too many questions - the potential client might get annoyed and refuse to answer some of them or shut down altogether. Then, if they do answer the questions, reps fear discovering the prospect might not really need their product or service. That's one less prospect to put in the pipeline.

What Do You Need to Know?

Before speaking to the rep, make a list of the questions you need answered before authorizing a sales engineer visit. Of those questions, determine which two or three are absolutely essential.   

Stay flexible, though. Sometimes prospects can't or won't answer every single question. With other prospects it might take multiple contacts from the rep to qualify them. Don't always expect a "one and done" to get the required information.

Define the Term

Make sure the rep understands the definition of a qualifying question. Explain that these critically important inquiries determine whether or not a prospect can potentially use your product or service. The answers don't guarantee a customer will buy, just that they could buy.   

High performing reps use these valuable questions to decide if they should spend any more of their valuable time with a prospect.

Be Clear

Go over the list of qualifying questions you put together.  Say something to the rep like, "I need you to ask these questions to determine whether or not sending an SE out makes sense. You must get answers to a minimum of 7 out of 10 and numbers 1 and 2 are required. Without answers to those, I cannot justify a visit from a sales engineer."

Reinforce the Behavior

Ask this rep to pick out a book on early stage prospect qualification. Many excellent ones exist. Have them read and discuss it with you. 

Help the rep get comfortable through practice. During staff meetings, role play. Take turns having the salespeople play the part of the rep and the decision maker and ask each other qualifying questions. Discuss afterwards.

Do the Math

Determine the approximate cost of sending an SE out on a sales call. Include travel as well as pre-call preparation and post-call follow-ups. Share this information with the rep.  Demonstrate the expense involved in meeting with an inadequately qualified prospect.  

Make Necessary Changes

If after a period of time, the reps report consistently struggling to get certain questions answered, look into it.  Run the question by peers or a few trusted customers. Find out whether or not they would answer it. Why or why not?  The question might need to be re-worked, eliminated, or used further into the sales process.

Final Thoughts

Successful salespeople ask high value, insightful questions to develop solid rapport with prospects. The information they bring back helps the sales support staff and their direct supervisors prepare for productive meetings with potential new clients.

Best Practices for Inside Sales

A reader writes, " I am the CEO of a traditional, non-technical company. The sales staff consists of six reps covering a four-state region. For several years, I've considered hiring an inside salesperson to call on accounts below a certain dollar volume and to prospect for new business as well. What can I do to ensure the success of this new position?"

You're wise to think this through. Inside sales positions now involve a lot more than a script and a list of accounts. To answer your question, I spoke with two colleagues, Trish Bertuzzi, President of The Bridge Group, Inc. and author of The Sales Development Playbook and Victoria Nessen, President and founder of NK&A Marketing.

CRM System

Both Trish and Victoria mentioned this first. Trish says, "Invest in a CRM with the ability to track the entire sales process and to measure success and failure. One hundred percent you have to have it. It's a critical success factor."  

Victoria adds, "Managers and company executives need to be able to see where each contact is in the sales process."

Sales Process

Prior to hiring, Victoria advises companies to map out the sales process and create the marketing materials salespeople will need. 

Trish agrees, "Be able to completely articulate the entire sales process. Even if you hire experienced reps, lay it out by stages:  pre-call planning, introduction, objections, outreach, and buyer personae. Give them a playbook and a roadmap."

Lead Gen Campaign

"The company leader and marketing department need to decide who they want to go after," says Victoria, "What's the series of communications that go out to prepare the customer for the inside salesperson's call?" She then suggests that inside salespeople be provided with tailored scripts for actions taken by the prospect such as:

  • Opened email
  • Downloaded white paper
  • Read blog
  • Completed survey

Hiring

"Never hire just one rep, always hire two," says Trish. "You have a 50/50 shot of making a good hire out of the gate.  There's a high burn-out rate in the profession. One rep has no one to talk to or ask, 'What's working? What are you doing?'"

Goals

Victoria suggests implementing a scoring system to track and evaluate the rep's progress. Attach points to outreach efforts:  proactive phone calls to decisions maker: four points, sending introductory emails: 2 points, contacting a survey responder or white paper downloader: 1 point.  "Assign weekly and monthly point quotas," she adds.

Final Thoughts

In addition to the suggestions made by Trish and Victoria, you'll need to: write a job description, develop an on-boarding plan, assign territories and accounts, set minimum performance standards, and create a suite of sales reports, sales contests and performance reviews tailored specifically to the inside team.   

Companies utilizing both field and inside salespeople properly maximize their outreach potential. Take the time to put together a comprehensive inside sales plan, rather than just "putting someone on the phone." Everyone benefits.

Hiring from Another Industry

A reader writes, "Recently I interviewed a candidate for an open sales position.  She has a well-documented history of exceeding quota, and has taken several respected sales training courses. I think she'd fit in well with the sales staff.

"The problem - her past two positions were in completely different industries from our company. I have concerns about her ability to make the transition. What can I do to minimize the risk if I offer her a job?"

Many people enter the workforce with little or no experience in the field they end up employed in. Somehow, they learn what they need to know. Just as many change careers at some point - successfully making the switch to another vocation. So, we know it can be done.

You want to know if this specific candidate has what it takes to succeed. Making this determination comes down to their innate skills and abilities, as well as the responses to questions you ask during the interview process.

Get Curious

See how much thought the candidate has put into this change by posing questions such as:

  • Your previous experience is in the industries of X and Y. What do you see as the similarities between the market my company serves and your previous two positions?
  • What do you see as the differences?
  • Tell me what you know about how we compare with our competition?

Motivation

Making a career change or transitioning into another industry takes some get up and go. Find out how much effort the candidate will put into it. Questions could include:

  • When you switched from Company X to Company Y what did you do, outside of the company sponsored new hire orientation, to learn the new product or service?
  • How long did it take before you felt like you knew the product / service well?
  • Did you have a hard time learning about any particular facet of the product or service?
  • When you struggle to learn something, how do you go about getting the assistance you need?
  • If we offered no training whatsoever, how would you go educate yourself about our company's product or service?
  • What's something you do really well that you taught yourself?

Gauge how realistic they are about the time and work involved.

Utilizing Assessments

Which skills (hard and soft) does a rep need to succeed in your industry? Have them take one or more assessments to determine whether they have the necessary ones. For career or industry changers, I would especially want to know about their abilities in the areas of: 

  • Creative Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Self-starting

Do Some Homework

Before hiring this or any other rep making a change, talk to your sales staff. Ask them about their learning curve with your product or service. Find out: 

  • How long it took them to become comfortably knowledgeable
  • What they found the easiest / most difficult aspect to master
  • If they have any suggestions about improving the orientation process

Final Thoughts

Hiring someone from a different industry has advantages. They don't have a lot of preconceived assumptions about what will and won't work and what can and cannot be done.  Most bring a fresh perspective. 

Stay away from candidates, no matter how successful in another industry, who make vague statements about changing industries such as: 

  • "I need a new challenge."
  • "Your product sounds interesting."
  • "I learn new things really easily."

Those answers are insufficient. 

During the interview process, the rep should make a strong case for themselves, their understanding of the new industry, the work involved in learning all the new information, and how they see themselves adding value to the group.

Advice from Sales Leaders

To continuously improve and grow in our chosen profession as sales leaders we:  listen to webinars, read books, follow other sales and business leaders on social media, attend training classes, join professional organizations and talk to industry and professional peers.  

Along the way, there's always that one piece of advice that stays with us. This year, I asked these six accomplished sales leaders to tell me about the best sales management advice they've ever received. Here were their responses.


"Sales leaders serve both customers and your sales team. Sales leaders must make every effort to stay as close as possible to the front line, facing and meeting with customers as well as the sales team. Sales leaders must constantly view the environment they are creating and the culture they are fostering from both the customers position and the sales person's view point. It is a delicate and ongoing balancing act. Bottom line... always be listening."

 

Frank Costanzo
SVP Sales and Business Development, Caliper
Objective, accurate employee assessment instruments.

 

"It's all about sales results. But if you just focus on sales results, you might not get there. Know what causes sales, what causes that order to happen. If I can understand that, then I can measure, monitor, and coach to raise the expectation of that behavior, in turn getting the sales result."

 

Ken Pfrommer
VP of Sales, Kenseal Construction Products, A Division of A.H. Harris
Innovative solutions in waterproofing, glass and glazing, restoration, and building envelope.

 

"Assuming you are aligned in your goals and objectives, whenever possible, have a collaborative relationship with your rep by working with them as opposed to dictating and mandating."

 

Mike Waldron
VP of Sales, Xactly Corporation
Cloud-based incentive compensation solutions for employee and sales performance management.

 

"You don't have all the answers. Always be seeking the advice of others. When possible incorporate the advice of others into your work, especially advice from the people actually doing the work. People never disagree with their own words."

 

Brian Donovan
North America Sales Trainer, HomeAway
Vacation rentals available to travelers through our online marketplace.

 

"One of my earliest mentors when I was taking on my first management role told me something that has always stuck with me. I know it's a pretty common saying but at the time I had never heard it.  He told me to, 'Always be a duck. Calm on the surface even when padding a million miles per hour under the water.'"

 

Christopher Rack
Chief Revenue Officer, PureB2B
Lead generation and data provider that connects marketers and buyers

 

"It is essential to listen to your salespeople and understand that each person is different. You need to manage each person according to their specific needs and personality in order to communicate your expectations effectively."

 

Matt Beirne
National Sales Manager, GIE Media, Inc.
Marketing and communications business-to-business media.

 


A big thank you to Frank, Ken, Mike, Brian, Christopher and Matt for giving my question serious thought and sharing your advice with my readers. I appreciate it very much.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

The Sales Leader's Problem Solver

In 2010, I wrote my first book The Accidental Sales Manager.  The idea for it came to me as I watched my clients in different industries make similar mistakes around hiring and on-boarding new sales reps. 

Company presidents and owners often left these new reps largely to their own devices, after spending a few hours with them on the first day and having them chat with a few other employees. When the rep underperformed or quit, these company leaders were baffled and upset.  Many felt hesitant to hire another rep for fear of the same thing happening again. 

In The Accidental Sales Manager I stress the importance of pre-planning for the new salesperson (instituting a comprehensive orientation to the company; setting tenure appropriate productivity goals and quotas; providing product training) as well as supporting them once they join the company (creating a sales contest; accompanying (or monitoring) them on sales calls; meeting with them regularly). 

Yet, no matter how well any manager plans, problems occur with sales people and within sales organizations - at companies of all sizes and industries. It's inevitable. To address these issues, I wrote a new book, The Sales Leader's Problem Solver (Career Press 2016). This past week, USA Book News selected it as the Winner in the category of Business: Sales.

This new book covers 15 common problems business and sales leaders face on a regular basis: 

  • The Inconsistent Sales Rep
  • Selling Only to Existing Customers
  • Social Media Paralysis
  • Salesperson Fiefdom
  • Trouble with Titles
  • CRM Non-Compliance
  • The Mysterious Remote Salesperson
  • Unethical Behavior
  • Misaligned Territories
  • The Selling Sales Manager
  • The Superstar Sales Manager
  • Loosely Defined Sales Cycle
  • The Mediocre Rep
  • Unqualified Vice President of Sales
  • High Base Salary

In each chapter, I recommend an approach to take for solving that particular sales management problem.  This includes: clarifying the problem, gathering data, determining potential solutions, presenting the solution to a supervisor or advisor, and finally, addressing the issue with the rep. 
To prevent the problem from reoccurring, I make suggestions around the interview process, new hire orientation, and the current staff.   Above all else, the book reinforces the fact that being the one to address and solve a difficult problem represents a real leadership and career opportunity.

The Lengthy Demo

A client writes "When a prospect expresses interest in my company's product, we encourage them to sign up for our hour-long demo. Many balk at this, saying they don't have that kind of time. They ask if we have a shorter one. We don't. It's a frustrating situation for management and the salespeople.

"We spent a lot of money and resources developing this demo. With potential customers well informed about our product when they contact us, I assumed they would be ready for this level of detail. What are we doing wrong?"
 
Long demos, multi-page white papers, and emails with six different attachments. Buyers I know complain about this frequently. It's a problem.

A Big Disconnect

We all know the buying cycle has changed. Customers spend time educating themselves about a product or service, then contact the vendor. They have moved through part of the sales cycle before speaking with a salesperson. Except that part of the way differs from all of the way.  Companies misunderstand this and inundate prospects with information.  

Differentiate Between Interested and Interested

When customers express some amount of interest in a product, reps often optimistically misinterpret it. One person's "some interest" differs from another's - regardless of how much time they've spent researching the product online. Salespeople need to determine the customer's actual level of interest in and knowledge about the product before proceeding. Questions should include:

  • How did you find out about us?
  • Tell me about your needs in this area.
  • How do you handle this issue currently?
  • How is that working out?
  • Have you looked at our website / blog / LinkedIn page?
  • What was of particular interest to you?

Inquiries like this help the salesperson distinguish between prospects who:

  • remain uncertain as to whether or not they absolutely need the product
  • know they need / want the product but are shopping around
  • have almost made their mind up about which product they would choose (yours)

Appropriate Next Step

Companies must create and make available to reps: webinars, presentations, product demos and marketing information of varying lengths and types appropriate to the customer's level of interest.  

As reps get better at asking questions and listening to the answers, they'll start to more clearly understand each situation and which one works best in that particular situation.

Keep it Brief

Instead of offering all prospects an hour long demo, create a 10 - 15 minute presentation. Almost everyone has that kind of time. Customers communicating enthusiasm for the product will likely either agree to see the presentation right then and there - or schedule a time to take a look.  

Reps offering a short demo make no hard and fast assumptions about a prospect's interest level, respect their schedule, and provide appropriate "next level" information.  This paves the way for another sales interaction.

Final Thoughts - The Hour Long Demo

If a customer conveys a genuine interest in the product, backs this up with facts or figures from their online search, has a recommendation from a colleague or assures the rep your product is far and away their number one choice, you could potentially interest them in an hour-long demo. But if they balk at this time commitment, you could irritate or scare them off. Where do you go from there?

Few prospects watch an hour-long demo spontaneously or by themselves. Most want to schedule it at a time that works for them and ask several other employees to participate in the process (a good sign). It should be reserved only for those prospects at the appropriate place in the sales cycle and worth everyone's time investment - yours and theirs.

Majoring in Sales

Between 13 and 23 million people have sales jobs in the United States. For many years, none of the 2000+ four year public and private colleges in this country offered sales as a major. Curious as to why, I began to look into the matter. 

According to Dr. Terry Loe, Ph.D., professor at Kennesaw State University and one of the founders of the National Collegiate Sales Competition (NCSC), "This was because sales was seen as more of a vocation than a profession by the academic community. Published research is the currency to help colleges develop a curriculum. While research began as early as the 1940's, there's been more of a concentrated effort over the last 50 years."

"Attitudes began to change with the greater availability of formalized research. In the mid-eighties, Baylor University started a sales center, then Northern Illinois University followed suit a few years later."

Dr. Loe says, "Today, approximately 150 colleges and universities have some kind of a sales curriculum and 45 have a dedicated sales center. When people see it taught at the university level, it builds credibility for the profession."

To learn more, I spoke to Robert Nadeau, a Professor at Plymouth State University, and the founder and Director of the University's Professional Sales Program.  

What is your own sales / sales management background?

As a kid, I had a knack for fundraisers - UNICEF, Dollars for Scholars, Boy Scouts - but I didn't know what it was. Post-college, I was a management trainee for McDonald's and then went to work for Liberty Mutual for 25 years.  As the Regional Operations Manager for Liberty Mutual, I oversaw five operations managers who led 36 front-line sales and service managers who in turn supervised over 500 employees.  

How did you first find out about colleges with professional sales programs?

While at Liberty Mutual, I researched different area colleges to affiliate with to hire sales reps. At the time, the closest school with any kind of professional sales program was UConn. Liberty Mutual became a corporate sponsor and the results were phenomenal.  

We hired 8 - 10 interns per year and offered 4 or 5 a full time job upon graduation.

What was your role in Plymouth States' Professional Sales Program?

I was starting to formulate a second career game plan, thinking down the road I'll do this (teaching). So I started adjuncting one night a week - teaching a sales management class - and loved it. I approached the dean about creating a sales program and had his full support.  We went through the process of creating a formalized program.

What advantages do students coming out of a program like Plymouth State's have?

When students receive a degree in professional sales, it sets them apart from many of the other graduates and job applicants. With 120 hours of classroom time, that equates to 3 weeks or more of professional training. This doesn't even include homework assignments and special projects they complete.

Our program helps them discover incredible opportunities.  I have 8 - 10 speakers come in each semester - one was an executive from a medical company. A student, minoring in biology, was all excited about this company. She could sell and work for an organization whose product interested her. It was a connection to a job she didn't even know existed prior to this.

Most importantly, many are offered jobs before graduation.

What are the concerns of today's sales program graduates?

The students ask, "Can I really do this?"  They wonder about their ability to sell away from academia. If they do poorly on a school assignment, they don't get an A. They know the real world consequences are different.

What should employers know about Millennials?  What do they need?  What are they looking for in a job or career?

Millennials represent 30% of the workforce today and that number will climb as more baby boomers retire. I want to debunk a myth:  they aren't lazy and they do not have a poor work ethic. But they do need to be properly guided and motivated. Most are independent thinkers who need to understand more of the "why."

On the personal side, they have a real concern with work life balance. Millennials want to make a difference and give back through civic activities. They need their voices to be heard.

What do employers tell you they need from the graduates?

This generation struggles with communication skills.  Employers ask, "Can you please teach them how to make a phone call?" In my class we work on the basics:  having a conversation, making eye contact, and networking.  My students make out-going sales calls to develop leads for corporate sponsors. I teach them the proper way to shake some one's hand - the old fashioned stuff.

Learn more about the National Collegiate Sales Competition as well as Plymouth State University's Professional Sales Program.

Acting on Assessment Results

A reader writes, "Earlier this year, I had my reps take a sales assessment. I reviewed the results with each of them, finding the information provided to be accurate and eye-opening. The problem - I haven't done anything with or about the assessments since. What do you recommend?"

This happens often. Sales leaders go through the assessment with the rep and then neglect to re-visit this powerful, career enhancing document.

Look At It Again

Sales leaders taking a second look at the reps' assessments tell me they get even more good information the second time around. They don't have the pressure of telling the rep some things they might not want to hear. They've also had time to consider the results, which they see validated when they monitor or accompany reps on calls.

Most conclude the assessment captured the salesperson's strengths and challenges very accurately.

Responses Vary

Salespeople have different reactions to the information provided, especially if they've never taken a sales assessment before.

  • Some focus only on the areas needing improvement and ignore any positives. They require some time to process the critiques and take a more balanced view of the results.
  • Others have no idea what their areas of strength are.  They just get out there every day and sell. Having the test point out and validate their talents serves as great motivation.  
  • Ambitious reps see it as a vehicle for increasing their income. If they can address a few of the weaknesses, they can earn more money.

Though rare, sometimes reps shut down. They consider the information nonsense and want little to do with discussing the results.  

Most reps, after thinking it over, see the comments and critiques as valid.  

Timing

Prior to the next regularly scheduled monthly or quarterly one-on-one meeting with the rep, tell them you want to discuss their assessment again. Ask them to review the document before the two of you talk.

Start the conversation by asking them open-ended questions like:

  • Now that you've had some time to consider the results, what are your thoughts?
  • What surprised you the most?
  • Have you changed anything about your sales approach based on some of the comments?
  • What findings did you disagree with?

Let them talk. Let a little silence fall while they process their thoughts. Resist jumping in or arguing with any conclusion they've come to.  

Moving Forward

Together, look at the suggested areas of improvement and discuss only one or two specifically. Continue to ask questions such as:

  • Have you become more aware of this since we first looked at the assessment?
  • How do you think it affects your sales performance?

Create a plan for reading a book on the topic, participating in targeted on-line training, and observing other reps who excel in this area. Attach dates, goals and outcomes. When working together, discuss the particular issue right after a sales call or appointment.

Tools

Many companies provide guides or workbooks to accompany the assessments. If available, I recommend purchasing them for each rep. These documents use the same terminology as the assessment and help to focus coaching sessions.

Casual Check-ins

Look for other opportunities, besides one-on-one meetings, to coach reps on areas for improvement. Email or pick up your cell phone frequently. Say to the rep, "I saw you called on LHS Associates this morning. How did it go? Were you able to try the response we came up with to the configuration objection?"

These calls remind salespeople that you want to see them succeed. It also reinforces the new behaviors the two of you are working so hard to make part of their regular routine.

Final Thoughts

Assessments aren't a one-and-done event. As a sales leader you want to turn it into a working document that you refer to throughout the rep's tenure with your organization.

Keeping a Star Rep

A reader writes, "Recently, one of my best sales reps expressed interest in becoming a sales manager. While I think he has the qualities to succeed as a leader, I have no plans to create a sales management position. I supervise the sales staff and plan to do so until I retire or sell the company - both events are many years away. An excellent rep, I would like him to remain with the company for as long as possible.  How do I handle this situation?"

Support him in every way possible.  

Education as a Benefit

Companies of all sizes offer full or partial tuition reimbursement programs for a reason. They know those who learn and grow make better employees. People capitalizing on these programs tend to have longer tenures with their organizations.

Offer to pay for all or part of a sales management training program. Be clear about the maximum the company will spend and any other conditions attached - like achievement of a minimum grade.

Provide Some Experience

Put this rep in charge of a project. It doesn't necessarily need to involve direct management of others. You might be considering changing CRM vendors, starting an inside sales group, purchasing new lead tracking software, or improving communications between marketing and sales.

See if he has any interest in creating or heading up a committee to begin looking into any one of these initiatives.

Act as a Mentor

Share your management know-how and wisdom. Agree to have lunch with this rep once a month to discuss your experiences supervising people. Talk about what you find challenging and what you enjoy. Recommend books or tapes that have positively influenced your career.

Always keep in mind, this person still works for you, and use good judgment in considering what subjects get covered.  Speak in general terms. Never talk about current employees specifically. When discussing an experience with a past employee, don't name names.  

Make Introductions

Ask professional contacts currently managing employees if they would be willing to meet the salesperson for coffee to discuss their experiences. Hearing from people outside of the company helps provide a fuller perspective.

Why Do Any of This?

Those interested in pursuing a management position eventually find a way. Sometimes reps leave a job where they're perfectly happy to accept a sales position with a company offering management opportunities.

If this salesperson starts down that path, you now manage a distracted job-hunter as opposed to a focused sales representative. Instead, embrace and encourage their ambition. Grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow, they'll likely remain productive and on the job for some time to come.

The Flip Side

Most sales reps at some point in their career consider the possibility of becoming a sales manager. When you support the rep as they take a course and speak to other managers, they may come to the realization they either don't want or aren't ready to manage others. It happens.

While it looks glamorous from the outside, anyone managing people knows it to be anything but.

Final Thoughts

If this rep remains serious about pursuing a management position, and you have none, he will eventually go elsewhere. It's inevitable.  Having been supported and encouraged by you, he'll likely leave on very good terms, express gratitude for your help, and remain a great business contact. He may be in a position to do you a good turn at some future point.

Frustrations with the Mediocre Rep

A reader writes, "Eight years ago I hired a rep that has been a mediocre producer from day one. She hits her sales goals - but always just by 1 - 2 percent. A pleasant enough person, she spends an inordinate amount of time in my office, asking for help closing deals and discussing company policy. I'm beginning to feel a sense of diminishing returns for her staying with the company."

Ah, the average rep. Sales managers all over the world, in every industry, spend countless hours coaching, listening to, and trying to motivate this rep. They want desperately to figure out how get them to the next level. 

The Conundrum

Most average reps possess some sales skills, represent the company well, and get along with their co-workers. They rarely have really bad months or quarters. When other reps sometimes struggle, their steady production occasionally saves the day.

Conversely, as other salespeople realize 30 to 40% gains - or higher - this rep comes in right at quota. They demand a lot of attention from management, struggling with the same issues again and again.

Rep Profile

Average salespeople have one thing in common - abdicating responsibility. They take their issue and email it to you.  Start placing accountability back where it belongs - with them.

Assess the Rep

If you've never done so before, have them take a sales assessment. Their scores, usually on the low but acceptable side, show they can sell but that the role doesn't come naturally. They need to work harder than most of their peers to achieve the same results. 

Discuss the findings with them. Next, ask them to draft a plan for working on any problem areas identified by the assessment. Have them select a book to read on the topic.  Discuss one chapter each week, during your one-on-ones.  Assign homework.

Change up the Interactions

Mediocre reps have a talent for steering the conversation off course and off subject. Even seasoned managers get caught off guard. Grab the steering wheel back.

Prior to all one-on-one meetings, send out an agenda. Start off with the book discussion and a review of their assignments. Next, discuss their sales performance against quota, and minimum performance standards like prospecting, calls, and presentations. Schedule the meeting for a certain amount of time and end it promptly.

When they call or come into your office for help, push back.  Say things like:

  • "We've discussed addressing that objection on several occasions. How have I advised you to respond?"
  • "That's company policy. As part of this sales team you need to follow the rule. Can you do that?"

Impromptu Visits

When having yet another time-draining conversation you know won't go anywhere, tell them "I have ten minutes right now, or all the time you need after five."

Enough said. We both know they won't be back at 5:05pm.

Review the Numbers

Show the reps the group numbers: 

  Quota Actual Difference %
Julie $2,100,000 $2,675,000 $575,000 127%
Connor $2,000,300 $2,800,000 $799,700 140%
Ann $2,073,000 $2,099,000 $26,000 101%
Nate $2,200,000 $2,100,000 ($100,000) 95%
Zachary $2,195,000 $2,544,000 $349,000 116%
Total $10,568,300 $12,218,000 $1,649,700 116%

Ask fair but thought-provoking questions like:

  • "Why do you think you consistently finish in the middle?"
  • "Zach started two years after you. He's at 116%. Why do you think that is?"
  • "Do you want to get out of the middle of the pack?  How do you intend to do that?"

Weigh the Costs

This rep achieves quota but comes in 15% below the group average. That's costing the company at least $300,000 annually. Your competitors gain ground in her territory. Provided she has all the same tools at her disposal, yet continues to lag behind the rest of the group, it could be time to consider probation for failing to achieve the group average.

Final Thoughts

Most average performers stay that way throughout their career. Each sales leader must decide whether to terminate their employment and train a new rep or stick with the status quo.

No matter which side you come down on, change the relationship. Set different expectations. Minimize your interactions with them. Don't allow them to monopolize your time. Allocate the majority of your management efforts to high-performing and up-and-coming reps. 

Organizing Motivating and Productive Sales Kickoffs

A reader writes, "For the last several years our company held annual sales meetings at our home office. This year, the budget was approved for an offsite meeting. We've selected the location. Do you have any tips for making our first destination sales meeting a big success?"

To answer your thoughtful question, I turn to veteran conference planner Shelley Griffin, president of the Griffin Conference Group (GCG), a full service meeting planning company. Her insightful tips include:

Define the Objectives

Before you do anything else, think about why this meeting is being held. What results are you looking for? Some objectives for the meeting might include:

  • Improving product knowledge
  • Sharing ideas on handling prospects' objections
  • Developing a plan to shorten the sales cycle
  • Building energy for the coming year

Ask yourself this: what needs to happen for everyone to feel the meeting was a good use of time and money?

Don't Forget the Reps

Solicit your sales team's input as you develop the meeting agenda. Via email or a survey, ask them what they would like incorporated into the gathering. This gives you valuable information about what your sales force considers important. Make the sales team feel this meeting is worth the time away from selling.

Include Other Employees

Invite some non-sales employees from the home office to attend. Having the sales reps and home office staff meet has real benefits. People work better with folks they know.  Give them some face time together.  

When a key goal is to get the sales team and the home office to interact, don't seat them on opposite sides of the room or put them on different teams.

Acknowledge Great Performance

Everyone loves to be recognized for their accomplishments.  This is especially true for sales professionals. Acknowledge superior performances at the meeting. Applause feels wonderful. Recognize the top sellers at the largest gathering. Make a large sign with their picture and "Top Sales Person of the Quarter." Unveil it at the meeting.  Display it in the home office until the next recipient is named.

Build the Agenda

How long should the meeting be? One day? Two days?  Your meeting objectives will help you to determine how much time is needed. Don't add more to the agenda just to stretch out the day. Participants rarely think that a meeting is too short.

Passive vs. Active

As you develop the agenda try to alternate time spent passively listening, say to the president's or VP of Sales' presentation, with time spent more interactively.

  • Break into small groups to brainstorm ways to handle objections
  • Ask one or more of your star performers to share some of their best practices
  • Stage a mock sales call with the prospect from hell and a sales executive; humor is great  
  • Organize team-building activities that allow people to get to know each other better

Manage Electronics and Other Interruptions

If your meeting is worth having, it is worth having everyone's complete attention. This is hard to accomplish with attendees checking their phones and working on their laptops. Your sales force will indicate a need to be responsive to their clients with statements like, "There is a big contract about to be signed." Potential solutions to this include: 

  • Build time into the agenda for participants to get back to clients
  • Let reps dealing with emergencies leave meetings quietly for a brief period of time

Evaluate Your Results

Did this meeting meet your expectations? Does the sales force feel the same way? The only way to know is to ask.  Create a survey. Limit it to 3-5 questions. Have attendees fill it out on-site. Potential questions to consider include:

  • Overall what grade would you give this Sales Meeting?  A-F
  • What aspect was most valuable or useful to you?
  • What aspect was the least helpful?
  • Should this be done next year?
  • Any other comments?

Be sure to build in some time for informal socializing. Consider having a reception to kick off or conclude the meeting.