Aligning Sales and Marketing

A reader writes, "In December, I accepted a Director of Sales position with a new company. Right away, I noticed a lack of integration and teamwork between my department (sales) and marketing. I want to address this as quickly as possible without making enemies early in my tenure. Do you have any suggestions?"

To answer your excellent question, I turned to Carole Mahoney, principal of Unbound Growth. Unbound Growth was founded on the idea that all business activity needs to be centered on the buyer and their perception of their problem. Unbound Growth works with business owners and entrepreneurial salespeople to align their mindsets and behaviors to their ideal buyer.

Carole, when you work with a company what do you typically see in the relationships between sales and marketing?

"I've been on both sides of the aisle, from working in marketing departments to running my own marketing agency to being a salesperson myself and now coaching entrepreneurial salespeople. The blame game is still alive and well. When revenue is up, both sides want to take credit. When revenue is down, both sides want to point fingers and say "Your leads suck" or "You don't follow up."

"To some extent, both are right, but it can only be corrected when ego is set aside to address the problems. Conflict occurs when sales and marketing leaders allow the blame game to happen.  Everyone loses sight of what matters the most, and that is the success of the customer."

What are the trends nationwide?

A 2011 Aberdeen Group study reported that highly aligned organizations achieved an average of 32% year-over-year revenue growth. Unaligned organizations saw a 7% decrease in revenue. Interestingly, a study from Forrester noted that just 8% of companies say they have tight alignment between sales and marketing.

People sometimes reject the data, saying, "Of course we're aligned. How else could we function?"

I respond with, "If the report is true, you are in the minority."

To determine the level of alignment between sales and marketing, Carole recommends answering the questions below.

Customer Profiles

  • Have the two departments built the customer profiles together?
  • Do you both know and agree on:
    • who your best customers are
    • how they buy
    • which problems you help them solve
    • how the results impact them

Speaking the Same Language

  • What reports does each department run?
  • Are those reports shared?
  • Do you run them at the same frequency?
  • Do you respect each other's interpretation of the data?

Buyer Behavior

  • Is there agreement on the stages of the sales cycle?
  • Does each stage have a name?
  • Is there jargon either one of you doesn't understand?
  • What is the buyer behavior happening at each stage?

Leads

  • What constitutes a good lead?
  • What is the corresponding marketing and sales behavior with the lead?
  • Are you tying those behavior benchmarks to the same outcomes?
  • Do you agree on how many leads are needed and where they should be coming from?

Social Media

  • Do both departments engage on social media?
  • Is this left exclusively to marketing?
  • How many sales people have social media profiles?
  • Does the content
    • focus on the buyer?
    • offer educational insights?
    • explain the buyer's problem and options to solve it?
    • stay current with industry trends?

Getting Started

Carole recommends beginning the alignment process by suggesting weekly interdepartmental meetings. Team up and tackle the questions above a section at a time.

After answering the questions (and any others you think of), continue to meet weekly to share new information. Begin the process of writing a combined sales and marketing plan for the coming weeks and months.

With your team, schedule monthly roundtables. Share with the reps what you have learned and where you are with your marketing integration goals. Allow them to share their feedback and ask questions openly.

Learn from Last Year Before Moving Forward

A client writes, "With the final numbers in for 2015, the sales staff I manage made the company sales goal by 102%. The whole team had to grind it out, closing several last minute deals to just surpass quota. Everyone's exhausted - me included. Two of the reps finished under quota (one at 94% and the other at 88%). Both tried hard. Do I let this go or pursue a conversation with each of them?"

Bleary eyed from a difficult Q4, a lot of sales leaders say to themselves, "We hit the goal. Let's start the New Year with a clean slate." Leaving the situation unaddressed with the two underperforming reps sets you up for potentially struggling through another difficult Q4 in 2016.

First Things First

Now that the dust has settled, meet with each rep. Review the numbers. 

  Goal Actual Difference %
Rep 1 $1,000,000 $940,000 ($60,000) 94%
Rep 2 $1,000,000 $880,000 ($120,000) 88%

They didn't just miss quota, they missed it by $60,000 and $120,000 respectively. Hearing and seeing the numbers underscores the seriousness of the situation.

Get More Granular

Show how the shortfall specifically affected revenue results monthly and quarterly.

  Quota Shortfall Quarterly Shortfall
Monthly Shortfall
Rep 1 $60,000 $15,000 $5,000
Rep 2 $120,000 $30,000 $10,000

Use Relatable Examples

Connect the quota shortfall to sales actions.  If $8500 represents a mid-size deal and $13,000 a larger deal, show the reps the number of sales they needed to close to achieve their goal.

  Quota Shortfall In $8,500 Deals
In $13,000 Deals
Rep 1 $60,000 7.1 4.6
Rep 2 $120,000 14.1 9.2

Some salespeople find it easier to understand the situation this way.

Distinguish Between the Two

Rep #1 came within 6% of quota.  

Rep#2 fell short by quite a bit: 12%.

As the sales leader, ask yourself:

  • How long has this rep been with the company?
  • What is their history of achieving quota?
  • What kind of help/coaching would be helpful?
  • Do they have a good chance of succeeding?

Determine whether one (or both) merit the effort you'll have to put in to ensure they achieve quota regularly.

Review the Whole Year

With four quarters worth of numbers to look at, you now have the ability to see what you might not have seen before.

Examples:

  • Rep #1 ran 10 - 15% behind at least 2 months out of every quarter  
  • Rep #2 had a disastrous Q3, achieving less than 50% of goal

Do you understand why? Try to diagnose the situation.  

Create a Plan

Work with each rep individually.  For example, based on your diagnosis perhaps:

  • For Rep #1, achieving minimum productivity standards (cold calls, appointments, proposals) aren't enough. He needs to increase his activity by at least 20% to meet his number consistently.
  • Rep #2 must have a fuller pipeline of closable deals going into Q3. This means more prospecting activity on her part in the beginning of the year.

Set the Stage

While Reps #1 and #2 finished under quota, the rest of the sales team achieved their numbers. It is doable. Both reps must agree to address their weak points. Make clear that a repeat performance of 2015 could result in disciplinary action.  

Invest

Focus your coaching time with each rep where they need help. Have them work with salespeople on the team who are strong in the areas they struggle with. If budget allows, provide some outside training.

Observe and Prepare

Watch and see if they take the matter seriously and act appropriately. Track their numbers closely.

The minute you mention the possibility of disciplinary action to some reps, they start job hunting immediately. Contact potential replacements. Understand who's available in the marketplace. Meet them for lunch or coffee.  

If the current reps turn things around, great. If not, you'll be ready to hire replacements as quickly as possible.

Final Thoughts

Avoid another draining, exhausting Q4. Start the New Year with a solid understanding of who didn't help achieve quota and why. Take corrective action early in the year.

Ideas from Sales Leaders

While I've benefited from excellent formal training, much of the sales management knowledge I've acquired throughout my career has come through interacting with and learning from my peers. With that in mind, I'd like to share what sales leaders in different areas of the country and in different industries have learned this year.  

It’s so important to invest in people, believe in their ability and coach them to maximize their potential. We spend so much time building processes, analyzing pricing, testing products, creating comp plans, and balancing territories. While those things are important you need to balance the investment and remember its people you should be investing in.
— Johanna Rivard, Executive Vice President, Pure B2B, Lead generation and data provider that connects marketers and buyers.
In 2015 we began to shift our sales approach to understanding our category better than anyone by bringing hard data and a strategic category thinking to the table. While so many in our business tend to sell against just product benefits, we approached it holistically by defining the roles of each sub segment, brand and product. In addition we’ve added value to the entire category by developing and introducing at shelf merchandising elements to disrupt the consumer, create awareness and better define our products.

”This approach has helped us to gain additional distribution and position ourselves as the category expert. We’ll continue to invest in the data and analysis required to keep ourselves more relevant that our competitors. We’ll also continue to develop new and disruptive ways to educate our consumer and make their shopping experience more experiential. We know that if we partner with our customer to grow their entire business ours grows also.
— Kevin Waller, Vice President of Sales, Kurgo. Pet adventure experts.
This year I rewrote the definitions associated with the percentages to close applied to each opportunity in the sales forecast. It gives me more confidence in predicting our forecast, allows for better communication with the salespeople and more reliable reports to senior management.
— Oriana Derose, Vice President of Sales, NRS. A compliance service company developing solutions for the financial services industry.
In 2015 the company introduced a large number of new items. To make their sales calls easier, I worked hard to make reps more independent through better access to electronic data resources that relates to them and their customers.
— Bob Clemence, Vice President of Sales, Hyde Tools. Provider of hand tools for jobs of many kinds.
Our inside sales team is comprised of Development Reps and Inside Sales Representatives selling a complex business application. I want to place less of an emphasis on blasting through the sales cycle and more of an emphasis on competitive differentiation and a solution selling orientation.
— Chris Murphy, Director of Sales, Act-On. Software-as-a-service, cloud-based marketing automation solution.

Thanks to Johanna, Kevin, Oriana, Bob, and Chris for taking time out of your busy schedules to share your thoughts.  Many other sales leaders will read this and consider what they've learned and goals they might set for themselves in 2016.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Investing in the Sales Team

A reader writes, "When I approach my direct supervisor with ideas for improving my group's sales performance, he listens for less than 30 seconds, and then rejects the idea with a wave of his hand. He makes comments like, "That's not a good idea," or "I don't think that will work." We then move on to what he wants to discuss. How can I break this routine we seem to be in?"

At one point or another, most of us have reported to a boss who rejected most / all new ideas. It's demoralizing.

Change Tactics

Approach him in a different way. Put together a two to three page document outlining your idea, establishing your goals, and backing it up with supporting points from an independent source (wherever possible).

The Document

Take your time with this project. Break it into manageable pieces. Begin by writing a paragraph or two describing your idea.  

Establish Goals

Suppose you want the five reps you manage (one "A" performer, three "B" performers and one on written warning) to convert more product demos to proposals. If you offered presentation training, you estimate the "A" and "B" reps would increase their numbers of proposals and sales as follows.

"A" Rep

  Monthly Sales Activity Increase Percent Increase New Monthly Sales Activity
Demos 15 -   15
Proposals 5 3 60% 8
Sales 3 1 33% 4


"B" Rep

  Monthly Sales Activity Increase Percent Increase New Monthly Sales Activity
Demos 10 -   10
Proposals 3 2 66% 5
Sales 2 1 50% 3

Looking at the average selling price for each member of the sales group, there is the potential to increase sales across the group $334,800 annually.

  Additional Annual Sales Volume Average Sale Additional Annual Revenue
"A" Rep 12 $8,500 $102,000
"B" Rep 12 $6,600 $79,200
"B" Rep 12 $6,500 $78,000
"B" Rep 12 $6,300 $75,600
TOTAL 48   $334,800

Deduct the cost of training to determine the gross revenue gain. Provide conservative and estimates. People take the proposal more seriously when you do.

Independent Source

Spend an hour or two at a public or business library or online. Work with the reference librarian to search for an article or study to augment your recommendation.  

If one of my clients has difficulties with turnover I might find a reputable study about sales reps who receive ongoing training and development enjoying longer tenures with their employer. 

Approaching the Boss

Present the completed the report to your boss at the end of a one-on-one meeting. Very calmly say something like, "I have an idea and put some thoughts together. I'd value your opinion on it. Maybe we can talk about it in a week or so, when you're ready?"

Refrain from emailing or texting to follow-up. Let them come to you. They will.

Assuming the Worst

I've advised many sales leaders to take this route to introduce or re-start the conversation about a previously rejected idea. Most assure me, "He'll just say 'No' to this, too. Why put in all the effort?"

After trusting me and giving it a try, all have expressed surprise when their boss follows-up with them, typically in less than a week!

Why it Works

When you take the time to put your thoughts in writing and back up your points with facts and figures, a supervisor knows you're serious.  

By giving them time to consider your idea, you've told them you can handle a discussion on the topic. This changes things.

Compromise

The sales reps may need targeted training on making presentations and your boss may feel they don't spend enough time making prospecting calls. Negotiate. If the reps improve the number of minutes spent on the phone by 20%, would your boss revisit the idea of presentation training?

Final Thoughts

Whether you want to replace an antiquated CRM system or create an inside sales group, take the time to put your thoughts in writing. Sales leaders trying this find that, win or lose, it changed their relationship with their bosses.  

Though their ideas weren't always given a green light, they reported an increase in mutual respect. Going forward, they engaged in more positive discussions of potential ideas.  You have everything to gain by approaching the problem this way.

Is Your Sales Rep Moonlighting?

A reader writes, "My company hired a sales representative for a territory far from headquarters. Shortly thereafter, I started to get the uneasy feeling she had two jobs. Sometimes, she missed our weekly staff conference calls. Other times, she was unreachable during certain hours of the day, or days of the week. She was achieving her sales goals, but not by much.

"A few weeks ago, she resigned. I would like to hire a rep for that territory again.  How do I protect against an employee holding a second job?"

Reps like this are salaried employees with your company. They should be singularly focused on your customers as well as developing extensive product knowledge over time. 

Technology allows most every company to place reps in territories all over the world. With this ability comes risk, such as not knowing where they are, or what they're doing with all of their time. Sometimes, these reps have another job.

David Sawyer, an expert with over 35 years in the private security industry and President of Safer Places, Inc., a background screening firm, offers the following advice:

Employment Contracts

Act preemptively. Your employment contract should clearly prohibit sales representatives from working a second job in sales.

Background Check

Require a background check as part of the hiring process. The release form most new hires sign gives permission for this check as long as they remain an employee. (This varies state-by-state.)  

Credit Reports

Ask your background screening company to run a credit report. Often, employers are listed near the top of this document.

Database Search

Many background screening firms outsource their employment verification to companies such as The Work Number (www.theworknumber.com). A search of this database may show title and dates of employment. If the dates are current, you'll know they have a second job.  

The IRS

This agency is an excellent source for verifying salary and employers. However, they require a special release form to be signed for each search. Include this in your initial background check. Then, consider making it a policy to run an annual background check and include the IRS search every year.

Private Investigators

"I list this last," says David, "as it is the most expensive option. Investigators charge by the hour. If you're acting on a hunch, it could take quite a while keeping your employee under surveillance before you'll become satisfied that your hunch may be unfounded."

Final Thoughts

Clients with remote sales forces often worry about the sales reps having two jobs. I suggest adding specifics to the employment contract including:

  • Starting / ending times of the workday
  • Availability to be reached during the workday
  • Dates / times of staff meetings
  • Dates / times of quarterly or annual offsite sales meetings
  • Lead times for taking vacation / personal days

Most remote reps have considerable respect for their employers and work hard at their jobs. Only a small number "work the system." Don't let those few inhibit you from hiring a remote rep. Just make sure you have the safety net in place to help if you suspect the rep isn't on the up and up.

Share Team Expertise to Boost Product Sales

My company offers five different products. Three account for 75% of sales revenue. To achieve their goals, the reps all sell different combinations of the products.  Most sell almost none of at least one - but the one they bypass differs from rep to rep. How do I go about achieving greater consistency in product sales throughout the staff?

Perplexed managers wonder why some reps rarely discuss certain products with decision makers. Suggestions for dealing with this issue include:

Do the Research

Take a look at the numbers. Determine exactly which rep sells how much of each product. Get ready for a few surprises. Identify the top one or two and the bottom one or two salespeople for all products.

Think about potential reasons for the differences. Does your Florida rep sell fewer of an item more suitable for colder climates? Do some products fit better with certain industries?  

Start With One Product

Look for the most underserved product. That might include one with:

  • a higher than average profit margin
  • fewer competitors
  • a growing market segment

Start there.

Select the Reps

At the next staff meeting, ask the two reps selling the most of this product to give their presentation to the group. Record it for future use.  

Have these reps talk about:

  • how they introduce the topic
  • typical questions that get asked
  • the most common objections

Most peer-led presentations generate a lot of interest and questions from the other salespeople.

Often, an average rep on the sales staff sells the most of a product neglected by the better producers. I've seen this time and time again. I don't know why it happens, but take advantage of it. Give the mid-level producer who's a superstar with this product a chance to shine. Ask them to give one of the presentations.

Involve the Experts

At another staff meeting, ask the product manager to give a presentation and answer questions. But first listen to their presentation one time, just the two of you. Take note of information that's too complicated or technical. Request that they keep their presentation sales-friendly.  

Maintain Momentum

Several weeks later, ask the same two reps to give their product presentations again. The other salespeople will get even more out of hearing the material the second time around.

At subsequent meetings ask another one or two reps to present to the group. Select two more for the next staff meeting. Continuously reinforce the process.

Incent, Incent, Incent

After a month or so of this immersion, work with the product manager to create a quiz. Warn the reps in advance. Hand it out at a staff meeting.  Offer a prize for the highest score. You'll learn which reps are really paying attention.   

Create a sales contest. Make it easy to win. You want reps moving more of this product.  Offer a group and an individual prize. Ask the two reps showing the most improvement during this process to serve as team captains.

Product Quotas

Many companies attempt to solve this problem by assigning each product a separate quota. Generally, reps ignore the quota, hitting their goals by selling the combination of products they feel comfortable with.  If they achieve or exceed their overall sales goal, most managers look the other way.

I believe in separate quotas for products. But put those quotas in place after several months of dedicated training and practice. Integrating a product into a salesperson's "bag" takes time and consistent reinforcement.    

Don't Overdo

Sales leaders with this dilemma sometimes go on a rampage. They deluge the sales staff with PDF fact sheets, competitive information, and presentations from marketing or product management.  

Actions like these overwhelm the salespeople.  Often, they end up right where they started: selling the products they were most comfortable with from the beginning.  Give the reps the time to learn the product and incorporate it into their sales presentations.

Classic Sales Books

Most sales leaders manage staffs of varying degrees of experience - frequently from different generations.  They might work with a newer rep with only a year on the job or a thirty-year veteran. Each salesperson views their experience through a different lens.

Managers in this situation often ask for resources that can assist with sales staffs of varied tenure. My response:  have them read a classic book about sales. New reps get a "boot camp" experience with some basics. Experienced reps enjoy and benefit from the refresher course.

My list of classics includes:

The Little Red Book of Selling
by Jeffrey Gitomer

Sometimes called the book for those who don't like to read, Gitomer's book has twelve short, to the point chapters - and crazy cartoons. Part motivational and part instructional, every sales professional on your team will come away with an "Aha!" moment.

Secrets of Closing a Sale
by Zig Ziglar

Many successful salespeople and business leaders feel they "owe" Zig Ziglar.  Others think he sets the bar for the sales book genre. This is the first sales book many sales professional ever read. Sharing his own experiences as well as stressing professionalism, warmth, and integrity, Ziglar shows us all how to close a sale.

How to Master the Art of Selling
by Tom Hopkins

Sales professionals often mention being given this book as a gift by parents, mentors, and managers. Seasoned veterans re-read it on a regular basis. Specific, organized, and practical, the skills and strategies Hopkins mentions still translate in this modern day.

Perfect Selling
by Linda Richardson

Richardson isolates and focuses on the sales call itself, offering a straightforward five-step process:  

  • CONNECT with your customer immediately
  • EXPLORE customer needs thoroughly and quickly
  • LEVERAGE your solutions persuasively
  • RESOLVE your customer's questions and objections confidently
  • ACT when the time is right

Though many other aspects of selling are equally critical, the ability to orchestrate an effective and productive sales call remains key to success within the profession. 

The Psychology of Selling
by Brian Tracy

Brian Tracy never finished high school. He fell into sales accidentally, working long hours with limited success. Willing to learn from others, he listened and prospered. In this book he shares his strategies and techniques for repeatable, quantifiable, and sustainable success in sales.

Why These Books?

Potential objections across all generations include, "Some of these books were written before the Internet!" or "Many of these were published over a decade ago!" or "They wrote those books using typewriters!"

My response:  "Yes, I know. Isn't that great? Some of these sales titans sold millions of dollars in products and services before having the ability to research a potential buyer on LinkedIn or elsewhere. Imagine what you can learn."

Great books stand the test of time. Generations still read and enjoy classics from Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Generations of salespeople will benefit from reading and digesting these sales classics.

Miko Coffey

I'm a web problem-solver who helps people make the most of digital tools, techniques and practices. I've been working with websites for the last 17 years and I absolutely love it.

What to Do When a Rep Makes a Big Mistake

A client asks, "One of my better reps made a significant mistake with a major account.  She told me what happened and admitted it was her fault. Before this, no problems existed with the customer. I called two executives she deals with regularly and visited them in person. Promises were made, apologies accepted. We retained their business.  

"I always enjoyed a collegial, respectful business relationship with this rep. Since the incident, we have polite but awkward interactions. She seems upset.  Did I handle this situation correctly?"

You did what comes naturally - jumped in to save the day.  From her point of view, you showed little faith in her ability to right the wrong. Worse, you probably diminished her standing with this account.

In terms of client relations and her career development, consider handling things a little differently next time.

Acknowledge Her Candor

Whenever a rep approaches you about a potential screw-up, start with, "I appreciate you coming to me directly. Take a deep breath. Start from the beginning. Tell me what happened."

This acknowledges the rep has done the right thing by bringing the situation to your attention. It leads to a more productive conversation.

Hear the Rep Out

Just listen. Don't interrupt. Resist jumping in with suggestions or criticisms. Ask questions only to gain clarity.

Getting the facts gives you a clearer picture of the issue. Take a moment to gather your thoughts on how to proceed.

Collaborate

The company has the final say on client matters. But the rep handles this account. For their professional growth and future relationship with this client, make them part of the solution.  

Solicit their suggestions for fixing the problem. Formulate a plan together.

Call in Tandem

Depending on the severity of the situation, a face-to-face visit could be necessary or, a phone call or Skype might be sufficient. Either way, you need to be present during the conversation. Have the rep set-up the meeting.  

Prior to the meeting, tell the rep that they lead the discussion, offer solutions, and issue apologies where appropriate. When questions or comments get directed towards you, let the rep know you'll be turning the conversation back their way.  

Say to the rep, "I'll make a comment like, 'That's a fair question. Julie and I discussed this issue. She'll talk about the potential solution.'"

Julie takes it from there. If she stumbles or the call begins to go badly, you step in only when absolutely necessary. Redirect towards her as soon as possible.

Leadership

Company leaders in this situation worry about how they'll come across if they let the rep steer the meeting. Many feel the customer will perceive them as:

  • Unaware of the details
  • Abdicating responsibility
  • Not taking the problem seriously

Your presence in the meeting speaks volumes. You're listening, taking notes, participating where appropriate - and most of all - supporting a salesperson you hired and entrusted with this account. You're not running away from anything.

Debrief

Post-meeting, talk about what went on. Let the rep speak first.  Make your first comments positive. Be candid about areas needing some improvement. Help with any internal follow-up necessary to fix this problem.

Mentoring Employees

Leaders recognize, acknowledge, and develop talent. Any rep tasked with addressing and fixing a problem experiences a real learning moment. You earn their respect and loyalty.  Likely, they'll work harder for you and the organization going forward.

These rules apply when the company makes a mistake, not just the rep. If an order gets messed up, the rep should work to make it right, so as to maintain their customer relationship.

Vetting an Internal Candidate for the Sales VP Role

Last month a reader inquired about potentially promoting their current sales manager to VP of Sales. They wondered about the risks involved.

Together with my colleague Stan Davis of Standish Executive Search, I provided information about the difference between the two jobs to help them make the decision including:

  • Sales Managers - have direct supervisory responsibilities such as problem solving, running meetings and disciplinary issues.
  • Vice Presidents of Sales - take part in the leadership of the company through influencing people, enacting change, and developing and deploying talent.

Determining a sales manager's readiness and suitability for the VP role requires planning and asking impactful questions - of both the candidate and yourself.

Don't Hand Them the Job

Forget about your sales manager's tenure with the company. Disregard successes in their current role. These factors qualify them for consideration. Interview this employee for the job. Handle the process the same as if you were hiring from the outside. Hold multiple interviews over a period of weeks.

Think it Over

Prior to starting the dialogue with an internal candidate ask yourself these questions:

  • How will I structure the interview process?
  • What questions will I ask?
  • Will I have them take an assessment to determine their appropriateness for the role?
  • What questions will I ask the reps they currently manage?
  • What questions will I ask other executives in the company?
  • Which combination of factors will I use to make the final decision?
  • How will I handle the situation if I realize they aren't right for the job?
  • What will I do if they accept the job and it doesn't work out?

Answer the questions. Plan ahead. Doing so will increase your confidence level in the selection process.

Consider Other Applicants

Speak to outside candidates - especially if this role represents a new position for the company. It always helps to have multiple applicants to compare and contrast.

Bring in candidates currently in the role of VP of Sales that you know through industry or professional contacts. Speak with a recruiter to learn about other qualified individuals.  

How do outside candidates respond to your questions? Do their responses differ greatly from those of the internal candidate? If so, how? As outsiders, how might their perspective differ? Do they make up for lack of familiarity with your business with a deep understanding of the role?

If you know you need a VP of Sales and you conclude the internal candidate isn't quite ready or qualified, you have other contenders to consider.

Interview Questions

Determining a candidate's fit for the VP position involves asking the right questions. What's appropriate for this level position? Stan Davis suggests questions like these:  

  • If you could structure this job any way, how would you structure it?
  • How do you get the best and the most from people?  Please give some examples of how that's worked in the past.
  • When people fell short of the potential you expected, what did you do to turn that around? Where you couldn't turn it around, what might have made a difference?
  • If the company was launching a new product, what would you do operationally to ensure the success of that product?
  • Was there a time when you created a plan and then put it into place? What was the outcome?
  • Have you ever mentored and developed a promising employee? How did you go about that?
  • If a salesperson really messed up with a valued customer, what course of action would you take to rectify that situation?

Stan adds, "Sales managers are accustomed to keeping score through dollar volume, pieces and parts, and profitability. These questions help determine their ability to evolve from that mindset to one of leadership."

Decision Time

Whether you offer the position to an internal or external candidate, ask yourself:

  • What sort of training / coaching / professional development will I offer them?
  • What goals will I set for their first 90 days?

Final Thoughts

Hiring internal candidates can be tempting.  It sometimes represents the easier choice.  Other employees see you promote from within.  After close inspection, though, the in-house applicant might be underqualified or not quite ready.  Take the time needed to make the right decision for the employee and the company.

Explainer: Role of Sales Manager vs Sales VP

A reader writes, "I'm considering promoting my current sales manager to VP of sales. In the past, you've written newsletters about the risks of promoting a top salesperson to sales manager.  Are there risks in offering the VP job to a top performing sales manager? If so, what are they?"

Kudos to you for giving this potential promotion serious thought. So many times business leaders neglect to think it through. 

The two jobs differ. Just like transitioning from salesperson to sales manager alters what an individual does on a daily basis, the promotion requires the new VP to leave some aspects of their old job behind. They assume many new responsibilities.

To get his perspective, I spoke to Stan Davis of Standish Executive Search, who has placed many senior executives over his 11 years in the executive search business, and who previously served as a corporate resources executive and in-house organizational development leader for over 30 years.

Function versus Leadership

"A sales manager has direct supervisory responsibilities - problem solving, running meetings, disciplinary issues," Stan says. "But a VP of Sales takes part in the leadership of the company - influencing people, enacting change, developing and deploying talent."

Responsibilities

Sales managers manage to the sales plan by accompanying reps on calls, tracking the rep's progress and holding them accountable for achieving quota.   

Stan adds, "Vice Presidents of Sales no longer plan just for themselves and the sales team. The sales plan is a component of the company plan.  They participate in planning for the whole organization now, and monitor the progress of sales through the sales managers."

Planning

Sales VP's, along with others on the executive team, work 12 - 18 months into the future on company-wide initiatives. They don't sell the product directly to customers anymore.  When considering someone for a VP role, Stan asks himself, "Can they build relationships with others to make sure the product works for the company financially, technically, and operationally?"

Compensation

Salespeople typically receive a base salary and commission or bonus based on their individual performance. Sales managers most often get paid with base salary and commission or bonus commensurate with their group's performance. Sales VPs usually get compensated on overall company performance.  

Who Does Each Role Serve?

Sales reps call on customers. Sales managers serve the salespeople. Stan says, "Vice Presidents of Sales align themselves more directly with the shareholders, concerning themselves with earnings." 

Think Before You Begin

Many companies have a VP of Sales by title but not by actions. Sometimes this occurs because they think they should have one. On occasion companies fear looking small or unsophisticated if they lack someone carrying that title on their website. What does your organization really need?

Sales Manager
VP of Sales

Develop and implement company's sales plan
Responsible for quota attainment for a region or segment
Responsible for revenue production for the company
Hire and train new salespeople
Deploy sales force and sales managers as needed to achieve company plan
Check and manage daily / weekly sales activity and results by each rep
Monitor regional or segment activity and results by teams or sales units
Monitor CRM reporting / accuracy in support of VP and others
C- and Board- level reporting on revenue production
Coach / motivate reps
Coach managers / motivate managers and reps
Strategize with reps
Strategize on key accounts with managers and reps
Reassign / outplace underperforming reps
Reassign / outplace underperforming managers
Visit customers frequently
Visit customers occasionally

Final Thoughts

Hiring from within has its benefits. The candidate knows the company culture, customers, products and services. Other employees see promotions as real possibilities. Take the time needed to ensure you make the right decision for the employee and the company.


This article outlines the process a leader goes through when thinking about promoting a candidate from within. Next month I will write the questions leaders should ask before hiring for this position.

How CSRs Can Aid Sales Efforts

A client asks, "For several years I've offered my customer service group different financial incentives to up- and cross- sell customers who call in.  They've participated in sales training seminars, but nothing changes. They speak with customers all day long.  How can I motivate customer service to initiate more sales oriented conversations?"

My clients ask this question frequently. In turn, I sometimes ask them, "Would someone who had little interest or talent in math major in accounting, finance, engineering or economics?" "It's doubtful," they often answer. And I agree.

Well-meaning company leaders sometimes ask the wrong group of people to take on responsibilities not suited to their personalities or skills.

Personality Traits

Customer service reps (CSR's) work with clients before, during, and after a purchase. Many speak with clients strictly post-sale. CSR activities center on enhancing and maintaining the value of the product or service purchased.  

Detail oriented and thorough, customer service reps engage in long-term relationships. Top CSR's have:

  • patience
  • a calming presence
  • the ability to pick up on subtle cues  

Most make the complex simple. The end game for CSR's: customer satisfaction.  

Challenges

Many CSR's struggle in areas sales reps must excel such as:

  • bouncing back from rejection
  • asking people to make commitments
  • confidently expressing their point of view  

As a rule, CSR's spend more time reacting to calls, questions, or complaints than proactively reaching out. Asking them to convince a customer to buy additional products from your company goes against their very nature.  

Sales Rep vs. CSR Audience

Productive salespeople make sure, as quickly as possible, that they're speaking with a decision maker. Those same decision makers don't necessarily call customer service regularly. That might be left to an admin or end users.  

In certain cases, you might be asking customer service reps to up- or cross- sell to individuals who never make those types of decisions.

Play to CSR Strengths

Good listeners by trade, most CSR's gather information accurately. As a group, they tend to follow company procedures. Given that, request that they ask questions, gather information, and then pass that lead or information on to the appropriate salesperson.

Offer them bonuses when the salesperson closes a deal based on information or a lead received from a CSR.

Provide the Questions

If your company sells more than one product or service, coach the CSR's to ask:

  • According to our records, you regularly purchase Product A.  What does your company use / need / manufacture in the area of ...?

If your company provides only one product or service, have the CSR ask:

  • Would any other department use / have a need for ...? OR
  • Do you have offices / divisions in any other areas?

Stop there. Don't require anything else of them.  They ask the question, type in the response, and pass the information on.

Next steps involve proactively asking the customer to do something. Most CSRs don't have that skill set.

Untapped Value

When a CSR asks a customer what their needs are in the area of XYZ, the customer may respond by saying, "You've got me. That's Jane Smith's area."  

For all you or anyone else at the company knows, the sales rep may have been trying for months, through LinkedIn or networking, to figure out who was in charge of that area.  Finally, they have the right name.

Win / Win

Tap into the potential of the customer service reps by asking them to reach out to the customer in a way that makes them comfortable.  Let the sales rep take the lead or information and do what they do best.  

When a CSR receives a bonus for asking a question and passing the information along they'll be motivated to do it more often. Why not? They're good at it.

Sales Tips for Driving Business Valuation

A reader writes, "I'm in my late 40's and the owner of a small business - with no plans to sell for at least 10 years.  When I do sell, I don't want to say, 'I wished I'd known (fill in the blank) 10 years ago. If I had, my business would be worth a lot more today.' When it comes to sales, what advice can you offer to business owners wanting to get the maximum value when they do sell?"

For a knowledgeable answer to your thought-provoking question, I turned to business broker Chris Bond, Area Director for Murphy Business & Financial Corp.

Chris says, "As a business broker, I sometimes have the unenviable task of breaking bad news to my small business owner clients, namely that the company they've worked so hard on (and in) isn't worth as much as they had hoped."

You Are a Salesperson

"There are several things an owner can do," Chris says, "but first off, accept that you're a salesperson."

He goes on to explain this means you may want to have a sales metric by which you measure the success of any given day, week, and/or month. Did you book an appointment for a new opportunity? Did you contact five latent clients with an unexpected thank you for past orders?  Perhaps you did something nice for someone knowing that a referral for you could result at any moment? As we all know, it's the little things we do that tend to add up to a lot of business.

"Which is more important," Chris asks, "avoiding the disappointment of hearing 'no' from a sales prospect or running the risk of delaying retirement for years? An owner who wants to eventually sell the business is wise to work on proactively selling his or her goods every day.  Those who don't do this run the risk of saying they coulda / woulda / shoulda boosted their profitable revenue while they had the time and energy to do so... and then miss the opportunity to enjoy their retirement while healthy."

Involve all Staff Members

All that said, be sure it's not just you doing these healthy selling behaviors.  You'll benefit by having your whole staff understand that there are sales opportunities all around if they have alertness to that fact. Your office manager can ask a caller if there's any other help needed; your service tech can keep an eye out for cross-selling opportunities; your driver can ask for referrals to neighbors who could very well be new customers.

Build a Sales Team

It's ideal if you actually build a day-to-day sales staff, as hard as that can be to execute. Business buyers are keen to understand how likely the sales effort will survive your sale of and transition out of the business, so having a productive sales team goes a long way toward allaying concerns that you are the business.

Watch the Percentages

One drag on business value occurs when the company is beholden to one or two major accounts. If you step outside your day-to-day role and think like the potential buyer of your own business, strongly consider the risk profile of the customer mix. If any one account represents more than 20 - 25% of the revenue pie, it's likely to hurt the perceived value of the business. Ideally, no one client will make up more than 10% of the mix; if this isn't your reality it may be time to set a goal to capture enough new business in the coming months to improve the look and feel of your revenue stream.

Final Thoughts

Sticky, dependable top-line revenues are of course only one factor for a business that will likely be acquired.  Other factors are historical profits; the supplier mix; the state of the economy in markets served; the management team and its likelihood to stay on post-transaction; and competition, among other major factors. But if there is but one thing you can do today, try a positive change you can make to enhance revenue, with an eye on always trending upward.  You - and your eventual buyer of the business - will be glad you did.

5 Signs Your Compensation Plan Needs Revamping

During this time of year, many company / sales leaders consider whether or not to make any changes to the existing compensation plan.  It's an important decision that could impact sales reps' efforts and sales revenue for the coming year.  

In reviewing the way sales reps at your organization get paid, ask yourself if any of these scenarios describe your organization. Might it be time to look at some potential adjustments to the compensation plan?

Few New Accounts

Rather than prospecting for new business, the reps call only on their current accounts, preferring to increase business within those clients. Why shouldn't they? The comp plan pays the same rate of commission on new and renewal business.  

Issue a separate quota and commission for brand new business. Following the "pay for the behavior you'd like to see" school of thought, commission new business at a higher rate. New business will always be more difficult to find and close. Companies grow through a steady flow of new accounts. 

Sales Reps Don't Reach the Top Commission Tier

The company pays 3% on monthly sales $0 to $50,000, 5% on sales $50,001 to $100,000 and 7% on sales above $100,000. No rep has ever sold $100,000. The average rep sells $72,000 a month: $28,000 less than the 7% tier.  

Offer a top tier that's challenging to hit. That's great. If several months go by and no rep reaches that tier - that's OK too. But when no rep ever hits that number, the top tier demotivates the sales staff. Reps look at the goal as unattainable. You might need to hire new reps or set more realistic goals. Whatever the case, this comp plan doesn't drive sales to $100,000+.  

Ignoring the Superstar

Reverse the situation. The company pays 3% on monthly sales $0 to $50,000, 5% on sales $50,001 to $100,000. There is no tier above $100,000. Most reps sell between $85,000 and $95,000 against a goal of $80,000. The superstar of the group routinely sells $110,000 - $130,000.  They receive the same 5% on the additional $10,000 - $30,000.  

Honor and motivate the high-achieving salesperson.  Create a third tier for them. Watching one rep hit that tier proves to others in the group that it can be done, and inspires them to work smarter.

Too Comfortable with Base Salary

During the hiring process, a candidate negotiated a much higher base salary than you wanted to pay.  Motivated to recruit them, you agreed to it.   Eight months later they haven't sold much, and seem content to earn just their base salary. 

Offer a higher training base salary - this helps new reps financially as they build a pipeline. Once the training period ends, reps should be earning more commission or bonus than base salary. This is sales.  They shouldn't be satisfied with just a salary.  If you're in this situation, it's time to get tough and renegotiate their compensation plan.

Reps Don't Understand the Plan

The old adage "a compensation plan should be simple enough to be written on the back of a napkin or explained during a 10 floor elevator ride" still applies. Check in with your reps before the end of the year. Ask them to explain the comp plan to you. If the majority struggle to do so with all or certain parts of it, they find the plan demotivating - count on it. Look for ways to make it more straightforward.

Great compensation plans stretch and motivate the sales force.  Make sure your company has that type of plan in 2015.

If one or more of these describe your situation, call or  email me. I'd be happy to discuss the situation with you.

Email vs Voicemail - It's Not Either / Or

A reader writes, "Some sales reps on my team refuse to leave voicemails for customers or prospects - communicating via email or other forms of communication. When I speak to them about this the replies include: 'Voicemail is dead, outmoded, for losers, no one checks it anymore,' etc.  I'm the owner of my business and make many buying decisions.  Reps from other companies call on me. While I rely on more forms of communication than I ever thought possible, I do still listen to my messages and speak to people on the phone.  What's your take on this? Are the reps right?"

No, they aren't.  Rotary phones are dead, not voicemail.  It remains a viable business tool.  What's changed is the additional technology available. No longer dominant, voicemail needs to be utilized differently.

Know Your Audience

Successful business people (not just salespeople) learn how others prefer being communicated with.  Some customers will favor email or text, others the phone.  Most probably use a combination.  Avoid stereotyped generation-based thinking about age or experience.  Determining the communication preference of any customer or professional associate takes time.  Sales reps need to build the relationship.

Top-performing salespeople keep detailed notes about their customer's communication choices regarding method / days of the week / times of day.   They know their customer's schedules.

The Big Change

Years ago, professionals accessed voicemail several times a day.  A lot of the most critical information they needed was there. Executives tell me they still listen to their office land line voicemail.  The difference - they access those voicemails once or twice a week only.  Given the large volume, they skip through messages fairly quickly, deleting all but those they deem most important.  

Use Both Technologies

I advise sales reps to leave both an email and a voicemail, especially when it comes to prospects or unfamiliar customers.  Send an introductory email.  Tell them you've left them a voicemail as well.  In the voicemail, let them know you've sent an email. Overkill?  No.  You don't know them well enough yet to understand the most efficient way to communicate. 

Power of Voicemail

Sales reps understand that most people (especially prospects) won't return their call.  They know they have to initiate contact several times before finally having a conversation. Hearing you on voicemail allows prospects and others to recognize the sound of your voice and listen to what you have to say about your product or service.  

Power of Email

Prospects review emails a lot during off hours or during a lull in their schedule. Receiving email (and attached links) from a company of potential interest, allows them to do a little research on your organization at their convenience.  
Using either technology, when you finally do reach whoever you're trying to call, you're not as much of a stranger.  That helps all conversations get off to a better start. Though technology like Skype allows customers to both see and hear you, voicemail remains an effective methodology through which to introduce yourself.

Respecting Other's Preferences

One of my long-time customers communicates with me almost exclusively by email.  After all these years, hearing his voice still comes as a surprise to me.  Very familiar now with his style, I've mastered the effective and concisely written emails that he needs.  These wouldn't necessarily work for my other clients.

Every now and again, I have to discuss something with him.  Email won't do.  I email him, asking when it would be convenient for us to speak.  He always gets back to me promptly with a time.  Because I respect the way he wants to receive information, he picks up the phone when he knows I need to talk to him directly.  We built up this trust over a period of time.  That's what it takes.

This is Not Just Another LinkedIn Idea for Salespeople

A reader asks, "Over the last year, I've invested time and money into LinkedIn for my sales staff.  I've hired a professional photographer for head shots, as well as a consultant to help with company and staff profiles.  Any good tips on how to use LinkedIn to increase sales?"

LinkedIn offers many ways for salespeople to increase the size of their prospect list or gather helpful information about a potential new customer.  Let me share one that I think goes underutilized.

New Job

LinkedIn notifies subscribers about their contacts' work anniversaries, birthdays, endorsements, awards and professional accomplishments -- all great information to read up on before getting in touch with someone.   
In my experience the notifications about my contacts accepting positions with new employers has proven to be the most valuable.  I'll tell you why.

Access

They pick up the phone.  I don't know how many times I've called and asked for a recently hired employee, and been told the following:

  • "Their voicemail isn't connected yet; let me try to find them for you."
  • "I'm not sure what their extension is, oh wait, I just saw them walk by, hang on a minute please."
  • "They are in today but I don't know where they are.  Let me take and old fashioned hand-written message for you and I'll make sure they get it."

When someone starts a new job, fellow co-workers who might normally screen their calls put the calls through.  They don't know their new co-worker all that well, and will want to steer clear of a potential mistake by doing so.  

Listening

When the recently hired contact does accept the call, they often pay attention to what you have to say.  They might not recognize your name at first.  Few of us know all of our connections on LinkedIn.  They lack familiarity with all of the top accounts and customers.  You might be one and they have little interest in offending you.  New employees at any level try to avoid gaffes early in their tenure. 

New Opportunities

In their last position, they lobbied to purchase certain products or services only to be turned down.  You never know what your contact might have negotiated before starting the new job. Perhaps they insisted on a certain product or service as a contingency of employment. A door previously closed to a salesperson could be wide open now.

Overwhelmed vs. Busy

Recently hired employees feel inundated by all the new people, products, customers, and software programs.  They probably aren't even 100% sure how to operate the coffee maker.   We've all been through it and it's stressful. Though they'll go to great pains not to show it -- they might not actually be all that busy just yet.

They aren't yet copied on all relevant emails, don't know about every meeting they should attend, or have a set schedule yet for one-on-ones with all direct reports. Gaps occur in their calendar. While they acclimate to the new job, they have a few minutes to talk.

Big Numbers

Not too long ago, I received a message from LinkedIn letting me know that 12% of my connections had recently started new jobs.  Twelve percent?  Astounding.  On that list was someone I had wanted to reach out to for quite some time.  We worked together once before.  The job they held for several years afterward wasn't in my field.  In their new position, they could potentially use my services again.  

If only to congratulate them and catch up, connect with those in your LinkedIn network who've accepted new positions.  At the very least, they'll be glad to hear a friendly voice.  Who knows what might come from the conversation?
 

How and When to Pay Commission

A reader asks, "My company leases land from property owners for alternative uses. Some sales take only one or two months to close, while others take much longer.  Once the deal is signed, my company has to find the financing to re-purpose the property.  On average, securing the financing takes one to two months. We plan to base commission on the dollar amount of the construction project. Given the lag time between closed deals and financing, do you have any recommendations on structuring the compensation plan?"

While this question deals with one company's specific dilemma, similar situations occur in all sales organizations.  For instance a client might sign a multi-year deal and either not pay the entire contract up front or stop payment after one year.  Similarly, a client could return some or all of a large order.

Avoid Distraction

Your sales staff needs the single-mindedness to concentrate on meeting a property owner, uncovering a potential land lease, presenting the opportunity, generating a proposal, and closing the deal. Concern about whether or not the deal receives financing - which neither they nor the property owners have responsibility for or control over - is a distraction. Little good happens when the salesforce loses focus.

Potential Solutions

Solving that problem lies in recognizing and rewarding closed sales before financing gets approved. Frank Armenio, CMA, CFM and partner at B2B CFO suggests the following:

"Given the time lag between closed deals and financing, I would pay a percentage (25% - 50%) of the commission on the deal closing and the remainder when the financing is complete. The deal is not done until the financing is obtained. Further, if the financing falls through the first 25% - 50% needs to be charged back since I believe that would void the deal.

"Experience has shown me that sales reps normally go with the highest up front dollars. Therefore, re-payment on the back-end could take place far down the road."

Options

Frank's plan allows the sales rep to collect some commission up front. In that way your company rewards and recognizes a closed sale immediately, in a manner unconnected to the financing. I support that completely.

Consider Frank's idea. Collaborate and consult with other executives at your company to determine what percentages they deem appropriate. 

What happens when you have paid a certain percentage of the deal up front, financing is not approved, and the rep has a chargeback? I recommend dividing the amount into thirds and deducting it from their paycheck over a three month period.  Allow for flexibility with the starting date of the pay back.

Loss of Financing

If the financing does fall through, where does this leave the rep? You never want them to feel that all their hard work was for nothing, or to hesitate when closing the next deal.  
When a salesperson closes an otherwise sound deal in good faith, offer a "signing bonus" of some sort - either a flat fee or a small percentage of the deal.  Reps would not be responsible for paying this amount back if financing fell through.

Define Terms

To minimize the chances of any deal being turned down for financing, make sure the reps know what constitutes a "good deal."  What should they be looking out for?  Discuss red flags. Neither you nor the reps want to chase deals that fall apart.

Risk and Reward

The profession of sales involves risk taking. Top-producing salespeople are well paid; one reason for that is that no one in your organization has the ability to guarantee any sale.  Keep reps focused by offering a comp plan that acknowledges the time delay between a closed sale and a completed deal, and that rewards the salesperson's effort to go for the close.

Take a Sales Book to the Beach for Some New Ideas

Salesforces find themselves playing catch-up and / or struggling to integrate technology into their current sales practices.  Should any tried and true systems or routines from the pre-social media days be preserved? Which might be considered obsolete or potentially damaging to a sales organization wanting to continue to thrive in this new era?  Is any particular technology an absolute must?

The books below offer company presidents and sales executives advice and tips for assimilating all the various apps, software and social media into their existing sales methodology. 

"Agile Selling: Get Up to Speed Quickly in Today's Ever-Changing Sales World" by Jill Konrath

Sales professionals understand the Internet changed buyer behavior.  If buyers want information, they go online and they're at least 50% of the way through the decision-making process when they call a potential vendor.  Sales reps need to know what to do about it.  Konrath, author of SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies, details what the modern buyer wants: an understanding of their business challenges, value at every interaction, and information they need the way they want to see it - quickly.  In addition, she gives reps the specifics for dealing with today's buyer, and how to get up to speed more quickly.  

"Sales 2.0: Improve Business Results Using Innovative Sales Practices and Technology" by Anneke Seley and Brent Holloway

Despite the explosion of online products and changing customer buying habits, the sales profession still lacks an innovative set of sales practices that work in the new reality. The high-tech revolution hasn't led to a revolution in sales strategies. Seley and Holloway use Sales 2.0 as an umbrella term to describe best practices for predictable, measurable selling that result in increased business.  The authors discuss inside sales and the web as a strategic entry point for Sales 2.0, interview companies currently practicing 2.0, and offer real-world suggestions for getting started.  

"The Challenger Sale" by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

Identifying salespeople as one of five types: hard worker, challenger, relationship builder, lone wolf and reactive problem solver, the author's extensive research champions the challenger as best suited to modern, complex, large scale business to business sales.  Rejecting the idea that salespeople build relationships and that sales follow, leading-edge decision makers and buyers value innovative and creative reps who tailor their message to a customer's specific needs.  A good relationship between seller and buyer develops as a result of this type of service.  Filled with case studies, interview tips and a coaching guide, this book helps companies identify and train reps to develop a challenger mind set.  

"Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers" by Robert Scobel and Shel Israel

While some books lay out a blueprint for putting together a social media program, Scobel and Israel focus on blogging.  The authors view traditional, old fashioned PR and marketing departments, with their focus on "talking at" people, as obsolete.  Blogs represent "two-way" marketing by allowing companies to interact directly with their customers. They maintain companies wanting to survive and thrive must adapt and integrate blogging into their marketing plan.  Today's customer insists on interacting directly with employees working for the companies from whom they purchase goods and services.  Chapters 10 and 11 entitled:  Doing it Wrong and Doing it Right offer specifics on a successful blogging program.

Miko Coffey

I'm a web problem-solver who helps people make the most of digital tools, techniques and practices. I've been working with websites for the last 17 years and I absolutely love it.

5 Simple Steps to Timely Followups

Following up in a timely fashion is key to the sales process.  For some helpful tips, I turned to Mitzi Weinman, president of TimeFinder.  Mitzi writes:

I remember working with a client, the president of a manufacturing company.  I was coaching him on his personal productivity and on decluttering his office.  At the time, he was looking for a new accounting firm.

As we cleared the clutter, he threw away a proposal from a firm that wanted his business. I asked why. He responded that he had met with one of the firm's representatives, but had never received the additional information that he had requested. He wondered, "If they treat me that way as a prospect, how will they treat me as a client?"

His point was on target.  A phone call or email can make the difference in getting a sale or not.  Following up has to be part of the sale process. For example, one of my clients who worked for a marketing firm would meet with prospective clients regularly.  He explained that when he would return to the office, he did not have time to do the follow-on work from his meetings.  I asked him how often he had to get information back to a prospect after he met with them.  His answer was, "Always."    

Because following up with prospects was predictable, he had to plan for it.

What are successful strategies for following up?

  1. Anticipate the need to follow up and block out time before the meeting to work on the follow up.
  2. Try to estimate how long the follow ups will take to prepare and deliver, based on the type of work required, sophistication of the client, etc.
  3. As soon as you indicate to someone that you will get back to them, mark the date you committed to in your calendar, planner, etc.  Know what you have already planned on your calendar so you can be realistic in setting expectations.
  4. If you have a team, let other members of your team know about your meeting(s) and set expectations on what they may also need to work on.  Find out about their impending deadlines.
  5. Don't put yourself in a position where you are apologizing for not following through.  This negatively impacts your client or prospects perception of your ability to get things done on their behalf.

Following up gives you credibility. You demonstrate that you care and that you deliver.  When you say that you will get back to someone, do so - even if it is to say that you don't have the information yet, but that you are working on it. Clients, prospects and associates don't want to hear that you're busy as an excuse for missing deadlines.

Anticipate, plan ahead, block out time and do what you say you will do.  When you do what you say you're going to do, as promised, it positions you and your company to stand out from the others.

Mitzi Weinman, founder of TimeFinder, helps people develop good habits and techniques to reduce stress which can result from procrastinating, feeling disorganized and overwhelmed, and rushing to get things done, at work and/or at home.  Mitzi's clients include: New Balance, Reebok, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Symphony Orchestra, WGBH, Lojack, Grant Thornton, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Weston and Sampson Engineers, Pearson Education and Marriott University.  Mitzi is the author of "It's About Time -- Transforming Chaos into Calm, A to Z," soon to be available.

Sales Reps with Closing Issues

A reader asks, "One of my reps excels at uncovering new deals and filling the top end of the pipeline. But once he's sent a proposal to a prospective client he waits for them to respond rather than being proactive.  Coaching and working closely with him on high-value deals works well until one of us is out or traveling. Then we fall out of sync and lose momentum on his late-stage deals.  I have considered pulling deals away from him and moving them to a solid closer as a split. How can a seasoned sales professional who is exceptional at prospecting and developing new deals be so bad at advancing late-stage deals to close?"

You are far from alone.  My clients continuously tell me their various reps:

  • get through to decision makers with ease, then stall at the product demonstration phase
  • present the product very well then put together a poorly written and priced proposal
  • close effectively when they have a deal to close

What do you do?  Place them on formal written warning?  Turn late-stage deals over to other reps?  Terminate their employment?  Let's look at the possibilities.

Scope of the Problem

Review closed and lost sales for the past few years.  What number and percentage did you assist with?  When working on his own, how many and what percentage did he lose / close? Tally the sales revenue for the different scenarios.  Come to some solid conclusions about the seriousness of the issue.

Invest

You've come this far, devoting tremendous time and energy trying to help him close deals.  See it through.  Meet with him to discuss the problem as you see it.  Go over the sales numbers.  Listen to his thoughts and ideas. Remind him of the many skills he possesses to succeed in sales.  Offer your full support. Discuss next steps.

Have him take a sales assessment. Look at the whys and hows of his closing issues.  If the budget allows, arrange for targeted training or coaching specifically around closing.  Otherwise, ask the rep to select a book on closing.  The two of you should read it together and discuss.  

Coaching versus Enabling

You've worked with him to close many deals and he still cannot close on his own.  He either isn't listening or has become dependent on you.   As a manager, you need to make some changes as well.

When discussing potential deals, get him to tell you what he plans to say and do.  If he hesitates say something like, "This seems similar to the Smith Company sale from last year. What were the president's objections? How did you finalize that deal?"

Start pulling back.  Before accompanying him on sales calls, remind him that you are there to support him.  He must close the deal.  Resist the urge to jump in and close it yourself.

What Next?

Should training and/or coaching fail to turn his performance around, you have two alternatives to consider.

Alternative #1

You could create a position for this rep that focuses primarily on identifying and working opportunities to an agreed point in the sales cycle. This approach requires you have another rep or reps take those deals from that point forward and get them closed.

Taking this path would require assessing the strengths of your other salespeople, altering the sales process to manage the hand-offs (both for this salesperson and others), and adjusting quotas and compensation to accommodate the changing workload for the entire staff.

You'll need to review the consequences of making the change either with a trusted adviser (if you're the boss) or with the boss (if you're not) before moving forward with the plan.  Be sure it's worth all the trouble. The rep in question might quit, or the hybrid position may not work for the other salespeople.

Alternative #2

The second alternative involves putting the salesperson on a performance improvement plan as a prelude to moving him out of the organization. Tell him that to continue to have the title and privileges of a salesperson, he must meet or surpass sales quotas consistently and take potential deals from a cold call through to close. Failure to do so in a time period you specify will result in his being terminated.

Whether you choose the first or the second alternative depends on how good they are at everything but closing, and how much you want to navigate around their weakness. Contrary to popular myths, sales managers should not close sales for reps, save the occasional high-level, particularly complex deal.  The stress involved in "carrying" this rep makes him dependent on you and leaves you depleted for your other reps and responsibilities.