Play Ball!

Slugger Joe hit 50 home runs last year. He also had a golden glove, snatching sizzling grounders and fielding slow moving bunts between his position at third base and home plate. At a management meeting that winter, the general manager of Joe’s team had a great idea – let’s move Joe over to coach third base. After all, he opined, Joe has all the skills, and as coach, he can share with the whole team.

Many sales organizations make the same mistake. They take their best salesperson and make them a manager, hoping the brilliance he or she shown as a salesperson will rub off on the rest of the organization. Many times, however, what happens instead is a reduction in production, and ineffective management. The new manager may see their role as helping everyone else in the sales department to close sales – after all, that is what they have been great at, selling is what earned them the promotion.

But sales management is more than just closing sales – it is assembling the right team, constructing the rules of the road, and building a great sales culture.

Selecting the right team is a particularly significant challenge. The universe of salespeople who can effectively build business-to-business relationships over the phone is small. Without the lack of visual clues and body language, many talented field salespeople struggle in the role. Individuals who are great at customer service may be to considerate to generate interest at the beginning of the call.

Constructing the rules of the road helps the sales manager take themselves out of the day-to-day decisions that need to be made. What discounts can be offered? How do we deal with a customer complaint? Some sales managers cherish the “fire fighter” mode, and therefore their day is consumed by rapid fire interactions with the sales group – interactions that could be significantly reduced by setting guidelines.

Finally, building a sales culture. A new representative will come into the department and take their cue from what the current sales reps are doing. If culture supports high performance, the new rep is likely to highly produce. A sales culture can be built through storytelling, sales meeting, compensation and adequate emotional nutrition. Emotional nutrition is provided by a sales manager who recognizes the investment of energy required to dial the phone fifty or sixty times a day, and to generate interest on every call.

Now, many managers were good salespeople in their day, but if you are choosing a sales manager, perhaps the best candidate is not the best salesperson. Perhaps your best producer should continue to excel at serving customers, while your best manager takes the helm. Look for an individual skilled at motivating others. Key your eye out for someone who can run a dynamic system by putting processes in place that will support the organization’s goals. Uncover someone who brings out the best in others.

Okay team, batter up!

Just Follow the Rules!

When you were a child, did you start out each ad hoc game with your friends by discussing the rules? Perhaps the neighbor’s flower bed was out of bounds, the alley was the goal line and anything over the sidewalk was a free play. Rules help define the parameters of the game, and reduce disputes, because everyone knows the boundaries.

Telephone sales management also should incorporate rules. A manager who has no rules must make all the decisions: “Can I offer this discount?”, “A shipment didn’t arrive, what can I do for this customer?”, “Can I add Acme Lending into my territory?” These decisions take a lot of time, and leave the manager open to criticism if they tell one representative one thing and the next another. On the other hand, rules that are too restrictive bind the representative’s hands, and cause customers to say, “can I talk to your manager?” Most of us have had the experience of asking a customer service agent to put their manager on the line. It isn’t healthy to bind a telephone sales representative too tightly because customer’s question their value, and answering questions burns the manager’s time; time better spent in growing sales.

So, what constitutes a good set of rules?

Start with the 80/20 rule. Design rules so that they cover 80% of the situations your telephone salespeople encounter daily. For example, if a package is lost or destroyed, can the representative ship a replacement by overnight carrier? Perhaps up to a certain weight or dollar amount? If a service person misses an appointment, can the representative offer a $ 15 discount? Can you publish a discount schedule for large orders? Can you give the salespeople some latitude to negotiate with customers?

A good way to come up with the 80% rule is to keep track of all the questions representatives are asking the manager over say a monthly period, and to keep track of how long the manager is invested in answering the questions. Start by tackling the most prevalent issues, and work backwards.

The second half of the 80/20 rule is the 20%. Keeping a small portion of the situations open to a discussion between representative and manager keeps the manager up to speed on the situations his or her salespeople are encountering. It encourages the development of a sales organization that is flexible and adjusts to new information and new marketplace realities. It tells the salespeople their organization listens, and tries to react accordingly, and values the relationship it has with its customers.

Now your mix may be 90/10 or 70/30, each sales situation and each sales department is different. But don’t tie yourself down in firefighting all day long if a few rules could make your life easier. And don’t bind the sales group too tightly, after all, we have salespeople to react to customers, to be creative and to solve problems.

Play ball!

New Years Eve

Shortly after Christmas, my grandfather used to bug me to create a bundle of New Year’s Eve resolutions. He’d say, “if you don’t have goals, you don’t have anything.” He surmised that if I concentrated at least annually on my strategies for improvement, some of them would stick, and a better grandchild would result.

Businesses do the same, but usually more formally. Businesses create strategies of improvement which filter down into purchasing initiatives the clever telephone salesperson can fulfill. But our contacts usually won’t disclose these initiatives unless we ask. Back in my field sales days, I’d often call on large businesses, and I’d keep my eyes out for the posters, the small signs in the cubicles, or the CEO’s recorded speech on the public monitor articulating the vision. Often these initiatives had clever names, 1 x 2000 seventeen years ago, or Vision 2020 today. The salesperson that hitches his or her star to a named initiative with a helpful solution is golden. In my field sales days, I’d notice the signs, and then bring up the initiative in conversation. The telephone salesperson, blind to the posters and signs, and deaf to the CEO’s recorded exhortation, must probe.

Few customers will open-up directly about their company’s initiatives unless you have a good relationship. You build the relationship by having a good business curiosity. What makes this customer tick? How do they compete and survive in the marketplace? If the salesperson has been responsive, the products and services supplied have been of good quality, and they have asked intelligent questions, the salesperson can probe for these golden strategies.

First, check out the company website and press releases. Often the corporate marketing department will splash initiatives online, especially those targeted at their customers. Second, is there someone else you can ask besides the buyer? Perhaps a user of your product, someone in the quality department, or someone else you’ve befriended. A simple, “do you folks have any big initiatives I should know about?” may get the information. Third, ask your buyer. “Amy, to serve you better, I’m curious if you have any ongoing initiatives I should be aware of? Tell me about your corporate strategies this year.”

Any proposal that hits the desk of higher ups that mentions the CEO’s strategic project get serious consideration. Funding follows named initiatives, and quotes that reference these C-level pronouncements get preferential treatment. “I’m sorry, excuse me, pardon me, can I sneak by you?” There is nothing sweeter than your proposal proudly going to the front of the funding line.

The prerequisite salesperson requirement is curiosity. Do you care what is going on in your customer’s world, or is your focus on telling someone about the latest product or service your selling organization has created? The highly successful telephone salesperson positions this latest product or service as a way of addressing the customer’s named initiative, and hitches his or her proposal to the Vision 2020, or whatever clever name the customer’s public relations team created.

Rarely did my grandfather follow-up a year later to see how my resolutions performed. We were on to the new. Business customers are the same, initiatives are abandoned, new ones created, the marketplace dictates change. Continue to ask, to probe and keep current– the golden customer initiative is just a few questions away.

Under the Weather

I grew up in the Midwest, and we have extreme weather because we are far from the modifying influence of any ocean. During the summer, we can soar to over 100-F; during the winter, we can bottom out at 20-F below zero. Wouldn’t it be great if we Midwesterners could take a big stick and stir together this hot and cold to create a nice, pleasant annual temperature?

Most telephone salespeople go through the same cycle: first they are red hot – closing sales left and right. Then nothing seems to work – they go cold. It’s all part of being in a sales position of course, and the larger the average sale, the more dramatic the ups and downs. For the sales manager, it is hard not to intervene when sales are down, because it’s the sales manager’s job to deliver consistent revenue. Most managers are always on the hunt for anything that may stand in the way of the monthly goal. But should you intervene? Is it really a problem, or is it a statistical bounce time will cure on its own? Just like a warm spring surely follows the coldest winter.

Consider, is the problem department wide or limited to a representative? If it is department wide, what has changed? A recent price increase perhaps, or a product revamp or maybe your customers know a new release is coming, and they are waiting.

If the problem is not department wide, check activities. Has the affected sales representative done calls consistently? Look at talk time, has the average length of call dropped which may indicate a quality issue? Look at the pipeline, is the pipeline consistent over time, or has there been fall off in prospecting? If there is an activity issue, has the representative been tied up on a larger proposal, or distracted by a non-sales project, or perhaps extended vacation?

Second, is it a territory issue, perhaps a large customer has reduced purchases unexpectedly, or something economically is happening in the territory?

Third, listen to some calls. Spend an hour observing, and ask the representative to attempt a wide variety of calls, from prospecting to calls deep in the sales cycle. Is something different? Has the salesperson adopted a mannerism unconsciously that is impacting performance?

Finally, put it all together. Is anything wrong? In most cases, it is simply the highs and lows of the normal sales pattern, and a warm up will soon follow. But the investigation may uncover a problem, and in this case, intervention is warranted.

After all, everyone complains about the weather, but sometimes the sales manager can do something about it.

Make Your Selection

I recently visited a rest area along the interstate and decided to get a beverage. After the vending machine read the chip of my credit card, it said “Make your selection.” I scanned the contents, and realized I didn’t recognize many of the local brands. I hesitated, then selected a drink with colorful packaging. When I opened the drink in my car, it wasn’t at all what I expected.

When a manager selects a new salesperson, it is much the same way, we can be deceived by the exterior packaging into buying what’s unknown inside. Take the typical resume. Anyone who is serious about applying for a job can message even mediocre experiences into a polished resume. And who among us has not been deceived by the physical appearance of a candidate as they presented themselves for an interview, and jumped to conclusions about their sales ability?

The easiest way to get underneath the packaging to see what is inside is to conduct a disciplined selection process. First, use a telephone interview to screen out candidates who won’t be a fit. Ask the salesperson to sell you on inviting them in for a face-to-face interview. If they can’t do that, they won’t be able to sell your product or service either. Second, conduct a behavioral based interview and see if the candidate has demonstrated the behaviors in the past they will need to be successful in your job.  Ask questions to see if they have done their homework to learn about your organization, and your products and services. If they don’t have a curiosity about what you do, it is unlikely they will be interested in exploring your customer’s needs either.

Next, consider a personality profile test. We use Caliper at Business Performance Group, but your human resource department may have a similar assessment. Compare your candidates to the ideal profile for your position. Okay, no one is a perfect match, but major deviations should generate serious concerns. The ideal telephone sales profile is different from the ideal face-to-face profile: telephone salespeople don’t have visual clues, the job is more repetitive, and the customer base is typically far larger.

Finally, ask the candidate to shadow one of your current salespeople. Do they ask your salesperson thoughtful questions, or do they look bored, disinterested and unengaged? Does your salesperson think the candidate will be a cultural fit? Does the candidate seem interested in your products and services, or do they seem mildly bored with your literature and online information? Is this just another job for the candidate, simply because they need one, or are they applying because they want a career?

As a manager, if you select the right team, your job will be challenging, but doable. If you select the wrong team, it will be impossible.

Now, make your selection with confidence!