Keeping Your Sales Staff Successful
Weak sales performance may be a result of management’s failures.
You’ve had one exciting sales meeting after another. You’ve invested in elaborate trade shows. You’ve supported expensive lead generation systems—but the business you should expect still isn’t coming in. You know in your gut what the problem is: The vast majority of your salespeople just aren’t performing like they should be. Unfortunately, you’re perplexed about what to do. It might be time to pull the plug on unproductive and ineffective people.
Consider these statistics: After a 10-year study, the Caliper Research Organization reported that 55 percent of the 18,000 sales professionals they researched had no ability to sell professionally and should not be in sales, 25 percent should be in a different type of sales position and only 20 percent were in the right job. Leadership teams should be concerned about these numbers.
Consider the widely accepted axiom that 20 percent of your salespeople are bringing in 80 percent of your sales. Obviously, the inverse says that 80 percent of your salespeople are bringing in only 20 percent of the sales. That means you’re riding on the “random collision of bodies” theory of nuclear physics—put enough bodies in the field, and something’s bound to happen. It’s a very costly way to do business and signals a major problem with sales management’s thinking.
Wouldn’t it be more logical to pull the plug on the 80 percent who don’t get it and let them find positions that are better suited to their abilities? If so, then why don’t more sales managers scrap the life-support mentality and remove unproductive people? Through years of studying and working with sales and management teams, I’ve found that most leaders have a bulwark of defenses in place to maintain the status quo. Here are the top five:
“We hire only experienced professionals.”
Translation: “We don’t have a system for developing successful sales professionals.”
“The sales force is made up of creative and independent individuals.”
Translation: “We can’t control them, don’t really know what they’re doing and don’t know what to do about it.”
“It takes 6–12 months to learn this business.”
Translation: “It will be at least a year before we can make any judgment as to their productivity.”
“They have some good irons in the fire.”
Translation: “We’re not sure how hot those irons are, but there sure is a lot of smoke.”
“You just can’t find good people anymore.”
Translation: “I don’t know where to look or what to look for.”
Sales management often makes these statements when they remain focused on the numbers, rather than the process or productive behaviors. Showing results is critical, but you can’t manage results any more than you can control the output of a manufacturing process by standing at the end of an assembly line and pointing out the defects in the final product. However, you can manage a process, and you can manage behavior. Savvy sales managers equip their teams by defining the process and the behaviors required to achieve the desired results, then put systems in place to continually monitor, measure, coach and improve their team’s performance.
While managers strive to keep up with their rigorous responsibilities, selling has become so complex that its very nature has changed. Today, competing effectively requires a systematic approach to selling, as well as a navigable path from the first step of identifying potential customers to orchestrating multiple critical decisions to expanding and retaining profitable customer relationships. Rather than blatantly pushing hard to sell, we must stop thinking like salespeople and start thinking like trusted business advisers.
Think of yourself as a different kind of professional—a physician, for example. Your objective isn’t to sell surgery but to guide your patient to a quality decision. After all, heart surgeons don’t feel like they’ve failed if they can’t persuade everyone who walks in the door to have open-heart surgery.
A salesperson should no more make a presentation to every prospect than a physician should prescribe medication to every patient. Presenting a solution before you’ve thoroughly defined the problem would be like discussing the details of surgery before diagnosing the disease and before the patient decides he wants to do something about it. After all, prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.
Research done by Prime Resource Group shows that when using a thorough diagnostic process based on her own situation, the customer will often make the decision of whether to buy—and from whom—during the diagnosis. The patient will decide to change once she clearly understands the situation and believes that you understand her problem and can be trusted to provide the solution.
In many cases, the diagnostic process is a 180-degree transition from commonly accepted sales practices, and that’s why many salespeople fail to make the connection. They are simply hung up on traditional practices that are engrained in their behavior; they, like many customers, are resistant to change.
If you want to build strong relationships of trust and credibility with your customers, train your salespeople in the art and science of diagnostic business development. However, if some people on your team are wed to traditional sales lore and incapable of doing business at the required level of professionalism in today’s market, it’s up to you to recognize who’s on life support and when to pull the plug. Sure, it’s difficult, but it’s the right thing to do for their long-term well-being—and for the success of your business.
Jeff Thull is the president and CEO of Prime Resource Group. He has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies such as Shell, 3M, Microsoft, Siemens, Compuware and Georgia-Pacific, as well as many fast-track startups.