Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions. She has over 20 years of sales and management experience, and puts these skills to use by helping clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line. We sat down with her recently to talk about how to turn dysfunctional sales teams into high performance sales teams. Here is a summary of our interview.
Colleen, what do mean when you talk about sales team dysfunction?
Colleen: Dysfunction. The word comes up in conversation every day, usually in relation to crazy families, nutty reality show contestants, and all-around gossip. But what happens when the word dysfunction can be applied to your sales team? In particular, when a dysfunctional sales team is preventing you from getting the results your company needs to move forward, how do you identify the root cause of the problem, eliminate it, and transition from dysfunctional to high-impact? Dysfunction on your team may be inherited or may be something you’ve created inadvertently, but the important thing to understand is that it can be identified and fixed.
What are some of the signs of dysfunction?
Colleen: As we always hear, the first step to a solution is admitting you have a problem. Keep an eye out for some of these tell-tale signs within your sales team and your company at large that indicate you may face a problem.
- The Company Isn’t Focused on Sales. If product management, development, and engineering are the main focus at your company, and the CEO or head of sales has a background in finance, product management, or development—not sales and marketing—the company as a whole may not be sales-focused and that may trickle down to your team.
- The Team Isn’t Focusing on Numbers with Visible Reminders. Take a minute to look around. Are sales targets written on the walls, on whiteboards, tacked to cubicles? If not, there’s a lack of focus on those numbers for your team, and that’s a problem.
- The Sales Group Doesn’t Know Its Funnel or Projections. Ask your sales team and managers to define their funnel—ask them what they’re working on and what’s closing soon. Question them on their revenue forecasts and margins. If they can’t give you simple, concise answers, they’re not functioning smoothly. In fact, the topic of hitting targets, bonuses, and commissions should be frequently discussed within the team—if it’s not, they’re not focused on selling.
- There’s No Sense of Urgency. Get a feel for your sales team at the end of a month or quarter. Activity should be almost frenetic at this point—your team should be on the phones and selling. If reps are taking 90-minute lunches or doing a lot of chatting at the water cooler when hitting their targets is on the line, you’ve got a problem within the team.
- Your Sales Room is a High School Cafeteria. Of course, dysfunction comes in the most obvious of forms as well. Much like high school, gossip and rumors on the sales team can lead to nothing but trouble and means that the team is off focus. Playing the blame game is a problem as well: when your team is blaming shipping, support or finance for their losses, you need to root out why they’re not accountable.
Sometimes dysfunction isn’t really a harmful thing for your team—and the only way to know this is to be measuring your results. If your team is hitting its targets and acting legally, morally and ethically, does it necessarily matter if someone’s a bit quirky or has some strange work habits? Perhaps not. But in all other cases, it’s important to root out the source of the problem so your team can focus on its purpose: selling and results.
How does a sales leader go about eliminating dysfunction from the team?
Colleen: Once you have identified the signs of dysfunction on your sales team and determined that it’s a problem that’s inhibiting your ability to generate revenue, it’s important to take action to turn the situation around. This could range from simple steps like clearer communication or the tweaking of goals, to more drastic measures like eliminating problem staff members or making changes to your compensation plan. The following are steps you can take to mitigate dysfunction on the team.
- Focus on the Pipeline. Highly functional sales teams focus on the pipeline, build camaraderie and surge forward at month and quarter end. They’re extremely results-oriented and they focus their office work and activities on obtaining those results. If your sales team isn’t getting results, the first step you should take is to manage by walking around the floor. Make sure the room isn’t quiet and listen to the conversations going on to help you determine why your reps are not hitting their targets. Is it because the pipeline isn’t filled, or because they have poor closing skills? Dig deep: if the pipeline’s not full, decide what the root of the issue is. Consider whether the problem is willingness or ability. Are your reps being lazy or ineffective, or are they working with a bad product or problematic sales process? Whatever the issue is that’s preventing your reps from working with a full pipeline and closing deals, identify and eliminate it.
- Examine Individuals’ Behavior. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. In many cases, this issue can be one you inherit from a previous sales leader, but a problem employee still needs to be dealt with. Take a look at the individual members of your team and how they’re behaving in professional situations. Are the reps taking their jobs seriously, or are they playing games or enjoying themselves, possibly at the expense of the company’s reputation or relationship with the client? Signs that you’re going to have issues with a particular team member include a resistance to forecasts or measurements—often, they’ll claim they don’t have time to measure because they’re “too busy selling.” If a rep has a heavy reliance on a small number of accounts or they complain about changes to marketing, product or process, they may be part of the issue on your team. In some cases, these issues may be inherent to someone’s personality (as opposed to something you can solve by training and mentoring), and that may mean they’re not going to be a good fit for your team.
- Look at the Environment You’ve Developed. In large part, you can create your own dysfunction by putting the wrong compensation plan in place, fostering extreme competition, or leading by the stick, punishing or penalizing without ever rewarding. When it’s time to assess the health of your team, don’t forget to look inward to see what you could do better. In sales, compensation is king. As much as it can motivate employees, it can also create an extremely hostile environment when done poorly. Changing your compensation plan partway through the year or changing rules or territories unexpectedly can create this type of negative environment. It encourages your reps to fight, hoard deals, hide deals or game the system. In the end, your sales team will most likely behave the way you pay them to behave, so pay attention to your compensation plan and ensure you’re paying your employees for the habits and achievements you want to see.
- Hiring can make a difference to your team’s environment as well. Hire the right people for the type of sales your company makes. A rep who’s excellent at closing multimillion dollar deals with long sales cycle may fail on a team that needs monthly results with smaller revenues. Fit and skills are important, so keep your sales process in mind when hiring, and don’t get dazzled by impressive numbers that aren’t relevant to your specific business.
What are some of the strategies sales leaders can employ to take a team to a place of high impact ?
Colleen: Even if you’re able to get the dysfunction out of your sales team, it doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily created a high-impact team. There are some strategies that will help move your team in the right direction once you’ve solved for dysfunction.
- Create excitement around the pipeline: Develop leads at every stage and ensure your team is confident about the pipeline.
- Rally around a simple, single concept: Be focused and constant in reinforcing a single concept for a selling period (typically a quarter) so your team knows exactly what they should be aiming for.
- Protect your team: Make sure the entire company knows not to bother your team or create non-revenue-generating meetings or activities during the last week of the month or the last week of the quarter, respecting that killer sales time for your team. Rally the entire company around the fact that the sales team is generating revenue.
- Coach for opportunity, not discipline: Reward your team verbally or with an email when deals are won or saved, or when reps hit their quota. It’s as important to let the team know when they’re doing well as when things are wrong or need to be corrected. Make progress public within the team and the entire company, and celebrate both big successes and small victories.
- Create a two-phase coaching program: Sales VPs should meet with reps one-on-one for about 30 minutes each week to run through deal analysis and talk in confidence around their pipeline. To foster camaraderie, teams should also meet once a week to share ideas.
- Separate the manager from selling: If you have your own territory as a sales leader, you’re essentially competing against your reps. Pass off your accounts to your team and coach them on how to improve their performance.
Ridding your sales team of dysfunction can be a difficult process—but making it successful should be energizing and fun. By examining your practices, your people and yourself, you can develop a team that performs and generates revenue for your company.
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Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.
He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.
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