When I became the leader of a sales team for the first time in the mid 90’s, I did not have the luxury of selling for many years and being mentored by someone who could teach me the ropes. Instead, I was a company founder who filled a need that we had at the time to build our sales team, and I kind of made things up as I went along. As I think back to those days, I realize how much I struggled to achieve my goals, and while I was successful, I can’t deny that it probably had as much to do with luck and timing as it did with my will and effort.
It was a time of great learning but there are a few lessons that would have served me well if I had known them in advance. Here are the top things I wish I had known before becoming a sales manager.
Process is critical
Without many years in sales myself and having to take over leadership of a sales group, I didn’t appreciate the value of a structured selling process. I told my sales reps to call-qualify-develop and close and left them to their own devices beyond this, which meant that each rep sold in their own unique way. Beyond ensuring that customers received different experiences from my sales team, it made it very difficult for me to coach and develop my reps. It also made it difficult for me to forecast and/or proactively address problems because I had no system for breaking down a rep’s pipeline of opportunities and/or looking at whether they were focusing on activities that would lead to success. In short, without a structured process in place, some of the characteristics of a dysfunctional sales team were beginning to reveal themselves.
Get the Right People on the Bus
Not all sales people can sell. This is an obvious lesson to me now, but as a first time sales manager I assumed that with enough effort and coaching, any rep could be successful. I now know that it is the small minority of reps that consistently exceed quotas. Most reps are at best mediocre and a significant percentage of the sales population will never achieve their goals no matter how much training and management you throw at them. Trying to achieve your own targets with a sales force of mediocre reps is like boxing with one hand tied behind your back.
Hire Slowly, Fire Fast
In my early times as a sales manager, I had a tendency to let reps miss their quarterly targets indefinitely without any repurcussions. This was partly due to the fact that I didn’t know how to manage failing reps and partly because I didn’t like firing people, but I quickly came to realize that accountability is a very powerful lever. A sales force that is not held accountable for meeting its goals is a sales force that won’t regularly meet its goals. So, from that point forward, when reps fell behind, I would work with them to make sure they were performing the tasks that would lead to success. I can tolerate bad luck, but not poor habits. If a rep couldn’t deliver the right results or the right behavior, I quickly parted ways and found another rep who would.
Early in my career I assumed that a culture of success would naturally occur over time. I had it backwards. To achieve success, a sales leader has to actively create a winning culture, which starts with their own actions and by helping the team establish the habit of achieving increasingly larger goals. This is very powerful. When the team uses the language of success, behaves in ways that leads to success, helps each other be successful, expects to be successful, and has a low tolerance for failure, success is far more likely.
Learning these valuable lessons made life a whole lot easier and probably saved me from losing my hair, but more importantly enabled me to achieve much great success as a sales manager.
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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