To build a great sales team, start at the bottom

Some sales leaders believe the key to generating high levels of performance from their sales team is to threaten, bribe, cajole, and berate them. “Leading” by fear and intimidation is hardly what I’d call leading. In fact, if you are currently part of such a sales culture, I advise you to leave immediately.

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The idea that salespeople need to be motivated is preposterous. To watch some sales leaders in action, you’d think that salespeople are the laziest, stupidest creatures on earth and need constant supervision. If this describes your company, your problem is not the salespeople; it’s a lack of leadership skills and hiring practices. If you have salespeople who need to be motivated, you not only have the wrong salespeople, you have the wrong leaders.

The truth is great salespeople don’t need anyone above them telling them what to do or how to do it. Sales teams aren’t something that needs to be “managed.” There are really only two things they need from their leaders: stay out of their way and remove any barrier that prohibits them from taking exceptionally good care of their customers. Yes, I said “their” customers. Great salespeople are like franchisees. They take a winning product line and the proven systems of the franchisor and build a wildly successful business around it.

Oh, we’re really getting to the center of things now, aren’t we? To those sales pros and leaders who “get” this, no further explanation is necessary. To those who do not, no explanation will suffice. So, I guess there are really only two potential audiences for this blog post: salespeople who need to jump ship and find a company that “gets it” and business owners and executives who care about long term top line growth.

Great sales teams are built from the ground up; one sales pro at a time. One of the reasons this is not more widely accepted is because so many companies are doing it wrong. It’s a matter of perspective. Most companies are product focused rather than customer focused. The idea that if you build a great product, customers will automatically follow is only partially true. In fact, it’s a very small percentage of companies (think Apple) where the products are so exceptional they hardly need “selling” at all. For the vast majority of companies, there’s so little differentiation and so much competition (craft beer or wine, for example) that having a sales team is essential.

So you’ve got what you think is a great product or portfolio of products and now all you need is a hotshot sales team to sell it? Terrific. And, here’s where things go horribly wrong. I’m speaking directly to business owners and executives now: don’t believe the “conventional wisdom” of what a sales team is and does. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking sales are generated by whip cracking and carrot dangling. Don’t use a top-down approach to building your sales team. Here’s a common scenario: A company gets to the stage where they need a sales team so they find some “sales manager” type person and ask him/her to start hiring. But, unless this directive is accompanied by a solid strategy of what constitutes a great salesperson and how to hire them, what you typically end up with is a posse of old-school, transactional sales people who aggressively pitch products to customers. This is not the way to gain lots of customers. And the customers you do gain via this approach don’t “stick.” This is a top-down approach.

Run of the mill salespeople who have never been properly trained in the modern ways of selling are a dime a dozen and the turnover is very high with these folks. So, of course, the notion that they need to be “managed” just gets perpetuated. And since the customers you gain by using them don’t stick, you have to keep turning the heat up; quotas, commissions, bonuses, threats, and all sorts of trickery to “motivate” your sales team.

Instead, start at the bottom. What every business truly needs are customers. So, that’s where you should start. If you want to know what customers want, ask them. You could also ask a great salesperson. Start with one great salesperson and build up from there. Find salespeople who know how to deliver for the customers. Then find sales leaders who know how to hire and lead great salespeople.

If you’re not consistently meeting your sales goals now, consider this an invitation to start looking at this from an entirely new perspective. Taking the time to understand how great salespeople acquire and retain lots of customers could be a huge game changer for your company. And who knows; you might even find with 3 or 4 great salespeople on the payroll, you no longer need that high-priced sales manager.

3 Part Formula for Sales Success

As a consultant, I see a lot of companies, teams, and sales people struggle with how to sell more and to do it consistently. Many books have been written about the subject and millions of dollars spent on “training.” But like a lot of things in life, the answer is much simpler than you think.

Early in my sales career, I learned a few truths that stuck with me for 30 years. One of those aphorisms was that every salesperson has only two assets: his time and the good will of his customer. If you want to be successful in sales, you must immediately start placing the highest value possible on how you spend your time and improve the ways you interact with your customers. The 3-part advice I’m about to dispense follows this reasoning very closely. Part 1 has to do with former and Parts 2 & 3 with the latter.

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1)    Who to Call On

Achieving annual sales growth of 6-8% is for weenies. If you want to enjoy 20-30% annual growth, you’ve simply got to stop calling on so many customers. You must wake up and understand the 80/20 Rule is not only real; it’s the absolute key to becoming a Rainmaker in sales. One third of your success as a sales person comes from the understanding that not all customers are equal and, in order to achieve high levels of sales performance, you must sharpen the focus of your time and activity to only the most attractive and responsive accounts. When time, money, and people resources are limited, you must aim precisely.

 

My firm, and our tech partner, Equinox, specialize in the wine, spirits, and beer business. We wake up every single day completely perplexed why more companies aren’t taking advantage of the sea of data that exists nowadays. Zeroing in on the exact accounts you’d like your product(s) to be placed in is not only possible, but also compulsory if you want to build quality distribution and lots of it. And for Pete’s sake, do not leave this up to your distributors! They’ve got enough on their plates and you might as well get used to this fact: if it’s important to you, you’ll have to do it yourself.

2)    How to Call On Them

Here’s where I will lose most of you. Most of you, but not all of you, thank goodness. There’s a very good reason too many companies are selling less than they’d like: their salespeople are doing it wrong. Let’s see how many of you stick with me after I unleash this truth on you: “The more you act like a salesperson, the less you will sell.” If I’ve already lost you, read this book and get back to me: To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink. For those of you still with me, repeat after me: “A sale is merely a by-product of a much larger relationship.” If your salespeople haven’t been trained to create that “much larger relationship,” we should talk soon.

You can either keep treating every customer interaction as a “transaction” to be executed (ending in a “close”) or you can follow a slower but much more effective process where, by adding true business value to each relationship, you build distribution that “sticks.” Most, if not all, of your salespeople (and maybe yourself) have never been exposed to let alone trained in the more modern methods of achieving sales success. You don’t have to believe me. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s a free country. But, if you’re ready to take your sales to the next level, this shift in approach is critical.

3)    Everything Else

Have you ever heard anyone say that the “real work” begins once the sale has been made? Ever heard the expression, “service after the sale?” For certain, making sales is only part of long-term sales success. Keeping the sales you’ve made is the other part. Salespeople are notoriously bad at providing service after the sale and it’s not entirely their fault. Thank goodness technology has made it easier than ever to maintain great customer relationships. Leveraging CRM tools help you monitor, track and engage with customers as often as you’d like. What good is making lots of sales calls and selling lots of product if the carpet just keeps rolling up behind you? Where’s the value in achieving 100 new points of distribution and losing 30 off the back end due to lapsed usage? As they say in the world of finance, getting “rich” is not about how much you make but how much you keep.

In the wine, spirits, and beer business, there is no shortage of things to do to provide great customer service. The “Everything Else” of which I speak includes maintaining inventory consistently, shipping product at the right price, training servers and wine stewards, and investing in promotions. It also includes the old-fashioned practices of being highly accessible and supremely dependable. Just doing what you said you’d do helps you beat out 90% of your competitors! And all of this is so much easier today thanks to technology. For further reading on this topic, click here.

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t already noticed, it’s getting tougher and tougher to build a wine, spirits, or beer brand in the US. There are way more brands vying for attention from fewer and fewer distributor partners. A good place to start turning things around for your brand is to take a hard look at your own company’s sales culture. Then assess how well you are taking advantage of data, technology, and best practices – services that are just a phone call away. The “great separation” is about to begin. Take steps now to make sure you’re on the winning end of it.