5 Ways to Tell If Your Sales People Aren’t Working

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Having lead dozens of salespeople and read thousands of sales call reports over the years, I have developed a highly receptive “BS detector.” Effective salespeople typically have winning personalities, which can be a double-edged sword. They have that perfect combination of being great listeners and smooth talkers with a highly persuasive way of interacting with other people. I’m not talking here about smarmy hucksters, but rather people who truly have a gift. An adept salesperson is often a very caring person. They can engage in small talk with ease and they make other people feel important. However, these same talents and tendencies often have a negative side. When things start to lean towards hyperbole and – in the worst cases – fabrication, you could be dealing with a completely different animal.

One of the jobs of a sales leader is to coach and teach people how to reign in some of these “gifts” and show a little restraint. It’s gratifying to see how time and maturity have a way of softening the edges and refining the nuances of dedicated salespeople. Exuberance is moderated with experience. The innate talent for moving others is raised to a high art.

But how can you tell if your salespeople are just plain full of it? Let me save you some time and trouble by providing you with five telltale signs you’re being taken for a ride.

1. Complaining about all the hard work.
Whenever I hear a salesperson blather on about how much work they have to do or how many hours they’re putting in, a big red flag goes off in my brain. Being a salesperson IS hard work. The profession is characterized by hard work and long hours. If you feel the need to tell me about it, you are most likely not doing it. This is a classic sign that a salesperson wants me to think they’re working hard. I’ve had the pleasure of leading some remarkable and highly successful people over the years and not one of them ever complained about how much they were working.

2. Making excuses.
You’d think this would be a little easier to spot but it can be very subtle so you must pay close attention. Excuses come in all shapes and sizes, but they all add up to the same thing: failure to take responsibility for your own outcomes. These people always have a convenient explanation for why something didn’t get done or some deadline didn’t get met. If you want to be a distinguished sales leader, accept results only – never excuses. Something either did or did not get done. No explanation needed. No explanation expected. I don’t need to hear why. Just come right out and say it. “I didn’t do it and I have no excuse.” Now, doesn’t that feel better? This can be used in all aspects of life, not just the profession of selling.

3. A vocabulary of empty buzz words.
Listen closely to the language of your salespeople. Do they have go-to phrases championing their supposed productivity? Such mendacities include “pushing for,” “trying to,” “waiting for,” and – my favorite – “working on.” Then, of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all: “hoping for.” For crying out loud, there’s a whole book written on this one! It’s called Hope is Not A Strategy. It’s your job as a sales leader to eradicate this baloney. What we want to see are words and phrases like, “met with,” “received an order commitment from,” and “closed the deal with.” Anything other than that is just fluff.

4. Lengthy call reports.
I’m really not a fan at all of sales call reports. Results talk; BS walks. “Are you on track to meet your sales goals?” That’s all I need to know. If you must have call reports, better to have a short & sweet but veracious one than the War and Peace of claptrap. As Shakespeare would have said, “Me thinks thou doth spew forth too much.” One of the most reliable signs you’ve got a slacker on the payroll is the flowery and empty chatter of a lengthy call report. Teach your reps to include only the most relevant info. Salespeople who aren’t’ working very much love to tell you how much they are and the call report is their favorite vehicle with which to do it.

5. They never seem to have enough time.
In his must-read book, The Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris said it best: “Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.” Wow, it’s hard to add anything to that! No one has any less time or more time than anyone else. Don’t use lack of time as an excuse for not getting things done. The profession of sales is one of the highest paid jobs around. According to US News, the average salesperson earns $65k per year. From my own experience, I know the very best make well into six figures as a base salary with bonuses as high as 25-30%. If you are being paid this kind of money, there’s only one thing your company wants in return: profitable results. Learn to manage your time well and prioritize. Narrow the focus of your activity on only the most important things.

All of this comes back to hiring the right people to begin with. Outstanding sales teams are built one person at a time. Get some training for yourself. Learn to be very good at assessing talent. Rely heavily on your HR team because this is their area of expertise. Beware the trap of falling in love with the job candidate in the interview. These same people who charm you from across the desk could easily be your worst nightmare. Don’t rely too heavily on resumes or even the interview itself. If there’s any truth to the adage that the person you interview is not the same person who comes to work for you, it is especially true of salespeople.

To Sell More, Stop Doing This

It’s very tempting to focus on trivial, easy-to-measure things like the number of sales calls made each day, week, or month. But routinely keeping a tally of this useless, hollow metric may be the single biggest mistake sales leaders make.

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Keep in mind whatever you measure you get more of. It’s seems simple enough but if you want to get more of something – anything- start measuring it. But, the idea that more sales calls equates to more sales is completely unfounded. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the primary reason most sales teams under perform. The false assumption being made is you can sell something simply by getting in front of someone one time and making a great “pitch.” If that were true, then yes, you should make as many sales calls as you possibly can. But, any salesperson of substance knows this is simply not how it works.

If you begin with the end in mind, the ultimate goal here is to have lots and lots of customers who are truly engaged with your products and brands. To get there, it takes multiple, high-quality interactions with customers before you can fully engage them. Building rapport and relationships is a time consuming process. By emphasizing a certain number of sales per day, you are actually inhibiting or working against this goal. Here are 4 reasons why:

The first problem with measuring the number of sales calls is it does not differentiate between high quality opportunities and low quality opportunities. Not all accounts are equal. This trite and tired metric of number of sales calls can really only measure one thing: effort. But, you can’t take effort to the bank. You can’t pay your bills with effort. You can only take revenue to the bank. “Effort” in and of itself is not a useful metric. What a great recipe for disappointing sales results: treat all customers as if they have the same value and measure the number of sales calls made on this homogenous customer base.

Secondly, the idea that making your salespeople work harder will lead to more sales is ridiculous. If you hired good salespeople to start with, they are most likely already working hard. Putting more pressure on your sales team or requiring a higher volume of work from them will actually hurt your sales – especially from your existing base of great customers which, by the way, is your best source of new distribution and revenue. Instead of focusing on the volume of work being done try looking for ways to improve your sales process and your sales approach.

Third, filling out call reports is a process-heavy task. By “process heavy” I mean time consuming. Time is THE most precious asset a salesperson has. Measuring results, by contrast, takes no time at all. Give your salespeople SMART goals, measure their progress against those goals, and stop worrying about how many sales calls it takes to reach them. There’s a name for salespeople who consistently miss their sales goals: unemployed.

Lastly, measuring the number of sales calls doesn’t tell you much about what’s really going on in the accounts or the marketplace. What if some of those sales calls you tracked were with the wrong people in the account? What if the primary buyer wasn’t present? What if the buyer was present but didn’t like your salesperson or her “pitch?” At best, this metric will give you a false sense of success. What good is a call report jam packed with a bunch of attempted and unproductive sales calls?

From the time you put an account on your target account list until the time they actually buy could be several weeks or months. We call this the “sales cycle.” There’s no set number of “touches” that it will take for them to finally buy (completing the sales cycle). Under-estimating the length of the sales cycle is a huge pitfall most companies make every day. “It takes what it takes” to get a customer to buy something. And whether or not that customer continues to buy from you regularly has everything to do with how they were treated along the way.

So what should you measure? Leading indicators like the number of customers who buy more than one SKU; sales per point of distribution (velocity) and how long a customer has been buying from you. Track real time sales results by sales rep, customer segment, channel of trade and product group. Thank goodness we live in an age when keeping your finger on the pulse of these powerful sales metrics is as easy as a couple of mouse clicks. CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tools allow you to do it 24/7– even on your mobile device. Things that used to be difficult to measure no longer are.

Isn’t it so much better to focus on sales activities that make the most sense rather than something that can easily be measured? Measure what matters. Ignore what doesn’t. Hire great sales people and let them do their job. Stop slowing them down with useless metrics and meaningless call reports. Focus on results, not effort.

Not all Accounts are equal. Not even close.

Very rare indeed is the salesperson and even rarer still the sales leader with the disciplined habit of ignoring most customers.

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They are also the best sales pros on the planet. I’d also say they are the bravest. In order to follow their internal compass and hold fast to their fervent belief that the good truly is the enemy of the best, they must endure a daily barrage of criticism from their bosses. But year after year, they receive their full bonus and grow sales at a greater rate than anyone else on the team so they stick to their guns and continue to prosper.

A quick story from my own experience. Early in my sales career, I took great pride in the fact that I “knew everyone” in the market – especially within my own sales territory. They knew me and I knew them. Lots of them. I would wake up every day with one mission: find a customer who wasn’t doing business with me and go “close” them. Opening up new accounts was the rush. Far more thrilling than the drudgery of servicing the accounts I’d already sold. I believed my sales manager when he said, “No one ever sold anything from the office.” I measured my own success by the volume of my work.

Then one day, I was on the phone with the big boss of a competitor who was thinking of hiring me. Sitting up straighter in my chair, I challenged the interviewer to “ask around about me.” Typical of my ego in those days, I volunteered the fact that I thought there was no better salesman in the territory than me. Unmoved, he replied, “There are better salesmen than you. Several of them.” It was like a punch in my gut and all I could think of was to ask, “Who? Give me a name?” And so he did.

Now, the punch line of this story is I had never heard of this man. Didn’t have a clue who he was. I then launched into a self-indulgent tirade slathered in righteous indignation. “How could he be such a great salesperson if I’d never heard of him? Why have I never run into him? I’m on the street every day!” That day I set out on a mission to find this man (we’ll call him Bob) and find out what made him, allegedly, so much better than me.

I did indeed find out why Bob was so much better than me and it caused a profound change in my selling style and philosophy that has stuck with me to this day. While the rest of us undisciplined fools were running around the marketplace like headless poultry chasing down anything that moved and naively confusing activity with achievement, Bob was in his office. He was studying, analyzing, and preparing. While I and my hapless peers executed a “fire now-aim later” approach, Bob practiced a ready-ready-aim-aim-aim-fire” style. Bob was a big game hunter. While I saw 10 customers in a day (and sold 6 or 8 cases), Bob saw maybe 2-3 customers a week. But since he had prequalified them as being the very largest customers, he often walked out with orders of 1,000-2,000 cases at a time. Bob understood that not all accounts are equal. Not even close. If fact 80% of the business was being done by 20% of the customers. Bob ignored the 80%, and, instead, focused his time (including preparation time) on the 20% exclusively.

I had never heard of Bob before that job interview and he had certainly never heard of me. Up until that time, I behaved like most salespeople do today. I placed a high value on things like effort, # of sales calls made per day, # of accounts sold, and hard work. I was the busiest person you ever saw. And, in case you didn’t notice, I would tell you about it.

Bob, by contrast, placed the highest possible value on his time. He was very miserly with his time because a) he understood it was limited and b) he expected the maximum return for it. By taking extra time to prepare to sell, his closing ratio was 8-10 times higher than mine. By narrowing the focus of his customer base to only the most attractive accounts in the market, he sold 10-20 times more than me. He blew away his goals every year and received his full bonus every year.

It is a sad (but true) indictment on the typical sales department that we tend to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity. We know this because we like to measure the quantity of work (# sales calls, # of days in the field, etc.) rather than the quality (the end result). How you reach your sales quota should not be nearly as important as IF you reach your sales quote. But, ask most sales people today and you’ll hear horror stories about being micro-managed by their sales leaders. I’ll save this for another blog post, but whatever you measure you’ll get more of. Want more sales calls? Measure # of sales calls. Want more sales? Measure results.

Ignoring 80% of the customer base is very difficult. No question about it. But it is the absolute key to dramatically accelerating salesforce performance! If salespeople are to sharpen the focus of their sales activity to only the most attractive accounts, their sales leaders will have to insist on it. Salespeople who operate this way on their own are extremely rare. Left to their own devices, most salespeople will behave more like the “Ben” in this story than the “Bob.” Moving from Ben’s intuitive approach that says, “Just do it” to Bob’s more systematic approach that considers account sales potential as a key determinant to success must be done intentionally. It won’t happen on its own.

We’re talking a major shift in sales culture and sales philosophy here. So, a good next step is to ask yourself: do you want good results or do you want great results? It is not only possible to accomplish more by doing less, it is mandatory. Time to start focusing on results instead of dedication. And, as always, I’m here to help if you need me.