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.

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2 Comments

  1. There’s a third thing great salespeople need and that is the challenge – whether it’s internal or external, we thrive on not just winning the sale but also improving and “hacking” the processes to get it done. Never say “no” to us, instead harness our energy, give us the challenge and see what we can do!

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