SI Review: June 2013

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The Art of the Sale

Three principles behind effective sales management

By Mike Cleland

Sales management is as much art as science. But there are three principles of sales management that can make your sales team more effective and help ensure you get the most out of outside investments when you do decide to make them. The principles are sales strategy, the sales-focused organization and effective performance management. They will not cost you any money. However, they do require clear vision and discipline from your sales management team. Further, these initiatives only work if your house is in order. The management team should instill a level of structure and support within the firm to ensure the sales organization is prepared to leverage the support it receives from other departments.

While these principles are relevant across the vast majority of staffing organizations, how they are implemented by management must vary based on the sales strategy, experience of the team, company structure and the culture of the organization.

Strategy and Beyond

The primary reason to develop a sales strategy is to define what type of business you want your sales team to pursue to drive desired financial results. To that point, the sales strategy helps define the type of sales personnel you need, the training you must provide and the activities and results you expect from them. In a sense, the sales strategy directly affects every aspect of your organization — even your delivery model and the performance-driven culture. A sales strategy is comprised of three elements: your value proposition, the targeted buyers and your sales process.

Value proposition. When developing a value proposition, don’t just think of it in terms of messaging. Rather, think in terms of what your organization specifically does to delight its client base consistently. The reason for this is simple: For your sales and delivery team to be effective, they must believe and uphold that value proposition. It must be embedded in the culture, by becoming a standard of behavior within the organization. Do not underestimate the power of the value proposition on company culture. Show me a motivated, energetic and competitive team, and I will show you a team that believes in the value the company provides. If you cannot identify your company’s value proposition, then you probably don’t have one.

Target buyer. Another important step to increase sales performance is to define the characteristics of your target account base. Too often, salespeople start in staffing companies with very little guidance of what companies to pursue and how to hunt them. Defining target accounts enables you and your sales team to reduce the overwhelming amount of prospects in the market and reduce them to a manageable amount. It also provides the criteria in which prospects should be qualified. Management tends to assume all salespeople can judge what accounts they should focus on, but too often they spend time on accounts they are comfortable with rather than the ones that have the most potential.

The process. Developing a sales process helps define what activities are expected from the sales team and provides the structure to manage, support and coach them. It’s unfortunate, but many managers see a sales process as simply a way to hold the sales team accountable, and while accountability is important, the real value of the process is the structure it can provide. While there are exceptions, most salespeople are not structured and struggle with organization and priority management. The process should provide enough structure to make the team more efficient while minimizing the negative impact it can have on their creativity and motivation. The level of structure should vary on the other two elements of the sales strategy, the seniority of the team, and the culture of the organization.

Keeping Sales Front and Center

There are three basic truths about sales in the staffing industry. First, it provides the foundation for a stable profitable organization for both the short and long term. Second, it empowers a staffing company to pursue its own destiny. Third, it is the most difficult performance driver to establish a passionate focus among the entire organization. It is because of the third point that management must provide continuous vision and leadership to ensure maximum return from their sales efforts. This is especially critical for companies with sales strategies driven by branch operations because branches often pursue business independently.

The culture of a sales-focused organization defines sales as an organizational capability and that its effective execution involves multiple roles. This is much more difficult than it sounds. Here’s why. First, people like boundaries and the easiest one people can embrace is whose job is what. Second, most people are more comfortable focusing on work they need to react to. Unfortunately, the proactive and creative nature of sales makes it difficult for people (even salespeople) to keep it front and center. Combating these tendencies requires strong leadership that continually reinforces in compelling terms the impact of strong sales on the organization as well as the individual. Leaders must also develop programs that drive the sharing of market intelligence and hold salespeople accountable to acting on the information provided to them. Finally, leaders must consistently and publicly recognize those who contribute to driving this change. Doing this effectively can motivate the team to support the sales efforts more than any compensation plan or contest.

In order to create a sales-focused organization, leaders must make it part of the company culture, and as with any cultural shift, the driver behind it is more about how we lead and motivate versus how we manage specific behavior. I would encourage any leader who wants to make this transition to read additional articles and books on change management. Harvard Business Review (www.HBR.com) is a good place to start.

Effective Performance Management

One-on-one performance management provides an excellent opportunity to boost individual sales production. Many managers see performance management as a metrics-driven accountability meeting, but it is much more than that. A strong performance management plan needs to combine the evaluation of activity, quality and result metrics with detailed discussions and coaching around well-defined sales objectives.

A sales objective looks beyond the metrics and answers whether all the sales activity is moving the ball forward with the target account base. This avoids a common problem where salespeople focus on hitting their own activity metrics without thinking about the effectiveness of the activity. This is a critical mistake that can make salespeople feel productive when in reality they are just busy.

In effect, sales objectives define the problem the salesperson is trying to solve, and performance management can be used to develop the creative problem-solving abilities that are so critical for an effective salesperson. The dark side of metrics is they can limit creative thinking to the point where a salesperson becomes reactionary and transactional. And without sales objectives, reviews can become too metrics driven.

These are three areas sales management can focus on to drive sales without spending a lot of money. Each one of the principles may require a lot of effort, but if they are executed right, you will have a more focused, aligned and motivated sales team.

Mike Cleland is president of Charted Path. He can be reached at mcleland@chartedpath.com

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