Sales Force Management – Mediocre to Meteoric

September 1, 1997 in Radio, Television, News and Articles

by Dave Kurlan

DCIThe ultimate reward to a sales management executive is a sales organization that manages itself, reaches and surpasses their difficult to achieve goals and requires very little in the way of supervision. Exactly how many sales organizations can claim this level of success? Well, there are a tremendous number of organizations currently running on autopilot that didn’t get there by setting records or from tremendous self-discipline. Their salespeople won the right to manage themselves using mediocrity and complacency as a tool while management either didn’t know or didn’t care.

This morning I received a call from the vice-president of sales for a well-known company. He recently heard me speak about the importance of accountability and coaching and asked his sales managers to implement similar procedures. There was just one problem. After 90 days, all he had to show for this effort was a group of miserable sales managers. It wasn’t working. But why?

This question is very easy to answer. In theory, holding salespeople accountable while supporting them with coaching makes perfect sense – even to sales managers! But there is a big gap between a good theory and wonderful results. So how does your sales organization move from mediocre to meteoric? There is a process and I’ll share the steps:.

There are two important questions with which to begin: 1) For what will we hold them accountable; and 2) exactly what should we provide in the way of coaching? Many managers make the common mistake of answering those questions without all of the necessary information. We still need to know: 1) What are the salespeople actually capable of achieving; and 2) what is preventing them from reaching their potential?

Before attempting to answer those questions I suggest that you raise your expectations. You can do much better. Your company can do better. Your sales organization can do better. Why settle for falling margins or limited gains in market share? Raise your expectations! Where do you want to be in 18 months? While many leaders ask that question, they often fail to create plans to get there. Instead, many are driven by the old saying, “well, if we grow another 10% this year it will be OK.”

After you raise your expectations, you must determine whether you have the right salespeople to get there. Have them evaluated and don’t do this yourself! An effective evaluation of your sales organization will show you which of your people could actually be performing two, three or even four times better than they are now and what you must do in order for them to reach their potential. I’m not talking about learning capacity here. I’m talking about ability to change! A useful evaluation will also uncover the hidden weaknesses that currently prevent each of your people from reaching their potential.

Armed with this information you can return to questions one and two. What will you hold them accountable for? Well, if the evaluation determines that James will perform 121% better after he overcomes his hidden weaknesses, let’s set the bar a lot higher for him! Have him set personal goals that would require a substantial increase in personal income which would require a significant increase in personal sales. Work out a plan with him. Using the profile of a typical customer, determine how many new accounts James will have to open in the next 12 months. And help him carefully calculate exactly what he must do to open those new accounts. Suppose his goals required him to find $1.74 million in new business. The actual activity for which he’ll be accountable should be broken down into manageable pieces, like, the number of new accounts he must close to reach $1.74 million. From there, what specifically will it take to close that number of accounts? To calculate that, determine what it would take to close one new account including, but not limited to the number of times that he’ll have to pick up the telephone and dial it.

You’ll need to provide the necessary training to help him overcome his weaknesses and develop his skills. Hold him accountable to executing the details of his plan on a weekly basis – under penalty. If he fails to execute the details, then something bad will happen. I call that or else management!

Here’s how or else management works. James and his manager agree on exactly what James is to do each week in order to reach his sales goals. The first time that a week passes where James doesn’t achieve what his plan requires in each crucial area of performance activities and/or behaviors, he’ll have to meet with his manager. The conversation might sound something like this: “James, I was under the impression that you understood what you were expected to do each week. I’m extremely upset and disappointed that you let both of us down. I fully expect that we won’t have to have this conversation again, and just in case we do, here’s what will happen.” This is the or else part. The first or else should sting badly enough that James won’t want to be in this situation again. We could stop reimbursing him for gas, cell phone, meals, etc. We could cut back his base salary or even his percentage of commission. We would continue our discussion with James by asking, “do we understand each other?” The most important thing that you can is to follow through with any disciplinary action should James find himself in another “bad boy” session.

James will return to the field and he will probably perform well from here on. You’ve put some fear into him, but more importantly, by holding him accountable to his planned behavior, you’re causing him to succeed! When he finally recognizes this, you’ll have taken the first step toward successfully moving James into self-management. If James does require a second “session” the next or else should be much more painful. Tell him that you’ll take away his biggest account or cut his territory in half if his performance causes you to have this conversation again. Should a third or else be necessary, the penalty should be termination!

Next comes the coaching. The evaluation should have shown us what James needs to work on in order to improve. If you’re providing him with outside training, you’ll need to provide support from the inside. Daily reminders to reinforce supportive behavior. Pre-call strategizing and post-call debriefing. While these coaching sessions don’t require that you or your managers become sales trainers or gurus they do require you to ask the right questions. In a debriefing session, don’t encourage the salesperson to tell you “how it went.” At best, you’ll be told a “story” from the salesperson’s perspective. “Well, it went good, boss. They were real interested, they liked it, they didn’t know we could do that, it went good!”

Instead, control the discussion by asking the salesperson, “how did the call end?” By starting at the end and working backwards, you’ll get facts rather than the salesperson’s “spin.” Once you have the outcome you can continue to work in reverse by asking a question like, “why did you get that outcome?” Then, “is that what the prospect told you or is that what you think?” Follow with, “Why didn’t you ask the prospect why you got that outcome?” Then, “what could you have possibly done or neglected to do that might have caused that outcome?” What could you have done differently which might have gotten you a different outcome?” After you’ve asked enough questions about what happened you should be able to help the salesperson understand either an error in strategy or a hidden weakness that got in the way. Make sure the salesperson learns a lesson, has a plan for going back to that prospect to get a better outcome and a resolve to avoid this mistake the next time out.

There you have it. What is the key to moving your sales organization to self-management? Tougher management today makes tomorrow’s management easy. Here’s a quick review of the necessary steps:

  1. Raise your expectations
  2. Have your sales organization evaluated
  3. Use the growth potential finding to trigger goal-setting sessions
  4. Have your salespeople create daily plans to reach their new goals
  5. Hold your salespeople accountable to the planned activity
  6. Provide training to help them overcome their weaknesses and develop their skills
  7. Provide daily coaching: pre-call strategizing and post-call debriefing


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