Managing Salespeople — and keeping sales coming — through turbulent times

Managing Salespeople — and keeping sales coming — through turbulent times

When the economy is rocky — like now — and many firms aren’t meeting sales goals, advice for sales execs comes fast and furious. Things like “focus on positives”, “stay in constant contact with customers”, “increase networking activities” and “don’t prejudge the prospect — call them all” are trotted out to (hopefully) give discouraged salespeople new ideas for success. In times like this, however, often forgotten are the lonely sales managers or directors, whose job becomes doubly hard.

In tough times the sales manager is often on the “hot seat” to come up with new ideas and find new ways — or effective old ways — to help sales people bring in business and keep them motivated. With our collective 50 years of sales and sales management as the guide, we offer a “Top 5” list of ideas to help beleaguered sales managers meet this challenge.

  1. Ask “so what?” of your products and story. With economic winds blowing in your corporate face it’s a good idea to critically assess whether more than just the economy has moved against you. You may have had clear positioning and differentiation in the past but it’s possible that other factors are at work. Take a fresh look at your products and what you’re telling the market by applying the “so what?” test — evaluating everything you think is different or better than everyone else. Have competitors usurped your pole position? Have new entrants taken away your uniqueness? Be brutally honest to determine if changes must be made to products, services and your marketing.
  2. Add training in weak areas. Good salespeople are always eager to learn how to become great ones. Tough times expose weaknesses, or at least incent sales execs to determine where they could improve. As their manager, spend extra time helping them assess weaknesses, outline a remedial plan and act on it. Through this process you may even find a new skill or two to teach them! Being willing to spend money on outside training and coaching will reaffirm your faith in them, and will be a boon to morale. If training funds are limited, one low-cost way is to call upon internal experts. We know of a firm that did this by starting a “university” and bringing in “professors” (from within the company) teach sales and industry fundamentals. A combination of recognition and monetary rewards usually motivates budding professors.
  3. Take unnecessary tasks off salespeople’s plates. Make sure that salespeople are wholly focused on selling. Time and again we see sales execs spending much of their time — more than what they signed up for — supporting clients, writing marketing copy and doing other non-sales activities that are at odds with their behavior style, comp plans and motivations. Outside resources can provide many of these support functions when there are no funds to hire for these roles. In general, be attuned to removing obstacles to their selling success.
  4. Enhance incentives. You may feel that compensation plans are already “rich”, or at least very good, and so management may resist making them richer. But, most good salespeople have a “high utilitarian” value — are very driven by money. Additional bonuses, overrides or even temporary hikes in commission rates may motivate sales execs to exert more effort and creativity during hard times.
  5. Be a servant to your team. A key requirement of any leader is that they will do whatever it takes to make better the lives of those whom they lead. While this is true in good times or bad, it becomes critical during tough times. Be extra-willing and available to coach, go on calls, strategize and otherwise remove obstacles to a salesperson’s success.

As sales manager it’s also important to keep your own morale high. Make sure you’re communicating well with your boss — and asking for the same response as suggested above. Keep doing whatever you normally do to “accentuate the positives” and know that when it comes to bad business cycles — this too shall pass!