Lessons Learned: Management Advice for Sales Leaders

By May 24, 2022No Comments

Having talked to sales leaders of late, I was surprised to see how many common themes have emerged. Staff management issues!

I have always said that Sales Leadership is the toughest job in leadership.  You have sales targets that must be hit regardless of the situation and typically stretch targets at that. Those sales targets rarely change even if you don’t have good individual contributors, have supply chain or delivery issues, or lack good, qualified leads from Marketing. Plus, when you have open sales positions, it takes a lot of effort to find the right candidate to fill the slot.  Yet, the organization expects YOU, the Sales Leader, to make up the difference amongst your team. Compare that to other business management roles, where deadlines may move out if there are staffing issues or when management can hire external team members to pick up the slack.

So, what team management issue has been the most common for Sales Leaders of late – managing troublesome performers.  Why? As leaders know that troublesome employees can take up much of their time, and time is the most precious commodity they have. Plus, the time spent on troublesome employees feels illusive – before you know it, hours of time have been “wasted” trying to manage the fall out of these team members.  So, we gathered some learning lessons to help identify a common type of salesperson and provide some ideas on how to manage them better going forward.  We have grouped the four most common troublesome sales types into four groups: 1) the Risk Avoider, 2) the Mayhem Maker, 3) the Cruiser, and 4) the Soloist. As I describe them, you will likely envision someone you have in your team.

The Risk Avoider is the most common troublesome sales type. In fact, from data mining our Sales behavior assessment, the Sales Competency Indicator, risk avoidance by salespeople has doubled since the start of the pandemic.  Some leaders are surprised that most salespeople try to avoid taking risks, but it has become almost an aversion these days.

What are some examples of risk aversion in Sales?  When someone talks about calling higher in the organization, but never does it. They are always getting just a bit more account intelligence first. When a salesperson has tenure in an account but has been talking to the same few people week after week and month after month. They are not expanding into new divisions, new functional groups, etc.  Or when someone doesn’t like your company or offerings, but the salesperson is not trying to win them over. Instead, it is easier for them to just avoid them and sell to someone else in the account. All of these avoidance issues will limit your walletshare in the account and may make your account status more risky.

So… what do you need to do when you observe this:  make sure the salesperson both sees, hears, and understands your expectations for expansion in their relationships and sales in an account. Then they need to experience being held accountable to do so. It goes on your weekly agenda with them. You count the weeks they have not yet taken the agreed step to make connections and sales calls on new targeted contacts.  Guilt can be a powerful motivator. More often than not, they just didn’t think it was that important. Your focus on it will demonstrate its importance. Agree the actions and timing and keep that on your discussion. They will feel they can out wait you, in hopes that you will get busy taking care of  other problems on the team and may forget. Do role plays to help them prepare. Review their pitch for possible improvements to minimize the risk for them. When they do take the risker step, with each such success, congratulate them!  Their comfort and confidence will be expanded and the line for what is risky will move up so it has a multiplier effect.

The Mayhem Maker is a salesperson who creates drama, disruption, and unnecessary activity internally. They do it regularly or at least with each full moon! They are the types who complain about support people when often the issue was their own poor instructions or communication that caused the issue in the first place or they insist on everything being done immediately as a special situation, which actually hampers the performance of others.  In fact, when you hear support people say, I was going to prioritize this but frankly I am so annoyed which how they talked to me, it is going to the bottom of my to do list, why cannot they just ask nicely, we are on the same team after all. Many times they believe if they make the most noise, they will get people’s attention and prioritization to keep them quiet. This is not a good strategy today, as people are all busy and they can often pick and chose which urgent priority to do first.

So, if the end result doesn’t get them what they want, why does the Mayhem Maker do it? Frankly, often it is a bad habit they need to break. The phrase the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” is real at first, meaning making a lot of noise gets people to prioritize you. But when it is repeated, it becomes exhausting and people will avoid them. So, how can you better manage them? Share that the support teams’ satisfaction is vital and that you are going to do an informal survey about whether any mayhem is getting created by your team.  While everyone has a bad day, if the same issue comes up more than once – they are going to have to reflect and do their own damage control next time. Your problem clean up effort for them is over.  Plus, when they have to fix the damage they create, an apology only works once with people. They will have to do more to repair the relationship each time it happens, so it is to their advantage to get it fixed sooner and permanently.

The Cruiser is the salesperson who is wants to get by with minimal performance, with no motivation to achieve their sales target. They are happy to be in the middle of the group achieving only 50% to 70% of their sales target, hoping that keeps them under your radar as a problem where they can cruise undetected as a problem.  Often their goal is to collect their base salary, earn some variable compensation, but remain safe from losing their job. They want to work just enough to achieve your minimum expectations. This type is often the overly friendly person, who has a goal of building up a shield of good relationships and support to protect themselves from losing their employment.

There are a few problems created by the Cruiser. If they are only achieving 50% to 70% of their target, who is making up for that, especially if you have people below that level of achievement. You and your top performers cannot keep making up for others. Plus, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. It can become contagious within a team. Some others may think, well earn about the same base salary but put in half the effort, why am I working so hard. That is why friendly competitions, leaderboards, and contests can do so much to motivate and move the team to strive for more.  With leaderboards, leaving off the bottom 20% can be quite effective as it moves those in the middle down to towards the bottom. Those not shown are already concerned and when names are missing, people will be focusing on who is missing, which sends a subtle message that are not performing and it is being addressed separately.

What can you do to motivate the Cruiser to higher performance? Since they want to cruise under the radar, let them know you see them and believe they are capable of more. Keep an eye on their performance, communicate with them more, coach them more. Engaging with them more often will propel them to good sales activities. Also, consider what motivates them most – recognition, financial incentives, or a reward like a dinner out for the family where the reward brings them more appreciation at home?  Be creative and specific to what motivates that individual. Don’t be afraid to talk about what motivates them and perhaps brainstorm with them about how to build that into their plan. Even having that discussion will build more commitment from them.

The Soloist is the salesperson who likes to work by themselves.  Heck, after thinking about the other three troublesome sales types, a Soloist may not seem like a problem, they may feel like a relief. But the Soloist who likes to do things alone, rarely engages with their fellow salespeople, their support staff, and often not even you. Often, they don’t communicate much within the organization at all.  As their leader, you don’t want to be guessing where they went! You need to know what they are focusing on and how it is going, but you may be tired of trying to get them to show up for a meeting with you or to even check in. Yet, then you consider they do bring in decent revenues, so why bother rocking the boat. Relax and leave them be, right?

Well, there are a few issues with the Soloist.  It most often illuminates a lack of collaboration skills, which today is even more vital to clients. The Soloist tends to tell the client what they should be buying rather than collaborating with them to identify the right solution. The Soloist often has an inflated ego and feels like they know best. Even if they are very persuasive, it may not be the right solution for the situation, which can hurt the account in the long run. Plus, if the client’s situation is at all complex, it will require a few internal conversations and several good minds to brainstorm, possibly with a subject matter expert, to arrive at the best ideas to be shared with the client. So, you may need to insist on sales over a certain size to require a meeting with you before proposing the solution.  The other issue is the Soloist can make mistakes, as we all do, and there is no one their to catch it.  Pun intended. It impacts the delivery teams and support team who then have a contract or commitment to clean up.  This can quickly become a Mayhem Maker situation for implementation, and you will hear about it! Making them “correct” a bad commitment is often the only way for them to feel the impact of their “free solo” activity.  Yes, I loved the movie Free Solo and the Alpinist – I highly recommend them.  Their achievements can be exciting when they are successful but they create dangerous situations and their existence in an account is often short lived.

So, reflect on your team, do you have a Mayhem Maker, a Cruiser, or a Soloist that needs a discussion and resetting of expectations with you. Don’t let their achievements let you push off the discussion. You will often see an improvement, even if it needs a reminder a few times a year. If you have a Risk Avoider or even a few, consider both personal conversations and team conversations to make it fun to work on it together. Salespeople like competitions. Perhaps for a quarter or two, have a competition to have them stretch themselves and share back what risk they took. In the end, it will build a team more aware of the need to take calculated risks to achieve new levels of sales and share good lessons learned along the way.

Personal Challenge:
Take a moment to reflect and identify if you have any of these types on your team – the Risk Avoider, the Mayhem Maker, the Cruiser, or the Soloist. Then, set an appointment to talk about the issues with them in the next month. Address it and agree some new rules of engagement for them for the next 3 months. Then set a date to circling back with them to evaluate the results.

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