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Building an Exceptional Sales Team

It doesn't happen by accident.

Every sales manager hopes to build an exceptional sales team. How many really do? The answer is “too few”.

The starting point of this discussion must necessarily focus on defining just what an exceptional sales force looks like. Every market, product and service is different, requiring different skills in a salesperson. Every sales manager has different goals, limitations and challenges and every sales person comes to your organization with their own unique skills, baggage and bad habits, but that is the subject of another discussion.

What are some of the attributes that are embodied in exceptional sales teams?

  • Abundant enthusiasm and a strong belief in your company, products and services.

  • A burning need to win, but not at all costs

  • Individuals who are trainable and are willing to take direction, who are, honest, accountable, loyal and of high integrity.

  • A team that truly cares about the success of its customers.

  • Salespeople who have the ability and confidence to act autonomously without significant interaction with management and without frequent missteps.

  • Salespeople with a willingness to share knowledge with their peers, to be part of raising up the competence of the entire team

  • A willingness to understand, accept and follow process.

You will note that a desire to make a lot of money is not included in the list. If you build the right organization that will happen, and you sales people will feel well compensated. As someone who has run sales teams, these are attributes I foster. Are some important attributes missing? I am sure there are, but this is a good start.

What are attributes that an exceptional sales team does not include?

Perhaps it is too obvious, but organizations with sales teams that do not include most of the attributes described above.

  • Individuals who can/will cause problems

  • Lone wolf salespeople

  • Sales people who are not trainable

  • Sales people who will misrepresent your products or services to make a sale

  • Sales people who are not team players

  • Salespeople who cannot sell (sales teams are full of them)

  • Sales managers who do not manage or communicate effectively

Does it help to be able to sell a product or service that is so awesome that its sells itself. Let’s get real. No product sells itself, but having an awesome product or service certainly helps.

How do you build an exceptional sales team?

Building an exceptional sales team begins with sales management. Sales management MUST embrace and consistently live by many the following precepts to build an exceptional sales team.

  • Set expectations high. I am not talking about meeting sales quotas, which are of course important, but rather the personal attributes and behaviors you expect from your people.

  • Lead by example and be consistent . If you don’t you will not get and maintain the respect of your people.

  • Enforce the rules. If you ignore your own rules, over time your rules will be followed less and less. Effectively, you are telling your sales people the rules and process you require are not important.

  • Put process in place that is easy to understand and follow. Minimize the paperwork you require salespeople to manage and keep it simple. Salespeople abhor paperwork. That is one of the reasons why they are in sales.

  • Create an understanding of how the deals they make can and will affect your organization, sometimes turning it on its head. Turning your organization on its head is sometimes important and necessary for business reasons, just not all the time.

  • Build empathy and an understanding of how sales commitments can affect their sales and non-sales colleagues and your company as a whole.

  • Spend the necessary time with your sales people and sales managers so they know your program and know what you expect i.e. your sales philosophy, the allowances they can make, under what circumstances, etc. Provide guidance and correction early and often. If you don’t communicate what an individual needs to change, it is unlikely they will change on their own, Your goal is to make your salespeople as autonomous as possible, making the right decisions, day in and day out without a need to come back to you i.e. they understand and live by your program, your philosophy and its tenants.

  • Provide accessible paths for self-improvement. Recognize where individuals have gaps in their understanding and experience and provide a means to fill them.

  • Be willing to go to bat for your sales people. This includes falling under the bus with your management, if necessary. Your sales people need to know they can count on you and that you have their backs. The respect your will gain will be immeasurable.

  • Require clear, regular, non-ambiguous and consistent sales communications. Communications from you to them, and from them to you. Make the communications you require easy, effective and minimal.

  • Get something. Require your sales people to get something from the customer/partner each time they give up something significant. This can be so many things i.e. improved terms, referrals, testimonials, website logos or just the fact that you value the ability to be able to cite that company XYZ is a customer.

  • What you say vs. what you do. Do what you say. Be accountable. Honor your commitments. Expect this from yourself and from your salespeople in their dealings with their customers. What you and your sales people say means nothing, unless followed by actions that reinforce what was committed. Make sure you and your salespeople keep their commitments, or don’t make them. If you do this consistently, your customers will understand when things go sideways, out of your control, because they understand you always work in their best interest.

  • Set challenges that are challenging and achievable. Setting goals that can only be achieved by a sales superman or superwoman will only discourage everyone else. Knowing that superwoman can jump over buildings in a single bound, does nothing to inspire the consistent performer who works his backside off day after day, but can only scale a 5 foot fence using a ladder. Be the ladder. With hard work (not super human work), a sales person needs to feel the challenges you set are achievable and be able to envision achieving and actually receiving benefit from them.

  • Separate the wheat from the chaff. If someone is not working out, or is disruptive and divisive, and you cannot see them working out in any reasonable time frame, cut them lose sooner rather than later. You will be doing yourself, your team and the individual who you cut loose a huge favor. Such an individual will waste your time and that of your team, and suck the life out of your sales organization.

  • Offer praise enthusiastically, honestly and often, but avoid offering praise for things that don’t merit it i.e. things team members are expected to do, that are not all that special. This is false praise that is instantly recognized and rarely appreciated. Don’t offer platitudes. You are sending the wrong message.

  • Don’t allow salespeople to work themselves to death. This of course applies to any employee. All too often, sales managers impose unrelenting push, push, push, challenge, challenge, challenge tactics. Respect, honor and require free time and family time. This is important to a cohesive sales organization and to any organization.

  • Build esprit de corps. Host team building events with your entire sales organization. If done correctly, they should create an understanding that everyone is part of a family.

  • Be a leader, not a boss.

You will note that the longest part of this discussion focuses on sales management. As a sales manager, it is completely in your control whether you build an exceptional sales team or not. The choice is yours. There is nothing especially revolutionary about the things you need to create, manage and nurture to create a great sales team. It’s all just common sense. Unfortunately this is an element that is frequently in short supply.

Great sales people are manna from heaven. Great salepeople are very rare. Think about it, all salespeople live with rejection day-in and day-out (how many people are capable of dealing with that?) and they revel in the fact that each rejection puts them that closer to success. Others in your organization minimally understand the environment sales works in. It is hardly all golf outings and business lunches. Salespeople are constantly honing their craft, part of which is a studied and learned skill, and part of which is an art form The best ones see each rejection or success as a learning experience to build on. Great sales people ARE capable of jumping over customer buildings in a single bound. Sometimes their skills are inbred (maybe Mom or Dad was a salesperson who taught them great life lessons and sales skills). Many are grinders. Sales organizations need both. Grinders work their backsides off consistently, improving year after year. These are guys and gals you can depend on.

Everything in life involves a cost or a consequence. Managing sales people takes work and creativity to channel their energy and their desire to win. Are good sales people confident, often arrogant? Yes, they are. Figure out how to channel it. You can. Are they especially challenging to manage; usually, always, frequently, never? All can apply except for never, but that is hardly only applicable to salespeople. So, you have a challenge ahead of you. Build that exceptional sales organization. When you achieve it, your sales performance will soar and your sales people will metaphorically put themselves under a bus for you, your company and their customers. How cool is that?

One last thought. I will finish with this thought. I consistently see companies looking for sales people with highly specific experience in their industry, who must either have a book of business they can bring with them to their new job or a significant network of leverage-able contacts…….just get a job interview. If this is your focus you are creating huge lost opportunity costs, Why? Because it will take forever to find the person you seek, it you can even find and then ultimately hire them. I would rather hire a smart, hungry, manageable, loyal, motivated and trainable salesperson, than hire someone from the industry who is unmanageable, un-trainable, who is unwilling to learn and insists on doing business the way that he or she has always done it. Smart motivated people figure it out. Sure, it may take a little longer, but if you help them to achieve success, they become the most hard-working, dedicated and loyal employees you will find anywhere. It’s food for thought.

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