In my career, I've held both leader and individual contributor roles in sales. In the last few tumultuous years, I've recognized an elephant that everybody in sales seems to talk about in the break room, but nobody mentions in the conference room:
Our sales people believe many of their current sales leaders don't have experience selling in the 21st century - so they believe everything these leaders say provides little, if any, value to their sales process.
I know that sounds pretty rough. And if you're a sale leader hearing this for the first time, my advice for you is to hang out in the break room more often.
And I ask you to not chalk this up to "these kids today" or "we said that about our managers years ago" - because selling in 1969 was pretty similar to 1989. Sure - great differences in technology - but picking up the phone and burning shoe leather worked in each decade.
But in 2015 our sales people are more likely to win the lottery than get a C-level prospect on the phone using what we think are tried and true strategies.
Tenured sales leaders can possess invaluable experience for a sale-force - for I believe that there is STILL nothing more valuable than learning how to make deals happen from someone who has a track record of doing it themselves.
But sales experience alone isn't enough for a leader managing a sales team in the modern era. Especially if the environment that leader gained that experience within bears little resemblance to the ecosystem their sales people traverse every day.
The question we have to ask ourselves as Sales Leaders is this: is our knowledge of the sales process relevant to selling TODAY?
If you think the answer is "Yes" then stop reading and have a great day!
But if your answer to that is "No" or "Not really" or "Good Question" or "I don't know" - what follows are four observations I've uncovered in my career and my insight regarding them. I hope they provide some value or even simply just spark a discussion between sales leaders:
Observation 1: You can't prospect like it's 1999 - No one picks up their phone anymore. Ever. That's just a statement of fact. If our prospecting strategies hinge upon getting our sales people to get someone on the phone to hear their pitch, it's no wonder our sales forces' activity metrics probably resemble an anvil being pushed out of a hot air balloon.
Insight 1: Using our years of experience with in-person prospecting, we need to help our people craft prospecting emails and voice-mail leave-behinds that demand attention. We should turn our years of tracking down the decision maker in the real world to the World Wide Web - by training our people to find the connections between a LinkedIn profile, a press release and a graduation announcement to uncover new opportunities (*yes Working Girl reference) We need to embrace marketing campaigns and wade into our marketing teams to provide valuable insight so they can create campaigns that create real, quality leads for our people. And we have to educate ourselves on new prospecting techniques. Constantly. And that "sales process" PowerPoint we’ve been using since Germany was two countries? In the Recycle Bin..thanks!.
Observation 2: Open Ended Questions? - So tell me what do you think about open ended questions? Exactly. Back in the day, they were a great tool to get the prospect talking - but in today's hectic virtual and mobile workday, ask a prospect a lot of questions and they'll answer you with "there's the door." It's not our customer's job to provide OJT to our sales reps. If I am a prospect, what value do I get answering YOUR sales person’s questions? None. So why should I talk to them?
Insight 2: As sales leaders, it’s our job to train our people to offer insight and value - and I'm not talking that value of our company’s product of service. I'm talking "personally" offering insight and value to the customer. Every interaction with a prospect is an opportunity to educate them. Educate them about THEIR business, industry, competition, technological or market trends, etc... And making our people insightful industry experts takes more than a weekly or monthly training class. It takes us doing it ourselves. We need to lead by example. We have to know what's going in the verticals we support and sell to. We have to know what the competitors are doing. We have to know what are the trends in our industry in the coming 12/18/24 months. If we aren't reading or checking 5-10 or so industry specific blogs or targeting email newsletters a day, we are not keeping up with the times.
Observation 3: I'm a leader now.... - We have a weekly 1:1s with each of our team members, We have daily forecast update emails. We have weekly and monthly pipeline meetings. We have quarterly reviews of sales activity. And we’re in the CRM daily, checking up on our people and offering advice on accounts. Guess what? Unless our sales teams see us operate in front of a client, what value will all this attention and insight really be worth to our sales force? If you have never heard your sales staff say "Glad that's over!" after one of your web conference meetings, that's because you disconnected too soon. Our teams aren’t engaged because we're offering them no value. If our sales people believe these meetings are more for us and our spreadsheetsthan for their pipelines or pocketbooks, our meetings will be 80% us talking and 100% them not listening.
Insight 3: There is no value of telling a story of how you once sold a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves if your staff has never seen you do it (*yes, Tommy Boy). Field time is essential to both ourselves and our sales teams. For our sales team, it gets them watching a sales leader at work. Have a great way to overcome the "we have no budget" objection? Then go out and use it in front of a client. When our sales people see us use it successfully in a meeting, they will use it themselves. Because showing works better than telling. For us, field time is essential to keeping our sales tools sharp - the modern decision maker is very different now from the one we knew and sold to years ago. They are technically adroit and career minded. They don't stay at the same company for five years let alone the same position. This new sales environment will help us aggressively re-calibrate our relationship building tools to the breakneck pace of today's business environment. And about those tools....
Observation 4: I have no idea why this wrench won't fix your pipeline.... - Skills and tools picked up in another era are often outmoded or just plain wrong for the modern job at hand. In the era of the 95 mile/hr fastball, it's hard to think of Babe Ruth, with his lumbering physicality and 42 ounce bat, hitting .342 lifetime with 714 Home Runs. However, if he dropped 50lbs and picked up a 34 ounce bat (and stopped hitting off his front foot) his natural skill and his years of experience would play well in the modern era. The same is true for our skills and tools as sales leaders. When we fail to recognize this, our sales team will react to our "help" as you just did to my baseball analogy - an incredulous eye-roll, followed by a dismissive 'oh great another sports/sales analogy…'.
Insight 4: We need to upgrade our sales toolkit. Period. If nothing else in the article sticks with you, let this one insight stick. Our outdated sales toolkits are the primary reason our sales people aren't listening to our advice. And we need to do this in public. What does that mean? We need to impart to our people the importance of skill and professional development by developing our skills and then sharing them. As sales leaders we have two sets of customers – our actual customers and our sales people. We need to treat them the same – if we are training our people to ALWAYS offer value and insight, we need to do likewise with our sales people and always offer value and insight. And don't be afraid to change. Or to be wrong. It's much better for you to say "Hey, remember last month when I said we needed to say XXXX in every client meeting? Well, I looked at our results and I think we need to re-calibrate and say YYYY instead." Personally, I would much rather have the reputation of a leader willing to try new strategies and getting it wrong sometimes than a reputation of one that puts blinders on to results and keeps plowing ahead, oblivious to the world around them, whose only advice to a salesperson is “pick up the phone” or “just sell more.”
And if that last statement seems "over the top" - it’s a paraphrase from something a multi-year President's Club rep once told me. The rep said that they hated working for sales managers that spout "the same stuff over and over".
When I was moving on to another opportunity, I asked this top performer what they thought of my sales management style they said "while I didn't always agree with you I quite honestly took some of your advice because you were the first sales manager I've had that I felt could do my job as well as I could."
As leaders, if we can strive to get our sales people to think about us like this - as someone who can carry a quota and sell at this moment in history – I believe our experience will provide them the real value they crave and deserve from us as their leaders.
What do you think? Are my ideas valid? Am I dead wrong? Let me know - and let me know how you see yourself as a sales leader in the 21st Century.