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Sales leadership don'ts #2 Don't confuse busy-ness with business

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Sales leadership don'ts #2 Don't confuse busy-ness with business

Sales managers are always busy, and there are never enough hours in the day so it is important to know where to focus to get the maximum results from your limited time, resources and energy.  There is a real science to managing and adjusting the sales ‘engine’ to get it to consistently produce the right outcomes.

 This post continues our series looking at the know-how gathered from a massive discussion on LinkedIn around: What should you not do if you want to be a great sales manager? This discussion represents an invaluable source of wisdom to anyone wanting to become skilled in the art of sales management. 

Issue No 2 was the age-old dilemma – does a sales manager focus on activity, quantity, action…. Or focus on effectiveness, quality and outcomes?

This generated a lot of discussion, much of it very passionate!

What did the contributors say not to do?

  • You should NOT confuse activity (motion) with movement (progress to next steps).
  • Activity is like a dog chasing its tail. Don't confuse busy-ness with business
  • Never promote activity alone as a measurable factor of success.
  • I’m a big believer that a little effectiveness (i.e. Outcomes) outweighs a lot of efficiency (i.e. "Activity", namely number of calls, opportunities in pipeline, forecast value, etc.) by a wide margin
  • The numbers are fine, but if you're doing it wrong, the more you're doing it, the better you get at doing it wrong.
  • Average managers/performers focus on activities.

 It is easy when the pressure is on to feel that you need to do more, work harder, increase throughput, so at least nobody can fault your willingness to try hard!

So what are the consequences of this extreme focus on activity?

  • When managers push for more efficiency, or activity, typically they get more, but as an unintended consequence, outcomes go down.
  • You can effectively manage activities, but will have relatively little effect on results.

So the key lesson seems to be that focus on activity is a deception – ultimately it will not give you the results you need.

The recent best seller book ‘The Challenger Sale’ was based on a research programme taking in some 700 salespeople (which has since been extended to several thousand). The writers were looking to identify the behaviour in salespeople that was most successful – both at times of economic pressure and in the complex solutions space. Their huge skills analysis identified 5 key sales types – the Relationship builder, the Hard-worker, the Reactive problem solver, the Lone Wolf and the Challenger.

In the book, this is how the authors describe Hard Workers  – ‘These are reps who show up early, stay late, and are always willing to put in the extra effort. They’re the ‘nose to the grindstone’ sellers. They’re self-motivated and don’t give up easily. They’ll make more sales in an hour and conduct more visits in a week than just about anyone else on the team. And they enthusiastically and frequently seek out feedback, always looking for opportunities to improve’ …. So this correlates very closely with the type of behaviour we’re talking about here.

In the research exercise, the authors correlated the five sales types against performance. When they looked at the ‘star performers’ – the top 20% in performance terms, then only 17% of these were hard-workers. 

The writers do say that in a telesales environment this behaviour can reap dividends, and undoubtedly it can be useful early in a sales career to establish habits of diligence, good work-rate and efficient sales process. You could liken this to the need for ‘square bashing’ early in a career in the army. But a simple ability to carry out repetitive process is not what is required to be ‘officer class’. Being a hard worker is unlikely to get you to the top of your sales game.

 So what should you do instead?

  • Top manager/performers focus on outcomes.
  • You should pay attention to both quality of sales activities and quantity.
  • Manage metrics only enough to support good habits and regular successes, and then move into a facilitator role.
  • I'd rather have reps focus on good execution, while maintaining healthy activity, than just trying to do more every day…… More effective execution on one call trumps two poorly executed calls any day. And it definitely trumps 5 poorly executed calls...as that rep is likely to get frustrated pretty soon.
  • I'd way rather a rep make 3 calls a day and conduct a thorough discovery with a prospect, than do 6 calls a day but not ask the right questions, and hence not truly advance the sale, and yet feel good about their effort, because they reported lots of activity.

 The strong message is to have a balance. ‘Healthy activity’ balanced with ‘good execution’

 Then some contributors started to talk about the specifics of what to focus on, which is where the science comes in:

  • Stick to the basics. Sales is a numbers game: more calls, more prospecting, diligent look at the economic big picture, more field and market visits and on-going improvement to the pre and after sales process along with tight alignment between Marketing and Operations will led to great success.
  • Efficiency _ things such as number of calls, territory configuration, meetings booked, etc., and Effectiveness - what actually is being said and done on those calls. Remember, a little effectiveness outweighs a lot of efficiency.
  • We're talking results feedback vs performance Sales people know their numbers but don't always know how or why they got them.
  • A great manager develops a team that is efficient and productive with their time. ….Often if reps are the most active but least productive a golden opportunity exists for a manager to invest some time and do some great training. In examples like this the reps do not know what to do differently to produce more. A great sales manager will teach them.

 So does this mean you throw out a focus on quantity altogether? One pragmatic contributor said:

  • I'd a lot rather have a sales crew out asking sub optimal questions than an exquisitely trained team sitting on their ‘assess’ in the office. Somewhere between the two poles must lurk something like the truth.

Now this all sounds very logical and straightforward, but the fact that so many people wrote so passionately about it would indicate that this balance is not always happening.

 So what are the challenges in adopting this management style?

 Focus on numbers is simple. A focus on outcomes and the quality of behaviour is more complex and perhaps harder to define. A sales manager needs to be crystal clear about the behaviour required to generate the right customer experience and the right results. This takes experience and intelligent, clear thinking.

 This involves real leadership. Rather than just following orders and shooting from the hip, it means taking the time to stand back, reflect and making a real judgement about where to focus. Often this means standing up to pressure from above and not letting it affect you. An extreme focus on activity can come from a fear reaction. Sales leadership often takes courage.

 Managing in this way often involves a dramatic shift in how a manager spends their time. It means more day to day contact with the team, more sales accompaniments, more observation and analysis, more intelligence applied, more focused coaching and development of skills in the team. As one contributor said, ‘A sales manager should be more than a mere custodian of the scoreboard

Typically what prevents a sales manager from spending time on this type of development? Excessive admin, reporting and meetings perhaps? Too high a staff to manager ratio?  Internal politics and delivery  problems?  All of these need to be cleared away to allow managers to focus on developing the right behaviour in their teams.

This type of developmental focus becomes all the more important when a sales leader is looking to make a change in the way the team operate, for example moving from selling products to selling solutions, moving up the value chain to engage at a higher level, talking business outcomes rather than technical features, professionalising the sales process to enable the team to manage much larger, more complex deals, and having the insight required to be more challenging with customers.

And finally, once all the circumstances are right, it boils down to the capability of the sales manager – they need the leadership and coaching skills to guide and develop their team well.

As always in the art of sales management there are no easy answers – but that is what makes it such a fascinating job!

Tags in this article: solutions selling, Solution Selling

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