The other day I spoke to a business owner who had given his new salesperson a sales target of $1.2 million. When I asked the owner how his new sales rep was tracking to his goal, the owner admitted the salesperson had not closed a single piece of business in his first six months on the job. In other words, the seven-figure target was a joke, and the salesperson would be lucky to hit 10 percent of his plan by year's end.
So whose at fault? Surprisingly, it's probably the business owner.
Most business owners make great salespeople but terrible sales managers. As the owner of your company, you're probably your business's best sales rep because you have miles of credibility, you know your industry and your product, and you can sell based on the depth of your experience.
Almost by definition, your salespeople are going to have less industry knowledge than you, so they need a different set of skills and experiences to draw from. What's more, you're probably not going to give them the support they would get from a traditional sales manager.
A sales manager's job is to make his or her salespeople successful. Good managers meet regularly (at least weekly, if not daily) with their reps to discuss their progress. They have their salespeople prepare a sales funnel and manage their numbers. Great sales managers think of sales as a simple game of managing their reps' numbers. For example, they might know that 100 leads typically yield 10 meetings, which will convert to three proposals, which will result in one sale. Instead of hounding their reps for a sale, the best sales managers focus on the status of the funnel, making sure their sales reps have the right number of leads and meetings, which they know—if they just work the system—will result in the right number of sales.
As business owners, we usually make crappy sales managers. First of all, we're rarely so process-oriented to have the patience to work a system like the best sales managers follow. Second, we're too busy putting out fires to meet regularly with our sales reps; something else always comes up. Third, we're too optimistic. Our glass is always three-quarters full, which leads us to develop unrealistic budgets and set salespeople up for failure before they even start.
Given our inherent weakness for managing salespeople, what should we business owners do if we can't afford a sales manager but need someone to replace us as the company's salesperson?
My suggestion is that you work under the assumption that your employee won't get the traditional management and support most salespeople need, so when hiring your first salesperson, consider only prospects who could work manager-free.
One of the things I notice when I look back on the winning salespeople I have hired is that they were all self-directed. In other words, they didn't need a lot of hand-holding from me.
When it comes to expectations of sales staff, there is a big distinction between large and small businesses. In a big business, salespeople work under many layers of sales management. Sales managers design the territories, targets, sales process, support material, and offers. All salespeople really have to do is follow the system, and they will usually achieve a decent level of success. In fact, some of the best-performing salespeople in a large company are primarily just good at following a system.
In a small business, none of the infrastructure exists. Budgets are largely a guess, territories are blurry, and what could laughingly be described as a sales process is really just a series of habits the business owner follows unconsciously.
And that is why finding a salesperson who is self-directed is so important. Self-direction is the ability to wake up in the morning and know what to do without being told. The self-directed salesperson gets up and puts together a call sheet with a mix of hot prospects and cool leads that need cultivating. When advancing a prospect to the point of making a decision, he or she blocks out the world's noise and puts everything else on hold until the sale gets over the finish line. The self-directed salesperson doesn't need to be told to complete a weekly funnel; it's always rolling over in his or her head. And a sixth sense tells this type of sales rep just where and what to work on.
Here are three things to look for to increase your odds of finding a self-directed salesperson:
1. Experience Working Remotely
Salespeople who have succeeded while working remotely have demonstrated an ability to be productive without constant coaching or supervision. It takes a special breed to work from home without the camaraderie of an office environment. Look for people who have met a quota while working independently.
2. A "Polish" That Mirrors That of the Audience
It's important for salespeople to mirror the sophistication of the audience they're selling to. Without a sales manager to coach your new recruits on the "soft stuff," you need someone with a built-in polish that matches that of your target customer. If your target prospect is a senior banker, then you want a salesperson who looks comfortable wearing a suit and speaks and writes at a university level. By contrast, if you're calling on residential plumbing companies, you want your sales rep to be a little more Tim Horton's than Starbucks. Don't bother hiring a greenhorn who you think you can coach—you will have neither the time nor the patience.
3. Competitive Streak
Unlike in a big company, where daily sales huddles, contests, leader boards, and promotions provide a constant set of external motivators, the manager-free salesperson has to source motivation from inside. Therefore, look for salespeople who are naturally competitive. On a CV or in a job interview, the competitive salesperson will tell you how they ranked among other sales reps in their organization, and you'll see their desire to compete show up in the list of sports they play or hobbies they participate in.
If you've tried and failed to hire your first successful salesperson, don't lose hope. Replacing yourself as your company's best salesperson is hard work and requires you to find a special breed of individual who can sell without the traditional infrastructure available in most sales organizations.