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How to Manage a Virtual Sales Force

You can only be in one place at one time. Or can you? Here's how to run a global company—all without leaving your living room.

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By the end of this year, around a billion people across the globe will be mobile workers, according to IDC, a global market research firm. As virtual work becomes more accessible to small businesses on a tighter budget, some CEOs and entrepreneurs are beginning to recognize that a virtual sales force not only can cuts down on costs, but can also add a competitive advantage for the company.

"As organizations become more geographically distributed, they're going to try to access the best talent wherever they may be," says Richard Lepsinger President of OnPoint Consulting, a virtual consulting company based in New York, and co-author of Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance. "They're also trying to get closer to the customer. Now, you have technology that you didn't have five years ago, and this whole notion of virtual teaming has become more prevalent."

On some level, virtual salespeople have existed since the telephone was invented, when road warriors would call in sales figures at the end of the week. But those relationships between salesperson and manager were often rooted in deep personal connections developed during time spent at the office. Now, hiring a virtual sales team can literally be done in hours, so managing those virtual teams provides for some unique challenges.

Of course, creating a unified company culture under one roof is a formidable challenge itself; having employees dispersed throughout the world adds a new dimension of complexity—especially when it comes to work-related and interpersonal issues. And, after all, how do you get your employees psyched up about a new product or service when they're sitting in the pajamas in front of the television?

Dig Deeper: Running a Virtual Business


Managing a Virtual Sales Force: Creating an Effective Team Dynamic


Like any great sales team, virtual or not, you'll want to be sure that you're finding the right person for right the job. David Clemons and Dr. Michael Kroth spent the last few years researching how the best leaders manage their virtual workers. For their research, which was published in their recent book, Managing the Mobile Workforce: Leading, Building, and Sustaining Virtual Teams, Clemons and Kroth analyze anecdotes, data, and advice from 39 executives on how to become better at achieving results in a virtual space. According to Clemons and Kroth, one of the most important aspects to manage a virtual sales team is to have clearly defined roles and expectations for each member of the team.

"Entrepreneurs have this idea that they have to be everything," says David Clemons, who also manages his own company with a virtual team, Achieve Labs. "They have to be able to give it up. They're not going trust anyone until they know that the person that is in that role is performing at the level that gives the entrepreneur confidence and satisfaction. So the entrepreneur sits back and holds his breath for the first stage until the employee starts giving measurable results, and then the entrepreneur can start letting their hair down a little bit, giving more freedom to move forward." 

A virtual sales team may conjure an image of employees working around the world, but the reality is that it should function like any other sales team. "The need to build trust is true whether they're sitting across from you in the office or not, but it becomes more important for virtual workers," says Kroth. "The principles of leading are not different. It's the practices that make the difference."

According to Karen Sobel Lojeski, a professor in the department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, the challenges of virtual workers are not limited to geography. Since 2002, Lojeski has been studying the concept of "virtual distance," which includes the idea that the technology people use to connect can actually drive people apart. According to Lojeski, managers must recognize that virtual workers are not just a voice on the other end of a phone call; to achieve real results from a sales force, a manager must relate to them on a human level. "Remember that there's a human being on the other side of the line," she says. "You need to work on establishing affinity and building a relationship that can be trusted." For example, managers should be willing to offer information about their personal lives, and be receptive to listening to the issues their employees are concerned about. In essence, you're trying to recreate an office dynamic where people can actually get to know one another.

Dig Deeper: Why You Need to Hire a Virtual Assistant


Managing a Virtual Sales Force: Coming Face-to-Face With the Challenges


Without verbal or facial cues, it's extremely hard to understand what another person is thinking, says Richard Lepsinger. "Without them, it's really hard to read how the other person is receiving your message, or to even know what to say next," he says. "You don't even realize how critical that is until it's not there."

Lepsinger advises his clients to use video conferencing as often as possible, and try as much as possible to stay away from e-mail. "It's about creating a 'high touch' environment," he says.  "Fortunately, there are a lot of inexpensive and easy to access  ways to connect. It's immediate. It's real time. It's present." Of course, having on-site meetings every so often will be a great tool to connect virtual workers, though they can be expensive.

Among some of those tools are WebEx and Skype for video conferencing, and Yammer, which is basically a Facebook for the office.

Another challenge arises when it comes to hiring practices. Who do you hire, and how do you know that person will 'fit in' within your organization if they don't spend any time physically there? Clemons and Kroth describe how mangers can identify  "behavioral job demands" to determine if the candidate's personality is a good fit for the position. Once those demands are defined, it's easier to ask the right questions during the interview process. "If you don't have the right person who behaviorally can do that role, you're not going to have success," David Clemons says. "You have to know who you're getting."

Dig Deeper: When to Hire a Sales Consultant


Managing a Virtual Sales Force: Strategies to Consider

"It all comes down to the leader," says Richard Lepsinger. When you're managing a virtual salesforce, it's not enough to merely expect that your team will deliver results. If you're leading a team, you'll need to set the tone for not only how employees interact with potential customers, but also amongst each other. From the very beginning, the leader must identify the boundaries, and enforce them constantly.

Before you launch a virtual sales team, Kroth and Clemons urge that it's necessary to have the communication technology built into the company culture. Employees should understand how and when to get in touch, and how often they're expected to check in. In Managing the Mobile Workforce, Kroth and Clemons present these seven tips to consider when your sales force is deployed.

1.     Center of Excellence: Build a leadership that understands the challneges of virtual working.
2.     Integrate mobile practices and technology into existing systems.
3.     Keep policies straightforward and technology simple to use.
4.     Define roles and expectations.
5.     Collaborate.
6.     Train, learn, and improve.
7.     Support mobile workers as if they were customers.

Ultimately, Kroth and Clemons say that it's up to the leader to motivate his or her sales team. In a virtual setting, employees will lack the face-to-face feedback that's often built in to office culture. Virtual employees can begin to feel like nothing they do matters; after all, it's hard to see tangible results far from the nucleus of the company. A good leader, in their words, is one that can "move someone with low or marginal self-expectations to the belief that he or she can climb mountains."

Dig Deeper: The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company

Last updated: Mar 18, 2011




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