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How to Improve Your Struggling Sales Team

Trying to get your sales team back on track? Forget the pep-talk. Experts suggest sales management and training techniques that can improve your company's sales.

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"At the end of the day, people don't leave bad companies. They leave bad managers." - Brent Adamson

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What do you do with struggling salespeople?  It's a problem that's vexxed multi-national corporations and start-ups; assistant managers and presidents of boards. 

It's simply hard to know when to pull the trigger on removing underperforming team members when it could be that the staff just needs a little guidance, encouragement, or training to get back on track. A little professional nudge in the right direction is a more economical choice over the time-consuming and expensive process of hiring a replacement sales representative. Many sales professionals would rather give their struggling sales people a chance to improve and bring their results up to company standards.

When you're trying to figure out whether your sales team can get back on track, first try these expert strategies on how to lift sales team out of the profit gutter.

Step One: Install a Great Sales Manager

You can't have someone overseeing your sales team who is nothing more than a glorified cheerleader, says Liz Wendling, owner of Insight Business Consultants and Sales Coach For Women. You need to employ a manager who is not only willing to engage the team, but to also identify weaknesses and work directly with sales staff to overcome their challenges. 

"It's not somebody who can just pat somebody on the back," she says. "They do pep talks, and pep talks aren't enough for some salespeople."

Many companies make the mistake of promoting their top salespeople to manager positions, but often the most skilled salespeople don’t have the coaching dexterity needed to effectively guide a whole team.

In fact, research by the Corporate Executive Board says sales representatives strongly prefer coaching to come from their direct supervisor.

"By far unless the direct supervisor is perceived as owning that coaching, the coaching is likely to have relatively minimal impact," says Brent Adamson, senior director. "At the end of the day, people don't leave bad companies. They leave bad managers."

Additional Resources: How to Hire a Sales Manager


Step Two: Implement One-on-One Coaching

Sales coach Jeremy J. Ulmer, who lists among his credentials twice being ranked the No. 1 sales performer at two global Fortune 500 companies, says the first step to improving sales is talking directly to the team to find out what struggles they are facing. What makes their jobs difficult? What could they do better? What could they be provided with to do better?

"Sometimes they're very open and they tell you a lot of things," he says.

Other times you will have to pry a little by asking how they're managing time, what an average day looks like and to describe how they run sales call.

Then he picks one problem at a time to work on to get better results. That sometimes means removing technological distractions and giving additional management support.

Several experts recommend pairing low-performing sales representatives with successful ones. Ulmer says that strategy was a better learning experience at his first sales job with Xerox than the company's 10 weeks of official training.

Sometimes Ulmer will put a sales team on a strict schedule so they are making sales calls during dedicated blocks during the day, instead of sporadically throughout all work hours.

Limiting the coaching to specific groups of employees is often more effective than spreading it around the company as a whole, says Matt Dixon, managing director of the Corporate Executive Board.

"Coaching is not meant to be democratic," he says.

Too many managers fall back on what he calls "spreadsheet coaching," where the focus is on whether the sales staff is hitting its numbers. Instead, you should be working closely with the individual sales representatives to understand the context of the problems. 

"When it comes to coaching, they're so focused on that number and hitting that quota, they lose sight," he says. "The way that you do that is not focus on those outcomes but focus on behaviors."

Michael J. Galante, who runs TheSalesCoach.com, creates what he calls a Performance Improvement Plan for each ailing salesperson he meets. It's essentially a battle plan to help the employee assault obstacles to productivity. Often times, the problem is a lack of follow through, which leads to fizzling sales momentum. Having an action plan helps keep track of things like that that might otherwise be overlooked, he says.

"That's why I try to document," he says. "I can show the sales person or manager that there's some growth or some success."

Read More: New Tools for Sales Training

Step Three: Put Your Team on a Sales Diet

Like anyone leading an unhealthy lifestyle, a sales staff sometimes needs a "sales diet" of sorts to get some perspective on challenges.

Wendling recommends giving struggling employee a smaller stack of calls to work through. They'll can gain confidence and avoid the burnout of intense extended sales pitch efforts.

Then, work with them to dissect the sales calls to note areas for improvement: Do they have good rapport and conversation skills? Are they moving through the pitch at a natural pace or steamrolling right to the point?

Setting individual benchmarks can help put people on the right track to success, especially if you are forced to put sales staff on probation until performance improves. But it's important to keep a balance between realistic goals and creating too much performance anxiety.

"They could see (the office) as this daunting place they have to go. That could scare a lot of people off," she says. "With that internal pressure, sales people wind up making desperate calls, stretching the truth, lying to customers just to get sales."

Suggested Reading: What to Do When A Sales Representative Misses Quota


Step Four: Looking to the Future, Hire Smart

It's an obvious piece of advice, but one worth repeating, Galante says: the best way to handle lackluster sales represtnatives is to not have them in the first place, or to at least identify them early.

"It's really important for the management team to avoid this situation," he says. "Stay on top of the rep's performance, intervene before they become the worst sales person or significantly underperforming."
Adamson says companies need to sit down and figure out a map of the behaviors that drive success before doing any hiring.

"If you've got a profile of the behaviors to drive success, you'll make sure people more likely to be aligned to great behaviors," he says.

Wendling says your company's expectations should be communicated during the job interview so candidates know what's in store. You can test their skills by including in the interview exercises that force them to think on their feet; or by sending them off with a homework assignment to see how they can prepare for a big task.

But when all else fails, you may have to come to grips with trimming the sales team of dead weight. Data collected by the Corporate Executive Board show that companies tend to spend too much time coaching the top 20 percent of performers and trying to improve the bottom 20 percent. But focusing on the core middle 60 percent of the sales force is the best way to improve your profits.

"For true under performers, no amount of good coaching is going to make them better at their job," Dixon says.

Dig Deeper: 3 Traps to Avoid When Hiring a Salesperson

Last updated: Aug 10, 2011

TIM DONNELLY is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.
@TimDonnelly




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