How to improve performance amongst your sales team

We asked the experts for their tips on rallying your salespeople as the UK grapples with a severe case of SAD – sales affected disorder


As new business targets become harder to hit, there’s an epidemic of  SAD – sales affected disorder – spreading throughout companies. Growing Business has trawled around for ways to give your sales team a little help as they scour the horizon for new meaning to their lives

David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross put on record in a classic way the results of one kind of motivation within a sales force. Anyone who knows the movie can’t miss its horrible resonance in today’s economic climate. Set in the 1980s downturn, it tracks the desperation and ruthlessness that emerge when members of a sales team are made to compete under the threat of dismissal – human nature in the raw, with a lot of bad language.

There’s just a touch of economic disturbance happening right now, and the people at the sharp end are the first to know about it. This year’s budget has become a work of fantasy, monthly targets a joke, bonuses a memory and job tenure very shaky. Salespeople are stressed out, worrying whether to jump before they are pushed. Their minds are on anything but their work, and they’re in danger of losing faith, so how can they realistically sell anything?

The caring profession

With bad news everywhere, how can you get your sales team believing in themselves again? The Bellwether Report, the advertising industry’s barometer on marketing spend, revealed that in the third quarter of 2008 marketing budgets were revised down to the greatest extent in the survey’s nine-year history. And your sales force will be aware of that. Graham McMullen, managing director of office services group Admiral, believes talking up the recession is costing livelihoods. “We don’t believe in our ability to win anymore,” he says. “That’s why I think the recession will be over when the media says so.”

Frankly, if you relied up until now on the archaic and unsophisticated strategy of the carrot of commission and the stick of the sack, which is still not as rare as it should be, then if you do survive the recession, it won’t be thanks to the sales team. “Motivating salespeople is difficult at the best of times, but even more so in recession,” says Chris Gallagher, director of sales, training and development at Upfront Business Development. “Since potential earnings are usually and rightly linked to some sort of commission scheme, smaller budgets and fewer briefs mean it is more difficult to maintain earnings for all but the very best agency salespeople.”

The first principle of motivation is: don’t equate it with pay. Gallagher identifies three types of motivation: macro (long term, including things like pay, career structure and company culture); interpersonal (incentives, team building and varied responsibility); and intrapersonal (the employee’s innate attributes). You can’t do much in the short term about the first and last, so focus on interpersonal motivators, he says, advising: “Be creative and imaginative when setting incentives.”

Time to deliver

To put it another way, sales staff are motivated by reward and recognition. When reward takes a dive, then recognition has to be stronger, and in a moment we’ll look at some ways of getting people to feel less glum about the environment. But for Andy Beer, Pitney Bowes’ tactical marketing director for the UK and Ireland, security is still an important factor. “In the present climate, the grass is just as brown on the other side of the fence, and that helps retention,” he says.

Beer believes laying people off will give altogether the wrong message, pointing to a new white paper from his company called Time to Deliver. “The challenge in a downturn is to keep marketing activity running,” he says. “Organisations with the vision to commit to their marketing activity and to continue to invest in communicating with customers and prospects can find themselves ahead of the field once the business climate brightens.”

Pitney Bowes could have saved £12,000 by axing a recent one-day get together in London for its sales force and key clients. “Cancelling the event would have sent all the wrong messages,” insists Beer. “It would have been seriously demotivating for the sales team if they thought the company was that hard up, and it would have definitely been the wrong message for the clients.”

That day, what was being sold was morale and belief in the company. Beer adds that his UK managing director likes to spend days out in the field with team members. Now that sends all the right messages, as well as keeping the team on its toes.

Exception rules

Salespeople do respond to incentives, but in a recession, the commission and bonus model leads only to unhappiness, as Glengarry Glen Ross demonstrated so graphically. It is vital to respect your employees as individuals. “We have a phrase: ‘Exception rules’,” says Neville Upton, chief executive of The Listening Company, which employs 3,500 sales and customer relationship marketing support staff at its UK contact centres. “Everyone who works in our business is an exception, as is every conversation they have.”

The ‘Glengarry’ approach leads to pareto HR – if 80% of your sales are generated by 20% of the team, sack the bottom 20% every month! That’s where the numbers game leads, according to Upton. “We often put our worst performers next to our best, because people need nurturing and training,” he says. “A good sales force is not about the one or two megastars (you always get those), but about the core of the team. Prima donnas achieve for themselves.” And Upton’s worth listening to, as he’s currently recruiting 300 more staff at his Newcastle centre to keep up with a 40% rise in business in the year to October 2009.

Along with nurture, it pays to encourage salespeople to use all the weapons in their armoury. If one approach isn’t working, try another. The phone is still the sales weapon of choice, but today there are email, blogs, social networks and webchat – all great opportunities for sales staff to use their imagination. “We have 150 people just webchatting,” says Upton.

Kill the numbers

Call rates are the Holy Grail to many sales managers. But there is another way, if you let people use their intelligence and intuition, insists Adrian Cooke, business development director of the support services group Resource. “To motivate our team, we re-evaluated our approach to new business, and switched the focus to quality sales leads rather than quantity,” he explains. “We’ve reinforced this by introducing a sliding commission scale for our sales team, which rewards individuals proportionately for the quality of the lead and how closely it matches our own company ethos. This way they can be selective about the companies they approach and are afforded time to develop closer relationships.

“While there are still targets to be met, this approach created a less pressurised atmosphere, and our sales team are motivated by the knowledge that they will reap higher rewards for better quality, while significantly improving our conversion rates for new business.”

So with even some of the best sales minds around finding it tough at the moment, giving support and inspiration is likely to be more effective than threats and ultimatums. This will also encourage loyalty, helping you keep your team together as the recovery kicks in.

Dogged sales tips

Graham McMullen, managing director of office services group Admiral, describes himself as a “sales dog” who believes in leadership by example. He says that in a recession you need to do five things to inspire and motivate your sales team:

1 Lead from the top: “Make sure senior people in the company (including me, in Admiral’s case) also have a sales target and meet it.” 2 Negotiate sales incentives: “Work with vendors/suppliers whose products you sell to get them to back sales incentives for your staff. If you normally sell 10 printers a month, ask what they will give you if you sell 15 next month. Pass the gains back to the salesperson who sells the most printers from that vendor.” 3 Think positive: “We established a ‘Board of Positivity’ on which we asked staff to stick up any positive newspaper or magazine articles they read about our industry or the wider economy in the UK. A lot of the recessionary thinking flows from what people see and read in the press, and this is a good way of shaking them out of defeatism.” 4 Don’t stop marketing: “Continue to invest in telesales and marketing. Salespeople need all the help they can get in a downturn, and you can get more bang for your buck in these areas when these kind of services are not particularly in high demand.” 5 Show how your products can save the customer money: “Build sales tools and educate your sales staff, so they can talk about the benefits of moving to the new product or service. New technology is cutting running costs and it is important to communicate these longer-term savings if you can.”

 

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