This article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in June 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission
Managing a small sales force is challenging
In start-up small businesses the entrepreneur will usually make all the sales. As the business grows a sales team is often recruited. The entrepreneur may retain important customers and may keep responsibility for some product lines.
Some arrangements like this work very well, but if your sales force is underperforming and you still have to bring in the bulk of the income you need to take action. A typical result of this situation is a deteriorating relationship between demotivated salespeople and the frustrated entrepreneur. Do not automatically blame the toxic situation exclusively on the salespeople – your own actions and omissions may be causing the problem.
The right people
Finding the right salespeople is a challenge; you need strong enthusiastic people who see sales as a desirable career, not just a place to earn some money until they get a ‘real job’. Your company probably does not yet have well-known brands or comprehensive sales support, so recruit those who can work in this environment. Ask the right questions. They must enjoy learning on their own, be self-reliant and work hard with little supervision. They must also fit the culture of your company.
You may unconsciously assume that new salespeople share your product knowledge, work ethic, and feelings of being responsible for the business succeeding. You will need to build these characteristics with training, motivation, communication, mentoring and rewards. The investment of even large amounts of money and time in these aspects pays dividends.
Be fair. If salespeople are on commission make sure they make enough money to devote themselves enthusiastically to selling; if they can’t pay their bills they will moonlight, start a sideline business or steal your customers or money. Give a guaranteed commission for a longer than expected introductory period so they are able to build their sales and prospect funnel and become self-sustaining. When a salesperson succeeds, pay even huge commissions willingly and celebrate this success. Never reduce commission because it is ‘too high’.
Few entrepreneurs are experienced sales managers, but this does not deter them from taking the sales managers role, just as they have taken many management roles in building the business. If this is you, unless your sales force is performing well or spectacularly then learn the art of sales management to improve overall performance. Sales management is a highly specialised skill, and is time intensive; invest appropriately.
Be aware of your management style and be consistent with it. If you are a micro manager, recruiting independent spirits will cause clashes. Tell sales candidates in the interview how they will be managed and get agreement. If they underperform find out why this is before changing management style. Reasons may be laziness, overpriced products, insecurity, unrealistic targets or many others. Real horror stories come from other managers, often in production or finance using lower than expected sales to intervene and micro manage free spirits or scorn those who need lots of support.
Sales teams work best with good marketing and good sales support; sales aids, technical backup, market research, reference customers, lead generation and an effective internet presence. They will sell more if the products have a good brand identity and your company is respected. All of this consumes time and money but it is a mistake to try to avoid brand development and sales support. Throwing an untrained salespeople into the market with unknown products and little sales support is a recipe for failure for even the most skilled salesperson.
One of the best growth strategies your business can implement is a team of skilled, supported and motivated sales professionals actively selling well marketed products to targeted customers. They spread the reach of the company, bring back market intelligence and customer information and will motivate and enthuse the whole staff. The investment in correct recruitment, training, support and branding is a small price to pay for this return.
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