Giving your sales staff freedom to succeed
August 14, 2011 | 9:36 pm CDT

Two months ago we began a discussion about managing a sales force. In closing that conversation, this time we will address what is perhaps every manager's greatest challenge: Trusting his or her people to succeed.

So far, we have covered the three first steps in successfully running a sales operation: Identifying and hiring real pros, giving them realistic goals, and monitoring their activities (the last of which, it must be emphasized, does not mean directing those activities!).

By following these steps carefully, you will be sure to have a person -- or team -- with the ability and initiative to consistently produce sales. But no salesperson joins a company on Monday and begins meeting his or her sales goals on Tuesday.

Which brings us to step four: Trusting your people.

Managing any sort of team is about freeing people to do what they do best. It is also about having enough patience to see that Freedom pay off.

Inexperienced -- and newly appointed -- managers often struggle to summon the patience needed to successfully build and guide a team. That is understandable. They want to shake things up; to change things for the better. And they want results NOW.

Sadly, it doesn't work that way, perhaps least of all in sales.

It takes time for a salesperson, even a seasoned pro, to develop a clientele of such depth and breadth that sufficient numbers of customers are always placing orders. The key to success is that he or she is constantly working toward building that diverse base. This happens one prospect, one day, one week, one month and one year at a time.

Freedom #1

It has often been said, "Sales is about building relationships." Truer words were never spoken. But relationships are as different as people are, and as a sales manager, you ignore this truth at your peril.

Two months back, I said salespeople in general still retain a reputation (with me, at least) for being a little too enthusiastic, a little too loud and more than a little too inconsiderate. But if you allow some preconceived notion of what a salesperson is or "should" be to influence your interactions with your sales staff, you take a long stride down the wrong road, right off the bat.

Every salesperson has a different style. One may think schmoozing his prospect through a seven-course meal is the best way to that prospect's heart. Someone else on the same team may be all business, all the time. Neither approach is right or wrong. They just are, and as long as they work, that is all you, as a manager, need to worry about.

You want your people to be themselves, because that is what customers expect. If your schmoozer is in reality an all-business type, his discomfort playing the schmooze game will be obvious to his prospect. If the true schmoozer tries too hard to get up in her prospect's head, the results will not be good.

It is out of such awkward situations that the oft-heard phrase, "He (or she) just seems like a phony" usually arises. And there is no quicker way to sink a business relationship before it has even started.

So that covers the Freedom to be.

Freedom #2

The other key Freedom for sales pros is the Freedom to manage their own time.

I touched on this, too, in the first installment, mentioning the odd hours sales pros keep. Being available -- and, more important, responsive -- all the time, whenever customers’ needs require it, is a fact of life for sales pros. Ignore this, too, only at your peril.

We learn what we live, they say. But just because you have survived managers who are controlling and mistrustful yourself, why would you want to subject your sales staff to the same restrictive behavior?

Put in place the monitoring mechanisms discussed last month -- sales reports, ride-alongs, an OCCASIONAL and MERCIFULLY SHORT sales meeting -- and you will have at your fingertips all the tools you need to confidently free your salespeople to manage their own time.

Such mechanisms are familiar to sales pros. Coupled with individual quotas or team goals and incentives for reaching them, they will help you know whether your people are being persistent about building their customer base, without getting the sense their every move is being watched.

The "C" Word

Speaking of quotas and incentives, let us close with a few words about compensation.

Sales pay schemes are as diverse as the American landscape, ranging from full commission to full salary, with variations that include more or less of both elements.

Most packages are some form of "base plus commission," where the salespeople get a regular salary they can live on -- just barely. Adding in commission on sales closed and paid in full enables them to earn a more-than-spartan living and keeps them always primed for the next sale.

Only you can determine how you want your salespeople's compensation package to look, and you will probably do a lot of experimenting before getting the perfect mix for your particular operation.

Real pros committed to selling as a career would rather work for the same company for as long as possible, especially after they have done the hard work of building their customer base. So aim for a plan that makes it financially possible for new hires to hang in with you during the first year or two while building that base.

In year three and beyond, reward their initial hard work and encourage continued sales growth with bigger bonuses for meeting (harder) quotas, and lump-sum incentives for closing particularly large deals or reaching annual sales goals.

Nothing about sales -- closing them or managing those who do -- is easy. But savvy managers know that identifying and hiring real pros, giving them realistic goals, monitoring their activities and giving them the Freedom(s) they need to be successful on their own terms makes for better overall numbers and a loyal, dedicated sales force.

Anthony Noel has written for the magazine since 1994. Send e-mail to [email protected].

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