Maybe you have been in sales before. Maybe you haven’t. Either way, you probably don’t know how to manage a sales force. Second of three parts.

Of the many things that make salespeople different from your other employees, perhaps the greatest is their entrepreneurial spirit.

Last month, we said Freedom is the one thing most sales pros crave, but the thing many owners and sales managers seem most reluctant to offer. That is because owners and sales managers have often been salespeople — successful salespeople — themselves. And they have let their own successes convince them that they know what is best for every salesperson. That is not their fault, it is just human nature.

But it is still wrong.

Sit in on any conversation among salespeople and one thing you will find in abundance is confidence. Confidence this or that tactic is the best approach for a particular situation. Confidence is borne, of course, of success. It is easy to think a given path is the best one when it has worked for you, and easier still to believe any other approach could not possibly work as consistently as the one you are already certain does work.

But if a group of 10 different salespeople can provide 10 different proven solutions to the same challenge, doesn’t it follow that there are at least nine other ways to go when a former salesperson — now charged with managing a sales team — insists his way is best? Of course! Yet some managers are so insistent on imposing their techniques on those they manage that they instead squelch the very creativity and initiative that could take their company’s sales to the next level.

When it comes to the sales function, that is really all you care about: The company’s sales. (That is what you care about, right?) So, what is a manager to do?

Strategies for Good Management

Put simply, a manager needs to follow the example of the racing team owner cited last month: Hire pros, set goals and talk about strategy — but then, sit down, shut up and let them drive.

Hiring a real sales pro sounds easy, but don’t fool yourself. There are many people out there who excel at selling themselves, but are marginal at selling products or services. Your job is to weed out these self-promoters. You do that by requesting quantifiable evidence of an applicant’s prior sales experience and success.

Impressive resumes are a good start, but they are better when backed by monthly sales production reports, sales awards and incentive bonuses. Request such information if you are placing an ad for sales help, along with references and letters of recommendation. Then, follow up on them. Put the claims on the resume to the test, and pass over applicants whose reality doesn’t line up with their claims.

Goal-setting is crucial, but this is where many owners and managers begin to go wrong. There is a difference between setting goals and managing someone to death. Impose your personal sales technique on your newly hired pro and you are guilty of the latter.

A realistic progression from one achievable goal to the next is key. Whether you use results-oriented targets like sales quotas or effort-based guides like the number and type of sales calls made, effective goal-setting must combine your knowledge of the market (what is possible) with your long-range vision for your company (what you want to achieve). Most important, the first of these must temper the second.

If you are new to managing a sales person or team, the importance of setting achievable goals cannot be overstated. It is best in the early going — your salesperson’s and your own — to set the bar low and work it higher as you go. Over time, you will learn what one salesperson can achieve. You will recognize the difference between aggressive, but reachable, goals that build confidence and unrealistic goals that foster doubt. And doubt, confidence’s flip side, is every salesperson’s greatest enemy.

Like that race team owner, you also have to monitor the efforts of your drivers, er, salespeople, and it is here that we begin to separate the wheat of sales managers from the chaff. Beginners will always try to do too much; seasoned managers know not to act until it is absolutely necessary, lest they be guilty of managing-to-death.

Sales management tools

One highly effective monitoring tool is the weekly sales report. It needn’t be elaborate, but should give you the basics: Date and time of sales calls, clients called on, what was discussed and the results. Require it to be filed by Monday noon for the prior week’s activity, and be sure to read it yourself.

You are not looking for things to nitpick; in fact, you may go months without commenting on anything. But every now and then something will trigger an undeniably good idea.

You won’t have to think about the details of it or worry about your salesperson’s reaction. It will just come to you, and you will probably find yourself thinking, “I wonder if he has considered this?”

So call him up and ask. That’s all.

Similarly, visiting clients with your salesperson (sometimes called “ride-alongs”) will give you insight into how he or she works. Done sparingly, ride-alongs can be more instructive for you than your salespeople. Done weekly or monthly, and you are again flirting with that managing-to-death thing.

Sales meetings can be a good monitoring tool. But they can also be mind-numbing reviews of points everybody already knows and rob true pros of time they would rather spend doing what they do best: making sales calls. Use meetings sparingly and only when you are sure they will benefit everyone.

As we wrap up this series next month, we will look at the final step in effectively managing a sales team: Giving your people the time and trust they need to succeed. We also will explore compensation options.

Anthony Noel has written for CWB since 1994. Send e-mail to anthonynoel@suddenlink.net.

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