Managing salespeople and proposal writers has been described as being like herding cats. That seems a little unfair to cats, frankly. Cats can't help themselves. Salespeople and proposal writers, on the other hand, choose not to hold management to quite the level of infallibility that management would like.
Nonetheless, management and sales reps can work together to improve sales. And, when they're not working together, management can at least choose methods that do as little damage as possible to the already fragile egos of salespeople and proposal writers. Here's some tricks that I recommend.
Trick #1: The Follow-Up
When a salesperson gets back from visiting with a prospect, the sales manager should send a handwritten letter - or at least an email - to the prospect that thanks the prospect for the courtesy he showed the sales rep. It doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, it can be the same thing every time:
Dave asked us to thank you for the courtesy you showed him when he visited you about... "
Of course, the salesperson should be doing his own follow ups, but those should be about the prospect and what he needs. This one is designed to simply be a kind note to say thanks. And that simplicity is the key.
First, by thanking the prospect for their courtesy, the prospect sees himself as a courteous person. Not only is this flattering, but the prospect will now act consistently with that label. You open the way for the materials that follow. To do otherwise would be inconsistent.
Second and more importantly, by singling out courtesy, you signify that this is a quality you value. You also signal that your company is composed of humans who appreciate decency and who are easy to work with. All of those things help the prospect trust your more.
Third, there is an additional effect. The prospect who was courteous with the salesperson likes knowing that it was recognized and was worth enough that it was mentioned to a sales manager. This builds rapport and the prospect will be even happier to see the salesperson when he next returns.
And if the prospect wasn't courteous? This is why it should be handwritten and come from the sales manager. If it comes from the salesperson, it sounds passive aggressive. If it's an email, it's too easy to shoot back a snarky reply. But if the sales manager says it by letter, and this is a prospect you really want to pursue business with, then the discourteous prospect will be stuck recognizing the error in his treatment of the salesperson. Odds are good that, next time the salesperson calls on the prospect, the prospect will go out of his way to prove he's a good person.
Trick #2: The Tickler
Most Customer Relations Management software either includes or supports ticklers - little reminders that a customer or prospect should be contacted. But ticklers are useful for sales managers too, not just salespeople.
If the sales manager is getting reminders, then the manager can go to the salesperson and politely request a report. If, as usual, the salesperson has no report to make because he ignored his own tickler system, then the sales manager can set the system to remind him again the next day. When the next day comes, out comes the manager to politely get a report. This procedure keeps on going until the salesperson realizes it's easier to just call the prospect than to stare across his desk at his manager every afternoon, trying to come up with a fresh batch of excuses.
Trick #3: The Ego Saver
It's no secret that the egos of salespeople and proposal writers are delicate things. Not only the ego, but also the always fragile relationship between manager and salesperson can be damaged by a negative email about some trivial little detail the salesperson missed in a Miller Heiman Blue Sheet or other report. The morale deflating and resentment producing that goes along with receiving a critical email saps all his desire to sell. It can cost the company hundreds or thousands of times more than whatever the value would have been of filling out the Blue Sheet correctly. Despite this, I see managers continue to send these sorts of emails day in and day out - even at supposedly enlightened firms.
But, these managers argue, salespeople need to fill out the Blue Sheets correctly or else the rest of the organization can't do their jobs.
That's true as far as it goes, so here's the approach I recommend, for example, when salespeople are required to fill out specific forms on the customer, their needs, their pain points and so on.
The Blue Sheets themselves are easy enough to understand for the salesperson, since they've been trained in Strategic Selling. So the salesperson knows whether or not his Blue Sheet gives the information that it needs to.
Although it's possible for the manager to send a condescending email every time the Blue Sheet is filled out in a superficial way, it's not a good idea. It's too easy to harm the relationship with the salesperson, harm the company through decreased sales and so on.
Instead, the manager should just return a copy of the deficient Blue Sheet with a small star next to the questionable part. It's a symbol, which the salesperson immediately recognizes, that more depth or more information is required. If the next version of the Blue Sheet doesn't fix the problem, a copy is again returned, this time with a question mark next to the star. If a third mark is needed, then an exclamation point can be added and added and added, until there is a string of exclamation points for as many iterations of the Blue Sheet as the salesperson requires before he gets tired of the game and fills out the form correctly.
A salesperson might leave because he feels mistreated by the manager, but he can't exactly storm out because you put a lot of exclamation points on his Blue Sheet. Yet he knows he was sloppy and he knows the manager knows. The end result is much more effective than a nasty email.
Trick #4: Customer Eggs
One of the most important roles that a sales manager can do - but is rarely done - is to ensure that the company has a variety of customer types. Just as you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket, you shouldn't rest all your revenue on one sector. If you sold only to real estate companies in the early 2000s, your company went down the drain just as fast as the realtors did. More recently, if your customer was only working class individuals, the long recession left you in as bad a shape as it did them. A "one type of customer" business is as risky as a retirement plan that only has shares in one company.
Instead, your sales manager needs to check your customers for their industries and, taking it a step further, needs to check if those industries are correlated. If your clients are in software and construction, you're safe. If they're in real estate and construction, you're looking at trouble. Try to keep a little elasticity with your goods and your sales force, so that, if one area starts to get hit, you can smoothly shift over to another.
Bonus Tip: Competitions Aren't Always What You Want
As one final trick, consider the question of whether to have sales competitions. In this case, the trick is not what to do or not do, but what to consider. The issue here is that, if you offer prizes to the best salespeople or proposal writers for a particular month, you may end up causing more harm than good. Not to the losers, which you might expect, but to the winners.
There is no doubt that competitions work. If you offer one, the salespeople will go crazy to win the prizes. You will see energy you haven't seen in months.
The problem comes once the competition is over. It can ruin the winners. The winners will be some of your best salespeople. Once the contest is complete, however, they now know they they're your best salespeople. And unfortunately it can happen that it goes to their head, creates friction with other salespeople, and their sales immediately begin to fall. They start to coast on their reputations. They frequently cannot recover psychologically from the blinding of the temporary glory.
So, before you offer a sales contest, take a long hard look at your salespeople. Can they handle losing it? Can they handle winning it?
Keep these tricks and tips in mind and your organization will see more sales, higher proposal win rates and a happy, efficient sales team.
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