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What I Wish I Knew Before Starting to Manage Sales Professionals

By: Mark Wolters, Co-President & Co-Founder, SalesEvolve

If you find yourself in a new role where you are now responsible for managing sales professionals, there are a number of characteristics and challenges that I wish I had known about before I started.

As a quick note, I believe every single person is unique. As a result, I always work with each of our staff as individuals. In fact, even as I share the observations contained in this blog, I also have examples of someone that is the exception to every one of them. This is just how people are!

However, over the years I have also found that there are several characteristics of sales professionals that show up over and over again—and with them come some challenges. These challenges can often feel overwhelming. Yet, when understood and embraced, these same characteristics can become real strengths for you and your team.  

Here are a few that have impacted me over the years:

Characteristic 1: They are often very driven by relationships

Sales professionals will ‘feel’ their way through a conversation, and often use ‘instincts’ to respond to clients. It is common for sales professionals to use these interactions with clients and prospects to also determine how the sale itself is progressing. Many of the best ones I have worked with have stated openly that this is how they do their work.

The Challenge:

With so much weight placed on relationships and ‘instincts’, even the best sales professionals can accidently find themselves reacting to their client rather than proactively guiding them forward through the sales process. If your team is orientated in this way, you will have a difficult time forecasting what the expected revenue is without figuring out some way to translate these personal ‘feelings’ into something more tangible. 

You may also find yourself feeling at ‘odds’ with your staff if your requested next steps conflict with what they ‘feel’ to be right. Emotions are powerful influencers and it is human nature to trust them more than other things, such as a manager asking them to do something. 

The Opportunity:

If you set up regularly scheduled meetings with your staff to review their pipeline, you will slowly unwind their personal approaches to interpreting the relationships they have with clients and prospects. You will also be teaching them how you do the same. Over time, this will establish trust and you can start asking questions that help them think about next steps they may want to take.

This time together becomes your own commitment to having a relationship with your staff and they will come to value their time with you.

Characteristic 2:  They see ‘no’ as an opportunity

Sales professionals are usually hired because of their ability to ignore a ‘no’ and instead, see it as an opportunity to better understand their customer and slowly transition to a ‘yes’. This characteristic extends well beyond their time with a customer. It is hardwired into their genetic fiber.

The Challenge:

As you might imagine, people who are trained to consider every word and not take things at face value are often not great at simply complying with a request. Rather, they usually need to see how this request is good for them. It can be an exhausting experience if you don’t find a way to embrace it. Otherwise, you will feel like you are always having to ‘convince them’ to do their jobs.

The Opportunity:

Since this is normal, you will need to learn not to take it personally when your team is not compliant after you ask.

Instead, frame ‘the ask’ with clarity on why you need it, and how it will help them be more successful.

Once they truly understand it, they will rarely ‘fight’ you on this request in the future because they will have taken ownership of it as though it was theirs. Yes, it takes longer—but if you skip this step, you will just have to keep repeating the ask over and over and it can become very frustrating for you both.

Characteristic 3: They naturally grow in their level of understanding in multiple fields 

To be successful, sales professionals have to really understand what their customers think, feel and do. This level of empathy is powerful as it can provide new insights and allow the customer to feel heard and understood. 

Sales professionals often enjoy this element of their job the most. It ‘feels’ good to help someone. Most times, this is a major strength and benefit to your company and your team.

The Challenge:

Occasionally, new information can be assimilated in a way that forms a bias. Clients can be very compelling, and many of them are leading experts in their fields. However, just because one company applies their expertise in a certain way does not mean the next one does (or even should).  Once the bias is in place people have a tendency to project it onto other clients/solutions.

While their intentions are good, this bias can occasionally lead to several negative consequences. Examples include product design requests that are skewed towards a single ‘active’ user, providing ‘free services’ to support the perceived gaps in the current design, or staff being assigned to support a market that doesn’t really exist. 

The Opportunity:

It is critical that sales professionals not be ignored. They will lose faith in you as their leader, and the company as a whole, if you ignore or minimize their feedback. Many times, the new insights they bring back to the company have the ability to positively impact the direction and success of messaging, future product designs and/or staffing requirements. Sometimes it can just be helpful for the rest of the sales team to also know what they learned—making the next sale cycle that much better.

As the manager, just make sure you look at all the angles and ask lots of questions. Once you feel like there is something that could be utilized by the company, validate it by some other means. For example, you could hire a third party to do a market assessment, ask your manager or Board member to assign a resource to offer a different perspective, check with the other sales staff about their experiences, or even set up a call and dig into the subject with the customer yourself.

Don’t forget to give credit to your team for their efforts whenever they lead to something that propels the company forward! 

Characteristic 4: They naturally avoid being locked into a ridged process

Sales professionals often see ridged processes as an intrusion of their ‘style’ of doing work and worry that it will reduce their relationship with their client to something that does not match client needs.

The Challenge:

There is some truth to this worry as there are managers who will apply a set of ridged processes that are designed to prioritize internal communication and reporting over supporting the customer buying cycle.

However, even managers who do effectively prioritize customer needs over their own will require visibility into the pipeline and need some kind of framework that is consistently used by their team. 

There are a number of strategies I have seen employees use to avoid a process. All of them are painful and time-consuming. Some examples I have seen, include:

  • they will ‘hold back’ information from you;
  • suddenly have email problems and ‘didn’t get the message’;
  • start entering data into the CRM system with unrealistic close dates and poor descriptions;
  • have medical appointments to attend on meeting days; etc. 

The Opportunity:

By formally building a ‘sales process’ which is tailored to the unique needs of your customers and your business, you will enable many different personalities to follow the natural cycles of both your customers and your staff. 

This is one of those things that can literally enable or prevent success. 

If you feel unsure, consider hiring a third-party expert to assist. If they are good at what they do, this can become one of the single most powerful investments you can make for your team. 

In the end, a well-crafted sales process should facilitate a customer buying cycle while giving you and your team the tools they need to do their jobs and not lose track of all the valuable information your teams(s) collect. 

Characteristic 5: They become very protective of their ‘territory’

Like a mother bear, sales professionals see their assigned space as ‘theirs’. They will protect their prospects and clients and quickly jump in to eliminate any threat to their ‘space’.

The Challenge:

While they don’t actually ‘own’ anything— they may act like they do. Consequently, it can cause serious issues (and conflict) if a staff member tries to contact ‘their’ customer or works with division of a company they consider ‘theirs’—even if it not in ‘their’ territory.

The Opportunity:

By getting ahead of the potential conflict, you will find that the team will relax, and solve many of their own issues. This allows for a positive team environment. Additionally, it can facilitate a team approach to helping a customer, and allows the customer to receive the very best your company has to offer.

The easiest way to avoid conflict is to set expectations of ownership and territory ‘conflicts’ right up front. Clearly define who can call the ‘who, what, where and when’ around territories and any conditions for the ‘exceptions-to-the-rule’. In addition, have a plan that is fully communicated to the team, so everyone understands the ‘rules’—including what to do if conflict arises. 

Finally, it is important that everyone is clear that the company is the owner of these territories and all the clients. However, the ‘rules-of-engagement’ are to in place because the company understands and values the role that they each play in working with finding and keeping great customers! 

Characteristic 6: They value making money

This usually aligns well with what their customers want and can help sales professionals drive the sale forward. Although not everyone is this way, sales professionals often see their base salary as the way they pay their bills, but their ‘commission’ is what they go to work for.  

The Challenge:

One of the down sides to this characteristic is that they can devalue time spent on anything that does not directly make them commission. For instance, despite receiving good salaries to properly look after administrative duties (such as CRM entry or new employee onboarding), they can see these tasks as a barrier to the things they should be doing—which is closing business (ie. making commission).

The Opportunity:

Incentive models are what you make of them. You will find that sales professionals can be incentivized to do many things with great success. You may just have to change the incentive model to correspond to company goals and customer needs. In our experience, it is far more effective to simply work with this characteristic than it is to change it.

If you work for a company that doesn’t have an appetite to alter incentive plans, you will need to do your best paint a picture for staff to see how they will benefit from the current model.

All in all, sales professionals are some of the strongest and most interesting people you will meet, but they can also be a challenge to manage if something isn’t going well! I hope that hearing about some of my own experiences can help get you started on the right foot. More importantly—I hope you enjoy the adventure!

Good luck in your new role!