Managing individual salespeople


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Is managing salespeople one of your most difficult tasks? If so, you’re not alone. CEOs who have few problems managing people in other positions still struggle with their sales department.

Part of the problem is the kind of person who is put in charge of the department; I’ll cover that briefly later. It’s also difficult to tell if the person running the department is doing a good job or not, because of the conflict between what that manager says (“Everything is going great! No problems!”) and disappointing sales figures. And lastly, the CEO may not know how to manage salespeople, even if he’s done a little selling himself. He’s not able to tell what’s being done right – or not. The bulk of this article will focus on solving this last problem.

What type of manager is running your sales now?

Almost all sales departments are headed by salespeople who have worked their way up through the ranks. Unfortunately, salespeople have some inherent weaknesses when it comes to management. They are not, by nature, logistically minded. They’ll do anything to avoid digging down into the details of systems and processes. Also, they have succeeded throughout their careers by minimizing the negative and accentuating the positive. Strong managers do something else; they constantly look for problems so they can fix them.

There are also two types of salespeople, or, I should say, two distinct schools of thought when it comes to making sales. One school says, “Tell them anything they want to hear, in order to land the deal, and worry about the rest later.” The other is, “Be absolutely honest about what the product/service can and cannot do for the customer. If that means you lose this deal, so be it. That customer will never forget that you were honest, and will refer others to you going forward.” And, it should be noted, sometimes the customer buys the product in spite of its weaknesses, because it’s safer to buy from a company that deals honestly, and the weaknesses can usually be overcome in some other way.

The “tell them anything” types don’t make desirable management team members, because they do the same manipulative selling thing with their management peers and higher-ups. The real problems are misrepresented, covered up, and never fixed.

The salespeople working for this type of sales manager get more and more frustrated. If they like their job otherwise, they usually shut up and stifle their frustrations, doing what they can to work around the problems.They muddle along. They also stick around longer than might be expected because this type of sales management is so common. They know if they quit, they’ll probably be jumping from the frying pan into a fire.

The company could be doing much better, and all the salespeople know it. They believe that the management team is clueless, because their own manager convinces them that he has taken their problems to management team (something he has not done), and then tells his staff that the management team was not willing to take action.

How to you spot these manipulative types? Ask them a lot of questions. Take note of what they say – about numbers, processes, systems, customers, and their staff. Then go looking for the truth. If what they said and what you uncover are the same, at least the person is being honest. If what they say differs from the truth, you’ve got a problem. Usually the problems involve lying about numbers, taking credit for the success of others, shifting blame when there is a problem, playing favorites within the staff, setting one staff member against another, and hiding all sorts of shady deals and misconduct that could be cause for immediate dismissal.

If an inherently manipulative person is warned about unacceptable behavior, that person will appear to change, but it will just be another act. With them, everything is an act. The same problems will remain. The best thing to do with these types is to get them out of your company, and replace them with someone you can depend on.

How to manage sales individuals

Salespeople are not a “team,” although they will work peacefully together if you set up the department correctly, and manage them properly. The best sales managers manage each sales person individually, because of the very nature of selling. It’s an individual effort, requiring incredible persistence in the face of overwhelming odds. Salespeople are basically independent, optimistic types with strong social skills.

Successful selling is a daily, full-out battle to gain the attention and acceptance of those who might benefit from what you’re selling. Assuming you’re selling a complex product or service, your salespeople have to identify potential buyers, get through to them, ask then a lot of smart questions, understand the situation, determine if and how the potential customers would benefit from your product or service, help them see that same potential, help them get approval, and then close the deal.

By the time a buyer comes to your salesperson, he’s done a massive amount of online and friends-advice research. Your salespeople better not bore that prospect by trying to take him backwards to the beginning of his buying process. Instead, your salesperson should jump right in wherever the buyer is on his journey, and move right along with that buyer to a successful conclusion.

Who is the salesperson’s worst enemy? The salesperson.

Given that this is a battle that requires character and strength, any character flaws will be magnified in the course of the daily battle for the attention and acceptance of potential customers.

It is essential to correctly identify the salesperson’s main personal weakness, and their biggest strength. You identify their weakness through observation of their behavior interacting with you, co-workers, and customers. You listen as they are talking to customers.

In addition, you can learn of their weaknesses from others. Every week, when you meet with your salespeople, you ask, “Is there anything that we could do to make your job easier?” Often this is when one of them will mention that “John is so negative, it’s dragging the rest of us down,” or “Sally doesn’t seem to be pulling her weight.”

When I do departmental turnarounds for the CEOs I mentor, it usually takes me a couple of weeks to be absolutely certain about each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and “good enough” behaviors. Don’t expect to uncover the truth in an afternoon. Give them time to slip up and reveal their true character.

Once you are certain, you must sit each person down and lay it out for them. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses,” you can say, showing a “range” with your hands. “I want to talk about your strength, so you know where you excel, and then your weakness, so we can fix it. Everything else is ‘in between’ – good enough, in other words. We won’t worry about the ‘good enough’ characteristics right now.”

You must start with their strength, so they don’t panic. You don’t want them thinking that this is a “your job is on the line” conversation. Salespeople love to be recognized for a job well done.

Then talk to them about their weakness. Make it clear that you are going to help them fix something that is making them less effective. Don’t beat around the bush. I’ve had to say, “You have bad breath.” “You are seen as negative – because of offhand and behind-the-back comments you make about others.” “Your speech habits are preventing people from respecting you.” “You say one thing to one person and something to someone else; people don’t trust you as a result.” “People think you’re lazy.” “You’re not following up, even though you say you are following up.”

The weaknesses are as varied as the individuals you have selling for you. Everyone is different.

After you state their weakness, watch their reaction. It will tell you just how willing they will be to overcome their weakness. If they get defensive, you’re going to have problems. Ditto if they pretend to agree, but are just going through the motions. The most encouraging reaction: They are shocked – because they didn’t realize that about themselves – and they will immediately start thinking about what they can do about it.

In my experience, once they realize they have this problem, and the boss is aware of it, the ones that don’t resist will change almost immediately. While salespeople can be rigid – they like to repeat whatever works – they also can turn on a dime if the situation calls for it. However, even after they change, expect that you will need to keep an eye on them – so they don’t slip back into bad habits. Be ready to help them with further refinements of the new, corrected behavior.

Contrary to popular sales management techniques advocated by hard-driving, get-the-order-at-any-cost types, compassion goes a long way in these conversations. Salespeople deal with rejection all day long; you want to be someone in their work life who truly looks after them and tries to help them. They also appreciate someone who is on their side, someone they can trust to tell them the truth, because customers seldom tell salespeople the truth about what they’re really thinking. It’s a lonely, anxious existence.

As they start to improve in their weakest area, they will experience success that had eluded them previously. They will approach all of their work with renewed vigor, which can only be good for your revenue stream.

Successful sales is at least 80% logistics – certain things must be done, a certain way, at a certain time – and the rest is mature, fair, and educated person-to-person interaction.

Make sure your current or future sales manager is someone who deals squarely and fairly; works with individuals effectively; and invests significant energy in the workflow, processes, and systems that support daily selling activities. The bombastic, competitive types who usually get a sales management job are weak in all of these areas. You’re better off hiring someone who has some selling experience, but who is logistically minded and is intensely interested in being a strong manager.


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