Holy Cripes: I’m the New Sales Manager – and There’s a Recession Going on Out There!


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Anecdotal evidence pouring in from all over distributor-land points toward a growing trend to re-evaluate sales leadership. The reasons for this are varied and complex – the result of a cost cutting measure, because things “just weren’t working out” or some miscellaneous realignment. Suffice to say, a whole bunch of people are realizing their greatest dream or suffering through their worst nightmare. They’re out in front; their sabers drawn; it’s the charge of the sales light brigade. But somehow in the distance, the crush of omnipresent recession looms heavy.

The rules of battle have changed. We need to do something different, but what? If you are a new sales manager, take heed. Once you understand the game, it is possible to lead a successful sales team through this economy and ever onward.

For the next eight minutes, let’s explore five steps to driving a winning sales effort.

Step One – Evaluate your Team
It’s imperative to understand the team you have inherited. Take time to rate and rank each of your team. Here are categories you can use to rank your team. Rank each member for each of these processes independently.
• Planning
Do they efficiently use their time to do the right things?
• Sales Process
Do they follow your company’s procedures?
Do they engage Inside Sales, Customer Service Reps, Specialists, and Management?
• Targeting – Prospecting
Do they bring in the right kind of customers?
Are their customers profitable?
• Technology
Do they make use of the technical tools provided by your company (CRM, Customer Profiles, etc)?
Do they use email, cell phones, palm devices and other tools efficiently?
• Customer Value and Measurement
Do they create and measure the value they provide to their customers?
Do they know their customer’s business?
• Product Knowledge
Do they understand the application of your products to the customer’s business?
• Sales Results
Where do their Gross Margin numbers track in your organization?
Is their sales territory growing? Has it grown faster than the national average?
Do they regularly take business from competitors?

This isn’t going to be the favorite part of your job, but it is essential to understand as soon as possible if you have anyone who isn’t going make it. It feels good to think that you can help a “fixer upper”, but set a time line for them and for yourself. In poor economic conditions you can’t afford dead wood. Plus, creating an open position allows you to build a budget slush fund to hire a top performer from a competitor. Further, ranking allows you to identify trends and commonality of strengths for your particular sales environment. For instance, you may find that your top three salespeople all have exceptional Targeting-Prospecting skills. Armed with this information, you can better determine training goals for the rest of the team.
(Want more information on rating your sales team? Drop us a line – we have a sample evaluation you may find useful.)

Step Two – Develop a Target Strategy
In recessionary times, sales teams run the risk of two diseases. The first is panic. When it sets in sales people go into emotional vapor lock. They cease to aggressively pursue new business. Secretly, they imagine the whole situation to be hopelessly lost. This malady can be disastrous if the sales manager doesn’t step in with a curative plan. This is a bad news/good news scenario. The bad news; it’s deadly – the good news it’s easily cured.

But a more complex disease lurks just around the corner. This particular contagion is far more dangerous because it’s expensive and harder to diagnose. It’s the chasing your tail syndrome. Here salespeople chase down every potential opportunity without respect to either profitability or potential for success. Quotation activity increases, expenses accelerate, gross margins trend downward and for some reason success stays just out of reach.

The answer to both of these complaints comes in the form of a well thought out Targeting Strategy. Targeting allows you to scientifically select prospects with the greatest opportunity for success and profitability. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a skill that most salespeople come by naturally. And, research indicates that companies with well developed Targeting process are 47% more effective at reaching their goals. Can you really afford to give away a 47% advantage?

(River Heights Consulting has developed a process for Targeting at the Distributor level. Give us a call to learn more.)

Step Three – Add Metrics to your Sales Process
“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance
is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.” …Thomas S. Monson

Many sales managers measure their sales people using exactly the same way our grandfathers did it back in the good old days. Sales up, sales down, gross margin percentage – that’s all. It may have worked for grandpa, but it doesn’t really tell you much. In a down economy, it just plain doesn’t work – period. Here’s why. Sales numbers don’t show market share gains, new gains in sales productivity, or progress in a down economy.

Advances in computer and communication technology open a whole new vista of sales measures. Space limits our ability to drill into detail, but below are a few thoughts to get your own creative juices flowing:
• Number of new accounts opened
• Number of new contacts made
• Number of “Executive Level” calls
• New products sold to existing accounts
• Numbers of lunch and learns conducted
• Number of quotations produced
• Number of meetings planned / number of meetings confirmed
• FOCUS Analysis performed
(For an explanation of the FOCUS analysis, drop us a line. We will share our tutorial with you at no-cost.)

Step Four – Close the loop with your team often
Here’s a simple observation. In the 30-plus years that I have been involved in sales, I have heard 1,231,954 salesperson war stories (but who’s counting). Every story splashed with sales brilliance. Late in the evening, these epic tales of conquest, swashbuckling sagas of orders saved, and harrowing chronicles of perfect execution flow like the beer which fuels them. So what’s the point, not a single story relates to a tragic sales blunder. Sales folk don’t like to revisit their mistakes.

A good sales manager leads the study of great victories, staggering defeats and everything in between. These sessions offer coaching opportunities and insight into the strengths and weaknesses of various team members. Close the loop by scheduling a short one-on-one meeting with each of your sales team members as often as practicable. The meeting should be scheduled and “semi-formal”- passing in the hallway or at the coffee pot doesn’t work.

Here is a sample meeting agenda:
• New prospective sales in the future (30-60-90-180 days out)
• Activities scheduled for the coming week/month
• Orders closed / lost in the past week/month
• Service after the order
• Issues hindering new growth
• Coaching moment (targeting, prospecting, etc)

It is important that you maintain detailed notes in order to track the flow of prospective sales from first visibility to order closure. By tracking these activities you can gage the ability of the sales person to actively prospect and target. One of our clients had a salesperson who was very good act identifying potential business, unfortunately a large percentage of that business was price driven and not profitable for his organization. By providing continued coaching on the ideal customer type and targeting, his manager was able to refocus prospecting efforts and turn the situation around.

Step Five – Don’t go it alone
It’s lonely at the top. Things change when you are in charge – especially if you are now supervising those who once were your peers. When you ask your team for information you will hear, “Do you want me selling or filling out reports?” When you suggest new sales methods or develop a process, you’ll get, “My customers won’t do that.” And, salespeople are very persuasive.

Everybody has their own agenda – your boss, your best supplier, your banker and your favorite customer. You need a network. You need your own private board of experts. You need a coach. If you are not actively involved in your industry association, I suggest you start.

Consider adding an executive coach. They provide one-on-one customized business training. Consider this, golf legend Tiger Woods has a swing coach, a personal trainer, and a number of specialists he calls in to perfect his game. A good executive coach provides the same kind of assistance to your leadership game. You coach has but one objective – building your strengths as a leader and sales manager. And, they are a good investment – research of Fortune 500 companies indicates coaches provide a 529% ROI, plus a number of intangible benefits. An executive coach provides the following benefits:
• A better decision making process – feedback, devils advocate, subjective criticism
• Unbiased feedback – Answer the question, did I miss something here?
• Extra experience – Why reinvent the wheel?
• Expanded rolodex – Experts, others in your situation, accelerate network growth
• Personal growth – a partner to hold you accountable

Good Luck and a parting thought
There are a two of points that every new manager needs to consider about these recessionary times.
1. No recession has ever lasted forever. They have a start and an end.
2. Marketshare growth is easier in a recession, if you plan right.

Nick Denton, a British expatriate, internet millionaire and business guru said it best when he commented, “This economic downturn is an extinction-level event. It will be bad for the dinosaurs – but great for any of the mammals that survive.”

Join me in celebrating the end of dinosaurs.


  1. Nick, you hit the nail on the head with this line in your article, “The rules of battle have changed. We need to do something different, but what?

    Let me offer something different. Maybe the term “sales manager” is a misnomer. No one can “manage sales” as one cannot manage what one cannot control. What a sales manager can do and should do is manage the results of the sale be it either positive or negative. Positive only means that the customers bought despite, possibly, the barriers the sales manager’s firm put in the way of more or getter sales. Negative means that the barriers were just to high for the buyer/customer to climb or jump over.

    Let’s change the job description if not changing the job title. The sales manager should have two basic functions:

    * As the representative of the sales staff to management and not, as it is now, the other way around. If anyone on the sales staff is not doing as expected, is the salesperson hampered by things that in management’s control? As one who has worked with management, sales managers, sales support staff, sales staff, many times the problems are generated internally but end up negatively affecting sales.

    * As the firm’s customers’ representative to management. If customers are not buying or buying enough, to blame it on the economy and/or the sales staff may be a cop-out. Is the problem due to the firm’s internal constraints of policies, procedures, available inventory, support, etc. or is it that customers’ policies and procedures are not compatible with the suppliers’ policies and procedures? If it is, how does this get fed back into the system so that the differences may be examined? It comes from first the sales staff and through the sales manager, both are customers’ representatives to management.

    One way to facilitate this change in what a sales manager’s job is, is to practice Business Calisthenics – a way of organizing those things that should be looked at to see what is not working and what might be done to make them work: An abbreviated list is:
    * What questions are customers asking, why did they ask it, and what generated the questions?

    * Out customers’ complaints – the situations, the solutions, and what has to be changed so each complaint ceases to be a problem?

    * What are we doing that could be done, in our customers’ eyes better, differently, or better and differently?

    * What changes are going on in our customers’ businesses that we can help them solve?

    (See articles “Business Calisthenics” and “Change – Revolution or Evolution” at www sellingselling.com)

    Here’s another change to consider for these “interesting” times . . . interesting because we aerr challenged to turn things around. The change is looking at customers (especially the contact at customers’ businesses) as your firm’s “unpaid sales staff. ” I know this is a very different description of what customers are but in reality they are because if the customer cannot sell decision to buy to others in their business, a sale will not be made.

    So, just as you have performance reviews within your business, here is a three question review you can give your unpaid salespeople – management, sales manager, sales staff can do the review mentally or they can ask customers these questions directly.
    * Customer, what are we doing that gets in your way?
    * Customer, what can we do to help you do your job better?
    * Customer, what do you have to do to do your job better . . . and how can we help you do it?

    Yes, the rules of battle have changed. You need to do something different, but will you?


    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    Recipient of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Attitudes for Selling offers consulting, workshops and speaking on all business topics that affect sales.
    I can be reached at [email protected] or through his web site http://www.sellingselling.com


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