Every week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wednesday on Twitter from 8-9 pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with Suzanne Paling (@SuzannePaling). Suzanne is the principal consultant of Sales Management Services, a consulting and coaching firm in Boston. She’s the author of The Accidental Sales Manager, published by Entrepreneur Press. It was a finalist for a Best Books 2010 Award from USA Book News and a bronze medalist at the Axiom book awards. She is also the author of The Accidental Sales Manager Guide to Hiring.
SmallBizLady: Who are accidental sales managers?
Suzanne Paling: Presidents, owners or CEO’s of a smaller sized company who find themselves reluctantly in charge of the sales force. These company leaders might have a background in finance or product management. Possibly they invented the product or service the company is built around. The company grows and suddenly there’s a sales force that needs to be managed. Even though they aren’t the most qualified, no one else in the company is better qualified to manage the group than they are.
SmallBizLady: Why are they so reluctant to manage the sales force?
Suzanne Paling: These company presidents rarely have a formal sales background. They’ve never “carried a bag” so to speak or been responsible for a sales quota in a designated geographic territory. Their sales experience is really limited to high-level networking with fellow executives. Many have solid management skills that don’t translate well to the sales people. They don’t understand why. This hesitancy and lack of experience become really evident when they have to hire a new sales representatives.
SmallBizLady: What is their survival strategy for managing sales people – an employee is so much different than the others they manage?
Suzanne Paling: Salespeople face rejection every day. A lot of obstacles get put in their way to keep them from doing their job (gatekeepers are not letting them through, prospects are not returning emails or phone calls, or companies signing with a competing vendor.) Anyone managing salespeople needs to meet with them regularly, help strategize on deals, and provide motivation (through contests and inspiring compensation plans). Many company leaders find these responsibilities overwhelming and annoying.
SmallBizLady: What makes your book “the accidental sales manager” different from other sales management books on the market?
Suzanne Paling: There are a lot of well-written sales management books available. All target the career sales manager, a professional who has spent years as a salesperson and has a better understanding of the responsibilities of the position. They manage salespeople all day long. My book targets the company leader who juggles other responsibilities including managing the sales force. I say to that leader, “I know you haven’t got all day to manage the sales reps. You need a survival guide for managing the reps. Let me show you how to incorporate it into your day to increase the effectiveness of the sales force.”
SmallBizLady: What are the most common mistakes accidental sales managers make when it comes to hiring a new salesperson?
Suzanne Paling: There are 4 usually see:
- Failing to complete the compensation plan before the interview process starts
- Not having a sales toolkit with product information, sample introductions, and objections
- Not creating any fun, motivating sales contests for their first few weeks
- Hiring them full time rather than for a 90 day trial period
SmallBizLady: What happens if they haven’t completed the compensation plan before beginning the hiring process?
Suzanne Paling: Good sales people are sought after. If you are changing the plan right up until the moment you show it to a candidate, it doesn’t put you in a strong position to negotiate with them because you won’t know it very well yourself. If you present an unfinished plan, they might not understand it or be confused about how to calculate their earnings potential. The rep then questions whether or not they want to come to work for your company.
SmallBizLady: Why is a sales toolkit so important to the new hire?
Suzanne Paling: The more quickly a sales rep gets up to speed, the more quickly they start closing sales and becoming a profit center for your business. The toolkit “short cuts” the learning process, by putting the information they need at their fingertips such as answers to the most common objections, template emails, product fact sheets, and sample proposals. Without this information, the sales rep wastes time gathering all the material themselves and losing sales in the process. Make a difficult job as easy as possible by assembling the critical information in advance and putting it in their hands on day one.
SmallBizLady: Why do salespeople need a sales contest when they haven’t sold anything yet?
Suzanne Paling: Salespeople feel very insecure the first few weeks. No matter how many sales they’ve closed in the past, they haven’t closed one yet with your company. Depending on the length of the sales cycle, it might be a while before they do. To keep them motivated, reward them for non-revenue related activities. For instance, set a goal of having 10 conversations with decision makers. Once they hit ten, give them a gift certificate for a local area restaurant or an on-line store you know they like. This is short money compared to the goodwill and enthusiasm you generate with the rep.
SmallBizLady: You recommend hiring the representative for a 90-day trial period. Why?
Suzanne Paling: Most small business owners tell me they hang on to non-productive sales representatives way too long. They know things aren’t working out with the rep, yet 8, 9 months later they’re still on staff. Hire the rep for a 90-day trial period. Give them productivity goals for prospecting calls, appointments, demonstrations, and proposals. Include sales goals if you have they type of product or service they can close in that period of time. Increase those goals each month. At the end of 90 days, based on their performance against the goals, make a call as to whether or not you think they’ll be successful with your organization. If you don’t think they’ll be successful, terminate the rep. It’s the best thing for you and for them.
SmallBizLady: What are 3 budget friendly initiatives an accidental sales manager could start that would increase sales?
Suzanne Paling: Hold regular staff meetings.
- Discuss group sales goals, the competition, and share best practices.
- Buy everyone a book on sales.
Read it together and discuss it one chapter at a time. Let the representatives take turns leading the discussion.
- Accompany the representatives on sales calls.
Find out how the salesperson represents your company. What questions do they ask? Do they have their facts right? What does the customer have to say?
SmallBizLady: Did you learn anything interesting while writing the book?
Suzanne Paling: While doing research for the book, I read “From Peddlers to Merchant Princes A History of Selling in America” by Penrose Scull. It was published in 1967. The first salespeople were ship’s captains. They had to properly load the ship to avoid damaging the goods, successfully sail it from one port to the next, and then barter with the seller / buyer. They had to know the worth of let’s say spices versus fur pelts. What was a fair and profitable exchange? There was a little actual money back then. Eventually, the captains needed to sail the ship back to the original port and settle with the owners of the goods they originally set sail with. Talk about needing a tremendous amount of knowledge and being under a lot of pressure. And today’s reps think they have it tough!!
SmallBizLady: What has been your biggest surprise in working with Small Business Owners, Presidents, and CEO’s?
Suzanne Paling: The way they underestimate themselves. They invent products or provide new services, build these businesses, and often employ a lot of people. These leaders have sometimes spent years in their industries, built up solid contacts, and know many of their competitors so well. The stories of how and why they started their companies are often fascinating – much more interesting than the dry copy on their websites. Yet, they share so little of this with the reps. When I tell them they have a wealth of information to impart to the reps, they are stunned. I urge them to talk about the history of the company each week during staff meetings. Show the reps a copy of the earliest invoices. Talk about the first few customers. Discuss original employees. Is any still there? Representatives enjoy learning this type of information and often use some of it during presentations. Don’t hold back. Leaders have so much to give.
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