It’s Time to Rally and Train the Sales Force

By Laura Raines

Selling in a down market — specifically this down market — is a lot more complex than it used to be.

“Consumer habits have changed. Business-to-business sales cycles are longer. The size of the deals are bigger. Customers are more demanding. The overall pie has gotten smaller, so the competition is keener. It’s much harder to land a sale than it used to be,” summed up Carlos Quintero, president and founder of Sales Effectiveness, Inc., a sales excellence consulting and performance improvement firm based in Atlanta.

With the pressure on ‘to make the numbers,’ it’s time for new strategies. As counterintuitive as it sounds, Quintero said, “This is the time to invest in the sales force.” It’s time to retain and reshape top talent and perhaps even invest in new talent,” he added. “Many organizations step back and succumb to cutting during a recession. But the best companies know that this is not the time to hold back. Progressive companies tell me that they’re not dropping a penny from their sales development budget.”

Quintero asked top sales executives from national and regional companies what they are doing to rev up sales performance. “The best response I heard was, ‘What recession?’” Quintero said. “Instead of reacting to the economy, these companies are working through it. They’re saying that this isn’t the time to slow down, but to get aggressive and capture market share. They’re focusing on future growth.”

He’s seeing forward-thinking companies going after new markets, developing new products or services, and exploiting different niches where the competition is weaker. At the same time, they’re protecting their own turf. “They’re protecting their position with their best customers and strategic accounts by asking the right questions, offering better value, or more closely aligning their own strategies with their customers’ growth efforts,” Quintero said.

That doesn’t mean business as usual. “Sales teams have always been about vim and vigor, effort and drive, but in this economy, sales people can’t depend on their friendships or gift of gab,” Quintero said. “Customers are no longer buying on relationships alone. They’re making business decisions and looking for business value.”

Successful sales forces have to be well educated. “They need to do their homework and align their offerings with the strategic needs of the customer. Their aim is to become a trusted advisor,” Quintero said. With more analysis going into sales decisions and longer buying cycles, sales people need to practice patience and resilience. “They also need the technical acumen to make use of all the rich information that the Internet and social media networks can provide,” he said.

A one-size-fits-all motivational sales speaker or generic class won’t provide the kind of focused training that sales leaders and teams need in a changing economy, Quintero believes. An independent consultant or educational organization can better assess the individual strengths and weaknesses of a team and adapt training to the goals of a company or industry.

The first priority should be to polish the caliber of sales leadership. “The sales manager is the most important player,” Quintero said. “When the leader is right, a lot of good things can happen. Look at what Paul Johnson did to turn around Georgia Tech football.

“Too often a top sales person is promoted to manager. He’s thrilled at first, but soon realizes that leading a sales team requires a different set of skills than selling. If he’s simply left to flounder, the company ends up losing a great sales person and gaining a mediocre manager,” said Quintero, who is also author of “Catalyst5: Making the Leap from Sales Manager to Sales Leader.

Smart companies select, develop and guide their sales leaders with care. An emerging trend has companies hiring a sales force effectiveness (SFE) director. “The sales manager leads the team, but the SFE director is responsible for enabling the sales force. Working as an internal consultant and strategic advisor, he reports to the vice president of sales and marketing,” Quintero said. “His job is to balance the art with the science of selling.”

Traditionally, sales teams want autonomy to do their jobs. “They want to be left alone to sell. When the numbers are good, companies often comply,” he said. “The trouble is that leaves too much inconsistency in sales. An SFE director can take a more analytical approach and help teams build best practices so they can work faster, better and cheaper. It’s a good trend because we will build a better body of knowledge about sales.”

© Laura Raines, Reprinted with permission