Lately I’ve been fascinated about how to keep top sales performers in any business, but especially in a start-up. This is a make or break activity that can really demonstrate to the wider sales team how much you value them and that you want to embed them in your business for the longer term.
I’ve seen some pretty dishonourable activities towards salespeople in the past. One of note was a ‘big game’ sales person who smashed his annual sales target three times over with a single deal. He was applauded by the Board and then swiftly sacked before they had to pay his commission. Let’s just say the mood music went significantly downhill from that point on and other good sales people started job hunting.
I’m sure everybody has a horror story they’ve either witnessed or had the unfortunate experience personally, but I’ve been really interested in what works in today’s sales world?
Here’s what I’ve learnt:
Look at the maturity stage of what you’re selling and hire for specific skills and experience
If it’s an early stage initiative you will need a really inquisitive, go-getting sales people who know how to hunt for and open up cold relationships, to qualify and close new new business from scratch. They can do this without a clearly defined value proposition, sales process, support or management (if they are still in production).
If you’re selling more established and complex solutions you can probably hire a consultative sales person who’s worked in big organisations. This person needs a professional sales process and environment with all the trimmings to farm warm relationships and convert deals as part of a team.
Get it wrong at the hiring stage and you’ll likely have a sales vacancy inside 12 months when it didn’t work out for the person concerned.
Look at the personality of the salesperson when hiring
A successful salesperson is inquisitive and always learning. They will have a top sales book and their recommended reading list (that is current and not from 20 years ago).
They will have numerous interests outside of work which are multidisciplinary. They will find things interesting with lots of different people.
They will have a relatable personality on many different levels. This could include humility, inquisitiveness, a sense of urgency and coach-ability.
You are looking for a good fit – between your business culture, sales team, sales manager and the individual sales person. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be the same, but at least know you have and are adding.
In asking questions and explore the logical and emotional aspects of everything – the right people should more often get hired and they will hopefully remain interested and motivated to make a difference to your sales function.
Provide a fair and well calculated volume of qualified leads
This means regular analysis of segment and people performance. Then form agreement on which areas need a boost, versus those that are doing well.
The data and analytics team will need to prioritise providing quality targets where they are most in need AND the lead generation function will need to prioritise their efforts as well.
You need to ensure that all elements of the team are not just focusing on achieving their own targets, but are creating value through the sales chain to intimately deliver qualified leads that close.
Fail to do this at any stage and your sales function will lose motivation (possibly blaming others for not doing their roles properly) and your team environment will be in tatters.
Measure performance simply and consistently
Any employee needs a fair and transparent performance measurement system, but for a salesperson this is central to their world.
Successful sales functions measure the best sales people with quantitative and qualitative data points around what specifically works for them. Even if the CEO is the first salesperson, measure what works and use the information for any new sales hires.
This can then be used to benchmark the rest of the sales team. Many sales managers find the difference between great and mediocre salespeople, is actually how well they plan and how well they are able to think from the customer perspective.
This means both logically and emotionally, to really understand their unique situation and reshape the vision for success collaboratively – to transform complexity and ambiguity into something that creates enduring value.
If you don’t know what performance gap you’ve got, you can’t inspire and challenge a salesperson to do better. Give them the tools and mentoring to effect change and help them be more successful, otherwise you could just end up ruthlessly cutting the bottom 20% of sales performers and spending a fortune on recruitment.
Sales management isn’t the only form of promotion
Give them all an even playing field in order to be successful. Recognise their performance, show they’ve had impact and are important to you.
Many sales functions use management or operational roles as promotion, but we already know that not all rockstar salespeople are great sales managers. You could say this is relevant for any discipline, including marketing.
Instead you might get some real benefit in having your best performer coach and mentor some of the other sales team members as a side project, while still doing what they do best.
Or constant change and new challenge might instead keep them motivated. At key stages move them onto a different area of refocus and slightly adjust their responsibilities. Do it at a rate at which they feel works for them.
For example, I’m attracted to transitional or green fields opportunities to develop something from scratch. I love the strategic and creative process in consultative selling and hate doing transactional sales. I hate the feeling of stagnating as I get to the phase when managing established initiatives that need a steady, and equally important, pair of hands.
I’d like to say that in every role, I’ve been asked ‘what motivates me?‘ when I joined and 12 months later ‘what will keep me happy and engaged?‘. But I’d be lying.
Conversely, your medium performing sales person might be a brilliant team player and superstar sales manager, so giving them the opportunity to develop their career with you as well is equally important.
This way no one is left out and it creates a duel approach for the different kind of sales people you need in your team.
Don’t split sales roles into vertical specialisms too soon
The easiest way to scale sales by transformation is to keep the team working TOGETHER (think co-creation and collaboration). Trying to do too much with too small a team, is the death knell in really smashing the overall sales target.
If you’ve split your sales team out too soon, it’s also really hard to understand if a lack of performance is the salesperson or something else, like the product, market, targeting or value proposition that’s not working.
Keep it simple and focussed.
Even if you have a rainmaking new business sales person that is happy forging ahead with 100% conviction that what they are doing is right, they will still need a team to help them achieve their goals.
They need to EQ and IQ to bring a team together, the vision to set the course and the strength to keep people on the bus.
If your rainmaker sales person upsets the whole team ecosystem and rides roughshod over relationships, you’re going to have a hard time keeping the whole sales team motivated and achieving sales growth.
Compensate honestly and easily
Be honerable with the commission they’re due. Don’t constantly change the commission structure and fold in complex kickers or commission caps. Use a really simple commission formula, one which people can easily work out in their heads what they will get. If they sell, reward them for their efforts.
It will cost you more in the long run if your top sales performers leave, due to unpaid commission, than it is to pay them what they are due and keep them in your business.
You want an environment of healthy envy that the top performers are valued and allowed to progress.
Many high performing sales leaders also talk of never capping sales commission.
If people work hard and exceed their sales targets (selling products that can be delivered), they should be rewarded.
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