Sales Leadership



 Helping Underachievers Soar

by Jim Pratt

Our associates are our greatest assets, as well as our largest expense. Building a world-class sales team thus is an ongoing challenge. Generally we find, when examining our production by individual salesperson or account executive, that the results resemble a bell curve. Most of our associates are mid-level producers. A few are superstars and another segment is made up of underachievers.

Just as the few superstars can make us look grand overall, having a small number of poor producers can pull us down. Morale is undermined and professional discipline seemingly mocked when a few seem not to take the team's minimal standards seriously.

Yet in today's market, competition for proven sales professionals is high. Often it seems prudent to try to reform a laggard rather than letting him or her go.

We owe our associates every opportunity to be successful. At times we have no choice but to replace an underachiever with someone more promising. Do so by recruiting constantly. Create a database of skilled professionals and mine it.

Also, don't be afraid to hire outside the industry to build your sales force, if you have the training capability. Often it is easier to train someone who already has a history of success in other fields, than it is to rehabilitate a chronic underachiever.

Growing Each Rep
We operate in a demanding professional environment. But many of our producers truly expect to make a "quick buck" and then find something easier to do. You can increase a salesperson's motivation by helping him or her accomplish personal goals. Individuals are motivated by their own goals - not by the vision of the corporation, or by our own plans. Our opportunity is to align our sales teams' personal goals with company goals. Start doing this by exploring your associates' belief systems in one-on-one meetings in a neutral, quiet environment.

Show by your example that having a positive, optimistic attitude is the bedrock for success. Once there is a shared belief system, you can help your associates to appreciate their potential.

Self-renewal begins with the Sales Leader providing positive support and meaningful encouragement. Then we must help each sales associate build a step-by-step game plan for reaching their goals. Show each rep a model game plan used by one of your company's top producers. Doing so helps create an understanding of how focus precedes success.

Make sure they are committed to putting their mission, goals and action steps into writing. One of your more-successful sales professionals can present a personal case study showing the benefits of record keeping. Or have everyone tell what they've learned from analyzing their results at one of your sales meetings.

Personal Accountability
In truth there are only five reasons for underachievement:
   You hired the wrong person
   Your associate doesn't know how to sell profitably
   Your associate is not committed
   Your associate is not challenged
   Ineffective sales leadership keeps your associate from growing professionally

A realist would say that all five reasons are our fault. Isolating causes of underachievement helps you prepare strategies for dealing with specific situations.

Hiring the wrong person is a common cause of poor results. Leadership requirements are much simplified when we pick the right people to do the job. If someone truly believes he or she can reach success as they define it by joining your team, then all you need to do is continue providing the right environment and tools. Recruit the right person and he or she will make you a hero. The opposite will create finger pointing.

Lack of skills requires that you focus on training. Assessing skills and benchmarking your team against their peers goes a long way towards helping you identify areas that need work.

You can then institute a self-improvement program, whether it involves sales skills or product knowledge. Study - modeling the masters - and practice are foundations of any skills enhancement discipline. Often you can rely on other team members to become teachers and leader-mentors in specific areas, such as time management or perfecting responses to prospect objections.

Lack of commitment is not an invitation to find fault. Although this is a frustrating issue, we ruin our own success environment by concentrating on "constructive criticism." Instead, make every step a positive one. If someone is not committed to his or her current role on your team, either find a role that does excite them, or invite them to find another career. Lack of commitment is possible even when someone is producing well. Some of the clues are rarely putting in an extra effort, responding to difficult conditions by giving up, being reluctant to invest in themselves and their own professionalism, or not being supportive at team meetings.

Being unchallenged indicates the environment is wrong. Surveys of jobholders report that more than 75% admit they are working below their full potential and that they could be "significantly more effective" than they currently are. In fact, half claim they work only hard enough to hold onto their position. What could unleashing that capacity within our own teams do for our results this year?

Let's begin by making sure we have a vision, a mission, and goals - and action strategies for achieving them - which cascade down from the corporate to individual's levels.

Ineffective leadership can be tested by asking yourself "Why would I want to work with you and be on your team?" Then list five good reasons. Remember that it is not a Sales Leader's job to increase sales. It is his or her challenge to increase the productivity of each salesperson. How much time do you spend in one-on-one mentoring activities, on training or coaching in the field?

You Are The Message
Implicit in leadership is the ability to raise the output of everyone involved in a team effort. Developed leaders do not tolerate underachievement because they have an aura of vitality and invincibility. It is this sense that transfers to their team members. An established leader makes you eager to reach out and do more than you previously thought was possible.

Leadership goes far beyond passing out rewards and punishments according to a set formula. Great leaders understand "the Pygmalion effect." It states that a single person can cause positive change in another, simply by regarding that person as what he or she could be. Numerous academic studies have shown that our expectations do affect the performance of those around us. Associates live up to our level of trust and down to our level of distrust.

Haven't you noticed how new sales reps thrive in a very successful office and how outstanding teams keep increasing the distance between themselves and their competition? How we treat others shows what we expect of them.

Bite-Sized Successes Now this doesn't mean throwing our associates to the wolves and then saying, "I really thought you could handle that." Instead, leadership gives associates "bite-sized" activities they can perform well. Success becomes its own reward and we soon find our associates chasing higher goals and faster improvement.

"Alignment" occurs when individuals perceive that contributing to the group will help accomplish their personal missions as well. Alignment starts by having published and practiced corporate values and visions. Our team's models of achievement, performance standards and recognition systems build an infrastructure for success. All these are essential keys to avoiding the creation of an environment where low energy, a lack of creativity and poor skills are allowed. No organization ever stands still - we are either getting better or decaying. Regular progress reviews, coaching and training are the keys to building mid- and low-level achievers up to being contributing team members.

We've all followed the careers of professional athletes who have been let go by one club only to find another home and bring that team to a championship. And we've watched in wonderment as other club managers have thrown large sums at prima donnas who then fail on behalf of their teammates, fans and themselves. Our job is exactly the same. Can we polish our gems and throw out our rhinestones?

The Best You Can Be
Establishing an atmosphere of integrity helps bring out the best in everyone. That means honoring our commitments, quality communication and team solutions. Integrity is shown when we embrace mistakes and never criticize a team member publicly. It is all part of maintaining a success attitude. What this demands of a leader is not the cultivation of charisma. Instead, it calls for making clear-eyed assessments of each of our associates and working with them to turn what they might see as lemons into lemonade.

Best of all, you don't need to become a psychologist in order to excel at this role. You simply must relate all activities to goals and have strategies to achieve each goal. It works - because some of the most-common traits seen in underachievers are procrastination, burnout and lack of motivation. All of these stem from losing focus of clearly-defined goals.

You cannot get anyone to act unless they want to. Under-standing each of our associate's goals lets us bring every individual to his or her highest-performance level.

Walk Your Talk Remember that you can't lead another unless you also "walk your talk." We've all seen managers who tell their associates to get out and make sales calls. But a leader spends time accompanying his or her sales professionals on coaching calls where they observe the salesperson in action. A key to successful coaching calls is that the coach remains quiet during the sales call and afterwards asks the rep to assess the call. Only after going through several sales calls does the coach offer a few concise comments.

Leaders also meet regularly with top clients and the producer handling those accounts.
Showing that you value customers is the best way to get your team to do the same.

A final comment: The most expensive time in a business leader's life is the time between when you lose faith in someone and when you do something about it. The day you lose faith in someone - after having done everything possible to help him or her - immediately assist that associate in finding a new career.

In each termination or separation situation, also go over in your mind the five reasons for underachievement and reevaluate your leadership effectiveness.

Winning gives us more energy. As we watch contests such as the Olympics, we see how a first-place finisher will continue running around the track in joy once the race is won. But the ones who failed stand gasping and bent over. Which picture better describes you team? Let's make sure we are leading our associates towards their personal best!

Jim Pratt is the CEO of the Pratt-Daly International Sales Consulting firm based in San Diego, CA. Jim's experience includes leading sales forces of one to 4,800. You may reach Pratt-Daly at 800.374.0300.

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