Get them to do what you want them to do

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“How do I get ’em to do what I want ’em to?”

That’s probably the question I’m asked more than any other. Frustrated CEOs, CSOs and sales managers express that thought over and over, in one way or another. They’re talking about their salespeople, of course. They harbor a feeling that some of their salespeople just aren’t doing what they want them to do, and they don’t know what to do about it.

“What do you want them to do?” I often reply.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “What an obvious question. We want them to sell a lot, of course.”

But that response is too vague and coarse to hold any real meaning in today’s world. A few years ago, it was OK to direct your salespeople to “Go forth and sell a lot,” but today that direction is not sufficient. Salespeople are capable of more than that. And the world in which your company operates has changed significantly in the last few years. Our economy has grown increasingly complex, many markets are maturing, the demands and expectations of your customers are growing, your customers’ choices of ways to satisfy their needs are multiplying, and information technology is growing more powerful and user-friendly. All that means you need to direct your sales force more finely than at any time in the past.

I learned that lesson the hard way in my days as a sales rep. I was doing a great job selling in my largest account. That one customer accounted for about 30% of my total volume. Sales were increasing monthly, and my visibility and influence in the account was growing.

Then, one dismal Monday afternoon, I was sheepishly greeted by my primary contact person, and informed that I was to see the director of purchasing. The news from the director was short and to the point. The vice president of administration had signed a prime vendor contract with my arch-competitor. Over the next 90 days, they would be phasing out all my business and turning it over to my competitor. All my contact people were disappointed and not in favor of this move, but it had been negotiated by people in higher places.

The moral of the story?

I was doing a great job of “going forth and selling a lot.” But I should have been getting to know the administrative people and my contact’s bosses. If I had been directed to do that, instead of being focused on getting the easiest sales, I may have been able to ward off the end-around by the competition.

I realize that a case could be made that I should have known to do that on my own. After all, don’t good salespeople know to do those kinds of things? No. I didn’t, and I was a heavy-hitter, high-income straight commission salesperson. But I was driven by a straight commission compensation program that rewarded me for gross profits in the short term, and I never thought to cover all my bases by calling on my customers’ bosses.

But that’s just one example. Here’s another. One of my clients owns a small but rapidly growing equipment distributorship. Every month his salespeople must count certain pieces of equipment in their territories. Each month he selects a piece of equipment and requires his sales force to count how many of those there are, where they are, how old they are, what brand they are and when they are scheduled to be replaced.

He uses that information to make territory and product line forecasts, as well as a basis for developing more sophisticated joint marketing plans with his partner-vendors. I’m sure you’ll agree — that’s good information to have. But don’t the salespeople do those kinds of things on their own? Do they really need that kind of precise direction from management?

Take a little self-test. Consider each of your salespeople, one at a time. Ask yourself, “Is (he/she) systematically collecting that kind of market information on his or her own?”

Those two examples illustrate just two of hundreds of possible behaviors you could expect from your sales force. In each case, the company’s long-term strategic interests were best served by directing the sales force to behaviors that probably wouldn’t happen in the absence of that direction.

The first step is to develop your strategic plan, and then to create expectations for your sales force that directly supports that strategic plan.

Next, make sure that your list of expectations is easily, accurately and fairly measurable. Much of your ability to manage your sales force depends on your ability to measure sales behaviors.

If you’re highly automated and use effective sales software, it’ll be a snap. If you’re not effectively automated, it’ll be much more difficult.

Let’s review:  Step one, develop a strategic plan. Step two, create a set of the most important sales behaviors. Step three, fine-tune them until they are easily, fairly and accurately measurable.

Here’s step four: Measure and reward the behavior you want. That can mean anything from publishing and posting those numbers every month, to revising your compensation formula, to making their pay dependent on performance of those activities. For example, you could measure the performance of the entire sales force each month and post it conspicuously for everyone to see. In my business, we measure five sales activities, combine the individual numbers, and post the composites for everyone to see. We post monthly totals, year to date, this year’s goals, and last year’s monthly totals, year to date, this year’s goals, and last year’s numbers.

As an alternative, you may measure and post each salesperson’s performance individually.  You can report each salesperson’s performance to him/her alone and talk about it in monthly conferences.

Another technique is to make those numbers a topic for discussion at monthly sales meetings.

But if you really want to add some power, refine your sales compensation plan to make each person’s pay dependent on performance on those numbers. It’s been my observation that most sales compensation plans do not reward the behavior that they say they want. The company’s executives say they want salespeople to do one thing, but their compensation plan rewards them for doing something else.

For example, you may be paying your salespeople straight commission based on gross profits. Yet, you may be expecting them to open new accounts, promote certain product lines, or emphasize certain accounts. When you pay them purely by commission, you reward them for the easiest, richest sales. So, your compensation plan says one thing, while you say something else. No wonder it’s frustrating.

To encourage your salespeople to do what you want them to, line up your sales compensation plan directly with your strategic plan. Directly reward those behaviors that you developed earlier. Consider a performance-based plan that pays them for implementing the company’s strategies.

Finally, step five is the single most powerful way to manage your people once you’ve done all this homework. Hold “accountability-holding, goal-setting, strategy-developing, resource-identifying” quarterly or monthly conferences with each of your salespeople.

At these tune-up conferences do these things, in this sequence:

  • Hold them accountable for doing what they said they were going to do. Simply ask, “Did you do what you said you were going to do?” “Why or Why not?” “What did you learn?” “What are you going to do differently next time?”
  • Help them set goals. Ask, “In light of the compensation plan, the company’s expectations, and your situation, what will you be trying to accomplish in the next quarter (month)?”
  • Help them create a strategy. Ask, “How are you going to do that?” Make them answer in detail and have them commit that answer to writing.
  • Finally, ask “How can I help?”  and “What do you need to help you do it?”  Hold these meetings regularly and you’ll see most of your sales force moving in the direction in which you want it to move.

There are some fringe benefits to this approach. First, the salespeople who are not performing to expectation will begin to clearly understand that they aren’t doing what you want and may not be capable of it. It will be much clearer to you, and them, who needs to be replaced.

Your conversations with your sales force will take on an entirely new attitude. It will no longer be “me versus you.” You will no longer be the authority figure who doesn’t understand the salesperson and who projects arbitrary dissatisfaction to him/her. Rather, the numbers become “the authority.” Your role changes. You are now a resource and a helper, looking at the numbers with your salesperson, and asking how you can help. Managing becomes easier.

Finally, the amount of internal political maneuvering on the part of your sales force decreases dramatically. Considering the numbers, it no longer matters who “butters you up,” or who you like better than someone else. When political maneuvering wanes, your sales force is free to focus on the important issues.

This five-step process will make your life easier, increase the productivity of your sales force, and provide an ongoing solution to the problem of “getting ’em to do what you want ’em to.”

Dave Kahle is an author, consultant and speaker who has presented in 47 states and 11 countries, improved the performance of thousands of B2B salespeople and authored 13 books. Receive his insights on a regular basis here: https://www.davekahle.com/subscribe-daves-e-zines/.

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