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Stoking the engine

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How to find, nurture and motivate a high-performance sales team

Your other employees might disagree, but your sales force is the engine that moves your company forward. Of course your topnotch product and service developers, support people, marketers and others provide the drive, tools and direction to get your offerings to market — not to mention a skilled and involved leadership team — but your salespeople are your infantry. They’re your boots (or wingtip loafers) on the ground, the folks who make face-to-face, or at least phone-to-phone, contact with your valuable audience, get their feedback and a good read on the marketplace, and drive dollars to the cash register.

That’s why recruiting, nurturing and motivating these performers are so critical to your bottom-line success. And it’s the reason we’ve recruited three top sales consultants to share their wisdom and provide tips for putting together and growing a dynamic, thriving team.

Assessing potential

Establishing a productive and mutually profitable relationship with your sales professionals begins with the interview process. Find top talent by looking for energy, drive, ambition and enthusiasm of job applicants eager to soak up the challenges and new experiences that your position provides.

“I look for intellectual curiosity,” says Christopher Hollins, vice president and general manager of American Express OPEN’s Top Client Group, in describing his ideal sales candidates.

Hollins, who oversees a team of more than 100 client managers, has had ample experience seeking, finding and growing teams of top business-to-business sales professionals.

“I also like to see people who are comfortable in their own skin, who ask thoughtful questions and exhibit financial knowledge, irrespective of the industry,” he says.

A collaborative nature is another must-have characteristic, says Hollins. He says that, for example, at American Express, a good salesperson with a team attitude would be able to recognize when one client might need the products and services that another salesperson can provide and make good use of the opportunity.

“Everyone has a basket of knowledge, and not everyone’s basket is the same,” he says.

By being open to pooling their talents and product offerings, team members can be better client resources, to the benefit of all.

When it comes to performance expectations, the new employee should encounter no surprises, as those expectations should have been covered in the job interviews, says David Mattson, a bestselling business author and president and CEO of the global sales training and consulting firm Sandler Training. With all expectations outlined upfront, there’s no chance for resentment to set in when the subject of results is discussed during performance reviews.

He advises his clients to find those who earn top marks for the background and personality traits revealed in what he refers to as the SEARCH model.

  • Skills
  • Experience
  • Attitude
  • Results
  • Cognitive skills
  • Habits

“It’s important to plan that first meeting and draw up a set of objective interview questions that will generate insight into the applicant’s SEARCH traits,” says Mattson. “Be sure to ask the same questions of each candidate and initiate the same dialogue so that you can make fair comparisons.”

Measuring behavior

For salespeople, it can be demoralizing to be given a sales goal right off the bat, especially in situations where the products or services going to market are big-ticket items at the end of long sales cycles. Not every day, every week, or perhaps even every month, is going to result in sales numbers that can be tabulated and credited to your salesperson’s paycheck and reputation.

So don’t give new salespeople a set sales goal, says Mattson, at least not at first.

“Manage behaviors instead of results,” he says.

What did it mean when your new salesperson brought in goose eggs last month? That she’s not even trying? Or that she’s made a bunch of valuable contacts and is on the verge of closing at least one impressive deal but she hasn’t signed a contract yet? It can be very hard to track success with no insight into your sales employees’ daily work habits — the story behind the story — says Mattson.

“If you’re measuring results, you might have to wait a year or more before you know their level of effectiveness,” he says. “But if you measure habits and set weekly goals for the number of phone calls that get made or meetings set up or referrals they seek or networking events they attend, this can be easily measured and discussed.”

With these kinds of goals being tracked, you can celebrate their accomplishments every month.

For American Express’s Hollins, employers can easily track these daily behaviors via the sales-tracking software Salesforce.com.

“I spend a lot of time looking at how their pipeline is filling,” says Hollins, who adds that he gives special attention to his people’s notes in the program because they contain a greater degree of detail and additional insight into employees’ work thoughts and processes. If you can gauge activity on a day-to-day basis, says Hollins, there are no surprises when a sales manager tracks billing at the end of the month or quarter.

Scott Edinger looks for sales professionals who can initiate a discussion rather than pitch business. Edinger, founder of Edinger Consulting Group, provides sales guidance to major corporate clients. He’s also the author of Harvard Business Review articles and two business books, The Hidden Leader and The Inspired Leader.

“A sales pitch is a one-way communication,” he says. “Your goal should be to engage the prospective client into a dialogue, a conversation.”

A glib tongue has little or nothing to do with this engagement, he says.

“We have this image that developing business is about being charismatic and extroverted,” says Edinger, who adds that those characteristics sometimes do lend themselves to success. But that isn’t the only route.

“In reality, it takes skill, practice and mindset,” he says. “It takes intellect and real interest.”

That might not be as sexy as charisma and a bottomless expense account, but it’s genuine. And when you’re hiring, remember this, says Edinger: “Some people’s best sales presentation is during the job interview.”

Recognizing success

This seems like the easy part. Salespeople who do well get promotions and commission-fattened paychecks. That’s simple enough. But smart sales managers continuously motivate their people, even before concrete results are achieved.

As Mattson says, it’s important to celebrate the bite-size accomplishments that put your salespeople on the road to greater success.

Hollins prefers that his people operate in small, easily managed teams of about eight employees so that no one falls off the radar screen. That makes it easier to acknowledge even small milestones and to spot those who need more assistance — or a nudge in the right direction.

You can help your people succeed by nurturing your performers and keeping morale high and your sales team running like a finely tuned engine. If you do all of those things, your salespeople will move your company constantly forward, always in the lead and well ahead of the competition.