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How to Improve Your Struggling Sales Team

Trying to get your sales team back on track? Forget the pep-talk. Experts suggest sales management
and training techniques that can improve your company’s sales.

By Tim Donnelly | Aug 10, 2011

What do you do with struggling salespeople? It’s a problem
that’s vexxed multi-national corporations and start-ups; assistant managers and
presidents of boards.

It’s simply hard to know when to pull the trigger on removing underperforming team members when
it could be that the staff just needs a little guidance, encouragement, or
training to get back on track. A little professional nudge in the right
direction is a more economical choice over the time-consuming and expensive
process of hiring a replacement sales representative. Many sales professionals
would rather give their struggling sales people a chance to improve and bring
their results up to company standards.

When you’re trying to figure out whether your sales team can get back on track, first try these
expert strategies on how to lift sales team out of the profit gutter.

Step One: Install a Great Sales Manager

You can’t have someone overseeing your sales team who is nothing more than a glorified
cheerleader, says Liz Wendling, owner of
Insight Business Consultants and Sales Coach For Women. You need to employ a
manager who is not only willing to engage the team, but to also identify
weaknesses and work directly with sales staff to overcome their challenges.

“It’s not somebody who can just pat somebody on the back,” she says. “They do
pep talks, and pep talks aren’t enough for some salespeople.”

Many companies make the mistake of promoting their top salespeople to manager positions, but
often the most skilled salespeople don’t have the coaching dexterity needed to
effectively guide a whole team.

In fact, research by the Corporate Executive Board says sales representatives strongly prefer coaching
to come from their direct supervisor.

“By far unless the direct supervisor is perceived as owning that coaching, the coaching
is likely to have relatively minimal impact,” says Brent Adamson, senior director. “At the end of the day,
people don’t leave bad companies. They leave bad managers.”

Step Two: Implement One-on-One Coaching

Sales coach Jeremy J. Ulmer, who lists among his credentials twice being
ranked the No. 1 sales performer at two global Fortune 500 companies, says the
first step to improving sales is talking directly to the team to find out what
struggles they are facing. What makes their jobs difficult? What could they do
better? What could they be provided with to do better?

“Sometimes they’re very open and they tell you a lot of things,” he says.

Other times you will have to pry a little by asking how they’re managing time, what an average
day looks like and to describe how they run sales call.

Then he picks one problem at a time to work on to get better results. That sometimes means
removing technological distractions and giving additional management support.

Several experts recommend pairing low-performing sales representatives with successful ones.
Ulmer says that strategy was a better learning experience at his first sales
job with Xerox than the company’s
10 weeks of official training.

Sometimes Ulmer will put a sales team on a strict schedule so they are making sales calls during
dedicated blocks during the day, instead of sporadically throughout all work

Limiting the coaching to specific groups of employees is often more effective than spreading
it around the company as a whole, says Matt Dixon, managing director of the Corporate Executive
Board. “Coaching is not meant to be democratic,” he says. Too many managers fall back on what he calls “spreadsheet coaching,” where the focus is on whether the sales staff is hitting its numbers. Instead, you should be
working closely with the individual sales representatives to understand the context of the problems.

“When it comes to coaching, they’re so focused on that number and hitting that quota, they
lose sight,” he says. “The way that you do that is not focus on those
outcomes but focus on behaviors.”

Michael J. Galante, who runs, creates what he calls a Performance
Improvement Plan for each ailing salesperson he meets. It’s essentially a
battle plan to help the employee assault obstacles to productivity. Often
times, the problem is a lack of follow through, which leads to fizzling sales
momentum. Having an action plan helps keep track of things like that that might
otherwise be overlooked, he says.

“That’s why I try to document,” he says. “I can show the sales person or manager
that there’s some growth or some success.”

Step Three: Put Your Team on a Sales Diet

Like anyone leading an unhealthy lifestyle, a sales staff sometimes needs a “sales
diet” of sorts to get some perspective on challenges.

Wendling recommends giving struggling employee a smaller stack of calls to work through.
They’ll can gain confidence and avoid the burnout of intense extended sales
pitch efforts.

Then, work with them to dissect the sales calls to note areas for improvement: Do they have
good rapport and conversation skills? Are they moving through the pitch at a
natural pace or steamrolling right to the point?

Setting individual benchmarks can help put people on the right track to success, especially if you
are forced to put sales staff on probation until performance improves. But it’s
important to keep a balance between realistic goals and creating too much
performance anxiety.

“They could see (the office) as this daunting place they have to go. That could scare a lot
of people off,” she says. “With that internal pressure, sales people
wind up making desperate calls, stretching the truth, lying to customers just
to get sales.”

Step Four: Looking to the Future, Hire Smart

It’s an obvious piece of advice, but one worth repeating, Galante says: the best way to handle
lackluster sales represtnatives is to not have them in the first place, or to
at least identify them early.

“It’s really important for the management team to avoid this situation,” he says.
“Stay on top of the rep’s performance, intervene before they become the
worst sales person or significantly underperforming.”

Adamson says companies need to sit down and figure out a map of the
behaviors that drive success before doing any hiring.

“If you’ve got a profile of the behaviors to drive success, you’ll make sure people more
likely to be aligned to great behaviors,” he says.

Wendling says your company’s expectations should be communicated during the job interview so
candidates know what’s in store. You can test their skills by including in the
interview exercises that force them to think on their feet; or by sending them
off with a homework assignment to see how they can prepare for a big task.

But when all else fails, you may have to come to grips with trimming the sales team of dead
weight. Data collected by the Corporate Executive Board show that companies
tend to spend too much time coaching the top 20 percent of performers and
trying to improve the bottom 20 percent. But focusing on the core middle 60
percent of the sales force is the best way to improve your profits.

“For true under performers, no amount of good coaching is going to make them better at
their job,” Dixon says.


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