The title Sales Manager is misleading. We believe a manager’s primary responsibility is to develop people. The reality is that most traditional sales managers—including the one in our example above—are administrators attempting to drive numbers. They tell their direct reports what to do and in what quantity, but are unable to teach them how to do it. Sales managers have many different modes; they may try to motivate, intimidate, nurture, mentor, and so on. They finally admit defeat when their mode switches to counseling people out of the business.
But more often than not, the issue is not one of motivation. Most underperforming salespeople sincerely want to do better, but lack the necessary skills. All the encouragement, incentive programs, and intimidation in the world can’t teach a salesperson to sell. If Keith is intelligent and motivated—which, after all, was part of the hiring model—then having him do more of what he’s already doing is unlikely to get him to improve his performance.
As noted in an earlier chapter, most sales managers got their jobs because they were naturally talented salespeople. They don’t necessarily understand how or why they were successful, yet they are now charged with passing their intuitive selling skills onto their direct reports. The path many sales managers in this situation take to get salespeople up to speed is osmosis: “Watch how I sell, and learn (because I can’t describe it).” Often intense during the first month or so after a new hire signs on, this kind of “training” tends to fall off precipitously shortly thereafter. The sales manager has other things to do—there’s another new hire that needs the benefit of osmosis.
On balance, skill-transfer results using osmosis are disappointing. Osmosis is a poor substitute for sales process. And without process, selling resembles an art more than a science.
Assessing and coaching skills without understanding the basic mechanics of selling is next to impossible. When professional athletes experience slumps, there are standard ways of identifying and correcting the problem. A professional golfer, for example, has several ways to identify swing flaws and correct them. First, there are generally accepted mechanics associated with a golf swing (head down, left arm straight, and so on). The golfer in question may view videotapes of a sound golf swing (either his or her own, or that of another player). Many have a “swing coach” who works with them. Even the process of identifying the problem—a problem on which the golfer and the coach can agree—gives rise to a surge of hope: This problem can be fixed! And this, in turn, gives the needed motivation to spend all that time on the driving range and playing practice rounds.
Is there a sales equivalent to the golf story? The answer is, “There should be, but it’s hard to find.” Consider a salesperson whose performance was previously at acceptable levels, but has been in the doldrums for the past year and a half. Some harsh realities:
There are few generally accepted and useful rules of selling. There are general notions: listen, don’t lead with product, selling begins when buyers say no, always be closing, and so forth. Some of these we (the authors) subscribe to, and others we take issue with; but at the end of the day, our motivation in creating Customer Focused Selling was that there was nothing close to a useful road map of how to sell, especially when compared to an activity such as hitting a golf ball.
Selling habits have been developed through an unstructured series of individual trial-and-error experiences. Instead of good “muscle memory,” the salesperson has bad muscle memory, and self-diagnosis becomes extremely difficult. This makes it virtually impossible for someone to coach a salesperson out of a slump. As previously mentioned, Neil Rackham discovered that as sellers become more familiar with their offerings, they begin to lose patience and empathy in asking questions and listening to their buyers. This behavior is virtually impossible to self- diagnose.
There is no “practice range” for salespeople. If a golfer hits several bad shots on the driving range, ego aside, there are no negative consequences. In fact, it may help in isolating flaws. But salespeople have no “range” on which to experiment. They are under pressure to produce numbers (more so when they are in a slump), and they do not have the luxury of trying new approaches without potential consequences. A poor call reduces the number of prospects in the finite territory by one—and, in practical terms, for the duration of the salesperson’s current employment.
As relates to development and improvement, salespeople live on remote islands. One of the biggest challenges comes when the salesperson disagrees with his or her manager about a given course of action. There is no surge of hope like that experienced by the golfer and the coach. Slumping salespeople must work their way out of it alone. The sales manager is likely to make the problem worse if he or she applies pressure by demanding increased levels of activity (i.e., quantity) without influencing the quality of activity. Most people’s performance degrades under pressure.