Fit to lead: Golden tips for sales leaders

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by Babs Olugbemi

We cannot over-emphasised what leaders are expected to do all the time. Leaders are to achieve the result. Not one-off positive outcome but sustainable results. One of the essential functions that ensure the continuity of business organisations is the sales function. The sales function is crucial to any organisation without which the essence for existence is threatened. Without a capable sales force, no business entity will survive competition or meets the objective of the shareholders. Sales as a function are pivotal to serving the customers with products or services and to gain market share that ensures positive returns on the shareholders’ investment.

In the 80’s the managing directors of companies are mostly subject matter experts. I have seen accountants, engineers and other experts becoming the chief executive officers of top companies. In today’s dispensation, you cannot lead any profit-oriented organisation successfully if you are not a salesperson. You might not be a marketer by background, but your ability to organise the sales function, attract customers to your company’s products or services, and deepen the market share year-on-year is a sine qua non to success. In Practical sense, sales teams are vital because they affect the top and bottom lines of the company’s financial and performance outcome.

I discovered I was a natural salesperson when a leader deployed me to the sales functions after years of being in the middle and back-office roles. I am grateful to my past employer, where I was allowed to horn my selling skills. I have since being coaching people who are desirous of improving their figures as salesmen and saleswomen. My coaching target is also people who are afraid to transits into the sales role for some reasons. Sales role are not to be scared of but something to be embraced with the knowledge and desire to succeed. In life, you would one day sell for yourself either as a retiree, or a self-employed person. For employees, deploying your service to the sales function is, therefore, a training platform for what you will eventually do for yourself.

I was in a coaching session with 100 salespeople last week sharing my thoughts and experience on how to win the business and loyalty of customers as sales leaders. My audience is sales leaders having responsibility for sales figures of their territories and team members. I shared thoughts from my book, the value chain banking with this group, though they are not employees of banks.

Being a sales leader or a sales team member with budget responsibility is like riding at the back of a tiger. I got this from one of my Indian friends and mentors who rhetorically use the proverb to inspire the need to keep working hard. What will you do when you are at the back of a tiger? If you do anything outside to keep riding, the tiger will eat you for lunch, breakfast or dinner, depending on the time of the day. As a sales leader, you must keep working with your team to drive the numbers using strategy to deepen your market share and increase the penetration of your products. Your approach must, however, take cognizance of the customers’ preference and the current economic reality to be effective. One way to ensure sales strategies are effective is to fully understand the customers both demographically and in the behavioural sense before making your products available and affordable. Any sales strategy not in alignment with the customer will fail. In order words, a sales strategy that is a product or service-oriented without the customer at the centre of its creation, will deliver a less than the desired outcome.

The customers of today are skilful and knowledgeable. Due to scarce resources and the need to maximise benefits from cost, customers are philosophers and higher degree holders naturally. All options are considered before parting with their money. A salesperson must, therefore, be aware of the customers’ sophistication. Every customer is assessing his salesperson using what I termed the trust and respect quadrant in the value chain banking book. A customer like the CFO of an organisation is evaluating the banker if he or she can trust and respect the banker. The trust component is the customer’s perception of your ability to build a long-term mutual relationship with the company, your ability to keep confidential information and be a friend to his or her team. The respect component is your competence and integrity on the job. Your competence is, therefore, your ability to understand your products, the industry and be a sales consultant and adviser to your customers.

The trust and respect quadrant will determine if the salesperson will be in any of the four customer’s levels of acceptance for any company or product. It is your trust and respect level that will place you in the empathic or total or moderate or no acceptance level with the customers. A high level of trust and respect will enable your team to win the heart, the loyalty and the unflinching patronage of your customers.

As a sales leader, you are leading a a team that must be guided and mentored depending on whether the relationship is at the start-up, re-alignment, sustaining success or at the turn-around stage. The supervising strategy for engaging your team members will be dependent on their current budget achievement and the level of engagement in the the relationship they are managing.

One crucial pitfall in leading an effective sales team is the inability of the sales leaders to understand the psychology of the sales team. The average and experienced sales team members, including sales leaders with several years of experience, want to be held accountable for the result and be given independence for the process to get things done. I will use my experience as a sales coach to an experienced business manager to illustrate the importance of being flexible and holding people accountable for the result.

A sales manager engaged me to investigate why his team wasn’t delivering on their numbers despite his toughness in supervising the team. I met with his team and observed that he is always on the necks of his team members. In the morning, he will want to know where the sales pitch will take the team to. At the close of the business, he will call to confirm from the customers if his team members visited or not. He wouldn’t tolerate any deviation from the call plan even if it were apparent that the day was the world traffic day when all the roads were at a standstill.

In my conclusion, I told my client that his approach is stifling the initiatives of the experienced sales staff in his team. I positioned that the team members are not bothered about the results since he was entirely in charge of the process and where they are at any point in time. I encouraged him to be a bit flexible. In the next meeting, he told his team to take ownership of the process, including the sales calls. However, he will hold them accountable for the results which are to be reviewed twice a week. He stopped calling customers to test the integrity of his staff, and the atmosphere turned to relax, trusting and conducive one for the seed of results to be germinated.

Within two weeks, two experienced members of his team closed five deals that improved the team’s performance by 85 percent and the best in the last 12 months. The atmospheres changed from that of distrust to that of a mutual focus on results. The team members took extreme ownership of the outcome and the result expected from them. There is a style to every madness, including selling and leading a capable sales team.

For sales leaders, your significant roles are to reward performance, create the requirement atmosphere where people can focus on the outcome and trust in their ability and the process in place to drive their numbers northwards. You are to destroy process bottlenecks in your channel delivery and improve customer experience. One significant role for you as a sales leader is to inspire your team members when they are the valley. A valley in the sales process is when the figures are at the lowest ebb, and it appeared the strategy is not working. You are to remind your team of the past peak.

The peak is when they have done beyond expectations and delivered the sales figures beyond the target for the period. Your understanding that the sales role is like riding on a back of a tiger through a journey with many valley and peaks and the knowledge of what to do to get out of the valley quickly or to stay longer at the heights is the bastion of your success as effective sales leaders.

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Godwin Okafor is a Financial Journalist, Internet Social Entrepreneur and Founder of Naija247news Media Limited. He has over 16 years experience in financial journalism. His experience cuts across traditional and digital media. He started his journalism career at Business Day, Nigeria and founded Naija247news Media in 2010. Godwin holds a Bachelors degree in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management from the Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos. He is an alumni of Lagos Business School and a Fellow of the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists). Over the years, he has won a number of journalism awards. Godwin is the chairman of Emmerich Resources Limited, the publisher of Naija247news.

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