In a famous scene in the film Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin strides into the office and berates his salesmen for not hitting their targets. As a consequence, he says, they’ll lose their bonuses and potentially their jobs. In the following scenes, the salesmen split up, each trying on their own to out-think the others in pursuit of their targets.
This film was very much a product of the 1980s, but this image of salespeople, as lone wolves aggressively pursuing their targets, hasn’t faded. We still think of salespeople as men in suits and ties, either glued to their phones or travelling alone on the open road, but this perception is simply no longer true.
Complex products, multiple perspectives
Businesses, and the products businesses sell, have moved on. Particularly in industries like financial services, technology and media buying, the products being sold are more complex than ever, with multiple layers of information that require review from different departments.
For example, if a company wishes to buy media advertising, conversations will need to happen between the customer and the vendor on a high strategic level as well as on a technical level. Such advertising comes in many forms, such as print, out-of-home, and digital, and this means that discussions will have to be both strategic and tactical, with salespeople having a firm grasp of the practicalities and details of the products under consideration. Companies selling these products need to be able to speak to both the marketing director and the developer who will be implementing the technology, and in most cases these conversations will look radically different.
Sales: it’s a team sport
To me it’s obvious that these different informational requirements cannot be adequately serviced by just one salesperson. For these kinds of products, a team-based approach is required.
Before looking at what truly team-based sales might look like, we should take stock of what’s gone wrong with the individual approaches of the past. Financial services can be a good indicator here: earlier this year Wells Fargo, the US bank, faced a $2.6 billion class action lawsuit from former employees who claimed that brutal quotas forced them to commit fraud by opening fake accounts.
Harsh quotas just don’t work: according to one Stanford professor sales quotas can actually undercut profits, and that when one Fortune 500 company eliminated them sales went up by $1 million per month. Closing a sale requires more than one person to be involved in the process, and it’s often difficult to measure an individual’s performance within a team accurately when using quotas.
The way forward
There are several tactics sales managers can use to ensure their employees are working well. Firstly, it’s of the utmost importance to reinforce the understanding that sales is a task that is undertaken in teams, and that credit should be shared across the team for each success, from the pre-sales engineer to sales director.
In many sectors this won’t be welcome advice: it’s far more difficult to effectively manage a team than it is to manage individuals. One of the keys to effective team management is fostering a culture of diversity and trust: even Jack Welch, often perceived as more of an ‘old school’ leader, thinks that “When a team is infused with trust, people play to their better angles. They share ideas freely. They help their colleagues when they’re stuck and need an insight. What they do every day then becomes about the group’s success, not their own.”
Sales managers need to encourage their employees to break the salesperson mould: each employee is guaranteed to have strengths and weaknesses, and rather than sweeping these under the carpet, we should be examining these differences and using them to make the team’s work stronger.
Due to the nature of sales it’s likely that the sector will always be driven by targets. But by shifting the focus from the individual’s skills to the overall team dynamic, sales managers will find themselves hitting those targets more easily. As the data shows, building the right sales team is much more important than we think.