Sales Management

The First Thing You Say.


Two weeks ago in this space I wrote about the general malaise and episodic funk that many in our industry seem to be suffering under.  (The New Normal, February 7, 2019.)  As a manager, I believe one of your greatest callings is re-framing situations and market conditions for your sellers and returning them to a centered, productive mindset.  In confusing times, that’s not easy.  OK, it’s never easy.

In both private manager coaching and management workshops, I tend to elevate one truly vital piece of advice.  Without it, all of your logic, strategy and motivation will end up going nowhere.  It goes like this:

Pay close attention to the very first thing you say.

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When stressed or challenged, sellers and other team members tend to (1) come to their manager interactions very hot, (2) come seeking immediate answers and gratification, and (3) they want to dump the problem or situation in your lap.  And as managers, we tend to walk right into the trap by responding immediately and factually.  We believe that if we just answer the question or supply the information right now, then the situation will magically resolve.  But it just doesn’t work.

Your strategy shouldn’t be about dispensing answers, but rather posing questions.  You shouldn’t immediately assume the responsibility for the situation, but instead transfer the responsibility or resolution back to the employee in an empowering way.  That’s why the first words out of your mouth in these situations are so critical.  Next time the heat gets turned up, try rolling out some of these phrases and see what a difference they make in the quality of your interactions (and the quality of your life!)

  • I know what I’d do, but I really want to hear your thinking.  Give me two alternatives on what you think we should do in this situation.
  • Let’s slow down and make sure we’re solving the right problem.  Tell me what we’re not considering right now?
  • Let’s break this down into the things we can and can’t control. What do you think we can really change?
  • Tell me how I can help you get refocused on the things that are going to help you succeed.
  • I can tell you’re struggling with this.  I’m more than willing to let you blow off steam for a little while.  Then I think it’s time for us to break this situation down together.
  • I believe in you and I know you’re better than the conversation we’re having right now.  Tell me how you think this turns into a victory?
  • I’m not sure we have all the information we need to make the right call right now. You’re closer to the situation:  What else is important here that we haven’t looked at?

Spit back answers all day and you create dependent followers. Push the responsibility back to them – put the authority where the information is – and you empower confident leaders.  Every one of us wants to have great conversations with our employees and team members.  And we will.

But only if we start them the right way.


Here’s How.


Somewhere out there this morning, a seller has already been awake for hours. She’s staring at a number – her sales goal for the next several months. Her company has a solid product, not a dominant one.

Her managers try to motivate and support, but only being a year or two in management themselves they can tell her to ‘be more strategic’ but can’t really tell her how.

Here’s how:

Triage. What are the factors that make one prospect more likely than another to become a customer? Are they cranking up spending this quarter? Do you have even one ‘truth teller’ at the agency or client who could give you the straight story? Do their preferred metrics and buying style align at all with your offerings? Have they been a customer before? If you answer yes to all or most of these questions, these are your focus accounts – your A’s. If you answer all or mostly “no” then it’s a C account; drop it. Mixed results? It’s a B, so set it aside for work later.

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Decide What You Control. It’s easy to waste time lamenting what you don’t have, what a competitor might be doing, or how bad the decision making is at the agency. Instead, inventory those things you can control. They are: (1) your intent – are you really out to do a great job for the customer? (2) Your POV on the customer’s business situation – not just what you know but what you think is important; (3) the agenda for your meetings – a good answer for “why are we here today?” (Hint: if it’s about ‘updating’ the customer, ‘introducing them’ to your product or ‘learning more’ about their challenges, you will lose); (4) the quality of your recommendation; stop with the big capabilities deck; nobody cares. Decide what combination of products and services will help this client at this moment in time. If you tell ‘em everything, you’re telling ‘em nothing.

Start in the Middle. In between the CMO and the media planning team, there are a lot of people who can help you: account owners at the agency… strategic planning… group VPs… functional specialists at the client. Put away your pitch for a while and start teeing up honest conversations and email exchanges with these people.

Ask Better Questions. Ask questions customers can say “no” to. Will you buy from me? Do we have your commitment? Do we really have a chance here? Hope is too often the opposite of clarity. What you want to constantly be asking is Where do we really stand? and What can we do to keep moving forward?

Stop Waiting. If things are not closing because you’re constantly waiting on something – a product feature, a call back, a change in the budgeting process – then you’re not making a difference.  You can wait till things calm down, till you get through your inbox, till the weather changes. Or you can simply act. Take chances, try one new thing each day. Ask forgiveness, not permission.

It may turn out that the one you’ve been waiting for is you.

This post, in its original form, was first shared in January 2015.


Starting with ‘Should’


Start with ShouldAsk a hundred sales managers how they’d like to see their teams change and grow and at least seventy will say “I want them to be more strategic.” But strategic is one of those words that sounds meaningful but lacks real definition: like transparent, sustainable or integrated, it rolls off the tongue but often means less to the listener than the speaker intends. And while they instinctively want sellers to act more strategically, well-meaning managers often end up enabling the kind of short-term, tactical, task-driven behavior they abhor.

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A dozen times a day, sellers and other team members bring messy problems and situations to the manager’s office, expecting to exchange them for tidy solutions. The harried manager finds it most expedient to simply make that exchange; it’s faster to just tell the seller what to do. And then it happens again…and again…and again. The result is a culture of tactical dependency and disempowered, less-than-confident sellers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The difference can come down to one little word: should.

Effective managers run a different play. At the point when a team member brings them a problem or issue, they slow things down and ask a question: “What do you think we should do in this situation?” And then a second one: “If that ends up not being possible, what else do you think we should consider?” Should is a powerful word. It’s an invitation to the dormant strategist and a challenge to the lazy thinker. Should tells the employee, ‘don’t bring a problem in here without also having at least considered a possible solution. Better yet, bring two potential answers.’

Sellers and team members become addicted to the easy answers we toss back to them every day. So stop answering questions with facts and directions and start answering them – at least initially – with questions of your own. And make sure those questions include the word should. Be disciplined with your own behavior and you’ll be amazed how fast the behavior and thinking of your team transforms.


Doing is Believing.


Doing is BelievingOne thing that’s certain about this business of ours: everyone is so damn smart. No matter your personal opinion or experience with just about anyone in digital marketing, the first thing you’ll say is “Well….he’s really smart….but….” Smart is to the digital ad world what blond is to Scandinavia. It’s certainly a high class problem, but there is one big downside. We tend to over-think, over-analyze and over-talk just about everything.

In recent months I’ve been coaching managers at many leading companies in our space and they describe very common – and frustrating – interactions with their team members. When they take the time (as good managers do) to really connect with and listen to their sellers and other staff it can get messy really fast. Employees (they’re really smart, remember?) want to discuss and debate all the history and fine points behind decision and policies. They want to feel heard on the minute details on the difficulty and danger of their accounts lists. They want to open up long closed issues and directions. And the well-meaning, evolved, new-age manager ends up spending a lot of time and energy trying to manage how her reps feel and what they believe.

There’s a better way.

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Yes, people in sales organizations want to feel heard. And they may think they want their hands on the levers of policy and management – right up till the day they actually own them and ask “…and why did I want this?” But what they really thrive on is clarity. They want to know their management and leadership is taking in good information (including theirs) and then they want a decisive manager to say “this is where we’re going and here are the guidelines on getting there.” And then she says no more.

Hear the voices of your team members but don’t let them turn you into a weathervane that changes direction with the wind. Empathize and identify with the lives and aspirations of your employees, but don’t become their career grief counselor. Above all, shift your focus from what your people think and believe to what they do. With every interaction, have a list of specific measurable actions for the employee(s) to take. And be ready to say: “I understand your position…what is it specifically that you’d like to see me do right now?

We can hold salespeople and ourselves accountable for discrete actions. Actions breed a culture of clarity and consistency. Take enough steps and you have direction. You can’t manage or control what’s in someone’s head…only what they do. So shut down the endless cycle of reflection and debate and start getting stuff done. You’ll be amazed at how much better everyone ends up feeling.


The Unmanaged.


UnmanagedLast month 55 sales leaders joined us at the top of the Hearst building for the final Upstream Seller Forum of 2014. Since the session focused on leadership, we thought it would be a good idea to bring the voice of the front-line seller into the room. So along with our friends at Seller Crowd, we broadly distributed a questionnaire to find out how digital sellers feel about the quality of the leadership and management they get. Close to 600 sellers responded, and a good many more added color commentary via the Seller Crowd site.

If you’re the leader of a sales organization, or if you manage even one or two sellers personally, you should pay close attention to the results.

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The short questionnaire was designed to get a pulse on levels of engagement, empowerment and support that sellers feel. It also factored in distance (are you the home office with your manager or alone in a branch territory?), levels of motivation and empathy (do they feel like their manager really understands their challenges?) Here are just a few of the results:

  • Across the entire population (589 Sellers) only 28% say they feel consistently engaged with their jobs and companies; an equal percentage say they rarely if ever feel engaged. For the remaining 44%, engagement comes and goes. This group represents the huge opportunity for managers.
  • We asked sellers to rate quality of the management they receive on a five point scale from “Exceptionally Well” to “Not at all.” 58% of respondents said they were being managed either “modestly but inconsistently,” “poorly” or “not at all.” Coffee to go with your wake-up call?
  • One might ask whether and how managers can make a difference. Looking more deeply at the “unmanaged” 58%, engagement with their companies was virtually nonexistent. Just 3% felt very engaged, while “rarely if ever engaged” jumped to nearly 50% of this group.

Seller Crowd seeded a few of these findings on its message board and sought comments. Here are a few of the things sellers told us there:

  • Managers too often wasted the precious time in team meetings or 1:1 meetings with seller just going over what was already in Salesforce. Why use potential engagement and creative time to go over numbers, which are better and more accurately recorded digitally?
  • Sellers reject “micromanagement” but not because they don’t need help. The busywork of over-reporting crushes them, and they don’t like not feeling trusted. But they welcome the manager who will help them “break the numbers down” and engage with them on strategy to open doors and land business. What are you doing as a manager that’s more important than this?
  • Do meetings with your sellers frequently get bumped in favor of something more critical? Yeah, they hate that. It makes them feel unimportant, disengaged and disconnected.

As we head into the Thanksgiving week, let’s be thankful for the trust sellers give us and their willingness to learn from us. And as we head into the new year, maybe we all commit to filling ‘the digital sales management gap.’