Sales management is a difficult endeavor to master, with many nuances amid a constantly-changing environment. Enter Jason Jordan, an author, recognized thought leader and a partner of Vantage Point Performance, a leading sales management training and development firm. Jason wrote “Cracking the Sales Management Code: The Secrets to Measuring and Managing Sales Performance,” a book that has been recognized as a groundbreaking piece of research and provides best practices approach to identify and implement the critical activities and sales metrics that truly drive business results.
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jason on a variety of sales management subjects, including obstacles holding sales managers back, how managers can improve poor performances and help their teams ‘hit their numbers’ and how inside sales is influencing where sales management is trending today.
What’s the role of a sales manager from your perspective? How would you define sales management?
The role of the sales manager is to improve the sales performance of his or her team. Sales managers primarily exist to get better performances out of the salespeople that work for them. So the question becomes: what can a sales manager actually do, beyond staring at reports and doing forecasting? A lot of our research [for the book] centered around exactly that.
We wanted to find out what is important for senior sales leadership and how they are measuring the things that their sales managers do. We found that they are measuring stuff like recruiting, hiring, training and coaching. There’s also a lot of measurement around the types of tools that the sales force is provided, the accurate and effective usage of these tools, and then finally assessing salespeople through some kind of skill inventory.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing sales managers today?
The problem with sales management is there’s just not enough time. People are always pulling on the sales manager in different directions and all the important stuff just doesn’t get done because there isn’t enough time. We ask sales managers if they had an extra hour in their week what they would do with it. They always say they would get out in the field and coach their reps. Yet, they don’t. We tell them there are no more hours coming; there’s a choice you have to make. You can continue to do the things that you think are important, or you can re-prioritize.
‘Hit the number’ is a phrase you use in your book a lot. What’s your advice for sales reps and companies to hit their numbers?
Let me break this up into 2 parts: a near-term and long-term. People say in the near-term, “What can I do to get more sales?” The intuitive answer is “make everyone work harder” and that’s kind of the fundamental belief that sales forces are built on, that if you can motivate people to work harder, you’ll get more sales. But what I would say in the near-term, which is much more powerful than just making more calls, is to make sure the sales force is going after the best opportunities.
If you’re a sales VP and you look into your sales pipeline right this very minute, I guarantee you’d find there is a bunch of junk in there. In the near-term, examine what’s in your pipeline, examine how the reps are spending their time and make sure they’re spending it in the right places.
In the long-term, it’s all about building sales force capability, and we think that comes best by building sales management capability. Generally speaking, if you want to have a consistent sales force, frontline sales managers have to be A-grade. Sales management has been operating under the assumption that if you take successful sellers and put them in sales management roles, then they’ll replicate that success in the people reporting to them. We think over the long haul salespeople come and go, but having top-shelf management in place is the ultimate answer to make sure they’re performing and executing as you want them to.
How would you advise companies to improve their poor sales performances?
The first thing is to identify the source of the poor performance. A lot of companies think, “we have to run faster or work harder,” but there are other fundamental decisions that affect sales performance. Are you not selling enough of a certain product line? Are the margins being negotiated away by salespeople? Are you not acquiring new customers at a fast enough pace? Are you losing your existing customers to attrition? The first issue when you’re having trouble with sales performance is identifying the root cause. We don’t see enough people doing enough of that. “We need to do more,” is not very sophisticated thinking and not good management. If you don’t break it down and try to identify what the problem is, it’s kind of hard to take any corrective action that you can have confidence in other than “work harder.”
What advice would you give to our readers who have small sales pipelines and want to grow their pipeline in Q3 and Q4?
To assume that a bigger pipeline is a better pipeline is a dangerous assumption. We had a case study where a sales manager saw that his sales reps’ average pipelines were 20% smaller than the rest of the company, yet they were producing 50% more sales; that’s because there was no junk in there. The first thing to improve the sales pipeline is to take a look inside and get rid of deals that are either unwinnable or undesirable. That frees up a lot of time to go get new deals and to say, kind of counterintuitively, that by pruning the sales pipeline, you can actually build a more productive sales pipeline.
The next thing is to make sure salespeople are focused on the right opportunities. We think that the sales pipeline should reflect the go-to-market strategies of the company. If the pipeline doesn’t reflect the kind of customers that you ultimately want to have, then when the sales come in, you’re not going to have the kind of customers you want. Cleaning your pipeline and making sure reps are focused on the right opportunities – those things in combination are near-term and pretty powerful.
With an industry-wide shift toward inside sales, how do your principles for improving sales performance change or apply, compared to outbound sales?
With inside sales, you have to determine whether you have an inbound sales force or an outbound sales force. If the sales force is making outbound calls, then they can actually exert influence over the nature of the deals and opportunities that they’re bringing in. We see a lot of inside sales forces springing up because they’re very efficient. Vantage Point Performance doesn’t spend a huge amount of time with inside sales forces, given the nature of what we do, but I think the principles apply just as well, as long as it’s an outbound calling sales force.
But if you think about sales today, even “outside” salespeople don’t spend the majority of their contact face-to-face with their customers. With email and cell phones and social media, it would be interesting to test how much outside sales reps really spend face-to-face with their customers, versus communicating in some other way. You could argue that we’re all both inside and outside salespeople today.
What are your final thoughts to sum up where sales management is today and where it’s trending?
At the highest level, I think sales management is the most critical and underappreciated role in the sales force. It’s been neglected, not even intentionally, but it just happened that way. Part of the problem is that even companies that realize they’ve ignored their sales managers still struggle to find something powerful to train them on. They’re really searching the marketplace for thoughtful things to provide their sales managers. The discipline of sales management is not yet fully developed. At Vantage Point, we’re hopefully furthering the discipline by providing this research and providing managers with simple management frameworks that put them in control of sales performance.
My encouragement is for companies to put a lens on sales managers, and if they’re great, then great! If they’re not great, they need help. Sales managers are just so frazzled, and panicked, and reactive, and getting beaten up from every angle. It’s a tough gig. They need help. I’ve often thought about making buttons that say “Hug a Sales Manager!”, because they have such a demanding position that’s not fully understood or appreciated. But we’ll get there eventually. Training one sales management team at a time.
More about Jason Jordan
Jason Jordan is a partner of Vantage Point Performance, the leading sales management training and development firm. He is a recognized thought leader in the domain of business-to-business selling and conducts ongoing research into management best practices in hiring, developing, measuring and managing world-class sales organizations. Jason’s extensive research into sales performance metrics led to the breakthrough insights published in his book, “Cracking the Sales Management Code.”