Talk With Your Sales Force

Talk With Your Sales Force

Each year we spend a half-day at the University of Wisconsin speaking with senior sales leaders about the principles and techniques involved with the design of effective sales-compensation plans. Invariably, the subject will turn to an analysis and critique of the current sales-compensation methods used by some of the participants—that they volunteer or describe. It is usually a pretty interactive and fun session with much give and take.

When the session concludes I provide the participants with a short list of next steps or questions to address. They are designed to help each apply the lessons learned in the session to the particular sales-pay challenges their company may face. One question asks them to assess whether their sales-pay plan is working, or not—as measured versus criteria discussed during the session. And to start that process, we strongly suggest they directly ask that question of their sales force. This is a technique and practice we have employed with success for the last 30 years. Going directly to the source makes a lot of sense to us and usually gives a pretty unvarnished view of what is going on.

But, it is our experience that many CEOs and sales leaders do not speak with the members of their sales force very often—with the exception of reviewing sales results or unwinding (often messy) customer problems. We think this is a mistake and a great opportunity lost. Further, it can leave company leadership blind to the needs of the sales force and the market, and can result in unpleasant surprises.

Most CEOs or senior sales executives will state they do not have enough time in their busy schedule to spend time directly with the sales force—unless there is a “problem.” Well, problems can come in many flavors and colors and the ones you do not know about are generally the most dangerous. Interested? You should be. Try this 3-step plan:

  1. Schedule time out of your office and with the members of you sales team. Try planning to see or visit with 2-3 sales reps per month on their turf. You will routinely schedule 2-3 customer visits each month, so why not schedule equal time to be with the sales reps who call upon those very same customers every day?
  2. Leave agendas and spreadsheets back in the office. Spend a morning making a sales call or two together, have coffee together and answer a customer question or two together. Make yourself part of the sales force for a day. Routine discussions of goals and performance should be off limits. Now be sure to schedule (announce) your visit well in advance, but even so, it will likely take a CEO or top sales executive about an hour to calm the rep down. You probably should plan to drive for the first couple of hours for safety sake.
  3. Use your lunch effectively by having an open chat with the employee. Tell them your plans for the company and ask for their input. Also use this brief time to ask them to open up about both current market forces and those support processes that should be in place to make them a more effective and motivated seller. Ask questions like this:
    1. What is getting in the way of you closing more business?
    2. What are the competitors up to?
    3. What are customers saying about us these days?
    4. Is your sales compensation plan fair? What do you think should be changed in the future?
    5. And finally, do you have any questions for me? 

Be careful not to make commitments or promises you cannot keep, but be sure to offer an open door and open ear for future dialogue. And, never “reveal a source.” If something needs an answer, call them back within a week—personally.

The cost of the above is a couple of days a month out of the office and on the road. The value is being able to get out in front of serious trouble—before it becomes serious trouble.

Try it for the rest of the year. Once you get into the rhythm and get some results you will not only likely continue into the future but also consider expanding the practice across the company with other top executives, if not already done.

In the end we do not care how you do it, but do get out of your office and into the field with your frontline sellers. You will be happy you did. And, so will they.

Wilkening & Company has advised clients regarding the design and implementation of long-term incentive &sales compensation plans for 30 years. Our practice has addressed client challenges in businesses ranging from manufacturing and industrial distribution to private equity (and financial services).

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