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Sales Leadership Transcends the Mindset of Salesmanship

Picture this scenario.

You’re the CEO of a growing business. Your sales team comes from various backgrounds, and you are leading the team personally. Some are experienced while others are still green. Yet, you can sense that they carry immense potential - not just for your business but for themselves. With your drive and charisma, you make great salespersons out of them. As your business grows you decide that the team needs a sales leader to take charge and lead the rest of them as a cohesive unit and drive for top performance. You promote the best salesperson in the team. Being ambitious and motivated, the person gladly accepts the new position and the recognition.

Time passes. Your new sales manager is working so hard but the results that you had expected are not forthcoming. In fact, the manager seems to be so overworked and is no more looking as enthusiastic as before. One of your best sales reps has quit and the team is looking less motivated than ever before. And the numbers show that performance and productivity have dipped considerably.

What happened here?

Did the master salesperson become a monster sales manager? It is common misconception that a high performing salesperson will automatically become a high performing sales leader. Many business leaders mistakenly believe that the top performing salesperson deserves to be promoted to a leadership role. After all, what better way to motivate performance than to give an individual more responsibility and a sense of accomplishment, right?

WRONG! The problem becomes clear in practice. Surely the motivators for all salespeople come from the same place. There is a deep need for achievement – this drives them to bust quotas and make huge sales bonuses. So is the desire to influence others – which is evident from the customers they convert and keep. But the competencies that a sales leader possesses is not necessarily found in all salespersons, however high performing reps they might be. It is fair to state that a sales leader needs to transcend the mental makeup of a sales rep.

The best sales reps orient themselves around a given sales target and get going with a familiar cycle of execution that they are so good at. They work to their strengths and commit to the rigor needed to accomplish their individual goals. A sales leader however needs to begin with creating the framework for the entire team’s plans and efforts which together will help attain the larger goals set by the business. This means seeing the forest beyond the trees and articulating a chosen path – what the sales organisation should really be doing for the business. A powerful, encompassing vision of that then becomes the belief that “we will make this happen!” and the organisation moves forward confidently.

The sales leader of today also needs to grapple with the relevance of sales effort in the face of changes that technology has enabled in buyer empowerment. With so much information available on the click of a button be it on the phone or PC, customers now know of and have made fairly strong impressions about a vendor long before they consent to meet a salesperson. Therefore a sales leader needs to rethink and recalibrate the sales force and look for ways to provide real value to customers – factoring in needs, capabilities, uniqueness, competitiveness, timing, profitability - to carve out a sustainable space for their brand and business in the competitive marketplace, and deliver growth sustainably.

This is the quintessential mandate for the sales leader. Questions that a thoughtful sales leader would ask themselves would include some of these. Are you able to identify attainable opportunity in what you are selling? Can you find a way to disrupt your competitive space to become a pioneer? What kind of salespeople on your team do you need and how do you become their Coach? What is the game-plan and what are you measuring?

Such questions are powerful tools that smart sales leaders use to take a hard look at all aspects of the business and the opportunity, do a thorough calibration of the capabilities and resources that exist with them today, and then lead with “pragmatic ambition”. This is prized leadership capability and business owners and leaders, and executive recruiters all over the world keep looking to identify such sales leaders.

It will be useful to examine the capability of these high performing/potential sales leaders in some more detail. They exemplify four distinct competencies, namely,

  • The capability to plan

  • Understanding of buyer behavior

  • The knack of hiring high quality talent and becoming their “coach”

  • The ability to create playbooks and metrics

We will take a look at each of these competencies briefly.

The capability to Plan

Sales planning is foundational to any annual business goals. It is the unfolding of the vision, like an architect's blueprint which translates into the edifice.

The sales plan is the blueprint for customer focus and all sales effort, and the basis for targets, budgets and resource allocation. Data for large corporations shows that sustained growth rides on the back of solid sales planning and its consistent achievement.

This planning ability is multi-dimensional, characterized on one end by a bird’s eye-view of the business goals and targets for the entire team, and on the other end by the worm’s eye-view of the minute steps that need to be taken – measurably by each player to achieve those goals. In other words, they are able to see the big picture as well as the micro-details of what really works in the trenches.

Such leaders often excel in planning at three levels – Target Planning – akin to the macro-view, Account Planning – akin to ground view, and Call Planning – akin to worm view. The planning competency signifies the ease and versatility with which top sales leaders visualize what needs to get done to achieve their targets even before they execute on their vision!

Understanding of Buyer Behavior

Top Sales leaders are astute observers of human behavior. They read between the lines of what the customer says to them and also try to glean from body language. Knowing this enables them to gauge deep-seated customer needs and motivations, and helps them to influence their customers in subtle but powerful ways. Classically this is the stuff of marketing and advertising. Yet these sales leaders intuitively apply the principles of marketing influence to how they engage with customers, their own teams, and other stakeholders. That is often seen that these sales leaders know exactly what marketing programs to invest in and how they work.

A pragmatic sales leader understands that the customer needs go beyond just the product or service being offered. They land conversations on the right chord and form a strong connection with customers as trusted advisors or consultants transcending the transactional nature of the immediate sales opportunity and building a bridge – no longer an outsider or a mere vendor, but a partner to the customer that can provide real value over a long term.

The knack of hiring high quality talent and becoming their “coach”

What kind of talent do you attract and keep? How well do you know your team? What are each of them best at? Where do they need help? How do they learn? What capabilities can you offload to the sales eco-system around and create higher value? Is the overall talent pool strong enough to accomplish your mission? These are some questions that top sales leaders ask of themselves and their organisations.

They understand that each salesperson in the team is a unique individual and under the hood of fairness and impartial leadership, each one is motivated differently to perform. They also know what skills and capabilities are needed to execute on each role needed in the team. Not surprisingly, these leaders are picky about new hires and spot the winners to bring into the team and push up the performance curve of the sales talent pool overall. (At the other end, is it also seen that lesser managers typically end up hiring for competencies below their own competency curve.)

Then they nurture the talent with relish – stretching and pushing them to their boundaries, while at the same time knitting them into a cohesive unit that is motivated to outperform. While they are totally accessible and supportive and often generous to a fault with their teams, they are ruthless about performance matters. They possess the knack of “troubling the comfortable, and comforting the troubled players”! The sheer energy, personal capability and charisma of some of these sales leaders gets them ardent fan following, driving up loyalty and performance from their teams. Very often these highly effective leaders are remembered for their “tough love” for years after by the teams that worked for them.

The ability to create playbooks and metrics

It is not enough to know what needs to be done. Astute sales leaders know that teams need anchoring to common purpose and have to be steered tightly with clear expectations from each member, followed up with relentless check-ins and reviews. This is at the heart of sales metrics and playbooks.

They ask and dig their heels into questions like these. Are we on track – what is on the scoreboard? What are we measuring? Are we missing something? How are we doing on time? What are the steps to the deal? Whom are we meeting? Whom do we know there? What do we know and what else do we know?

Over time these questions and many more that begin verbally find their place in review presentations, and eventually get embedded in sales programs like lead generation, pre-sales, account management and call planning, and sales productivity. And they get recorded and tracked using CRM systems and sales intelligence gleaned through dashboards and analytics.

To sum up, sales leadership is a distinct managerial capability way above the scope of the individual sales rep. The above four competencies are at the root of what sets apart highly successful sales leaders from the rest. The role of a sales leader goes beyond everyday operations and yet they are all about day-to-day execution. They wield the ambition contained in aggressive sales goals and break it down to attainable chunks at every salesperson’s level. Their calendar is choc-a-bloc, yet they find time to hire top talent, coach and support their performers. They articulate well-defined sales programs, deploy resources to execute on clearly laid out actions and efforts, and measure outputs and performance closely.

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