5 min read

The Leadership Your Salespeople Need to Sell During Difficult Times

We all know that Covid-19 has wrecked havoc and created economic uncertainty for businesses all across the globe.  For many sales leaders, this economic uncertainty has shaken their confidence and sewed doubt and fear. Fear is an emotion, and when leaders make decisions out of emotion they're always poor decisions.  What is important for sales leaders to remember in these difficult times is that what worked for you during the good times (the booming IT market of the past decade), isn’t what is needed now. The stakes are much higher and your salespeople need you and your leadership more then ever. 

But many sales leaders are:

  • Spending too much time telling their reps what to do when instead, they should be showing their sales reps how to do it.  By that I mean, actually modeling the desired behaviors that produce the results. As I point out in this article, there is big difference between coaching and manager feedback. Telling  salespeople to make more calls and send out more emails, or to schedule more meetings and go find more job orders is not coaching.  Sales leaders should be demonstrating how to achieve those results. 
  • Increasing activity expectations. Conventional wisdom tells them "times are tough, more outbound activity equals more sales." Unfortunately this is not always true and can backfire as I point out below.
According to an article from Harvard Business Review, between 25% and 50% of all sales professionals in American companies have never had to sell during an economic downturn.  Just take a look at your salesforce and consider for a moment how old your salespeople are and how long they've been in sales.  Very few, if any companies can rely on their sales team’s experience to get them through this downturn.  Most likely you have a sales team consisting of sales reps who have only sold in a bull market, never in a bear market. 

Now more than ever, salespeople need sales leaders to lead by example. In this blog post, The Leadership Your Salespeople Need to Selling During Difficult Times, I share sales leadership ideas, tips and best practices for leading salespeople during difficult times.  

Sales Leaders, Stop Making it All About Sales Activity
Don't get me wrong, sales activity is very important.  In fact, when I was a sales rep myself, I had a reputation for high sales activity output.  I routinely made 100+ dials a day (and more during the .com bust).  Make no mistake,  most salespeople do in fact need to increase their sales activity. But if  you're a sales leader and you make everything about sales activity, especially during The leadership your salespeople need to sell during difficult timesan economic downturn, your salespeople will instantly tune you out.  And if you make it all about sales activity and you also fail to model the behavior (how to effectively execute a cold call, overcome an objection), you will lose their respect, guaranteed.  99% of salespeople don't need to be told what to do, but they do need a sales leader who can show them how to do it.  That is the job of the sales leader, period.

When sales leaders get scared and become uncertain they focus almost exclusively on sales activity metrics.  They do this because it's the one thing they feel they have control over. But it's also because they don't know what else to do. Many sales leaders simply don't know how to model the desired behaviors that yield the expected results. 

Instead of pushing increased sales activity, sales leaders should focus their time and energy on coaching their salespeople to create effective sales call plans, ensuring they're prepared to call on qualified buyer personas who fit their ideal target market and that their salespeople have prepared an effective message.  In other words, sales leaders should focus on helping their sales reps craft the right message for the right buyers. Salespeople stop engaging in sales activity because what they're doing is not working. The sales leader's job is to fix that. 

Another example is sales leaders should be working with their reps to ensure they're prepared for anticipated objections.  We're seven months into Covid-19, there is really no excuse for a salesperson to be "caught off guard" when a prospect tells them "we're not hiring," or "we have a budget freeze."  At this point, all salespeople should be expecting those objections and ready to rattle off a multitude of rebuttals.  The sales manager's job is to make sure their salespeople are "conversation ready" and that their people can easily (within the flow of the conversation) overcome these objections and continue the discussion. You accomplish this by scheduling weekly or daily coaching sessions with you salespeople.

Stop Stressing  Your Salespeople Out (and yourself) With Increased Reporting
Another tell-tale sign of sales leaders operating out of fear and focused on the wrong things are those who obsess over a need for additional (and typically unnecessary) sales activity and performance reporting data.  Sales leaders who seek new and/or additional information about what is happening really seek control over a situation they can't control.  Implementing new and changing reporting requirements has far-reaching negative side effects.  For one, it usually brings sales activity, the very activity sales leaders are trying to increase, to a screeching halt.  It also creates mixed messages regarding expectations and stirs people's emotions because it makes salespeople feel that they can't be trusted.  As a result, the sales leader unintentionally  creates an "Us versus Them" mentality.   Sales leaders need to be careful, this is a slippery slope.

For the sales leader, the focus should be on improving sales effectiveness, NOT on inspecting sales activity.  Inspecting sales activity is a low value activity.  It won't impact your bottom line.  Effective sales coaching on the other hand will impact your bottom line.

Instead, sit down with your people 1:1 on a weekly basis and have a conversation. Be sure you that you track, measure and segment your leading indicators from your lagging indicators. Make sure that you have also have a buyer aligned sales process in which you can measure the successful outcome of each stage of your sales funnel.  Remember, focus on improving sales effectiveness, not a review of past activity. 

Stop Obsessing Over Late Stage Deals
As I highlighted in my blog post, Why Focusing on Deals Closest to the Money is a Waste of Time, obsessing over late stage deals rarely makes much of an impact on your bottom line since expectations such as contract duration, pricing, deliverables, and payment terms were established up front. Not only do sales managers get little in return on their time and energy spent on late stage deals, but customer’s typically react negatively when extra pressure is applied. 

Instead, sales leaders should focus on mentoring and coaching their salespeople where the greatest opportunity exists, in early stage opportunities.  For example, when sales leaders coach their reps to the sales funnel including early stage sales discovery calls, they can help (show and model the behavior) their salespeople identify and cultivate opportunities, demonstrate how to build value into the customer's buying process, identify additional needs and uncover cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. When sales leaders fail to focus on early stage leads however they miss out on these important coaching opportunities to improve their sales rep's effectiveness.

One of the negatives of the IT staffing market being so strong the past 10 years is that the "bullness of the market" essentially masked weak salespeople and poor sales behaviors and poor sales process.  Smart sales leaders recognized this during the booming times and provided sales training during the boom market to ensure they would be prepared before this economic down turn.  But for most sales leaders, they're behind the curve and just now realizing  that their salespeople need additional training and coaching. 

Coaching your salespeople to the top of their sales funnel affords you the greatest coaching opportunity and the best opportunity to impact the outcome of the deal.  By focusing on early-stage opportunities you can make a difference in everything from qualification, strategy, differentiation from the competition and resource allocation.  You can't do that when you only focus on late stage deals.

It's natural for business owners and sales leaders to have anxiety right now regarding revenue and net income results.  Rather than falling into the trap of "inspecting what you expect" and focusing exclusively on activity and looking into the past, adjust your mindset and focus on coaching your sales reps to improve their sales effectiveness. Coaching focuses on looking into the future and leading with questions to understand where your salespeople are struggling and then collaborating as a team to find solutions.  These strategies can help build a sales engine for your business that not only deliver results but will sustain your business through even the most difficult times.

To learn more about sales leadership and how to coach and develop talent, download our eBook, How to Create a Culture of Accountability Through Coaching and Empowerment.

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