This article by Signpost CEO and co-founder Stuart Wall was originally published on the Huffington Post and can also be found here.
Building a first-class sales team is neither easy nor cheap — just ask the dozens of local startups that have folded or cut their sales teams over the last year. As we grow our internal sales force at Signpost, we constantly focus on building an efficient, healthy work environment that delivers results. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.
1. The best sales reps are trained, not born.
Some will argue that sales talent is something you’re born with, but we believe coachability wins over natural talent and experience — particularly for a high velocity, low cost salesforce. Great salespeople listen, learn, and adapt. New reps can be trained through a highly structured and organized onboarding process. At Signpost, reps’ desks are set up when they arrive and the first training week is scheduled to the hour. It doesn’t stop there. Always be training. Training sessions should be consistent (ideally the same time each week), interactive (create a dialogue, not a deck), and based on buy-in from reps (recent roadblocks, new strategies, etc). At Signpost, we also strongly encourage lateral mentorship. Reps share tips with each other through email, IMs and Yammer.
2. Motivation beats micromanagement.
We believe motivation drives all other metrics. We’ve seen company morale drive huge swings in performance at a level that can’t be replicated through micromanagement, rules, or intimidation. We maintain an environment that keeps morale high — we play music, create teams, organize small activities to break up the day, and reinforce reps’ connection to rest of the company through cross-departmental committees and group outings. Contests have also proven to be extremely powerful. Competitions should be short, unpredictable, and fun. We like to build contests around all parts of the funnel (deals closed, leads created, talk time, etc) and incorporate physical activities (golf putts, ping pong). Rewards can be more creative than just cash: let reps leave early on a Friday, add them to a “hall of fame” when they break records, or give airline vouchers to use toward vacation.
3. Make selling a layup.
The first and most intuitive step, of course, is building a great product that’s easy to sell and drives a great ROI for the buyer. The next step is optimize every step of the sales process. Make signing up customers quick and simple. Lower the friction for internal technology and leverage outside tech tools (Leads360, Join.me). Prioritize leads, customize pitches, and structure the workday strategically: Who are your most valuable customers? What are their major pain points? When do they answer the phone? Use every piece of data you have to bring call-to-close time down, and call volume and hit rate up. Don’t waste time having sales reps prospect or nurture after closing — prospecting provides excuses not to call, creates redundancies, and leads to fighting over deals. Account management also distracts from building new business: reps are hunters, not farmers.
4. Manage your managers.
The player-coach paradigm does not apply to the rep-manager relationship. A sales manager’s job is to make sales reps’ lives easier. In order to do so, they need the proper amount of span and control. 10-12 reps per manager is an ideal ratio, as it gives them enough work to justify the role, but not too many shoulders to look over. Managers should constantly be surrounded by reps, listening on calls, and training on the spot when necessary. In a perfect scenario, they are almost invisible except for during formal training. In fact, you can judge the strength of a sales team by how it performs when the manager is away. We’ve also learned that sales reps are not necessarily the best sales managers. You should therefore structure the promotion track wisely. Don’t make promises around timeframes that you can’t deliver — this will only hurt your credibility as a leader and even worse, lower collective expectations. Also avoid creating a labyrinth of layered hierarchies: this will raise your overall CPA while allowing for communication gaps and cultivate an unproductive kind of competition between reps.
5. Transparency drives performance.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we’ve done at Signpost over the last six months is track goals visually in real time. We’ve found extraordinary success through our sales dashboard, which adds a bit of gamification, holds the team accountable, and clearly quantifies the distance to upside. Reps know by looking at the dashboard exactly where they are at any given point in time and how far they are from hitting bonus numbers. Accordingly, bonuses should be straightforward, justifiably fair, and effectively communicated from the outset. In the event that quotas aren’t reached, a brief grace period or performance improvement plan can be instrumental in giving reps an opportunity to improve over a finite period of time. At the end of the day, it’s easier on both parties to hire fast and fire fast. When a rep is let go, communicate the change quickly to the team and hit the positive. Highlight the difference between terminations and layoffs, and reinforce the importance and collective benefit of building a team that’s strong all around.