How to build a successful sales culture

December 23, 2015 Globe and Mail

Sales is often viewed as the difficult part of business. When done well, however, sales can be the beating heart of an enterprise in presenting your brand, product, or service to the world, along with ultimately shaping how your organization is viewed by clients and investors alike. In order to favourably shape that perception and secure the customer relationships that will fund your ability to invest for the future, it is critical to develop an organizational sales culture focusing on the following key elements as an integral part of your business strategy:

Design intelligent compensation systems

Compensation design and modelling is one of the most critical aspects of building and maintaining a successful sales culture over the long haul. To that end, achieving alignment between overall organizational goals and individual incentives is key. Sales people should be motivated to pursue the type and calibre of business around which the firm aims to build its enterprise. In attempting to achieve alignment, however, simplicity is crucial. If a sales person doesn’t fully understand how they are being paid, your compensation system will lose its value as a motivational incentive.

Once you have a system that is driving results, you must set a high threshold for considering changes to that structure. Almost any tweak to the system, unless it is purely accretive for your sales reps, will have an immediate negative impact on your team’s motivation. Financial incentives drive behaviour, and once your sales team has been driven in one direction, a change in their future compensation can detract from focus and overall motivation.

Instill team-based selling

In today’s complex business environment, it is increasingly difficult to be all things to all customers and nearly impossible to expect a single individual to successfully acquire new business, manage those relationships, and deliver effective service simultaneously. It is clear in the service economy that the single most important point of differentiation for most firms is the quality of the team that interacts with its customers.

Teams that employ individuals with complementary skill sets and differing personality traits will deliver an enhanced customer experience, increasing both client acquisition and long-term client retention. A team approach allows each individual to focus on where they deliver the most value, whether it be through technical expertise or timely and efficient service delivery. In cross-pollinating individuals across multiple teams in the organization, you will also ensure that your group systematically shares best practices in a manner that fosters the continuous skill development of your client-facing personnel. By presenting your firm through more than one individual, you create multiple opportunities for your targeted client to develop relationships with your brand, making it more difficult for both your customers and staff to leave for a competitor.

Focus on coaching rather than activity management

When done well, sales management is more than simply evaluating pipelines and measuring activities. While sales success will always be a function of both the activity and the efficacy of those activities, it is critical to focus on the quality of the interactions your teams are having with customers at each step of the process. Effective sales people are developed over time with thoughtful coaching and guidance. Each time you sit down with a sales person to review their sales pipeline, the focus of the conversation should be on where they are achieving success in delivering value to customers, contrasted with where they are finding bottlenecks in their process. By determining what action or inaction is causing potential customers to fall off, you identify a coaching opportunity to deliver skills or strategies that will make that sales rep more effective. Concentrating your management efforts on coaching rather than measuring activities will allow you to build a more effective, productive team.

Define multiple career pathways

For many professionals, direct sales is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of business. For this reason, the long-term goal of almost every successful sales representative in traditional organizations is to one day stop making cold calls and executing client appointments in favour of managing those that do. That said, the traits and characteristics that are exhibited by top performing sales reps, for whom the business comes naturally, are often incongruous with the skills required of effective sales managers. Think of how many star athletes fail as coaches, only to be outclassed by former journeyman players who had to learn to play the sport through hard work and determination, rather than natural talent.

For this reason, it is critical for healthy sales organizations to define multiple pathways for those who choose sales as their career. Rather than promoting a star performer to a management position for which they may be ill-equipped, consider employing them as a sales guru of sorts. This can be done by providing accretive compensation, expanding their geographic territory, providing them with higher level products to sell, or adding additional business responsibility that falls short of personnel management. By defining career pathways that allow your star performers to remain engaged in direct sales roles and still advance in the organization, you’ll retain your top talent along with their customer acquisition skills.

By fostering an effective sales culture, leaders will ultimately drive employee engagement and motivation. In the end, a sales team is only as good as its teamwork.

Mark Frey is chief operating officer at Cambridge Global Payments, a leading provider of integrated cross-border payment services and risk management solutions.

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