Use a carrot or a stick? 6 steps to getting the best results from your sellers.

By Keith Dugdale

“It’s like banging my head against a brick wall.”

This is what one of my clients said to me recently, expressing her frustration at getting a group of engineers in the business to adapt their sales behaviours in order to improve their sales results. She is by nature more of a ‘stick’ person than a ‘carrot’ person, but no amount of pleading, cajoling or threats of being blacklisted to the CEO seemed to be working for this particular group.

This to me, and I am sure to many of you, was not a surprise. Rarely in my experience do I see sales behaviours change as the result of being whipped into action with a stick.

Why the stick approach rarely works

Never a better case of a stick approach not only not working, but being entirely inappropriate, are the recent claims that Appco Group forced staff to perform pseudo sexual acts if they didn’t meet their targets.

Whether true or not, hopefully the number of companies using these kinds of tactics are few and far between. But even though not that extreme, I do know of a number of organisations whose response to missing sales targets is to push, squeeze and blame.

In the past, the stick approach might have worked to some extent as sales was much more about control. Not only was the Sales Manager controlling the sales team, but the sales team were trying to control the sale and the customer. They tried to control the conversation. In turn, the Sales Manager contolled them via KPIs that involved statistics like numbers of sales calls, number of sales visits, and conversion rates.

That approach to sales has long gone as an effective way of selling, but unfortunately not long gone as a method of selling for some. These days control has been replaced with empowerment.

Empower your sales team instead of controlling them

A great sales person these days is focused on empowering their customers to achieve what they want to achieve. As I said, gone are the days of control – in fact, the goal is to put the client in control as much as possible. Similarly, the role of the Sales Manager has changed – their role is to empower the sales team, to coach and support them, but not to control. Control typically needs to be ongoing, wheras empowerment becomes self driven.

It is hard to empower with a stick.

So how do you go about empowering your sales team to adopt new behaviours and meet their sales targets?

1.    Alignment of client strategy with business strategy

There needs to be a company vision and strategy that is clearly linked to client strategy. So if for example one aspect of the three year strategy for the business is to grow revenue by 10 million, then the client strategy needs to show which services will be sold to which clients in order to drive, say, 80% of that revenue. Yes, along the way these services and clients will change, but the sales team has to have something to aim at.

2.    Active support at all levels of leadership

All leaders in the business need to actively support both the business and client strategy. They need to react to questions about the strategies and actively engage everyone around them as to why the strategies are important and how the strategies will work. They need to empower people to want to actively be part of the success of the strategies.

A saboteur is the most dangerous thing. If there is a leader who appears to agree but behind closed doors or even at the water-cooler is inferring that the strategy should not be supported, they are not behaving like a leader, they are controlling people to achieve their own strategy. In my world, that is completely inexcusable. Dealing with saboteurs may be the biggest test of the CEO’s real desire to implement the business strategy, and a test sadly that I see too many leaders fail.

3.    Communication of the strategies

Too frequently I still see a total disconnect between the two strategies, especially in the minds of the sales team. The people who are responsible for sales either do not understand or even know what the company vision and strategy is, or don’t understand how it relates to them. Making sure this connection is strong helps the sales team, including the managers, understand ‘why’ they need to sell what they need to sell.

The more (useful) meetings, phone calls, emails and working groups to work through these strategies the better. It should be ongoing not just a one-off announcement. Have the CEO/Managing Partner and executive leadership constantly talk about the strategies. Link all other projects to the overall strategy so people see how all the projects are aligned to the overall strategy.

When everyone is on the same page it is much easier to foster the type of relationships within the sales team that the sales team are trying to develop with their clients. One of the facets of this type of relationship is open communication. When that exists, those responsible for sales tend to communicate with managers before the issue is too large and it can be properly addressed.

4.    Train the sales team

So now your sales team know ‘why’ they are doing what they are doing. They might even know ‘what’ they are doing. Many however may not know ‘how’ to do it, or at least how to do it well. You need to make sure you train people, preferably early in their careers, to demonstrate the skills and behaviours that align with your culture, vision, strategy and client strategy. This then needs to be backed-up by ongoing development, coaching and other support. The closer you align all of this to the specific client targets of your sales team, the more successful they will be.

5.    Alignment of KPIs and rewards

Once everyone is on the same page then the sales measures that will support and drive the right approach need to be agreed and implemented. For some of the sales team, the only thing they need to motivate their performance is to know why they are doing what they are doing and that they are helping the firm’s overall strategy. However many others will need a specific incentive to do what they do. This may include a financial incentive, but much rof the recent research into performance motivators indicates that simple positive reinforcement is valued by more people than a traditional ‘bonus’.

Whatever you decide, the rewards need to directly correlate with the desired behaviour. For instance, reward someone who did absolutely the right thing in terms of their behaviours but did not win a project, and do not reward the person who won work but went against the strategy. Also make sure that any technology, such as a CRM, supports the strategy and not just pipeline. For great sales organisations, one of these measures is always relationship capital. Measuring relationship capital allows the sales person to work on both a dollar and a relationship pipeline.

6.    Focus on the willing

When you change anything in an organisation, there will naturally be a resistance from some people. Even if you get points 1-5 above 100% right there will be some people who find the change just too painful. In such cases, I would focus on getting the approach right for those who are willing, at least as a starting point. Identify who those people are and once you have accomplished steps 1-5 for everyone then focus your ongoing effort on the willing.

Then when the willing have successes – share them with everyone, as often and in as many formats as you can. After successes have been noted by others, you will find some people gradually come over as they start to feel that the change is not as potentially fatal as they had thought it might be.

Got a comment or want to join in the conversation? Head over to the post on Keith’s LinkedIn page.