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What does it take to be a sales leader?

JMR Sales & Consultancy Ltd

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2018 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. This involves 20 free events, workshops and training sessions along with thought leadership blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Official Partner and Sponsors – The West Midlands Combined Authority, Aston University, South and City College Birmingham and Curium Solutions - all events are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more here.

I wanted to share some thoughts about what it takes to lead in Sales but I feel it will make sense to do this at from three different perspectives :- Company Leadership, Sales Team and finally from the Sales Individual. I have formulated these ideas after my 20 years of working in large organisations and the last 14 years running my own Management Consultancy helping MD’s of SME’s to grow their Sales.

Corporate Sales Leadership

The best companies I have worked for have gone through difficulties, realized that they must change and worked out that they need a new Strategy. This new message or direction (which is all that a Strategy should convey) is then broken down into departmental objectives, goals and individual Key Performance Indicators.

The Sales Strategy should make clear to the members of that department which routes to market they will pursue, which customers they want to retain and which ones they want to acquire. Not all customers are equal, and nor should they be treated equally through the sales process. Sales teams often forget that they are just as empowered to say “No” to a customer (who does not fit the profile) as the customer is to say “No” to the Sales proposition that doesn’t appeal.

One of the other key factors that differentiated some of the best companies I have worked for was not only the Customer understanding but also the Market knowledge. We tend to forget the importance of really good research these days but when I worked at fast moving consumer goods companies like Homepride, Jeyes and Carlsberg, the research was of fundamental importance. New products were being developed each month and many of them succeeded but a number also failed. Marketing identified the opportunities through research and insight and the Sales team went and found the customers who shared that passion and understood the commercial opportunities.

The final factor from a Corporate perspective that was vital to successful sales was the realization that training and investment was needed to get the best results. Purchasing teams increased their skill sets so the Sales teams also had to up their game. In the same way that the Internet has disrupted traditional routes to market in the last 15 years, so too did the battle for retail space in the 80’s and 90’s. The common lesson here is that early adopters with Retail Space management tools in the 90’s were also the early adopters of ecommerce. In both instances, they invested in opportunities early and trained their staff on how to capitalise on these new opportunities.

Sales Team Leadership

Great Sales people often do not make very good Sales Managers. Why should they? The skills are very different. Great Sales managers will realise that the differences in personalities of the team members, their motivations and circumstances require different management styles. For instance, the dogged persistence of a New Business specialist could transform into an inappropriate Management style if used with a subordinate.

The best Sales Managers I have worked with understand the hard skills that are necessary to complete the sales process, they have great customer, market and product knowledge but they also care for the individual members of their team through a well-developed range of soft skills (empathy, listening, communication, emotional intelligence etc.). They also need to be good with customers themselves because they will have a significant amount of customer contact even if they are not directly responsible for that relationship.

Those soft skills come to the fore when Sales Managers go out on accompaniment with members of their team. The Sales accompaniment requires a special skill, and on training days, the manager needs to observe rather than run the meeting. These are invaluable times which really show how the salesperson’s development is progressing.

If briefed correctly on these days, the customer will appreciate the investment that the supplier is making and keep their focus on the salesperson rather than the Sales manager. Very few clients that I have worked with appreciate the importance of the Sales training accompaniment and consequently are unskilled in performing them.

Sales Person Leadership

Surely some mistake? How can an individual lead anything? Answer: They are leading themselves!

In the same way that a successful company has a vision, values and goals that they want to achieve, so too should the Sales professional. Important word professional because it implies a profession, qualifications, and a career.

Poor companies will put people into Sales because they have a resilient, confident personality or because they speak well. But would you allow someone to drive one of your company vehicles without first checking they had a license? No. Hopefully not. Then why give roles to people who do not have the correct skills and expect them to succeed?

My profession is Sales. I am not ashamed to say it but I am ashamed at the way some Sales people are treated and expected to succeed without the proper training.

Certainly today, there are a wealth of free resources available, but they should not be a substitute for professional training, coaching and mentoring of sales people in their journey to become Sales Leaders of the future. Your company depends on the results of the Sales function. I think that’s worth investing in and I hope you do too.

Jonathan Ratcliff
JMR Sales & Consultancy Ltd