Thoughts for the New Sales Manager
By Ned Miller
I recently met with the newly appointed CEO of a community bank who joked that his honeymoon on the job had lasted about 30 minutes. His situation was different from some new leaders – he had been with the organization for more than 10 years, most recently as the COO – but with the heightened expectations that stakeholders have today for immediate results, it’s clear that the first few months on the job are particularly important.
In the book “You’re in Charge – Now What?” Thomas Neff and James Citrin provide useful advice for new CEOs. Many of the rules they lay out in their eight-point plan apply to managers at all levels: Listen – really listen – to what your new colleagues are saying; resist the temptation to lay out your grand strategy to reshape the organization; if you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s okay to say you’ll get back to them; look for things you can fix quickly to build some momentum; and garner a reputation as somebody who gets things done.
But what if you’re a new sales manager overseeing a commercial or business banking team or a group of branch managers involved in outside business development? Recognizing that the honeymoon won’t last forever, how do you balance the urgent – growing pipeline, making this quarter’s numbers – with the important considerations of building a team capable of sustaining success over the long haul? What are the critical components of your first 30 to 60 days on the job?
If you’re lucky, maybe everything is clicking with your new team. You’re impressed with their energy, enthusiasm and experience and their pipeline reports bring a smile to your face.
But things may not be so rosy. The team you inherited hasn’t been making its numbers. It’s obvious that several experienced hands are going through the motions. Others appear to have the right stuff but are definitely green. The sales management system your predecessor put in place – well, let’s just say, it needs some work.
SO WHAT NOW?
The first step is to get a handle on three key elements: pipeline, people and process. Let’s tackle each in turn, recognizing that they are obviously intertwined.
Pipeline – You’re looking for several things:
• Is there anything there?
• Where do the leads come from – customers, centers of influence (COIs), prospecting activity? Have we been adding anything recently?
• How are the deals moving through the pipeline? Is there any mold in the pipeline? Are there any obvious sticking points? How successful is your team at closing business?
• What does the pipeline tell you about your team’s sales process? For example, if you only see opportunities from existing customers, it might suggest that acquiring new clients may be an issue. If your commercial lending team is responsible for generating loans, deposits and fees, do you see deposit opportunities and referrals to other lines of business like capital markets and trust highlighted or just loans?
Somebody once said that your first months in a new job entitle you to ask dumb questions. (It may be the only time you can.) But while these questions about the pipeline are basic, they are not dumb.
One other thought: Resist the urge to redo all the sales reports immediately. There may be good reason to trash the existing pipeline and closed business reports, but you have more important things to focus on in the first 60 days.
People – As a new sales manager you need to figure out who’s focused and producing and who’s not. Among the things to find out are the following:
• Who is generating business? Some sales managers think that if their team is making the numbers, everything is great. But all too often the “team” is really one or two stars whose Herculean efforts are producing 80-90 percent of the sales.
• What obstacles are the sales team members facing? Some of the impediments can be relatively easy to deal with. I recall one banker who learned that his relationship managers spent roughly three hours each Monday driving to a one-hour sales meeting. Changing to a teleconference – which later was shrunk to 30 minutes – made him an instant hero and sent a strong message that he was interested in people spending time on business development, not tied up commuting to internal meetings.
• If your group includes producing sales team leaders, how are they allocating their time between personal production and working with their teams? In our experience, team leaders often don’t spend much time coaching, and what little they do tends to focus on credit, not sales. Many bank compensation systems tend to reward individual production over people development. I once had a sales manager tell me that he spends 100 percent of his time developing his own book of business and “whatever time I have left over I give to my four lenders.” Honest? Yes, and unfortunate if you had the chance to see the anemic sales results of two of his lenders.
Process – Your first question is whether there is a defined sales process in place. Many teams have as many sales processes as they have salespeople – in essence, everybody doing his own thing. What you want to discern includes:
• Is there a model for business development or do people freelance? For example, we see vastly different approaches to market management in teams. A simple question about how different business bankers allocate their time between calling on customers, prospects and COIs can be revealing.
• Is there agreement on what an ideal prospect looks like within the group? All too often the absence of a rudimentary target profile keeps bankers spinning their wheels pursuing anything that walks in the door.
• What are the non-negotiable sales activities for the team? If the sales model calls for developing detailed sales strategies or account plans for key relationships, you need to see examples. You also need to ask how the plans are updated and what, if anything, people do with them. It’s my contention that relationship managers dismiss account planning as too time-consuming and of marginal benefit because their sales managers have not taken the time to discuss the plans in any meaningful way. Until RMs see value in planning, the best you can hope for is grudging compliance. Until sales managers review sales plans elbow-to-elbow with their teams, that won’t change.
• What training have people received? How was it received by the front line? If people laugh about the last time they went through a “sales refresher,” find out why. Chances are the problem was more with what went on before the training (maybe too little up-front assessment of the group’s needs and questionable relevance to the unit’s business priorities) or after the event (no follow-up by sales managers) than with the training itself.
• How people respond when you tell them you’d like to go out with them to meet some of their customers and prospects can also speak volumes. In addition to giving you an opportunity to ask to see their key customer and key prospect lists (What? You don’t have one?), it will likely give you a chance to see three things: whether they are good at articulating a relationship strategy; how they prepare for calls; and how they do face-to-face with customers and prospects. Do go out on two or three calls with each banker, not just one. And be sure to clarify in advance the purpose of the call and your role, which could be different depending on the objectives the salesperson has set. (Note: Initially this may create some level of unnecessary anxiety among the troops, but you can do much to minimize that with good communication before and after. But do get some feedback from insiders about what the word is through the grapevine after your initial calls.)
New sales managers who spend the first 30 to 60 days of the honeymoon focusing on pipeline, people and process aren’t home free. Most will need to make some changes if they’re going to succeed. But armed with answers to these questions, they’ll have a much better chance.
Ned Miller is a senior vice president with MZ Bierly Consulting Inc., a sales force management consulting firm specializing in regional and community banks headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (610) 296-4772.