Guest Commentary: How sales managers can overcome their No. 1 challenge

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

When I was promoted to sales management for the first time, my new boss, Scott, brought me to our corporate headquarters for informal on-boarding. I was 30 years-old, and was taking over a team of seven former peers that were older and more tenured than me. Scott took a risk by promoting me, so he wanted to make sure his decision worked. When I arrived, he skipped the typical pleasantries, and went straight into his message. The words he used to open his monologue still ring in my ears today…

“Congratulations on your promotion, and welcome to the world of gray.”

Scott went on to explain how my previous job wasn’t easy, but it was black and white. I had one job: exceed my sales goal. As a sales manager, I’ll have to decide what to do every day. Dozens of distractions will come from unpredictable places—like executive management, engineering, operations, human resources, etc. He even admitted that he’ll distract me every now and then. He summarized his speech with this: “… and every distraction will be urgent.”

Eighteen years later, after successfully serving in two vice president roles, and seven years of consulting sales managers, Scott’s words make up the most accurate description of sales management that I’ve heard. Of the many challenges that face sales leaders, there is one that is more daunting than any others; one challenge that has exponentially grown because of technology and unreasonable expectations.

The No. 1 challenge to sales managers is the plethora of non-sales management distractions that always seem to be urgent.

At the end of our meeting, Scott concluded with a statement that helped me clarify the gray. He said: “Your job is to drive top-line growth. Don’t let anybody, including me, distract you from doing your job.”

Once I heard that, I became obsessed with my time, and developed dozens of techniques that kept me in front of my team and my customers. Below I’ve shared six of these ideas that have been modified over the years, and will serve you well in today’s world of managing a sales team.

•    Block off field time every week. If you’re not in the field managing your people, then you’re not managing your people.

Depending on the size of your team, block off one to three full days per week that everyone knows you’re in the field. Protect these days like you protect your family vacation. As a leader of sales professionals, riding in the field is your most valuable activity. Treat it that way.

•    When riding with your sales people, turn off your email. While you’re in the passenger seat getting distracted by emails that don’t require your attention, there is a living and breathing sales producer about 36 inches away from you that is dying to talk with their boss. 
   
During your field days, schedule a 60-minute break to check email, return phone calls, etc. You’ll feel comfortable putting your phone in your computer bag, knowing that you’ll be able to check all your email between 12:45 and 1:45 at a Starbucks next to your 2:00 appointment. Like any other addiction, you’ll go through withdrawal pains before you feel the reward, but it’s worth it.
 
•    Schedule a recurring meeting with your boss. Your boss probably makes impulsive requests of you, which can lead to the most urgent, and meaningless distractions.

Schedule a recurring meeting with your boss, and add it to your calendars. Make it the same time and day. A good rule of thumb is to schedule 30 minutes per week. This one simple idea will reduce or eliminate these impulsive requests. Urgent requests will become agenda items for your weekly meetings rather than distractions that require your immediate attention.

•    Develop a functional relationship with HR, Finance, Operations and other departments. You have a fantastic opportunity to win valuable allies by simply being a proactive and responsible company citizen. Reach out to the other department leaders, and build functional relationships with each of them. Once those partnerships are established—and it doesn’t take long—many of the unreasonable requests and distractions will disappear.

•    Create a protocol for requests that includes a time frame. Working with your new best friends, the other department leaders, create a protocol for requests that requires a time frame defining when the request is needed. No more nebulous favors or “ASAP” appeals. I like using the following: Immediate, By COB (Close of Business), Within 24 Hours, Within 72 Hours, Not Urgent, or a specific time and date.

Not only will your distractions decrease, but also the other departments will appreciate your sales people communicating in such a detailed manner when they have requests.

•    Learn how to say “no.” All sales leaders know that they need to say no, but they’re not very good at it. Most people at this level have performed well because they’re good at saying “yes.” Turning down a co-worker makes them feel weak or guilty, but accepting every request of their time will lead to failure of their ultimate goal—growing top line revenue. I’ve learned that developing a script helps all sales leaders avoid distractions.

Your script can be as simple as: “I’d love to help, but I’m slammed over the next few weeks helping my team bring in a few key orders for the quarter. Can I help next quarter?” Illustrate your remorse, but be firm about your time.

As clear as Scott’s words were, I still fell into the Christmas Party Committee trap, or found myself becoming a spreadsheet master. It never lasted long, though. Once I started using the ideas above, I was never more than a few days from being reminded about my objective and snapped back into the right direction. Not only did these ideas eliminate most distractions, they enabled me to take on some non-sales management activity when needed. Because I trusted the process, and set expectations for the other department heads, my time and activity was always well-balanced and focused on my one objective of driving top-line growth.

Chris Peterson is president of the Vector Firm, a leader in helping security companies improve their sales and digital marketing performance.