Friday, September 24, 2010

Sales Engineer vs SalesPerson - What's the difference?

In my industry (Information Technology), we have something called:  "Sales Engineers."  We also have Salespeople.  In fact, there's different styles and types of Salespeople.  What's the difference between a Salesperson and a Sales Engineer?  What does a Sales Engineer do that a Salesperson doesn't?  Some people have preconceived notions as to different roles.  Here's an interesting take:  All Sales Engineers are Salespeople, but are all Salespeople Sales Engineers?  Maybe.  I'm not even sure if that's an accurate sentence.  Wait, it gets more confusing.

A Sales Engineer is supposed to be somebody who is technically saavy (maybe even certified), but also has sales chops.  Wait a minute, couldn't that be the just a technically saavy salesperson?  Where does the distinction happen?  In fact, I know some Salespeople that know more about technology than some Sales Engineers that I know.  Hmmm...still confused.

OK, I know the difference.  Sales Engineers are usually categorized as "sales support" which means that they don't carry a quota and are there to SUPPORT the Salespeople.  Right?  Well, maybe.  If a Salesperson isn't producing, does the Sales Engineer get called into the Sales Manager's office?  I don't think so.  If the sales team does well, and everyone's in the money, does the Sales Engineer get commission - usually.  Something doesn't add up, right?

If the salesperson doesn't understand the technical requirements and/or configuration of a technology sale, they rely on the Sales Engineer.  Does that mean the salesperson doesn't really need to understand the technology in the first place.  I mean, if you strip away the product knowledge from the sales process, isn't the salesperson's job reduced to building relationships and getting "their foot in the door?"  That doesn't seem right.

OK, here's another one.  If the salesperson proposes a technology solution to a customer and they messed up costing your company some real cash, they get busted - maybe even having their commission taken away.  What happens if the Sales Engineer's configuration is messed up?  Anything?  A "lesson learned."

Bummer.  I was hoping to figure this one out, but instead I'm more confused than ever.  I'll figure it out - eventually.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Losing Your Job

I like to take on tough topics and I can't think of anything tougher than having to let a salesperson go.  I'll use the word:  fired (hard to even type).  Every Sales Manager faces the inevitable fact that sooner or later he'll have to fire somebody.  In fact, after a bit of Google research, almost 75% of salespeople don't stick.  That's a pretty horrible ratio:  25% retention rate over a five year period.  As a matter of fact, this retention rate is higher than any other category of employee.  Why is this?  I'm going to go out way on the limb here and postulate the most probable reasons:

  1. Sales success is hard.  There's no other way to say it.  People who clock in and out each day, without having to sell something can't begin to understand the complexity of sales success.  For most industries, sales excellence involves about a dozen skill sets, incredible time management and a specific personality type.  There's lots of average sales people, but very few real sales performers. 
  2. Salespeople are typically impatient, especially in today's "instant gratification" world.  Building a successful book of business takes time and patience.  During this waiting-period, salespeople suffer from bouts of depression from lost sales and a feeling that they're just not contributing enough to their company.  This is aggravated by desire to succeed.  You have a formula for stress.
  3. Sales expectations are sometimes misaligned.  For example, during the hiring process, sometimes salespeople do not fully understand the level of effort and type of effort required for success.  A good salesperson really digs deep to understand the parameters of success and should interview other salespeople that are designated to be "successful" at that employer's company.  Many of the people I've let go over the past 20 years simply failed to understand the expectations.  If they had, they probably wouldn't have accepted the job.
While every termination is different (since every person is different), there are some general guidelines for both salespeople AND sales managers.  The first thing to recognize, is that there is a typical ramping period for any salesperson.  This period usually involves a bit of a roller-coaster both from a sales activity perspective AND an emotional perspective.  Good sales managers need to be supportive of this ramping period and provide good feedback, encouragement and coaching.  Every industry is different in terms of the ramping period (mine takes over a year).

If a salesperson is failing to perform, it should be no surprise to anyone.  If you're not having weekly 1-on-1's with your sales manager - start doing it today.  The biggest mistake ever is to fail to communicate.  If you're meeting regularly together, both of you know when things are good and things are bad.  The sooner you both take action in a down-slump, the more likely you both are to benefit.  If there's a problem, it can usually be linked back to sales activity, skills or attitude.  Good salespeople should track their sales activity using a CRM tool (see my previous blog on CRM tools).  This way, if there's a problem, you can identify where it's occurring in the sales cycle. 

If things don't improve with good coaching, the salesperson needs to be put on a Performance Improvement Plan (see my previous blog on these too).  Remember that the sales manager is just as responsible for working this out as the salesperson.  If nothing helps, even the best sales managers in the world will face having to terminate a salesperson.  My advice here is:  do it sooner than later (benefits both parties); be professional and honest (this is about performance); no surprises.

More than once, I've run into ex-salespeople who worked for me and they were happy in their new lives.  Maybe they're still selling, maybe not.  We've got a job to do.  Do it ethically and to your best ability.  The rest depends on you.  Good luck.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Talking Business Impact

I recently spent a few hours with one my Account Managers discussing the topic of how to ask compelling questions to customers about their business.  We came up with an interesting methodology.  There's no magic pill here (although if there were - I'd take the Red Pill).  This is simply a new way to approach the important topic of talking business instead of copiers, real estate or advertising (or whatever it is that you sell). 

Before I get into it, let me elaborate on that last sentence.  Let's say you sell copiers.  I guarantee you that most customers are expecting you to walk into their office and start asking questions about how their business makes copies.  They might be ready for a brief question, like "Before we get started, can you tell me a little bit about your business?"  What a horrible question.  You want to know EVERYTHING about them.  In fact, the more you know, the more opportunity you'll uncover.  If you ever ask this question, I'm going to track you down.  In other words, they're expecting questions like:  How many copies do you think you make per month?  Do you have a support agreement with your existing vendor?  What kind of equipment do you have?  Are you happy with it? - These are important questions, but not nearly as important as really understanding your customer's business issues.  Everyone needs to know those kinds of things, but this doesn't demonstrate that you're really concerned about their business, nor is it compelling.  Guess what is going to happen?  You'll be lumped-in to the same category as your competitors (or simply won't get anywhere).  If you're lumped in, it's a good chance your customer will think your product/service is the same as everyone else.  If they think that, there's only one thing that's going to differentiate you:  price.  See how bad that sucks?

Here's a way to start thinking like your customer, instead of a copier salesperson (or whatever you sell):
  1. Start with asking yourself, "What does this organization do, and what does their industry care about?"  This should lead you to categorizing the business.  For example, let's say they're a Realtor (it doesn't really matter here).  What do Realtor's do?  They sell houses or buildings.  What do Realtors care about (besides making money -that's too general)?  With a bit of introspection, you'll get to the meat of the matter (write it down).  Realtors care about: 1) The market;  2) How fast potential buyers can reach them; 3) How fast they move properties in and out of their sell sheet;  4) Connecting sellers and buyers.  You get it.
  2. Now, take each of these "most important things" and think about the impact those things have on their business.  Ask yourself the "opposite-style question."  Something like this:  "What happens when they don't have a good handle on the market?"  "What happens if potential buyers have trouble reaching them?"  "What if properties don't get quickly moved in and out of their sell sheet?"  Answers to these questions might have multiple levels, but eventually they'll reach one of the following items:  profit, image, productivity/efficiency, safety/security.  When you get there - you're ready for step 3.
  3. Think about what your product/service does that can help the business out in these specific areas.  For example, if your copier creates images that are unbelievable - this might help the realtor send a better image to prospective customers and impact those questions above.  You get it right?
  4. Now, all you have to do, is start speaking this way in front of the customer and asking these type of questions rather than the other ones.  In no time, you'll be selling more - 100% true.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The PIP: Performance Improvement Plan

If you've been in sales long enough, you'll hear about the three letters you don't want associated with your name:  PIP, otherwise known as a Performance Improvement Plan.  I've heard salespeople refer to it as "the write-up of death."  As a Sales Manager, the PIP is simply a tool (used sparingly) to fully emphasize to the underperforming salesperson that things are bad and here's a road-map to make things better.

Sales best practice stipulates that the PIP should be a plan that both the salesperson and sales manager believe is realistic.  I've seen way too many PIP's that cannot possibly be realized by the salesperson.  In these cases, I really do believe that the PIP is used as a means of documentation prior to termination.  Let's face it.  If your under-performing, you have little pipeline and/or few activities, there's little chance you'll suddenly be able to do something like 25 calls a day, 3 appointments a week, 3 new proposals and $250k in sales.  These are the metrics that sales reps should have had months before so they could have worked towards these objectives.

Here's my Sales Management strategy in dealing with an under-performing sales rep:
  • Upon hiring, set clear expectations (in detail) as to what sales success looks like at your company.  I'm not just talking about how much sales bookings they need, I'm referring to the activities that lead to those bookings.  Make sure you're both on the same wavelength.
  • Give adequate time for the rep to pave his/her way.  Your way isn't the only way to see success.  This freedom supports creativity and gets the rep into a rhythm.  Impose requirements too soon and you'll be left with nothing but a relationship based on micro-management (which no rep enjoys).
  • Sales performance can only be really understood in weekly 1-on-1s with your reps.  What's that you say?  You don't hold weekly 1-on-1 to review pipeline and activity?  Shame on you.  Shape up and do your job.  In these meetings, you'll clearly see trends both subjectively and objectively of their performance.
  • When it's clear that the rep is performing, tell them so right then and there in the meeting.  Maybe expectations need to be reset.  Tell them that they must improve and be specific as to what you expect.  Follow-up with an email summarizing your meeting.
  • If performance fails to appear, set a "come-to-Jesus" meeting with them.  This is formal meeting where you'll tell the rep that things aren't going well.  Tell them what they need to do to improve and this is the first place where I ask them flat out, "Are you happy here? and Do you want to Stay?"  This gives them a way out if they want one.
  • If these methods don't work, it's time for a PIP.  You've already told them what you expect and this is what should be in a PIP, a realistic plan to get them back in the action.
  • When you put them on a plan, they need to sign it and it needs to have strong language that if they fail to meet the metrics in the plan, it could mean a termiatnion.
In my experience I've seen a few reps actively embrace the plan, get through it, and become some of my most successful salespeople.

Done right, PIP is a tool that can be a tell-tale sign of an impending termination OR a way to dig yourself out of the hole and come up clean.