Sales 101: Proactive Sales Management is a Game Changer

Once again the Youngstown Business Journal has done a great job gathering and recounting stories of our community’s many successful and growing companies for this year’s Growth Report. Even in this climate of rapid change and economic uncertainty you’ll find that upon reading the many profiles the outlook for most organizations remains positive and upbeat.

In our own personal lives, change and uncertainty are becoming a significant part of what we think about regularly and what we respond to daily. Businesses are no different. However, in business and commerce some things remain constant — salesmanship is one of those constants and becoming more important than ever in light of the change and uncertainty. Recall the old adage, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.”

In this year’s Growth Report, several of the profiles recount how the organizations have succeeded and thrived even in difficult times. You’ll find that the best part of their story is not only the depth of the difficulties they faced and overcame to become successful and grow, but more often about how they saw the future and how they answered the important question of “what’s next?”

The nuts and bolts — the key elements — of business and commerce haven’t changed much over the past few decades, despite the changes in the economy and changes in the competitive landscape. Most organizations, regardless of specific industry, have to do the basics well in order to sustain themselves, support their employees, compensate their owners and thrive into the future. One of those basic functions, apart from the work of manufacturing, finance, engineering and customer service, is salesmanship. It’s an important part of the marketing function and, more manifestly, a part of their company’s promotional mix.

I like to think about salesmanship as being similar to our national pastime – baseball. Even if you’re not a big fan, or don’t know who owns the Pittsburgh Pirates, or who Andrew “Cutch” McCutchen is, you may have overheard people at work recently lamenting that “baseball has changed.” What they probably really meant is that they appreciated the good old days with players like Roberto Clemente or Willie “Pops” Stargell over these current times of skyrocketing player salaries and over-the-top ticket prices, not to mention the high cost of a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark.

Really the game of baseball hasn’t changed one bit. The pitcher still throws a ball from the mound to home plate. The batter still has to hit the pitched ball, just like he did 50 years ago, so he can round the bases and score a run for his team. Baseball hasn’t changed, but the environment in which it is played has.

Business and commerce haven’t changed. However, the climate in which business and commerce are now conducted has changed for sure. Salespeople, like ball players, may start their careers younger, work harder, eat better, find ways to stay healthier and, of course, use better technology. Today’s salespeople and their organizations have to be better and more diligent at doing the homework required to win.

The first step in proactive sales management is thinking about the future and developing a vision of what you want to happen. If you are a frontline salesperson you probably need to be thinking three to six months ahead; as sales manager, six to 12 months ahead; and as a business owner and entrepreneur, 12 to 24 months ahead, or even longer. By thinking proactively and communicating that vision to members of your organization, you are accomplishing two fundamental elements of good leadership: developing a “SMART” strategy for your sales program and helping to build a team culture.

The acronym SMART applies to a firm’s goals and objectives, and generally stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. Specific goals or targets are much easier to visualize, work toward and plan for. The goals and objectives must also have an understandable unit-of-measure — just like “runs” in a ballgame. Typically, we use units or dollars in sales organizations to keep score. The sales team, like a coach or professional sports-team owner, must make available the resources and provide the support needed to ensure that the objectives and goals can be achieved.

Hopefully, ownership and management are not throwing obstacles in the way of the salespeople. Goals and objectives also have to be within the realm of reality — no pie-in-the-sky objectives or unrealistic targets. Unrealistic targets only serve to diminish salespeople’s motivation and desire to want to achieve them because they perceive they can’t, even before they start. Finally, the goals and objectives you set should be evaluated periodically in order to monitor progress towards their realization throughout the period and assess individual and team performance.

If you and your organization are not engaging in proactive sales management, a culture may organically develop that is reactive and not serving the best interests of the organization or not supporting the team and your customers. A team culture, particularly a successful one, does not just happen. A successful team culture requires thinking proactively and holistically about the entire organization when planning, forecasting and communicating the plans for the future.

If you want to think more proactively about your own firm’s culture, ask yourself the following questions: What are the keys to success for my company? What are the keys to success for my customers or clients? What are the keys to achieving my own personal success? Determine your own time horizon for each question.

Again, thinking about baseball, “today” is only one game, which you can win or lose. But the “season” is actually won in the future, not just today on the playing field. Salesmanship and selling careers are not really that much different from baseball and ballplayers. Your personal success and that of your team will ultimately be measured by the accumulation of your wins and losses for the given period – the entire season.

Just like professional sports-team management and organizational ownership, you will ultimately benefit from planning, forecasting and communicating the plans and goals early in the season. As a sales manager, you’ll also increase your probability of achieving those objectives, particularly when you have a system in place to measure, evaluate and control the results you’re achieving against the goals you established.

The 2018 MLB schedule requires a major league team to play 162 games between March 29 and September 30. That schedule equates to 27 weeks, or about six games a week, on average. If I were planning my sales team’s sales call objectives and revenue goals for the next 27 weeks and used a similar objective of six sales calls per week, and only achieved a 25% conversion-ratio, I’d still have 40 new customers, or an equivalent amount of just as many new orders.

Granted, 25% sounds like a poor performance ratio for an individual salesperson, but when accumulated over the period, and when thinking in the context of the entire team, it looks much more like a BIG win. An individual win for sure, and one that would be viewed by others as positively contributing to meeting the goals and objectives of the entire organization. Growth like this could make me and my team – also you and your company – a good candidate for a feature article in The Business Journal’s 2019 Growth Report.

See you at the ballpark!

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