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Goal Setting And Material Handling Salespeople

Tips for sales managers

Does the following scenario resonate with your material handling organization? The current economy, combined with increased pricing pressures, has caused some erosion in the company’s customer base. In reaction to this downturn, management has decreed that the material handling salespeople must bring in new customers to replace the recently lost business. Most of the salespeople (particularly the senior ones) are continuing their habit of calling exclusively on existing accounts, and have been complacent regarding the company’s call to focus on new account development. Management is frustrated and losing patience with the salespeople.

Goal Setting and Material Handling Salespeople

Sound familiar? It is common for managers to encounter difficulty when attempting to change the behavior of their salespeople. After all, change is difficult for virtually all of us. However, it is also common for managers who are not getting the desired level of cooperation to become autocratic and take the “my way or the highway” approach, usually by threatening the salespeople with negative consequences if satisfactory action is not taken.

This approach almost never works, for the simple reason that your people will only do what you want them to do when they are motivated, in a positive manner, to do it. Trying to force your will on your subordinates is, therefore, a recipe for failure.

The obvious question becomes: How do you get your people to solve a business problem? The not-so-obvious answer: by making the problem theirs, not just yours. The trick is to find a way to get them to take ownership for the problem so that they then find a solution. How is this best accomplished?

Engage Their Input When Planning a Course of Action
This is the most important step, because if you allow them the responsibility of producing a solution to the problem, they will almost always take ownership of it. Conversely, if you don’t, you’ll usually get nowhere in terms of cooperation. In the above scenario, the company’s salespeople were fully aware of the immediate need to develop new customers. However, their input was not solicited in how to go about addressing the issue. Instead, they were told, “This is your goal,” which made the goal someone else’s (in this case, management’s). Predictably, therefore, they aren’t on board with the need to take action.

Let the Sales Team Come Up With a Solution
Sometimes, managers forget that salespeople are running a business within their own market or territory. As such, they are fully capable of solving problems and making decisions—and should be given the responsibility for doing so. Too often, managers are afraid of losing too much control in taking this step. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary. There is no need to be concerned; as the boss, everyone knows that you retain the right of final approval. Besides, you’ll be surprised to find that, in most cases, the solution that the team produces will be very close to what you would have decided to do anyway and, in some cases, may exceed your expectations.

Require Measurable Results
When presenting your problem to the sales team, you must be clear in requiring a quantifiable outcome as part of the solution. For example, in the scenario cited above, it is not sufficient to ask the sales force what they are going to do to gain new accounts. Management needs to have the sales force, as part of the problem-solving exercise, commit to a specific minimum amount of new business, on a per-rep basis, as part of the solution. There are a number of ways to approach this, depending on your particular sales problem. Examples include a minimum number of new accounts, a percentage increase in this year’s new account revenue or a minimum dollar amount of profit from new customers.

Irrespective of your measurement standard, the term “minimum” here is very important. Minimum here means, “Anything below this is not acceptable.” It serves as a benchmark for satisfactory performance, and everyone needs to understand that those who fail to meet these minimum objectives are not meeting the company’s expectations of performance.

Make a Reward System Part of the Program
Too many sales organizations overlook the importance of positive reinforcement as a motivation tool. Sales contests that are tied to the company’s sales objectives are more than just a good idea. They make the challenge fun and should always be an integral part of the problem-solving scenario. Once again, let your salespeople tell you what they want for a prize, after giving them a budget for it. After all, who are you to determine what other people consider valuable as an award? Don’t make the mistake of dangling a carrot that nobody wants.

Negotiate to an Agreement
You may not completely agree with the solutions that your salespeople come up with, but then again, you don’t necessarily have to. What you need is a solution that works, whether that solution is what you would have come up with or not. It is, therefore, important to try to be as cooperative as possible in arriving at a mutually acceptable plan of action. Once an agreement is reached, publish a written memo and circulate it to all of the salespeople for review. This serves as their opportunity to give final approval before the new directive is implemented.

Offer Resources and Support
Your first responsibility as a manager is to provide support and assistance to your direct reports in their selling efforts. Once the sales team establishes an objective to solve the problem, and you agree with their recommendation, you may be asked to provide training, computer resources or other support mechanisms as they tackle the problem. Whenever possible, give them the tools that they request to get the job done. You have a responsibility to do so, and, by meeting your end of the “bargain,” you are in an enhanced position to hold them accountable to deliver.

Hold People Accountable for Goal Attainment
Once you have an agreement to correct the problem, your role becomes one of supporter and advisor as your people tackle the issue. Of course, you may have people who do not keep their commitment. This is where your prior empowerment strategy begins to pay dividends. In such situations, you never have to say, “I’m frustrated. Why haven’t you done what I asked you to do?” Instead, the conversation will now be, “I’m confused. Why haven’t you done what you said you were going to do?” See the difference? The accountability issue is where it belongs—with them, not with you—and the conversations about correcting the performance issue stay focused where they belong—in their court, not yours.

Remember that, ultimately, your objective is singular and simple: attainment of results. Your material handling salespeople are entitled to their own opinion about how to go about getting those results; you are not their baby-sitter. Your role in management is to provide support and assistance as they pursue their business goals. Ultimately, they can, and will, go about achieving it any way that they see fit. This is perfectly acceptable as long as they recognize that, regardless of the strategy employed, the bottom-line requirement for results attainment remains the same.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
Landy Chase Meet the Author
Landy Chase is a speaker on professional selling and sales management skills located in Charlotte, North Carolina, and on the Web at www.landychase.com.

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