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How to Avoid the Biggest Sales Mistakes

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March/April, 2003 - Volume 82 Number 2

by Dan Miller

The word “sales” is funny. Many times at our workshops, we ask people to define “sales” and get all sorts of interesting answers. Unfortunately, most of them are usually incomplete or, even worse, completely off the mark. Responses typically include everything from “building relationships” to “closing the deal,” both of which possess elements of truth but aren’t thorough enough to fully explain the sales process. One of the reasons for this is that our perception of selling is governed by our everyday observations and experiences. It’s natural for our perception to be colored by the way salespeople in the title and settlement industry have tended to develop and retain business relationships. A real definition of successful sales activities should focus on only two things: 1) how we acquire new clients, and 2) how we grow and retain business relationships with existing clients. Using this test, anything we do or our organization does that directly and tangibly contributes to these two things can be considered “selling.” Anything else has to be defined using some other word. It might be worth doing, but it’s not sales.

The purpose of this article is to help readers understand the management related activities necessary to produce successful and ongoing sales results and to understand a few of the common mistakes many salespeople and managers tend to make. Consider this the Cliff Notes version of a highly developed body of sales and sales management knowledge. Whatever the case, since we now have a clear working definition of what sales is, we can start to explore how to do it.

Sales Effectiveness

What makes a sales manager effective? Although many things contribute to a sales manager’s effectiveness, there are several main themes to be concerned with. The themes in order are hiring right, defining expectations, setting measurable goals, coaching and accountability, motivating, compensating, and training. Clearly, we can’t cover all of these in any significant detail, so we’ll focus on the items that are the most important contributors to success. If a sales program doesn’t contain these elements, the only way to grow market share is through recruitment and acquisition. We’ll accept that any comprehensive business strategy would include a competitive recruiting strategy and focus on organic revenue growth in conjunction with one another.

The first thing any aggressively successful sales program should focus on is setting measurable individual sales goals. Salespeople, even successful ones, are notoriously poor at setting goals and monitoring their own progress, due in part to their overwhelming aversion to paperwork. The bad news is that because of this predisposition, our industry hasn’t pushed a reasonable, proven methodology of goal setting that increases financial performance to the business and helps the salesperson to increase his or her own income. Without accountable goals, market share growth is almost impossible, since most humans, when left to their own devices, tend to maintain status quo rather than actively expand their efforts and results (hence the term “comfort zone”).

Successful Goal Setting

Here are some rules for successful goal setting in a sales environment. First, set goals on a monthly basis with each salesperson and focus on results (we prefer target prospects, orders, revenue, and new clients as measurements) as well as activities. We monitor first meetings, cold contacts, and referrals, among others. Our company has Internet based software to keep track of these items, but goals could just as easily be written on a yellow legal pad. Tracking this data is critical to the coaching process, which we’ll get to in the next section. Be sure to force the salesperson to be reasonable (realistic) about their goals and to push themselves at the same time. Every month every goal should extend beyond the prior month’s performance, if even by a very small margin.

The next critical area of sales management effectiveness is the installation of a formal coaching process in your sales program. Our company has found that optimal results are achieved by conducting one strategic meeting (planning and evaluating goals and results) and one tactical meeting with every sales person individually, every month. During these meetings (which should last no more than an hour) every aspect of the salesperson’s success, struggles, and failures should be reviewed, and the sales manager should offer tactical advice. As an example, let’s say a salesperson is having a difficult time obtaining a meeting with one of his/her top targets. The sales manager’s job as a coach is to offer suggestions (such as making calls before or after regular business hours) that help the sales person to achieve the desired result. In addition to these coaching meetings, sales managers should spend time in the field with every salesperson a minimum of once a quarter (but preferably once a month). The purpose of these field meetings is to assist the salespeople in their most difficult offices/targets and to meet their best existing clients. It’s important that every field day contain at least two meetings with prospective clients and one with a powerful existing client. If the salesperson simply takes a sales manager around to friendly offices, it won’t be a productive endeavor. Help the sales people to understand the parameters about the day beforehand and be sure to be tough about enforcement. Offer feedback (positive and negative) immediately following each call, and summarize your overall impressions at the end of the day. Close the field day by suggesting specific next steps to the salesperson. Take good notes and follow up with the salesperson regarding the next steps suggested. By doing all these things, field time becomes a productive mechanism for training, motivating, and achieving greater individual sales performance.

Sales Mistakes

Implementing the ideas above – goal setting and coaching—are the two most critical components of a successful sales program. This isn’t to say that other items, such as compensation, motivation, sales meetings, and tactical training, aren’t important. They are. What is critical to recognize is that goal setting and coaching in the manner described are the two most critical factors in increasing market share year after year.

Since we’ve covered a couple of critical areas of success, we should also discuss some areas where sales programs and activities fall short. Oddly enough, these sales and sales management mistakes closely relate to the rules for success.

Sales Mistake #1 – Failure to install a system of targeting specific, prospective clients. Our company asks salespeople to choose 25 top prospects every month that don’t already do business with us and are in the top 20% of production in their market. Focusing on offices (rather than people) or not having a good prospect list diminishes new client production by almost 50%. Don’t let this happen to you.

Sales Mistake #2 – Reactive sales management rather than proactive coaching. Many times it’s easy to get stuck in a reactive mode, responding to salespeople as they request assistance rather than proactively setting strategy and goals. Avoid this by installing a formal coaching and goal setting process as the core of the sales management strategy.

Sales Mistake #3 – Arming sales people with tools rather than tactics. Tools are nifty. Salespeople love tools. Tools are tangible things that are trendy, gimmicky and provide short term competitive advantages. The bad news is, tools do nothing for sales efforts without tactics and execution. Tools are distracting and allow potential clients to say no quite easily because they allow salespeople to focus on features rather than needs. Give salespeople tactical methods of exploring the needs, fears, and goals of successful prospects and the ability to customize solutions and you have a nonduplicable sales arsenal?one that lasts and survives every fad. Add some substantive tools to the arsenal, but use them as sales supplements rather than sales substitutes.

Sales Mistake #4 – Forgetting to ask for business every day. Sales people should ask for business at every opportunity, with both existing and prospective clients. The best sales tactics and tricks won’t get a sales person anywhere if he/she isn’t willing to ask for the order. Be sure that all salespeople are willing, able, and enthusiastic about asking for business, and their results will reward them.

Success in sales comes in many methods, shapes, and sizes. Follow the rules I’ve outlined in this article and you’ll be one step closer to adding rocket fuel to your efforts.

Dan Miller is CEO of RightNow Business Development Systems, a company that helps its clients improve sales results. He can be reached at or 925 284 7611.

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