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Sales Manager – True Detective?

August 25, 2015 | By Ian Savage

  • The SiriusDecisions competency Models look at three components of ability or competence
  • One of the most underrated skills of a sales manager is the ability to correctly diagnose the root causes of performance issues
  • Does your team have the skills, knowledge and process tools it needs?

I remember the phone call like it was yesterday, even though it was several years ago now. A sales manager in an organization I had been working with called me one Monday morning. “Ian, I have this rep who just can’t seem to close,” he said. “Every forecast call he has deals that he swears will close, but they just seem to roll over into the next month. What training can you recommend for him in closing techniques”?

Closing the business dealWell, the easy route would have been for me to blow off the dust on some old training materials – the “assumptive close,” the “alternative close,” the “trial close” and other concepts. But I figured this was an opportunity to demonstrate some of the consultative skills I had been encouraging this organization to develop, so I began by asking a few questions.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the real problem had nothing to do with the rep’s closing skills. In fact, the cause of the problem was actually the start of the sales process, not at the end. The rep just wasn’t qualifying his prospects rigorously enough, so pretty much any time a prospect indicated some interest in his product and seemed to get along with the rep, the opportunity became part of the pipeline.

Not only that, but the rep was moving these deals through the stages of the sales process without any real thought – apparently just to make it look like there was progress being made on the deal and to keep his manager off his back!

So, let’s stop for just a minute and think about the issues that need to be addressed in the above scenario.

The obvious issues are that the rep needs help in a couple of areas: qualifying opportunities and managing opportunities through the sales process. How many of you have also identified that there are some underlying management? First, the rep’s manager is clearly not doing a good job of inspecting – asking the rep the right questions of the rep as he moves opportunities both into and through the pipeline. Second, the manager incorrectly diagnosed the real performance issue with the rep. He tried to address a symptom of the problem (deals not closing) with a quick fix solution (training in closing techniques) rather than identifying the real root cause of the issue (poor qualification).

We’ll save the other issues for a future blog post, but I’d like to focus the rest of this blog on what I believe is one of the most under-acknowledged and under-rated – yet most critical – skills of a sales manager: the ability to correctly diagnose the root causes of performance issues.

Using the above scenario, let’s explore the rep’s qualification issue and look at what could be going on here. One of the first questions I always ask is, Is this a “willingness” issue or an “ability” issue (i.e. will vs. skill)? In other words, does this rep see the importance in rigorously qualifying his opportunities? Does he need reminding why it’s so important? If he’s done it in the past but isn’t doing it now, it’s clearly not an ability issue, so why not now?

If it’s not a willingness issue then we need to consider the components of ability. The SiriusDecisions Competency Models look at three components of ability or competence: Do people have the skills to do what is being asked of them? Do they have the knowledge they need? Can they apply the process and tools provided to them to perform the task?

So, applying this model to our scenario, on the skills side, I would look to establish if the root cause of the rep’s qualification issue was a lack of good questioning skills, an underpinning skill of rigorous qualification. In other words, is the rep capable and does he or she have the confidence to ask direct questions in a sometimes sensitive area? Can he or she probe further in case of an answer that needs more clarification?

On the knowledge side, does the rep know what questions to ask to qualify or assess an opportunity? Does he or she have the underlying business knowledge to understand the implications of the prospect’s answers? For the process and/or tools component, has the company provided reps with a qualification checklist? Is the rep using the list, and if not, why not? Does the company’s documented sales process make it clear how and when reps need to qualify their opportunities?

This is not intended to represent an exhaustive list of the questions the manager should be asking in this scenario, but hopefully it illustrates the depth and breadth of questions that managers need to consider when trying to accurately diagnose performance issues. While the price of an incorrect diagnosis may not be as drastic as the doctor who incorrectly diagnoses a serious illness, the sales manager who addresses the wrong performance problems with his or her reps is likely to compound any existing issues.

Does your team have the skills, knowledge and process tools they need? For further suggestions on how to excel in your role and outperform the competition, examine the strategies that will make the difference meeting your growth objectives.

Ian Savage

Ian Savage is a Practice Director of Consulting at SiriusDecisions. Ian is a proven subject matter expert in sales and sales consulting. He has 20-plus years of experience in sales and line sales management, and has also managed sales operations and sales enablement functions. He has delivered many sales consulting engagements and designed, developed and delivered workshops for salespeople, sales managers and sales leaders around the world. Ian also has extensive experience in channel. Follow Ian on Twitter @ian_iansavage.

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