Managers’ Forum: Let’s Focus, People

By Henry Canaday

Sales Challenge #1: Reaching out to independent reps

Scott Jergensen is a sales manager with Progressive.

I manage a territory of 300 independent agents who sell insurance. The very first challenge that jumps to mind is keeping these agents focused on the task at hand.

They face all sorts of distractions, from legislative actions to the economy to market shifts. There are lots of opportunities for salespeople to offer up excuses. There is a fine line between those who look for excuses and those who still stay focused on their original goals. I try to get our salespeople to write down their goals, then we review them together and say, this is the goal we set, and regardless of distractions, this is what we want.

Ideally, I would sit down with each one every other month. But I am the first-level manager for 300 agents, so I also use other forms of communication. We use emails and do some online seminars and Webinars and have a major meeting once a year with smaller meetings during the year. I also email the agents their written reports.

The agents are all on commission, but I know my competitors are also vying for their time. So I have to make sure we are at the forefront of their minds. I try to use any tool I can. And this will differ from one rep to the next. One might like showing up at the top or in the top 10 on the reports. Another wants a prize, another likes a bonus, and another just wants the money.

It is hard with so large a field force. Selling Power talked about how little time each rep devotes to preplanning a sales call. That jumped out at me. I have to be very well educated about the agents before I meet with them. It is like calling on a prospect. I have to be like a consultative salesperson for agents, not just someone who drops in and drops off some gifts.

I view that as a good thing. I am just like they are. I have to do my preplanning and homework to make them better and build a level of trust, just like they have to do with their prospects.

Sales Solution #1

Jim Schneider is president and CEO of Schneider Sales Management.

With independent reps, you almost have to sell them, get their attention, and that is different from dealing with reps you have direct control over. Especially in today’s economy, you have to not only show them that they can make money, but you also have to sell them on why your product will make money and show them a plan for making the income they need.

Another thing people undervalue is that a lot of independent reps are simply lonely. That sounds strange. We think of independent reps as interacting with people all day. But that is a small part of their day. They don’t have people in the office they can grouse to about the difficult guy they just called. They don’t have people with whom they can share ideas and best practices.

You can’t just assume that commissions will drive behavior and then let it go. I think there is a tremendous need to stay in touch [with independent reps], to provide encouragement and support when they have had a bad week, to get them together and give them some direction.

Of course, these reps are independent types. That is why they chose to be independent. They do not want a lot of supervision. But at the same time they often want, like everyone, encouragement and feedback.

A lot of managers try to do this by emails and technology, but it is not the same. I think you need to be on the phone and in the field occasionally to make the connection.

In our organization, we try to connect with as many people as possible every Monday. It does not have to take long; just let the reps know what the focus of the week is and ask what you can do to support them. I think this is more important than offering special prizes. If you look at why people leave sales organizations, it is because they have poor relations with their supervisors. This case is not exactly the same, but it is similar to that. People need to feel that somebody cares about them and will support them.

Sales Challenge #2: Making contact with decision makers

Stephen Manfreda is a senior account executive with Marriott ExecuStay.

We are the corporate housing brand of Marriott. We set up fully furnished apartments and lease them to clients who are traveling for 30 days or more. Our biggest challenge is to locate and get through to the people who make the decision to lease. The executive assistants as a rule are not engaged in what we are calling about.

We serve such a special market. Everybody has stayed at Marriott, but not everybody has stayed at Marriott ExecuStay or has even heard of us.

The sales cycle is long, and the sales can be significant. So another obstacle is timing. We have to hit the nail right on the head. We have to get to [these companies and their decision makers] when they have a project coming up that will require a long stay or when they are taking on new employees who need furnished apartments. We have a small window of opportunity on the phone. If we do not have the right person or the right department, nine times out of 10 that will cause problems.

One of the things that seems to work is to simply play dumb. I tell [the gatekeepers that] I am not sure whom I should speak with, and I show a little vulnerability from the sales side. Most people are sympathetic and willing to help and will transfer you over.

We use email all the time. That is a big part of how we work. After I have spoken with a person, they want me to send an email to keep on file.

And we definitely use the social networking sites to see if we have references at a company. LinkedIn is the primary one we use. We also use Hoover’s to gain more knowledge about a company.

Still, it can be a real challenge getting through to the right person. Fortunately, I do not get the phone slammed down on me. I have been in industries where they did slam the phone down. In this business, they just say, “No, we don’t have a need for that,” or “I am not the right person, and I don’t know who is.”

Sales Solution #2

George Walther is president of Speaking From Experience® and author of Heat Up Your Cold Calls: How to Get Prospects to Listen, Respond, and Buy (Kaplan Business, 2005).

Manfreda is fortunate that nobody slams the phone down on him, since almost everybody hates receiving or making cold calls. The key is to not be perceived as a cold caller, a stranger just trolling for business. One of the best moves to get through the “telephonic front door” and begin establishing rapport is to create a perceived affinity group.

If there were a club that all your current customers would be members of, what would their qualifications be? Spell out the membership criteria early in your call so that your prospect concludes that this is my kind of group, this person is part of the club, and so I will engage this caller.

So the entrée becomes, “I specialize in helping midsize manufacturing firms like yours cut housing costs by 45 to 60 percent when relocating their executives during plant consolidations, as I know you’re experiencing right now. We’ve successfully helped Acme through consolidations, and I’d like to see how much we can help you. I’ll know if we can be of benefit in less than four minutes with just three questions. Tell me, how many times a year do you relocate members of your executive team?”

Your next call might begin with, “I specialize in helping large high-tech firms like yours cut housing costs by 45 to 60 percent when opening new facilities in Silicon Valley, as I know you’re doing.”

It’s entirely legitimate and truthful to specialize in more than one type of customer, and you should always be absolutely honest, of course. Your prospect must perceive and believe that you’re an expert in providing help in his or her specific situation. While you may help a wide array of customers, the key is for this prospect to know that you have experience helping similar businesspeople, and that’s why you want to mention referrals whose situations are similar.

Move right on to an open-ended question that gets your prospect talking. You want dialog to build rapport, and you don’t want to drive prospects away by talking too much. Dump the transparent and typical, “How are you doing today?” small talk.