How to Lead Successful Sales Teams

By Justin Zappulla, Managing Partner, Janek Performance Group
A group of game pieces sit on a white surface with one piece standing alone

When a sales rep underperforms, it’s tempting to say they’re not trying hard enough. They’re distracted. They’re not the right fit. Of course, there can be any number of reasons for poor performance; yet, in this example, note how quick we are to blame the rep.

Of course, this is not to say those reasons are incorrect. As sales managers and leaders, we’ve all seen reps who don’t pull their weight. However, with the cost of hiring, onboarding, and retaining sales talent, we can’t afford knee-jerk reactions. Rather than assuming our systems and organizations are perfect, the best leaders pause. They examine the totality of the situation before drawing conclusions. Here, we will do the same in discussing how successful sales leaders lead.

Finding Solutions

A central tenet of sales is: The better your discovery, the better your solution. Top sellers know that even the most forthright prospects might not fully grasp the depth of their problem.

That’s why questioning is such an important skill. Sales reps know the value of the right question at the right time. And they have the active listening skills to get beyond what clients say to what they need.

In the same way, sales leaders know complex problems may require complex solutions. Sales reps who aren’t meeting quota may or may not be good sales reps. Here are questions leaders should consider:

  • Might they excel with other clients and/or verticals?
  • Are your KPIs realistic and achievable?
  • Could they benefit from skill coaching and training?

In this, successful managers and leaders don’t assume their systems, approach, and metrics are perfect. They may very well be great, but it’s good to pause and look.

When a sports team trades for a star player, the team doesn’t assume that player will immediately excel in their exact system. It might happen, and that would be ideal. However, teams may need to tweak their approach to the new talent. After all, the goal is high performance and achievement. Top-performing sales reps constantly work on their skills and adjust. Today, organizations and sales leaders should look at their talent and their approach.

The Big Picture

In sales, it’s tempting to think today’s clients are markedly different from yesterday’s buyers. After all, they have the Internet and they’re better informed. While these things matter, clients with problems need solutions that solve problems. Simple.

For sellers, it’s never that easy. Successful solutions are those that address the totality of the problem. This may be organizational. It may be the industry. It could be the economy. Often, the difference between a short-term stop-gap and a long-term resolution is understanding how these forces connect.

In a similar way, sales organizations also depend on a combination of pieces working in concert.

When seeking talent, all leaders want the best. However, this is more than any star seller. Top candidates should have a history of success. But high sales numbers alone are not enough. Instead, organizations need stars who match their culture, share their vision, and fit their universe.

Of course, compensation is important. Everybody wants to get paid. However, the highest salary alone only guarantees hired guns or mercenaries, loyal to paychecks. To attract the right candidates, comp plans should appeal to people who share the organization’s goals and mission.

Many organizations mistake orientation for onboarding. In simplest terms, orientation is “orienting” employees to your company. Onboarding is preparing and enabling a sales team to succeed. It’s providing the tools they need to not only do their jobs but to excel.

In sales, this often includes coaching and training. For many sellers, this shows an organization that doesn’t just talk. Instead, the organization proves its commitment by investing in the team.

Managers vs. Coaches

While the best sales team is important, a key to success is a leader to guide them. Today, this is often shown in how leaders define their roles.

Most organizations have sales managers. These people manage the sales process. This includes everything from forecasting goals to staffing, setting quotas, developing sales plans, and tracking performance metrics.

Today, however, high-performing leaders often see themselves more as coaches than managers. While this can be semantic to some, these leaders view their jobs differently. Here’s how many high-performing leaders view their role:

  • Communicate goals
  • Monitor progress
  • Develop skills
  • Advise and inspire

Beyond how leaders see themselves, a key difference is how they are viewed by their teams. For most sales reps, there’s a gulf between being managed and being coached. In one, they are handled to a result. In the other, they are led to success.

Leading by Example

In addition, the best leaders don’t just share their organization’s vision. They are part of it. As team members buy into a culture, leaders must buy into a system greater than themselves.

In actual practice, leaders are distinguished by the following traits:

  • Accountability
  • Deflecting credit
  • Investing in their team
  • Leading by example

In publicly traded companies, CEOs are accountable to shareholders. For most sales organizations, top leaders see themselves as accountable to their employees.

In sports, most are turned off when star athletes acknowledge their superiority. No one likes a quarterback who says, “Yeah, I was great today.”

Instead, we love athletes who deflect credit. They may place it onto God or even coaches and teammates, and say, “They really put me in a position to win.”

For sales leaders, one way to do this is to invest in their organizations. This means building a culture, enabling sellers, and rewarding achievement.

As top salespeople show themselves as trusted advisors in how they act, leaders demonstrate leadership. It’s in their every action. From a hearty “good morning” to joining the happy hour, they are present. Their team members see them.

Today, with terms like “life/work balance” and “quiet quitting,” effective leadership is more important than ever. However, successful leadership is vastly different from what it was. In sales – a people-oriented profession – personality often trumps product. These days, sales reps know that building relationships leads to longer commitments and greater rewards. In the current sales environment, sales leaders should take a page from their sellers. In so doing, they may very well achieve an even greater level of success.

Justin Zappulla brings over 20 years of sales and sales leadership experience as managing partner of Janek Performance Group. Justin’s career has been highlighted by remarkable performance, and he is considered one of the top authorities and thought leaders in sales training, sales consulting, and sales performance improvement.

Justin co-authored the highly acclaimed sales book, Critical Selling, and was a key contributor to the sales book Mastering the World of Selling. An often-quoted authority on sales and sales management practices, Justin has widely been recognized as one of the biggest names in sales.