14 Authentic Ways To Motivate & Retain Top Flight Sales Talent

Tony Hughes

14 Authentic Ways To Motivate & Retain Top Flight Sales Talent

The equivalent of an entire sales force is replaced at many firms every four years, so it's critical that go-to-market initiatives remain tied to strategic goals. - Frank Cespedes

Attrition is a really big deal - staff churn is a cancer in organizations. Most sales organizations invest tens of thousands of dollars per sales person. You can't expect to retain top flight sales talent when you fail to provide the right environment and make the rules of the game impossible to play by. How can talent thrive in a rigged game? Think about it; a systemic culture that cripples customer-centric selling, almost encourages toxicity to rise through the ranks and an inept powerless - power-base - to take root. Welcome to the illusion of control whilst bleeding market share. So how did this happen and why are revenue targets being missed as gifted, high performing salespeople pour out the door to your competitors?

"80% of employees self report that they are not engaged. 80% of managers are not suited to managing employees. The two eighty percents are closely related." Here are some sustainable solutions:

  1. Keep your bonus and incentive plan consistent. Even improve it! Paradoxically, rewarding your Eagles will keep them on board. Many major companies do this with stock but I've found salespeople to be most motivated by favorable commission structures that allow them the most OTE upside. The greats will continue to jump companies until they can have their cake and eat it too, great pay plus great future upside. Champion sales people will 'take a haircut' if the numbers are achievable. Simplify your plan. Last year, I was in a meeting where the country manager presented a pay plan that took a 2 hour meeting to explain and droned on about how he fought for the team. Double digits of the staff left for competitors within six months despite his "softening of the blow." Not kidding! Show your loyalty with the numbers; it's not rocket science.
  2. Remember that in effective leadership, there is a hand of love and hand of steel. Some respond to both, others one or the other. Either way, consistent supportive feedback coupled with compassionate critique that is also constructive will help you get the most out of your people. You don't want to flatten the organization too much or make it too lean; Google tried to have no management and some felt listless. So they used 'data to test assumptions about management's merits and then make the case.' We'll see how the holocracy (simultaneously "whole and part") company structure concept at Zappos plays out. Getting some Level 5 leaders at the helm of your teams will probably always be a sound idea. A bunch of uber talented people in a dark room fighting over one torch does not build a 100M company!
  3. Take the time to meet every week and focus on their wildly important goals (WIGS!). You need to book 'standing meetings' with all your sales people no matter how busy you are. You need to look them in the eye, listen to them like clients, talking only 25% of the time. Recently, I met with a new business hunter who was stifled having been shifted to existing accounts. All it took was giving him a chance to hunt more aggressively in named accounts to get him back on track. Empowerment out of one meeting was granting permission, providing a safe environment and a simple mind shift. Light bulb: he realized he could hunt and create a big impact where he was!
  4. Hold everyone in your organization accountable - manage up and down. It's not just about creating a quarterly business review where reps lay out their goals for the quarter and year. It's about holding them accountable. They learn that their word is gold internally, and this culture gets reflected in the go-to-market strategy and in interfacing with customers, channel partners and the world at large. Accountability has a ripple effect to even brand reputation. This is the unwritten law that builds sales teams who embody excellence. Yep, you won't need to send out a global email reminding them to behave at the tech conference. They'll be organizing it and leading the plenaries. Accountability to daily full completion of the CRM, accountability to 5 to 12 touches with clients new and or existing, adding value each time. Accountability to close plans, accountability to effectively leverage a coherent sales process. Accountability to hold you accountable when they find you slipping!
  5. Set 10X goals and have sales people write their own plan of attack. 10x thinking is radically supported by science. "You can get to radically better solutions in honestly about the same amount of time," writes Astro Teller. Writing a mini business plan{Weinberg} at 10X for the year and presenting it to others on the team is extremely very effective. Some call this an internal QBR. It's a great way to hone presentation chops. Challenge them to keep it under 10 slides, ideally 5.
  6. Practice positive reinforcement: Playing your team Glengarry Glen Ross and thinking it's funny while commissions are being hacked away will not inspire loyalty. As a manager, I make sure the Product team is delivering, Account Services is aligned and Marketing and Sales are consistently meeting. Streamlining communication across the organization and making sure everyone is firing on all cylinders ultimately helps the entire team thrive.
  7. Break out strategic business units: Install war rooms and assign tiger teams; spin out specialty Navy Sealesque units within your bigger team. The sub-team approach works wonders. Everyone gets to shine with their true gifts and talents as the specialist they are. One person may be the lead gen Queen while another is a genius at trigger event research or building organizational power maps. Assign special missions to target the biggest opportunities upstream. What I've been seeing with the best sales teams is they are literally getting to customers before the buying cycle even begins; they're generating demand rather than servicing it and therefore avoiding the mythical customer buying journey, 57% doomsday statistic.
  8. Launch internal contests with unique metrics: I was listening to an interview withTimothy Hughes at Oracle UK and he was asked how he became such a social selling rock star. He said there was a contest on who could generate the most impressions from Google and that's how he got started. What I love about Tim is that he's hyper focused on closing enterprise new business and social is his secret weapon - sizzle to the steak. He gets the balance even while maintaining a ubiquitous social presence. He's smart about it by scheduling Tweets with Buffer but not relying too much on automation. He's never failed to acknowledge a cool post I did. We give each other a lot of reciprocal Twitter love because our thinking is aligned. Ultimately we must sell first and allow social selling to be a force multiplier. So you could hold a contest on social media followers, unique visitors to a LinkedIn Publisher channel or something simple like qualified meetings held with dream clients. Tune your KPIs toward proactivity!
  9. Discipline the team to make and log calls, daily. It's not popular, I know. But this is your edge. Track at least 20 calls per day in your CRM per rep - and even have them turn in a daily call tracker report with note summaries on each call, even if it's on good ol' paper. You could call this bureaucratic reporting on the reporting but granting an amnesty to this behavior is dangerous business. Another way to do this is something I call 50 relevant touches, meaning a combination of calls, social, e-mail, follow-up, curation and sharing. What gets measured gets managed [Drucker] so make sure it's all logged and your team takes pride in it. Ensure they are invested inwhy this is so important as a daily leading indicator of the lag measure of ultimate revenue success. I've said it before and I'll say it again, "Pipeline cures all ills!" Caveat: 'qualified pipe.'
  10. Invest in super cool exploratory sales technology. Tools like Cirrus Insight, Buffer, Gagein, LinkedIn Sales Navigator, InsideView, Avention InsideSales.com, ConnectAndSell keep sales people pumped. New wave CRMs like Pipeliner and Nimble will give your team a real edge. They'll be pumped to road test them in the field. We love to sell technology so we love to use it strategically as a competitive advantage even more. But don't get caught up in technology for technology's sake or let it be a time suck. Trick out their workstations with dual flat screens and let all your sales people be equipped-exalted like engineers. Get them a license to Lynda.com for lifelong learning to up-skill, a subscription to Photoshop or Axure to trick out their decks and let them express their passion for how they communicate and what they do... but not in face-to-face selling time.
  11. Let your sales people organize, structure and run sales meetings and trainings themselves. By relinquishing control, you'll gain more of it. Nobody enjoys getting a 'spreadsheet jockey' update where someone talks for a very long time at the front droning on like Charlie Brown's teacher. I love seeing the most senior executives at the front of the room but in the audience taking notes as their team members provide input in a QBR to grow a key account or a close plan to get the deal signed and in the bank - strategy, tactics, red flags and actions. Then there's Q&A and the entire room learns collaboratively. Everyone lifts their game. This is a structure for a quality off-site QBR structure. Let's all create a dialogue, tell stories from the field, learn form each other's unique experience and get better.
  12. Positive psychology and motivation. You may think Tony Robbins is cheesy but try to have 10 calls with 9 people rude to you or never answer. Sales days get to be drudge work without some motivation. At best we feel like heroes bringing a deal over the line on New Year's Eve. At worse, we can feel like canaries in a coal mine. Bring in your favorite personal development speaker and when you do off-sites for sales people, focus on aspects of attitude, effort and teamwork. Ropes courses, sporting matches (host or participate in a league) - those who play together, close business together. I know of a famous American CEO who took his company through an IPO and major acquisition that still played 2 on 2 basketball with his team weekly. Now that's Level 5 leadership in my book. With one of my Australian clients, the CEO goes to watch the company soccer team play every week in a lunch-time competition in the city.
  13. Don't get too hung up on touting booths at conferences. Deploy clusters of your top people to go to conferences, set a goal of collecting 300 business cards and fly them in a day early or after to hold meetings and have meals with key clients and prospects. This is extra mile thinking. You can leverage the main conference behind the scenes often far more than shouting from the booth and scanning badges.
  14. Start a book club and read the books yourself. This is again accountability. I see these libraries spring up in sales offices or scattered, tattered books laying around. Get a budget to buy Challenger Sale for your team, or do a quarter on Trigger Events; get everyone reading the books and showing up to the weekly meeting with one author quote or big idea. Ten bucks and six hours of your time improving yourself is a small price to pay to glean an idea that can literally generate thousands in commissions. In each of your quarterly business reviews, let them represent how they intend to apply the concept in a book and then in the next QBR, follow-up on how they were successful with it. If you have the luxury to hire a great speaker who wrote one of these books for a quarterly kickoff to lead and facilitate these discussions, good show! Why not invite them back quarterly to help you lock in the results and manage change. Is training a luxury? I would venture to say, world class sales teams cannot afford not to invest heavily, frequently here. Repetition is the mother of skill.

I think that sales management is not entirely broken; sales managers are just often set on auto-pilot. They're absolutely drowning in reporting (and an amusing termed I've coined "reporting on the reporting), putting out fires with key clients, carrying numbers themselves and working twenty five hours in a day. They often take a pay cut to run a territory of a dozen sales people and it's not always scalable. The ratio is often completely untenable. Picking off a couple ideas from this list this quarter will help you improve results. Nurture your people and tell them they're great but mean it. Pay attention to what their true gifts and talents are.

Authenticity is everything in management because top sales people will smell insincerity from a mile away. Work to hire less people but better, improve conditions across the company and make every rep a raving success. Be the company where word of mouth spreads that your reps close the most and make the most. "Can you believe what Rachael is getting paid over there? Wow, they have a super generous commission plan! They're now one of the fastest growing tech companies in Australia."

There's this constant argument that top reps often aren't good managers. I disagree, if they have good values, and like anything else they need to be coached and trained. Sure, throwing a Challenger lone wolf to head your territory will be a full scale political melt down like a bull in a china shop. But creating a training program and probation period for new managers where they meet with seasoned veterans in your organization who have been doing it for over five years can make something magical happen. People ultimately want to be managed by someone who has the product knowledge, who has gone through the blood, sweat and tears in the field, who understands the company culture and can do it; they can execute they don't just teach. That's why it's authentic management. Reps get very antsy being lorded over by those that have never exceeded quota or carried through in an eighteen month sales cycle. Sales people will flat out revolt being lectured about how to close six and seven figure enterprise SaaS deals by someone who purely has an MBA or came from a transactional industry experience.

Front-line sales managers control their companies' brand reputation. They do this by leading with integrity and imbuing a sense of purpose in their team. A self-actualized leader lives to serve and for the success of others. Lead from behind, empower your people, constantly dream up ways to make their daily lives better, have a sense of humor and be genuinely humble, generous to a fault and self-deprecating. Make fun of yourself constantly and always stress that you 'work for them'. A winning sales organization is a reverse pyramid, the CXOs are on the bottom and the end customer that renews and raves is at the top.


If you're interested in me facilitating a sales training or kickoff, please do not hesitate to contact me personally at [email protected]. Happy closing!

Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at www.TonyHughes.com.au or his sales methodology website at http://www.rsvpselling.com/.

Main image photo by Flickr: Luigi Mengato


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