We spoke to Robert Sprong, owner and president of CWPPC Inc, to get his take on important aspects of developing experienced sales representatives and a collaborative, professional business culture. Over the last 5 years Sprong has trained over 200 sales people, 80 reporting directly to him annually, and has been responsible for 6 million dollars in sales throughout his career. Here are his thoughts on how to develop great sales people and developing a high-performing culture:
1) Training people right from the beginning (You only have one chance to do it right)
- What tips can you share about training people right from the beginning?
“The most important foundation is a very tangible and a very systematic approach that doesn't deviate a ton on a basic level. One of the most important things with training any salesperson is that there are some very clear systems that are in place that you teach, show, oversee and manage that are taking place that will allow the sales reps to see success. I think that just as important as the actual training is the development of a sales system that’s easy to access, easy to understand and easy to replicate.”
- Do you have a system that works for you?
“In our business our sales cycle is short. Our sales cycle goes anywhere from 1 day thru 2 weeks, so coming up with scripts and approaches for several contact points that take place over that sales cycle and a very systematic approach to the actual appointment that involves not only, objection handling and feeling out for objections and all that but also a strong core for relationship building as well, to take place within that sales cycle.”
- What are tactics you use to coach other sales people?
“I always try to do my best to keep it simple. You are going to face a variety of objections that a client would potentially give you. Learning how to systematically categorize them into just four categories and learning how to handle just those 4 objections really well is key. Also, learning how to perceive what the client is telling you and what that objection really means in terms of how that would be categorized into these 4 basic objections. When I’m coaching and teaching, I’m not necessarily trying to teach a bunch of different solutions to a bunch of different problems but rather how to classify all the different problems they’ll find into four basic problems and how to solve those four.”
- Why is it crucial that people have success real early?
“It’s huge. A lot of what sales is, is both excitement as well as confidence. An excited and confident sales person will overcome objections just from their personality type and their disposition more so than the most technical person in the world. So, when salespeople are new, you’re going to find, through that excitement, a higher level work ethic. If you couple that work ethic with success, that success will breed confidence and you can really capitalize on that early excitement plus the hunger to go out and make more sales. So, one of the main focuses I have when training young salespeople is that within the first week or two of being here, they see a decent amount of success that they can fall back on and use for confidence when they’re approaching new clientele.”
- Will you explain any mentoring techniques you have used to develop other sales people?
“I think that with sales, sales teaching and sales mentorship, you have two basic things you need to do. One is, you need to coach a mentality and coach a way of thinking that will equip your young salespeople with the right mindset while they’re out there. The other thing to give them is the basics. I have a very systematic approach to how much experience someone has versus what kind of teaching lesson I give them. Early on in their experience with my company, the teaching lessons are more on the basic side and they’re meant to build confidence. The mentorship is really just around trying to feel out and catch little things of how the new employee is thinking and if it doesn't align with the mind set or attitudes of someone who’s going to be really successful, doing your best to catch it, realign it and coach them on the right way to think is crucial. It’s one thing to be out there and doing sales and saying the right words, it's another thing to be having the right attitude and the right thoughts. Long term, what really keeps people in the job and responding well to a sales environment is having the right mindset and being able to respond in situations with the right attitude. It's a combination of teaching the basics early on as well as teaching the overall mindset that they should have to be successful long term.”
- What do you consider to be the right mindset and the basics?
“Early on, especially in a sales environment, just an understanding of basic sales theory. As a young salesperson it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the different objections or challenges that they might face in terms of selling a new product, so part of coaching mentality is showing these guys they do have control. Although they’ll see 60 or 70 objections, it is possible for them to handle them if they understand why those objections are surfacing. The way that I coach objection handling and breaking down a million different objections into the four basic ones, really empowers a young sales person. Even if they don’t make a sale, understanding why they didn’t and being able to move forward and work on whatever aspect of their sales cycle was missing or what didn't work for that particular client is very important. Furthermore, that ownership and them feeling like they actually can impact and control what is happening in front of them is key. A lack of that is the biggest fear I have for somebody in sales; feeling like they just have to get lucky to make a sale versus them really understanding sales theory. Understanding why they do or don’t see success with a particular client and being able to internalize that and work on it for their next appointment or for their next sales call is what I consider the right mindset.”
- Can you elaborate on briefing, debriefing and role playing and how you use it?
“Briefing and debriefing is one of the most important aspects of showing a new skill because role playing will build confidence but you only get so far as it’s not happening in real life. You can teach the basics, you can build a little bit of confidence in what they’re going to say, but at the end of the experience of role playing, there’s still going to be that question of, ‘is this going to actually work?’, so when training a new salesperson, briefing and debriefing is important. You can brief before the actual appointment and say, ‘hey you know how we talked about this in the role play, I want you to watch how this actually works in real life, I want to you watch how I do the exact same thing that we had done in the role play and you can see, in real life, exactly how this works’. Then debriefing afterwards, drawing the attention back to how it worked out. I look at role playing as a big confidence building and teaching tool. Once somebody has been in sales for a little while, naturally, they’re going to develop both good and bad habits around it, so role playing is a very effective way to diagnose a problem. But early on, role playing builds confidence outside of the sales call while briefing and debriefing is proof of concept inside the sales call.”
2) Holding people accountable (Having crucial conversations when you need to)
- What are the best ways to hold people accountable?
“That’s one of the toughest. I've found that with accountability, if you remove yourself from the equation as the manager or as the mentor, you can generally get the highest level of accountability. Holding someone accountable to their goals and what they say, not necessarily interjecting your own opinion, but really just focusing on that individual’s goals and their actions and whether or not they really align is key. The only time that I really feel like its appropriate to interject yourself is if you have a decent relationship; you can really leverage that and say, ‘these are all the things I've done for you and this is all the coaching and development that I've given you and these are your actions, how do you think I should feel?’ That's really the only time to interject yourself into the scenario. Generally speaking, the most effective way to hold someone accountable is just to focus on the individual, their goals within your company and whether or not their actions are aligning with what they want to achieve.”
- How do you hold people accountable in a constructive way?
“The most important thing with accountability, and this is the challenge, is to not let your emotional involvement in the scenario seep into the conversation. The tone for accountability is best neutral or neutral/disappointed but not neutral/angry because the second you become emotional in the dialogue, a lot of times the person you’re holding accountable thinks it’s about you and they shut down and they stop listening. The best way to do it positively is to be neutral in the conversation and then afterwards to build that individual back up. Really encourage them, tell them ‘I know you’re capable of this’, ‘I know you have what it takes to be one of our best people, why do you think we have this conversation in the first place’, ‘I have a lot of faith in you’, etc. Although sometimes the accountability conversation is not always a positive one, because there’s a reason you’re holding the person accountable, it’s very important to end on a positive note. With salespeople especially, more often than not, you won’t be standing over their shoulder managing every single thing that they do; so their attitude, how they feel about the conversation and how much faith they feel like you have in them, will impact their work when you’re not there. I never get emotionally charged or get myself involved; I just stay very neutral or neutral/disappointed. At the end of that conversation make sure it ends on a high, very encouraging note for the individual to go back out and prove you right.”
- What things are involved in having a crucial conversation to get accountability?
“You want to know that having this conversation is going to make a large impact. There are some managers that pick every single battle, there are some managers that pick no battles and get walked all over, so the medium is somewhere in between the two. Therefore, the conversation and how serious it is, depends on how serious the mistake, lack of effort or bad attitude is that you’re facing from your salesperson. If it’s a minor thing, I will still address it, but at the same time it's not going to be a five minute long conversation. If I feel like it's going to make a 20-30% difference in the person’s performance or I feel like their performance or attitude does not align with what it would take to be successful in the role, then I will absolutely, 100% of the time, have the conversation. This is because, generally speaking, attitude and work ethic don’t fix themselves over time; you, as a manager, need to step in and figure out what's wrong and solve the problem as soon as possible. Sweeping it under the rug, if you do feel like the issue is going to fix itself, is just as bad as being too aggressive.”
- Why is it important to have these talks and not wait?
“That’s huge. With a sales role, naturally, turnover is inevitable; there's going to be turnover because you face rejection. You don't always do well and it takes persistence and determination to be able to succeed in a sales role. Therefore, if you don't have the accountability conversation, and they’re trending in a bad way, you can't think that anything is naturally going to click for this person. I will hold people accountable if I feel like there are issues with their attitude or work ethic, those are the top two. Sometimes I’ll hold people accountable if I feel like they know what they need to be doing, in terms of their skill set, and they’re choosing not to do it; they’re taking the easy route. For the most part, however, the biggest two red flags to jump in and correct, right away, are either work ethic or attitude.”
3) Getting people to perform at higher level than they ever thought was possible
- What are some ways to get people to perform at an exceptional level?
“One of the most effective ways to inspire and create a culture of performance is highlighting the activity you want to see; it’s as simple as sending out a group text message to all the sales reps about someone’s success, it could be highlighting them in a newsletter or giving them recognition at a meeting. When everybody in the organization sees that recognition, 90% of the people want it themselves; therefore, this strategy is something that will motivate the group: simply highlighting people’s success, highlighting the right attitude, and giving employees recognition for it. Public recognition is huge and that's a huge aspect of my business that motivates our sales people on a day to day basis.”
- Have you had people raise their level to perform above average or what they thought they could do?
“Absolutely, that’s a year by year thing. There’s always a couple individuals that have the talent, right attitude and work ethic to go above and beyond and exceed expectations; a lot of times its their expectations of themselves. In my role, one thing I do to foster that mentality, and push people, is to have discussions around what the employee thought that they were capable of when they walked in versus what they've shown they're capable of over time, and what that means in casting a vision. This discussion is very important to have with your sales representatives in encouraging them to set the bar high continue to work hard.”
- What tips can you share to give people to close at a higher rate?
“Closing at a higher rate is a product of your sales system; if you put together an amazing sales system and make it very accessible, very trainable, you’ll make it acceptable for anybody to be able to close at a higher rate. I think any sales manager needs to spend an equal amount of time thinking about that system and how easy it is to pick up and replicate as much as they do training it because there’s always improvements you can make and you've got to be strategic. The other thing is building a culture of closing, you can create a connotation of what it means to close, that it’s positive, it's cool, it's fun and everybody wants to be that closer. There’s also a social, cultural dynamic that you can create around closing just by the conversations you have with somebody after they seal a deal, for example, ‘how did it feel to go out and make $600 for yourself in the last 90 minutes? If you do that three more times this weekend, how’s it going to feel to have earned yourself a couple thousand dollars in your 25 hour work week?’. Couple those questions with highlighting successes and highlighting the people who are closing really well. In my business, closing is cool and that’s just as much of a motivator as all the actual gains that these guys get, just the social, cultural feel of being a closer and that’s really built up in our organization.”
- What actionable things can you tell us about getting people to double or triple their sales results?
“As a sales manager, depending on the amount of direct reports you have, you only have so much bandwidth to really dive deep and micromanage individuals. What I mean by bandwidth is there’s only so much attention that you can give to different aspects of your business. If you looked at it and said, ‘I’m going to give equal attention, across the board, to my 10 sales reps’, you’re not going to be as effective with your time as if you gave, for example, 20% of your attention to the middle of the pack, 30% of your attention to the top people and 50% towards fixing the bottom; not just equal time for everyone. What I do to really boost up an individual’s sales results is that person becomes the focus of mine for a certain period of time. Micromanage their prospecting, listen to their qualifying phone calls, shadow their sales appointments and really focus on developing, not just your team equally, but a couple individuals for a certain period of time to make a difference before moving on. You have to figure, you can push the people in the middle of your pack to be better but you may not lose those people as sales reps in your business if they just keep doing what they’re doing. You will probably lose 30-40% of your bottom people, which you’ve already invested into training and invested resources into training. Focus on a couple of those people in a week, focus on one of your top people and get them to set the bar high and change their expectations. Really prioritizing, on a period by period basis, who you’re spending your energy with micromanaging, shadowing, and developing, and it's not everybody every single week.”
4) Culture - Building a killer culture (Having your people take the company to the next level)
- What are the keys to building a killer culture?
“One is really living the value yourself and leading from the front; whatever you want your culture to be, you need to be a shining light for that. If you want the culture in your business to be hard work, great attitude and positivity, you want to really showcase that you’re positive, working hard and productive. That’s just step one of building the culture, step two is catching anybody when they don't align with it and having a discussion about, ‘hey so, you said this thing and why do you think that's not the right thing to say if we’re really trying to build this type of a culture?’; picking the little battles around culture when people deviate from what you want to see. Furthermore, it’s most effective when you use your top salespeople as liaisons to help send a message. Culture is only partially effective when you talk about it as the owner but when your people start to live it, especially the people who are the most respected or the most looked up to, it starts to echo around not just your reach but their reach. I would always prep my top people to be culture ambassadors; I would say, ‘hey, you’re a top person in this organization, people are going to look up to you and the things that you say, the things that you do, how do you think you should act? What types of things do you want to watch out for? How can you be a great leader in our company?’. Having those allies is just as strong as everything you can personally do because it’s now no longer coming from one source.”
- Why is this such an important part of building a successful sales force?
“For me, there is zero direct management for our sales representatives; I don’t watch any of it, I have some regional sales managers that will supervise around 20% of what an individual does on a week to week basis but the sales employees, in my company, are highly independent. Since there’s no one overseeing exactly what they do, culture impacts the little decisions that are made by those individuals that will guarantee the company’s success. For example, if it's the culture in our business that the average person makes, in revenue, say, $60,000 this year, that will motivate the individuals to make sure they get there because it’s the norm. Therefore, culture is a really effective secondary management tool, outside of your direct management, because the culture impacts everything. It affects the attitude toward their job, it affects what they're doing, and day to day decisions in the workplace; I don’t have the time nor the patience to micromanage everybody, I let the culture do it.”
- How does the culture impact sales skills?
“Culture impacts the mindset, absolutely, and what I mean by that is if you have a really solid culture and there’s an expected level of performance, it’s going to give a certain level of confidence, a certain level of hope to these guys who are going out there and working on building the business. In terms of sales skills, it’s the culture you can actually impact. Making sure your sales reps know they have control of their appointments and not just getting lucky to close a deal but actually understanding sales theory and knowing what they did right; then you can build a culture of people who want to understand sales better and want to improve their own skills. I wouldn't say the culture directly impacts skill set but you can build a culture of people that understand sales theory, take ownership of their experience and want to seek out extra help to overcome whatever they’re struggling with.”
- How does the culture impact the revenue of the company?
“In my business, a lot of our culture is pride in what we do, pride in our division of this company, and pride in the group that we have. Also, it’s just an average expectation of performance, in the divisions that I’ve run, that our average salesperson does 20% better than the average employee in the rest of our company. Because of this, it feeds into the culture because the guys are proud of what they’re doing, they feel like they’re a cut above and they’re more prideful about who they’re working with and the people in our organization. Therefore, if you have a culture around high performance and expectations, especially related to your competitors or people within the same organization, it can really affect your revenue because you’re simply setting an expectation that your people do better.”
- What are some tactics or tips to build a great company culture?
“The first thing is, you have to have some culture tenets or principles that you decide, on your own, what you stand for, before you start; there are so many leaders who don’t even know what they stand for. Therefore, the first step is really figuring out what you want your culture to be and what values and principles you want your culture to represent, then, highlighting that amongst your group and making that the correct way to act. It starts with knowing where you want to go and making sure you’re living it, correcting people when they don't fit your culture and having discussions around it. The last step would be finding a couple ambassadors that can help you live the values and help project the values to the rest of your organization. Usually, with those steps, you can build a pretty solid culture.”