Here are some questions we ask sales leaders to consider as the year gets underway.
- What was your most important “New Year’s resolution” at the end of December?
- What action have you taken on that resolution since then?
- Since January 1, has that pattern of action and behavior become more frequent… or less frequent?
Full disclosure: At Sandler, we tend to be skeptical of “resolutions” made at the end of the year. In fact, we believe they often do more harm than good. Why? Because resolutions typically fade into irrelevance by about the end of February – if not sooner. All too often, that predictable cycle creates cynicism about the very idea of goal-setting, not to mention a pattern of negative self-talk and the strengthening of what we call “head trash” – unresourceful beliefs about ourselves, our market, or the world in which we live.
It’s a pretty good bet that, if you created a list of well-intentioned “resolutions” on December 31, one or more of the things you put on your list has already slipped more than you’d like to admit. Why? Here’s one answer. You may have resolved… you may even have talked to others about that “resolution”… but you didn’t commit.
A commitment is what happens when you align yourself, without compromise or hesitation, to a goal that is personally meaningful to you, in such a way that inspires you to take action to achieve that goal. A resolution, as the word suggests, is something you say to other people about what you resolve to do in the future. Legislatures pass resolutions – long speeches that don’t have the force of law. Effective sales leaders, we have found, tend to make commitments that affect the here and now.
With that critical distinction in mind, it’s time to look at five of the critical commitments Sandler is now helping sales leaders to understand, internalize and take action on. Each of these Sandler Commitments supports the important personal goal of attaining or exceeding team performance goals during a time of economic uncertainty. If that goal is important to you and your team – and I’m betting it is if you’ve made it this far – you may want to take a look.
Sandler Sales Leadership Commitment #1
Accept that the communication strategies you model are the communication strategies you will instill.
This is a core principle of leadership that sales leaders, in particular, often resist. It is arguably more important during periods of economic uncertainty. We believe that, in 2023, there is no “wiggle room” for leaders when it comes to this commitment.
Consider the deceptively simple-sounding matter of how we begin a one-on-one conversation. Have you ever had a discussion with one of your salespeople where you thought your position in the conversation was clear… and yet you found that the other person acted in a way that suggested that they really didn't understand the main point of what you were saying? When I ask this question of sales leaders, I always get a “Yes” response. Then I ask, “Well, what do you think caused that?” The answer comes back: “Well, I don't know. I was clear, and I delivered my message. They just weren’t listening.” Actually, what they were doing was interpreting the message from the receiver’s viewpoint, rather than the sender’s. This is what human beings do. To compensate for this, we need to make a conscious decision to adopt and model communication strategies that operate from the receiver’s viewpoint, not ours – strategies that clarify what the other person needs to understand about the purpose of this conversation and what’s happening next in the relationship.
If we don’t do this, our people will model our (ineffective) communication in their conversations with buyers… and they will “lead” meetings where the prospect has little or no idea what the expectations and next steps are. The single most important of these communication strategies, the one we will want to be sure to model for our team on a daily basis, is the Sandler ® Up-Front Contract. If we don’t model this technique in our day-to-day interactions with the team, they won’t use it in their day-to-day interactions with prospective buyers. So we have to commit to it, and use it, first. To learn more about this all-important communication tool… read on.
Sandler Sales Leadership Commitment #2
Move beyond the blame game.
Your salespeople have about a thousand different things going on in their mind at any given time. Their mind is basically in a spin cycle. And maybe you're giving them what you believe is clear direction – but it isn’t sticking. That spin cycle probably has something to do with that. Suppose we were looking for a way to make the spin cycle spin around even faster and the confusion even worse. What could we do? Well, talking to them like they’re the student who’s just been sent to the principal’s office, and we’re the principal, would certainly be a reliable way to achieve that. On the other hand, if we want to improve the odds of our message actually landing and affecting decisions and behavior, we could look for ways to interact with the members of our team on either a peer-to-peer basis – or, when circumstances warrant, in a more supportive, empathetic way. In other words, we could set the blame game aside. We could practice creating, sustaining, and operating in a safe space for open communication. That means no more “gotcha.” No more drama. Just facts you both agree on and appropriate emotional support. This commitment, like the other four, is best considered non-negotiable for 2023… for the simple reason that an Up-Front Contract doesn’t work unless it is agreed upon ahead of time by the participants who are functional equals, operating together in a safe emotional space.
Sandler Sales Leadership Commitment #3
Identify the Purpose, Time Allotted, Agenda, and Desired Outcome of each important conversation you schedule with a member of your team.
Then confirm that they are okay with each of these elements. Why? Because that’s what you want them to do when they talk to prospective buyers! This commitment is all about modeling effective communication… by implementing the four components of a sound Up-Front Contract. Let’s take a close look at each of those now. Notice that you will want to be sure to touch all these bases before you start the discussion. In a world where many salespeople are working remotely, that’s likely to mean that you will build all of the elements below into your digital calendar invitation, and then confirm at the beginning of the actual conversation that all the agreements make sense to both sides.
- Purpose. Establish (or revisit) why you’re having the discussion.
- Time Allotted. Make sure that you both know the time, length, date, and location of the meeting. Allow enough time to cover all the necessary points. Clarify what communication platforms, if any, will be used during this time; confirm that all parties know whether this is an in-person meeting, a conference call via phonelines, or a video conference.
- Agenda. Understand the other person’s agenda and expectations and your own agenda and expectations. Each of you should know what the other person wants and expects to happen in the meeting. Be clear about the kind of information you will ask for. Make it clear that they can ask for information, too.
- Desired Outcome. What, specifically, should happen at the end of the meeting? The other person should be clear on what the potential next steps are before they begin this discussion. (Note: When dealing with a prospective buyer, as opposed to a salesperson who reports to you, the buyer should also know that it’s okay to say, “no.” The outcome may be that it doesn’t make sense to continue the process. You and your team are better off knowing that sooner rather than later.)
This is the Up-Front Contract. To introduce this high-impact communication tool to sales leaders, and to give a clear sense of its potential impact, I will often ask, “What would you say is the purpose of a sales call?” The usual response I hear back is the correct one: “There are many possible purposes to a given sales call.” The purpose could be to find out whether this person or organization matches up with our ideal client/customer profile. It could be to find out whether it makes sense to schedule an initial fact-finding meeting. It could be to learn about the most important priorities of the CEO. It could be to close the sale. It could be to find out how the rollout is going. It could be to address a service issue. There are at least a dozen correct answers to this question, and probably far more than that.
After we’ve acknowledged that much together, I’ll ask the obvious follow-up question: “So how important is it, then, to make sure that when one of your salespeople talks to a buyer, the buyer is crystal clear on what the purpose of the meeting is?” Of course, everyone agrees that that’s vitally important. But when I ask, “So… how often does that happen?”, I usually hear silence, followed by: “Rarely – hardly ever.” And of course the same principle holds for the other three elements of this conversational contract. It’s incredibly important to confirm that we’re on the same page with the other person about all of these things. But in most teams, and most organizations, that simply doesn’t happen with any frequency.
Which brings us to this commitment. Our responsibility as leaders is to model the effective setting of this four-part agreement at the beginning of every important internal conversation. It’s our duty to be crystal-clear with our salespeople about what's going to be covered, the amount of time it's going to take, the role of the salesperson and our role during the conversation, and what steps are expected to be taken at the end. We want to model the use of this tool before we tell others to use it– because the leaders who walk their talk are the ones who end up inspiring their teams to do the same.
Sandler Sales Leadership Commitment #4
Teach it after you do it.
Once you’ve personally modeled the act of setting a contract for a given conversation with a salesperson, then you are in the perfect position to discuss and reinforce the Up-Front Contract as a best practice for salespeople. Not before! Experience has shown that if you just tell people to do this – as opposed to modeling an effective Up-Front contract for them in real time – your success rate will be far lower than it could be.
A good approach is to set the contract without announcing what you’re doing, get agreement on all four elements, and simply lead the meeting – which, let’s face it, will probably flow much more smoothly than in the past, because the salesperson’s spin-cycle will have slowed down enough to grasp what they’re discussing with you. Then, before you part, do a brief “rewind” session: “By the way, did you notice how I started this meeting?” And so on. That’s when you can start talking about how the salesperson could use the same technique with a prospect.
Sandler Sales Leadership Commitment #5
Own the contract, own the culture.
Don’t just do this once or twice. Own this. Make the Up-Front Contract part of your team and organizational culture – part of how you do business. Set it at the beginning of every important conversation. Build it into your own and your team’s DNA. Praise it every time you see evidence of it. Reinforce it tirelessly. Make it a requirement of being part of your team. Live it. Using this tool has to be a cultural decision, not just a tactical decision. If your working culture and your relationships are not based on mutual understanding and mutual respect, if they’re based instead on domination and “gotcha,” this tool will not work. It’s as simple as that. On the other hand, if you mean it when you say you use this tool to make sure everyone stays on the same page… if you own it… if you use what you’ve learned here to support important relationships, foster mutual understanding, and spotlight choices that ensure shared progress toward goals that make sense for both sides, then everyone wins. This is big commitment… the one that can deliver a game-changing shift in performance in 2023.
Yes, this is a different way of running a sales team than you may be used to. But you know what? That’s probably a change worth making. Our experience is that teams whose leaders don’t make and follow through on these five commitments end up miscommunicating about important issues roughly two-thirds of the time, both internally and with their prospective buyers. If you are serious about moving yourself and your team out of that category in 2023, the ideas I’ve shared with you here may be worth considering closely – and taking on as personal commitments.
To learn more about Sandler’s resources for sales leaders, connect with us.