Managing the sales process

The PACE Partnership Healthcheck, issued in 2002, is based on the opinions and perceptions of people in 76 professional firms over how they see their organisation. Firms in all sectors rated themselves lowest by a large margin on their ability to manage the sales process. PACE sees no reason why people would want to exaggerate their responses, and therefore accepts the survey findings at face value.

The March meeting of the Marketing Partners’ Forum therefore asked PACE whether, given their current poor scores, it would be sensible for firms to hire external sales managers to manage the sales process.

PACE spend 35% of their time with blue chip commercial organisations. Very few of these would agree that they have cracked the problem of managing the sales process, although when you find a company that has got it right, they can be very good. In PACE’s experience, even a large blue chip organisation with a large number of sales teams will only have one or two sales managers who stand out as being fantastic at what they do. So the professions should not be too worried about their poor performance on this aspect of the Healthcheck!

New business does not fly in the window that often; it comes as a result of concerted activity, and that activity has to be managed. Having been a sales person and having been given a team that was not performing, one of the things that I learned very quickly was that what gets measured gets managed. Every sales manager should know the level of activity that is taking place with exiting clients and new prospects, and measure it by practice area, office, or however else the firm is organised.

A second key responsibility for a sales manager is to measure the pipeline of business coming through over say a three to six month window, whether by individual team or practice area. Amongst the new prospects, there are probably some major opportunities that have to be managed. These might represent up to 80% of a firm’s future fee income. Most often the work is highly competitive. I’d expect a sales manager to have a handle on exactly what is happening with those particular sales. Where are we, what have we done, who’s engaged in it? Most importantly, what are the next actions that we’re going to put in place to win that particular item of business?

I would further expect as sales manager to be able to keep the firm’s management informed on how the client base is being managed. How are we managing the relationships with those 10% of the clients that make up 80% of our fee income? Who is involved, what are we doing, how are we strengthening the relationship? How are we making sure that communication across the organisation is absolutely sound, so we don’t foul up in any way, shape or form? The sales manager must ensure that the whole of the current relationships are managed, because next year, for practically every firm around this table, more than 90% of next year’s fee income is going to come from this year’s client base.

Finally, I’d be expecting the sales manager to make things happen. All too often a firm has great intentions and wish lists, but does not turn them into action plans. Activity produces results. And if activity isn’t happening, the sales manager must be given some degree of authority and sanction to make things happen. What happens when people agree to work for a key client, but fail to deliver? What happens if they don’t support a bid process with the effort that they said they would? Everything falls down unless a sales manager is able to resolve these types of problems.

I would suggest that even if we put all those processes, tools and management systems in place, it still wouldn’t work. People will not be managed by a process and will not be herded around.

The first area to consider is flexibility. It is difficult to be flexible when you’ve got sanctions and a process that needs to be clearly understood. The sales manager has to have the confidence and experience to know when to be tight and when to be loose, when to be flexible and when to insist. Imposed tools don’t work in commercial businesses, certainly not in professional firms. People can always find a way of hitting the numbers. Then it becomes a bit like imposing targets in the education and health services. At the end of the day you don’t achieve your aims, you just get the numbers being hit in certain areas. So the sales manager needs to know how to manage people with those tools, needs to adopt a flexibility of style which allows him or her to interact with the individuals who are carrying out the work in a way which allows both sides to win.

Secondly, why don’t some partners get involved in new business development? A primary reason is lack of confidence. A partner will tell you that he or she is too busy or that the client is not comfortable with being approached in that way, or that it’s not the right thing to do, but actually it’s all about confidence. Partners are very confident when talking about their expertise, but ask them to do things that are outside that expertise, for example building relationships with individuals in potential client targets, and it is all too difficult for them. So the sales manager has got to be building confidence, to support those different individuals, to ensure that they are confidently going about what they need to do. If they’ve got confidence, if they’re good at doing it, then yes let’s measure what they do, but at least they will be doing it.

The third most important area is coaching, something that is given lots of lip service, but is unusual to find working well in practice. A sales manager has to be a coach. It is about being the person with the credibility, the ability, the interest, the listening skills, to be able to help people improve their performance. It involves confidence but also skills development. Partners need to get better at what they’re doing, which requires the sales manager to go out with partners to meetings with clients and prospects. You can’t coach somebody unless you are both on the same playing field. This raises the issue of where a sales manager should be positioned in the firm. A person can only attend meetings with clients and give feedback to partners when they have a high degree of credibility, which in practice means seniority.

The fourth area is motivation. The sales manager has to have the ability, the interest, and the focus on doing the things that get people in a team to want to do the things that will make the team successful. This means understanding the individuals in the team through looking through their eyes. You can’t motivate somebody by telling them what would interest you. You have to understand what motivates them. If a sales manager can achieve this, they will be able to stimulate and motivate enthusiasm in their team to do the things that the partners previously felt uncomfortable about doing.

My first four areas are about management. My final area is leadership. Maybe we should call the process sales leadership rather than sales management, because there is a role here for leadership. If I am the person who is fulfilling this role, then I need to be able to challenge the process, I need to be able to inspire enthusiasm, I need to be able to celebrate success, to recognise individual achievement. I need to be able to inspire an approach to sales that is not so much based on what I do but on best practice. Sitting in your office and sending people out to do business development never works. You have to have the credibility to demonstrate that the process works and that you can make it happen.

So where do you find such people? What experience should they have had before becoming sales managers? They need to have developed the tools to be able to carry out the job because without these tools, they will not bring about change. But if they’ve got the tools and are able to use them, if they are able to introduce targets and action plans for individual fee earners, then the tools will become part of the process of measuring success. Often a managing partner will want a hygiene rather than a motivation system (although he won’t say so). How should a sales manager react when he knows that a hygiene system isn’t going to work; that all it’s going to do is to make people less focused? So managing the sales process is a tough role, which is perhaps why there are so few people doing it successfully in any sector.


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