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Sales Management

The Accidental Salesperson

Jay Spielvogel

Do any of the following statements sound familiar?

“We put new bonus structures in place, and yet my salespeople still lack motivation to hunt for new business.”

“It seems my salespeople are more interested in doing ‘milk-runs’ on existing clients, rather than spending time developing new business.”

“My salespeople tell me they have a lot of administrative work to do – building quotes, making sure orders are placed properly – and therefore they have no time to prospect.”

You can’t force an employee to want to be a better salesperson.

In response to the above challenges, many companies will hire additional inside salespeople to help support the outside team. They will also implement sales and product training, as well as investing in technology solutions including CRM programs, email campaigns and online research tools.

While these approaches are critical when optimizing a sales organization, they can become bad investments when offered to the wrong team members. If there is any doubt, then consider the following questions:

  • Are you constantly trying to convince your people to use the CRM and leverage the company sales process?
  • Is it an endless battle to get some of your team members to spend time qualifying and getting to know their prospects before sending a quote?
  • Does it feel like you are having the same conversations every week about the lack of pipeline follow-up and development effort?

If the answer to these questions is a resounding YES, then you may have some ‘accidental salespeople.’ 

What exactly is an accidental salesperson?

The best way to answer this question is to compare selling to sports: 

  • Like an athlete, a salesperson enjoys the thrill of the win, but often suffers the agony of defeat.
  • Both also deal with competition and heavy amounts of pressure to produce results.
  • Ultimately, success in either occupation requires a competitive spirit, resiliency, a love of the game and a high commitment to growth and improvement.

The one critical difference between the two vocations is the low barrier to entry when it comes to a career in sales. This is why we find so many accidental salespeople who pride themselves on their knowledge of what they sell, rather than their ability to sell. When asked what they love about sales and what makes them great at it, they will respond, “I love problem solving and building relationships.” While these two competencies are essential in any customer-facing role, a true ‘sales-athlete’ will focus on their love of creating new opportunities, winning new business and the potential commission they can earn. They will also embrace technology and fully leverage the sales process. Additionally, they view sales training and coaching as growth opportunities, rather than a mandated waste of time.

What if I suspect I have accidental salespeople on my team?

  1. If you are unsure, the first step is to leverage a third-party sales evaluation tool. There are many on the market, but it is critical to utilize one that focuses less on personality and more on the individual’s commitment, motivation and desire for growth and success in sales. Additionally, a truly objective evaluation tool should reveal both positive and negative beliefs about the role of a salesperson, as well as predicting their response to training and coaching. (click here to download a sample salesperson evaluation)
  2. Beyond the assessment tool, it is important to sit with the employee and review their personal goals, areas they want to improve and how they perceive their responsibilities. Though the odds of success are low when it comes to accidental salespeople, it is reasonable to ask them to take part in sales training, commit to a regimen of prospecting activities and to fully adopt company tools and processes. The key is being sensitive to them submitting vs committing to the program. In other words, you need to know when to cut your losses and create a backup plan.

A plan for repositioning vs removing the accidental salespeople.

In the past, companies would quickly terminate salespeople for non-performance. Things have changed and most companies fear the havoc that turnover wreaks on the existing territories, company morale and the client base.

Rather than suffering the endless cycle of hiring and firing, a successful model many companies are embracing is segmenting the sales team. This involves creating multiple roles including account care managers, sales support engineers, account executives responsible for client expansion, as well as new business development reps. While an accidental salesperson will predictably struggle with hunting and closing, they may be a great account customer care manager. They may also possess strong problem solving and follow-up skills enabling them to thrive in this new role. While they may be incapable of getting to the real decision makers, they can be viewed as a highly trusted and appreciated resource to your existing client’s buyers and end users.

Another role they can fill is sales support engineer, aka ‘subject matter expert.’ In most companies this task falls on sales management, many who are already stretched too thin. Often, the accidental salesperson was promoted or hired into a sales position due to their technical knowledge. This person can be repositioned into the role of supporting the other team members when they need a ‘product evangelist’ to help present.

How do we avoid hiring more accidental salespeople?

  1. Like the evaluation process above for existing team members, it is important to have a comprehensive recruiting approach when hiring new salespeople. The focus of the interviewing process should be on a candidate’s motivation and commitment to sales success, as much as it is on their skills, background, and knowledge. Utilizing an objective sales-specific screening tool will also help to weed out the reps who are pursuing a job vs a career. (click here to download a sample sales candidate assessment)
  2. Beyond their answers to your questions, pay close attention to the questions they ask you. A growth-minded salesperson will ask about the territory, commission earnings potential, and specific details about other successful individuals at the company. An accidental salesperson will focus on the accounts and leads they will be given, base salary, flexibility in making their own schedules as well as potential to quickly move into a management role.

Unfortunately, as the barriers to entry for other competitive occupations become greater, we will see more accidental salespeople popping up. Additionally, as salary demands increase, the cost of carrying these reps will become more burdensome and the emotional drain on leadership will become profound. Stacking the bench with the right ‘sales athletes’ is paramount to the company’s success.

 Hire for passion and intensity; there is training for everything.” – Nolan Bushnell (cofounder of Atari)

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Sales Management