A strong, high-performance sales team is critical to a successful business. But what makes a sales team truly great, and what strategies can leaders use to create a team that's highly successful? To address these questions, we're talking to CROs and sales executives about "How To Turn a Good Sales Team into a Great One." As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amie Teske.
Thank you for doing this with us! To start, can you tell us a bit of your ‘backstory’ and what brought you to this specific career path?
I graduated college in three and a half years because I knew what I wanted. Business was my path, and I knew it from a young age. My dad, mom, and stepdad were all business or sales leaders, and I was always intrigued. My mom ran an Ophthalmology center for many years, where I worked when going through school. So, I was surrounded by business, sales, and some healthcare in my formative years.
For the last 24 years, I’ve primarily been in Health IT/Tech sales and business leadership. Twenty-two years ago, after a few years on the road implementing software—even during Y2K—I stepped into sales because it looked fun. The people in sales were a blast, and I enjoyed the dinners, drinks, conferences and laughter. What was not to like!
Overtime, I stayed in sales because I enjoyed helping people, leading people, the network, and the camaraderie. Plus, I proved that I was good at it, so the money wasn't bad. I have an insatiable curiosity about most everything so discovering the needs of a client and helping them solve it was right up my alley.
Now, I’m giving back to those still "in" the profession by taking what I've learned and what I continue to learn to help the larger community get better every day. I want them to hopefully love it just as much as I do.
I once read an article where a psychoanalyst and ethnographer named G. Clotaire Rapaille described the successful sales archetype as a Happy Loser. In other words, they are someone who sees rejection as a motivating challenge. I think there is a lot of truth in that for me. I don't get offended with “no” easily, and it's always been a form of informal feedback that creates a drive to learn and get better.
The constant learning, over time, sharpened my sales and leadership skills. Looking back, I realize that it was never just the thrill and environment of the profession that I loved but also the learning and feedback I was getting along the way. I love learning new things, but it wasn't until I was older that I figured out the connection between my love of learning and sales success.
I’m a rebel at heart so I think sales and driving growth was always my destiny. The way I did it then and what I know now are great complements in advisory work. I get the rebels and I understand the need and power of planning and operations.
Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway?
Well, that’s a question of all questions. Sales is a challenge, but it is also a blast. There are so many interesting stories. How about two?
I was an individual contributor who moved into sales leadership and then business leadership over a span of 24 years. It wasn’t until I went on my own and started advising and researching the needs of sales that I learned this brain twister: A sales team is not just a vehicle to deliver a number, they are a growth strategy and a market itself. They must be engaged and motivated to act, just like a traditional "customer."
If I had fully understood this and then practiced from this lens, I would have done super-abundantly more than I was already able to achieve in my sales career.
The lesson? As a sales leader, don’t spend all your time operationalizing your team, engage them. The performance gain is geometric.
Sales professionals are very much like professional sports athletes. They constantly practice their trade and need to be mentally engaged and motivated to achieve their best results. Sales is a high stress and anxiety role. Their mental toughness is an enormous factor in overachievement. They are your biggest and best growth strategy because they hold the reins of your success. They'd better be playing at the top of their game.
Maybe this is an interesting story, or perspective nonetheless, for those sales leaders who have never (or newly) stepped into a leadership role whereby you are involved in the “process” of selling your company to a prospective investor.
When you go through a “process”, there are a lot of extra hours on top of your day job. The trick is how to do that and your day job. I have tips on that for another day.
Private equity is a fascinating ecosystem. They work crazy hours and are crazy good with numbers. Not only that but the exceptional investment bankers who support a buy/sell process are well versed in the art and finesse of strategic presentations. At times, it felt like Broadway meets NASA.
I spent a lot of time preparing, like you would for any large sales opportunity, but something I learned was to be exquisitely clear on the metric that provides visual proof of sales performance that leads to growth. In other words, what is the common denominator that indicates progress.
The lesson for any sales leader here is this: Knowing your vital metric to gauge sales performance, that drives ultimate success, is not only important for your own achievement, but when going through a “process”, it helps you have a succinct message delivered with confidence.
I’ve seen the sales conversation go both ways in these situations, and I have been the blubbering idiot explaining performance and growth in long form. Know your vital performance metric. It helps deliver a needed confidence.
And as a sales leader, your pipeline will be dissected 100 ways from Sunday during a “process” and that is called a funneloscopy. Thanks to my peer, Julie, who birthed the word, during a process we both went through.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!
Yes, I’m working on a massive marketing campaign to relaunch my sales advisory business, designing a new website, and building a curriculum for Impact Recognition as a 3X sales performance growth strategy. Which is a fancy way to say: Sales Leaders, engage your team, get to know them, recognize them with emphasis on their impact and the difference they make in the world.
Research now proves a huge performance gain by validating and recognizing sales “athletes” for their impact, to get their mind right. The curriculum will be succinct yet a powerful way for any sales leader to execute.
Again, sales professionals are like athletes. They need to have their mind right to outperform. Getting their mind right is the hard job of the sales leader. If sales leaders are managing and not leading, spending too much time orchestrating the business, or in meetings, then they are neglecting the exponential power that exists in every single person on their team. It's tireless work. But the work is worth the reward, both for your sales results and for your leadership legacy.
Right now, I help sales leaders in a custom and curated way but that doesn’t scale. I'm putting it into a digital format for anyone to follow and gain.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you’re grateful for?
God first, every time. Beyond Him, there are so many! I believe to my core that it is your team who gets all the applause for your success. Get yourself an A-team and harness their amazing potential and you jet-set to another galaxy.
More directly, I am grateful for Rick Pleczko. He ushered me into the private equity world where I was able to succeed and financially benefit, which put me in a position to relaunch my sales advisory business, where I hope to help many in sales by honoring them first.
I left the corporate world in January 2017, and started Topline Advisory. I networked the local start-up community in Kansas City and worked with one regularly for a few months.
After that engagement ended, I ran into symplr, the enterprise healthcare operations software powerhouse. They wanted a full-time employee while I wanted to be a contractor. We danced for a few months, but I finally succumbed and joined as their Senior Vice President of Sales. Rick had a solid thesis for the business, and it was something I hadn’t heard or seen before. I had walked so many trade show floors in Health IT, and it felt like all companies were just a different flavor of the same thing at the time. I wanted something different, and Rick had a strong vision along with private equity backing to execute against the thesis.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know at the time about private equity. It was a rollercoaster ride, indeed. I had worked for private and public companies, but I had not worked for a private equity owned one. Excellent learning and huge upside potential if you work your butt off. There are pros and cons but now I know more so I’m better prepared.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience leading sales teams? How many years of experience do you have, and what size teams?
Leading a sales team is exhilarating and terrifying. I’m grateful my leaders had enough grace along the way to let me figure out how to do it well. The fact that I am here is a little luck, a little skill, a lot of brute force, and a lot of ignorance early on.
I know it’s cliché, at least when you are in the sales world, that a great sales professional does not necessarily make a great sales leader. While very true, I think there is an unfortunate and preventable failure rate when people make this move. I haven’t found a number published that asserts what the percentage is but I’d have to think it is high.
Personally, I think a major contributor to the failure rate is leadership. Sales leaders don’t engage or coach their new sales leaders to enable their success. It’s more of “Hey, congratulations, call me if you need anything.” I know this because I did it and I apologized to that person numerous times for my neglect, once I learned that my own leadership was the biggest issue. Now, I see the issue everywhere I go.
I have been leading sales teams for 15 years in the Health IT/Tech industry. My teams have been regional, national, specialty and global. I have led a sales team as small in size as two to as large as 175. The latter includes outside sales, inside sales, channel, sales engineering, solution management, and customer success.
The type of sales has been anywhere from transactional to enterprise, but primarily enterprise. All opportunities have a degree of difficulty but enterprise sales are the most complex. Ironically, I’ve found that transactional deals are complex too, but the complexity is more internal with having to navigate within the strategy of a larger enterprise deal.
All to say, you don’t survive in software sales without a team—your own team or that of your peers who make up the account team. Communication, collaboration, conflict management, compassion, confidence and all the other attributes that mark a modern emotionally intelligent leader are ingredients to success.
What do you think makes a sales team great? What strengths or characteristics do you try to cultivate?
High engagement. Period. High engagement makes a sales team great. If you have that, you’ve checked the box on so many other necessary elements.
A high-achieving sales team is actively engaged. But getting there, and then sustaining it, takes work. Studies show that you get 25% effort out of your people by the salary you pay them, it’s the leader’s job to harvest the other 75%.
A sales team needs three fundamental things to be engaged: 1) Clarity 2) Simplicity 3) Certainty. You have to keep all those balls in the air. It’s hard to build and sustain, thus the importance of a strong sales leader. “Certainty” is the murkiest of the three. How do you create a sense of certainty in your people, so they want to do their best work? It takes more than a competitive salary and comp plan. This is where recent research around impact recognition, and taking pages from the playbooks of renowned sports coaches and leaders comes into play.
A highly engaged sales team infers the people on the team are the right fit for the role as well. This speaks to the second part of your question, and I’ll answer it from a hiring lens. Why? Because many of these strengths or characteristics cannot be, or are very hard to, teach. Therefore, it’s better to hire what you need.
When hiring you are looking for integrity, compassion, curiosity, confidence, a bias for action, discipline, a strategic mind, team mentality along with a growth and personal development mindset. They also know why they are successful and what made them successful.
Lastly, proof. And it’s this last part that creates a delusion for many hiring managers. When looking for proof, you’re not looking for the obvious measures on their resume. Yes, you want to see success via hard numbers and results but that is only part of their story. You want to find evidence that they embody the skills, attributes, and culture you need and have. It’s hard to discern this on a resume, so research and homework on your part is important.
Once you have your A-team in place, with these strengths and characteristics in mind, an intentional engagement strategy is for the sales leader to tap into their team’s motivation. The good news is there is an insanely simple, experience-validated, research-backed way to motivate their mindset. It’s a force multiplier. That’s impact recognition that I spoke about before.
As with any department, there can be a lot of different strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. How do you manage such diversity on an individual basis? Is there such a thing as a blanket motivator?
The truth is you can’t motivate anybody, you can only figure out what motivates them and then help them get it.
I have very simple ways to help sales leaders figure that out.
Every person will have different motivators because we are all different. But, the concepts used to tantalize the psychological triggers inside each person are similar.
That said, once you know what motivates them, then the answer is yes.
One of the best quotes that helps explain it is from Oprah, and she says, “People just want to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood.” She said this when discussing all the interviews she has done. Even the highest profile people, after doing an interview would ask, “Was that okay?”
The one fundamental motivator for all of us, regardless of diversity, is validation and recognition. And, no, there are no participation trophies, nor is it just an “attaboy” thing. There is a right way to act on this for maximum effect.
You must focus on accountability, too. Celebrating performance without holding people accountable to high performance keeps any goal out of reach.
Sales is ripe with stress and anxiety. The intentional pursuit of engagement, for a strong and engaged mindset, is not optional. It is a requirement for a high-achieving sales team.
So, yes, there is a blanket motivator. And when done well, it’s a power play and sales performance multiplier.
What strategies have you tried to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity? Has there been one most effective action?
I’ve tried many ways. I think many of them are still good ways to boost sales. But yes, there is one “most effective” action.
It wasn't until after I left corporate, and started studying areas where sales teams struggle the most, that I was able to give a name to the most effective practice. Recent research now supports the performance boost it gives.
For short, I call it Impact Recognition. It is all about 1:1 engagement with the individuals on your team. Two primary actions:
- Understand their personal motivators (not just surface and obvious stuff, the deeper ones) and leverage that as their fuel to outperform. Change your lens to what you want FOR them, not what you want FROM them.
- Proactively seek and find the impact they have made through their work and recognize them for it. Feels squishy but I assure you it is not.
Note: there is a delusion issue to point out here. When talking to those in sales, they will say they do not get much recognition from their leadership. When talking to sales leaders, they will say they recognize their people. All to say, this issue needs a voice.
Here’s an example I heard recently. At a dinner during a tropical achievement trip for salespeople who overachieved last year, one made a spectacle of himself by publicly voicing his distaste for how much the sales leader never recognizes him. Granted, drinks may have had something to do with it. But sometimes that is when the truth really comes out. It’s ironic too because he “made” the trip so optically, he was being recognized by being on the trip, right. Which further emphasizes the issue we are dealing with.
Those in sales need recognition, not just for the 3x performance gain, but for their certainty, their mental toughness, and resilience. The big once-a-year events are not enough. This is where the constancy of a practice like impact recognition is crucial.
Other ways I’ve attempted to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity include:
- A right-hand person to keep an ear to the team and report back and ensure their dynamic needs and wants were addressed by me personally or in a group forum.
- Happy hours
- Spin-the-Wheel to open our weekly team meeting. The name it lands on must tell the story of an active deal in their pipeline. It gives them a voice, they get group help and it cross-trains too.
- Values reminder during each Friday team meeting. Trusting Jack Welch here “Repeat until you want to gag on it.”
- Posters to clearly and loudly display values that are in support of their success and the business
- Achievement trips
- Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas on the last day of the quarter
- I made a mixtape once that consisted of the top favorite songs submitted by the team. I’d play it as people walked into the Friday team meetings. Quite eclectic, but fun and energizing.
- I gave each person on my team a famous Avatar and a personal note explaining why I felt they embodied their success characteristics. I printed the letter and had it in their hotel room when they arrived at a conference. A way to boost their confidence, portray my confidence in them, and to wish them good luck at the conference.
- I allowed for a lot of room for levity in my meetings. I’d keep us on track but let the team drive the atmosphere. There was always an agenda, but the meeting was theirs.
- Clear expectations. For example, less than 20% of your time should be on non-sales activities. If this rule is broken for any one individually, I expect them to come talk to me. To the extent it was a process issue, I would run with it to get it fixed. The goal was to be tough on process, not people.
Here is an example of engagement at a group level. We had just merged another sales team into mine. The organizational change created some ripples in the culture and head trash was getting in the way of performance. Most of the team was below expectations for the quarter. I rallied a blitz every week in September. Everyone got on a call and we ran through everyone’s top deal, they would give a brief but brilliant summary of the deal, next steps, and I would jump in and offer ways to help, as would others.
It was more about what I/we could do FOR each rep vs what I needed FROM them (as is with the typical weekly deal review). There is a big difference in the energy of the team when you think this way. I have never seen more motivation and performance out of a team in one month ever. We hit our number that quarter. I still remember one of the sales directors on my team saying, “That was amazing!”
Beyond all of this, the one thing that motivated the team above all else was 1:1 engagement and coaching, with emphasis on what I now call impact recognition as the x-factor.
In hindsight, it was the 1:1 conversations, getting to know my team personally, making a point to watch for the good they did and applauding their effort and impact in context of their wants, needs and desires. And, working from a lens of what I can do FOR them and not consistently expecting something FROM them. It's like freaking gold.
In fact, it reminds me of a quote by Zig Zigglar, who said: "You can have everything in life that you want if you just give enough other people what they want.”
I believe he said this in the context of selling a customer, but it is equally important when leading a sales team so that they do their best work for a customer, for themselves, and yes, for the business, too.
That lens shift will radically change the performance of a sales team for the better.
Note: I know there are people saying "Yeah but, Amie, that strategy of 1:1 engagement doesn't scale. My sales team is too big.” What I would say to them is: if you believe your right, then your right. To be frank that's an excuse. If you have a large sales team, it's just going to take you longer but it's still possible. And there are ways to scale this when you have many sales teams and a leader over each.
The good news is you have a partner to help execute but it doesn't relieve you of the responsibility. If you are the head honcho, then you are the alpha, and feedback is going to have a lot more power coming from you. So don't disengage and delegate this. "Look 'ma, no hands" is a bad approach and won't work with this. I never said this work is easy, but it is necessary if you want to be a strong, emotionally intelligent leader of a high-achieving sales team.
Can you tell us about a time that your sales team outperformed their targets? How high over did they go, and what was that like for everyone?
Yes. Maybe a bit of lay-up here, but worth the story because it shows how simple moves can create massive movement.
I had just started as Senior Vice President of Sales in June. There were six people on the sales team. All were in an outside sales role except for one inside sales support person. All five outside sales reps were responsible for prospecting, demos, negotiation, closing, and account nurture. There were 1,200 customers. Most sales came from expansion sales. No one had a defined quota. The big issue they had was keeping up with inbound requests. A bad problem to have, right?
Together, the team realized 40% year-over-year growth in just six months.
How did we do it? First, I took a couple weeks to acclimate, listen, and learn. Then, I put some rigor and accountability in place with a weekly team and 1:1 meetings to discuss key opportunities and bottlenecks preventing 100% sales attention.
Each person had different strengths. Two had the right outside sales DNA and the others did not. It was a matter of moving the deck chairs around a bit and shedding some customer success responsibilities. I moved two people to demo roles because they were awesome at that but really struggled to keep up with the volume of inbound requests from customers and often left them unaddressed. I also hired a new rep who was a sales thoroughbred.
Finally, I took a territory after another rep left, while architecting a new org structure, and defining the resource needs to improve coverage for the next year.
Success begets success. The energy and space that created to keep going and to allow for more change that enabled scale was palpable. Stay close to your people, really hear them, make change alongside them, and together, you’ll realize unreasonable growth and culture.
Great things often take time. What do you think is a realistic timeline to take a sales team from good to great?
A year to get to great if you account for the change management needs of the team.
It’s smart to not assume anything when stepping into a new role, especially a leadership role. Take one to three months, depending on size and scale of the team, to listen and learn. You can make immediate positive impact moves from the beginning (and you should) but I'd wait until after your "listen and learn" tour before making any big moves that create ripples. At that point, you should know your plan, be transparent with it, and start making changes.
And please don't forget change management. That's a whole separate topic. WAY too often change management is neglected and the result is "good to worse" versus the desired "good to great."
I define change management very simply as the human side of change. You must be prepared and have a plan. You should be just as prepared for this, as you would be for any actual change itself.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five strategies that will help turn a good sales team into a great one?
First, get to know your sales team. Sales teams are not merely an instrument to produce a number. This view sees every person as an object as opposed to thinking people with complex emotional lives. And the way we think and feel determines the way we act and behave, including how you engage your people (or lack thereof).
Just like you would get to know your customers to motivate them forward, you must get to know your sales team to motivate them forward. Once you do that, you have the intellectual gold needed to influence their performance and achievement of goals.
Note though, you must get to know the individuals on your team on a deeper level versus just on the surface. It’s going to take some time but some easy tools and cadences, that do not add more to your plate, are possible.
Second, act on it. This is all about leverage and having an easy way to use the information in number one as a performance gain.
Here, the first step is to change your lens to what you want FOR your people individually versus what you need FROM them. We cannot command results—we never truly could with long-term success—and we definitely cannot in the modern age.
To make an impact, build cadences into your weekly team, 1:1s, and customer meetings. It doesn’t take more than that. The trick is anchoring any performance or goal conversation to their goals.
For example, in a chat with a woman in sales, I learned that she wants to be successful in sales because she wants to write her own story, pay off her house, and get her kids through college. She was very clear about this. Taking her goals and applying them to new comp plans that were being rolled out makes an impact. At 100%, she could make $200,000.
The conversation might go like this: “If you get to 100% this year, you make $200k, and if you overachieve you are at $250k+. Which would give you an excellent opportunity to front-load that college savings plan for your kids, compounding on more money over time, a higher balance when they head out, and you stop contributing to it sooner. Or you could pay down that mortgage I know you hate! Oh, and I went through your pipeline this year. You have some high-profile accounts there. If you help them solve their challenges, you will be endeared by some influential leaders, which is a network you can leverage for the rest of your career and absolutely help you write your own story.”
For steps three and four, operate with certainty, clarity, and simplicity.
What people want more than anything else is: clarity, simplicity, and certainty. They want to know exactly what to do, by when, what is expected of them, how to achieve it and how they know they will have won. This is why goals are important because it gives you those mile-markers to create that clarity, to make it simple, and to provide certainty. We don't want active disengagement.
Be certain that the goals are not too lofty or too overwhelming. It has the opposite effect and creates paralyzing behavior, like a deer in headlights.
For example, if a sales team is not clear about what they should sell, to what audience, or to what kind of organization then there is no clarity. If they do not feel part of the team then they lack certainty. If their comp plan is overly complex, they lack simplicity. Not only will you lose motivation but you’ll gain culture clash. That’s not what we want.
Take on the fiduciary responsibility to be their protector, killing any confusion or uncertainty. It gains you trust and a team ready to run through walls to outperform.
Five, have fun with your team. I would tell my sales team “If you always ask for a formal meeting, you are always going to get a formal answer. And what we want is the real answer and everything in between the lines.”
The same goes with your sales team, if it’s all business all the time, you lose a sense of humanity that we all need. We are social creatures at the end of the day. Let loose sometimes.
I loved the virtual happy hours we had when we were all remote during COVID. They might be overdone at this point but it’s an opportunity to be creative in new ways. If you can get together, do it! No excuses.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Via my website, which is AmieTeske.com, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers can also find me on LinkedIn and Instagram by searching my name.
Soon, I’ll be launching my digital sales team engagement program for purchase. It will include access to me for guidance. Plus, I still work with companies on a curated basis as well, if the online program does not scale for them.
In early June, we’ll launch the podcast that shares the sales journey and stories of The Echelon, otherwise known as the sales elite by Healthcare IT client proclamation, for all to benefit.
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