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 Ian Hunter.
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?
The automotive business has always been a part of my life. Growing up my father held multiple positions throughout the industry, so I’ve always been comfortable around cars and discussing them. When looking back at my childhood I can remember frequent conversations about dealerships and often visiting stores, yet when I went to college, I wanted to become a doctor. I enjoyed learning about biology, anatomy and physiology but after seeing real blood for the first time, I thought sales was a much better option.
Once I realized the medical route wasn’t the one for me, I started working sales at Circuit City, a consumer electronics retail store, which allowed me to compound my interest in sales and being part of a team. It was then my father served as the general manager of an automotive group that was partnered with JM&A Group and I was able to learn about the company. I began shadowing a local field representative and applied to an accelerated training program which I started immediately upon graduation in 2007.
Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway?
Let’s just say I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel throughout the country with JM&A Group. Our organization represents partnerships in all 50 states, meaning our Field Team is also geographically placed nationally to help facilitate these relationships. Throughout my time at the company, whether through promotions or various opportunities, I have moved six times over the last 14 years.
The true lesson I have learned from these moves is that despite how big the world may seem; the sales world is small. Having a strong brand, integrity and a willingness to adapt may be critical but the ability to create relationships is paramount. I know from experience that these connections can kickstart your progress in a new location through referrals and it’s always great to have friendships in new locations. Having links throughout the country can provide sustainable success especially when your geographic proximity broadens.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!
As an organization, JM&A Group continues to be focused on building and improving upon our consultative skills. In an effort to do this, we have begun building out internal modules and bringing in external experts to help train and hone our consulting abilities.
As one could imagine, like most industries, the automotive space continues to evolve both technologically and with consumer interests or demands. Our value proposition has been and will always be to align with our partner's interests and continuing to increase our knowledge to accelerate our ability to meet evolving changes and demands. These trainings and modules are just one way for us to do just that.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
Naturally, there are many people or situations I could point to that helped boost me on my journey but one that stands out stems from early in my career. I was serving as a district manager running my first sales territory alongside my direct supervisor. As my region manager, they made an effort to consistently train and develop me while providing important experiences that took me out of my comfort zone. These encounters allowed me to stretch my wings and test my knowledge while always ensuring I had him as a safety net to fall back on if anything did not go as planned.
I specifically remember one meeting with a large client where I was the main presenter, taking the time to plan out the entire day and prepare the data. When the big day came, I thought the presentation went perfectly, until I received a question that threw me for a loop. In my hesitation, my leader came in to flawlessly provide an answer making it seem as if we’d rehearsed the transition. We finished with a bang!
That meeting, and my overall time with that manager made me a better leader as I moved throughout the company. Now, I let my team soar but if they ever faulter I’m always prepared to act as their safety net. I believe this is the best way to build their confidence and provide the team with an educational boost.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience leading sales teams? How many years of experience do you have, and what size teams?
Over the last 13 years I have served in roles spanning from a territorial sales associate to my current role, assistant vice president of Sales at JM&A Group. Early in my career individually managing territories, I quickly connected with business managers helping to coach and train our associates to obtain performance objectives in a way that was not only compliant with regulations but completely customer-centric. Since then, I have led teams, beginning with smaller groups of four, and now guiding a division of more than 40 corporate and field-commissioned associates throughout the organization.
What do you think makes a sales team great? What strengths or characteristics do you try to cultivate?
I believe it’s a combination of trust and synergy, coupled with the strong desire to continually improve that makes a team extraordinary. We build trust by getting to know one another beyond time in the office, which in turn helps to instill a feeling of family and creates trust within the group. This can only aid with its synergy and can help everyone utilize one another’s strengths to accomplish a greater goal. When one person wins, we all win.
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 one blanket motivator I subscribe to is the idea of a shared goal that has been designed and implemented through collaboration. It is through this idea, that leaders can have a better understanding of such a diverse group and by customizing how you lead and connect with each person, in my opinion, you are better able to see sustainable improvement. By getting to know each and every team member, you can understand their skill sets and have a greater idea of what positions to place them in so they can exemplify their strengths. I’ve found that this consistently translates to more motivated and confident associates and in turn produces higher-level results.
What strategies have you tried to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity? We want to hear it all; the stranger, the better!
While motivation in the automotive industry is often identified with financial encouragement, trust me there has certainly been plenty of events I’ve attended where people will point to success being manufactured through an incentive-style contests but personally, I have found that creating trust within the organization can create sustained engagement and productivity versus competitions which can create spikes in sales.
An example that comes to mind stems from a few years ago when I joined a new team in a brand-new territory. I got the group together and conducted an activity that centered around everyone's understanding of one another's personal values. At the time the associates probably didn’t understand the meaning behind the experience but in the end, they began to comprehend what was important to one another and as their leader, it showed me the best ways to intrinsically motivate individuals. After walking away with this shared understanding, serval associates who at the time were considered low performers now knew how to rebrand themselves as high potentials resulting in a record year of financial performance.
Of all the strategies you've tried, which did you find to be most effective? Did this have a direct correlation to sales?
I referenced it before, but I really think that having trust in your team is the best way to increase engagement and productivity. When associates have a strong sense of pride and are overall satisfied with the work they’re doing, it directly translates to their ability to deliver a greater value proposition with our partnerships.
This question makes me think back to my time spent in the Midwest, where we built a foundation based on trust throughout the entire team. With this strong foundation, the group was able to lead the organization in new account acquisitions while having record retention rates with our current partners. We were able to achieve these goals within our third year as a united 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?
2018 was truly an expectational year for my team—that year we led the company in new account acquisition sales, with multiple members of the team reaching more than 200% of their objective and ranked among other elite teams in partnership retention, but most importantly the team felt a strong sense of pride in the work they were doing. At the end of the year, we also achieved the coveted “Master’s Award”, which was given to the group with the highest sales achieved in one calendar year throughout the country.
There are many reasons that the team was able to come together and excel that year, but I believe the main reason for our enhanced performance was the vision we built together. With this inspiration in mind, we manufactured and refined a strategy that was able to align with the entire team.
Great things often take time. What do you think is a realistic timeline to take a sales team from good to great?
There is no set timeline when it comes to making a team go from good to great, it’s unique to each group. The key is to put them together and give them all of the tools not just for their individual success but the entire unit as well. You should be able to see what is working and what isn’t pretty quickly and be able to adjust your leadership strategy based on that.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five strategies that will help turn a good sales team into a great one?
1 . Creating a shared vision is the key to creating a united team. We’ve been able to form such strong groups that work to achieve their goals together by having associates be a part of the entire process. From collaborating on action plans to defining clear performance objectives and ultimately deciding on the objective itself, it becomes more achievable and not as intimidating.
2 . Having open communication is beneficial for every member, with continual bi-directional feedback, leaders are better able to stay attuned to what is going on with the team and help to make quick decisions, from necessary pivots to success celebrations.
3 . A main strategy we implement at JM&A Group is strength-based leadership. By allowing team members to make self-assessments, you are better able to understand their strengths—which is a critical element when helping associates turn from a good salesperson into a great one. It is the role of the leader to remove any obstacles that may lay in their way and find new ways to put individuals in a position to utilize their strengths to their advantage. This truly creates a win-win scenario for the entire team.
4 . Encourage your team to have intellectual curiosity. Taking a daily look at industry data, insights and general information can not only help lay the foundation for day-to-day conversations with partners but also help to identify industry trends that can be applied to long-term goal setting.
5 . Change is mandatory when it comes to evolving and succeeding, but it also causes disruption. The solution is to implement thoughtful conversions. As a leader, it is crucial to not apply too many transformations at once and to create a feedback loop when the update has been administered.
Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would that be?
I believe the key to success often stems from one's foundational education, which is why I’m passionate about ensuring there is adequate and balanced school funding. Every child should have the ability to learn and grow both mentally and physically in a thriving environment, which is a priority in my own life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?