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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 Jeffrey Brenner.

Jeffrey Brenner

Jeffrey’s career started in retail sales for Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Saks followed by Hartmann Luggage and Steuben Glass. Along the way, he developed a passion for merchandise incentives and their role in motivating individuals and teams. He is currently the Director of Special Markets and Military Sales for Seiko Watch of America LLC.

Thank you for doing this with us! To start, can you share a bit of your 'backstory' and what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama my family had retail stores focused on shoe repair, luggage, leather goods and gifts. My great-grandfather started the business in 1910; immigrating from Eastern Europe, coming thru Ellis Island where his four brothers remained in New York City and he moved to the South. Working alongside my grandfather, great-uncle and father for all of my childhood and early years drove my passion to work in the services industry. My joy comes from seeing others find their happiness when they are recognized with merchandise gifts in a thoughtful way that makes them feel appreciated. Some call me odd but we all have our passions.

I’ve carried this passion forward into my volunteer work with the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA), where I serve on the executive committee of the board. The IMA is a global association that brings together the top motivation, engagement and recognition experts and the providers of all types of incentives (merchandise, gift cards, travel) to improve performance. 

Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway?

When working as a manager for Macy’s “By Appointment Shopping and Gift Services” in Houston, Texas I had many opportunities to meet interesting people. One of my favorite interactions was with President George Bush, “Daddy Bush” after his term ended.

He and Mrs. Bush moved to Houston; thus, they became a part of the community. One afternoon I was called by security asking me to meet an important customer in Linens; which was a common occurrence. Upon my arrival, there was President Bush and his protective detail. I asked him if I could assist him with anything; he then proceeded to pull out of his suit coat pocket a torn copy of an ad we were running for down pillows; yes, the Past President of the free world was looking for down pillows.

I pulled them off the shelf for him and proceeded to check him out. He handed me his AMEX, which just like any other business card listed him as The President of the United States. I had to ask why he came in and did not have someone else do this errand for him—he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, no matter if you are the President, when your wife asks you to do something you do it." To close out the story, he returned the following day because we offered a down comforter as well.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!

We are constantly working on new initiatives; each is associated with driving employee engagement, recognition, and retention, which is a hot-button topic. Companies are prioritizing ways to let current and new employees know they are valued, and that their input is critical and valued. 

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?

Having had many mentors throughout my career, there is one who stands above all; she was a VP at Macy’s and just retired after almost 35 years. Her ongoing commitment to ensuring that I grew professionally; allowing me to make mistakes along the way continues to be a significant influence on me today.

One specific instance speaks volumes about the person she is, and it has never left me. In simple terms I did not handle something appropriately, understanding I was in my early 20s and every day was an adventure. She brought me into her office and explained in very stern, clear, concise terms what I did wrong and her expectations of how I needed to handle things going forward.

My immaturity allowed me to walk out of her office thinking how could she be so mean? About two hours later, she came to my office and asked did I want to go to lunch. I abruptly said No. She asked what was wrong and I proceeded to say I did not understand how she could correct me just a few hours earlier and then want to have lunch. She smiled and said, “that was work and a teaching moment, this is lunch.” It made sense.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience leading sales teams? How many years of experience do you have, and what size team?

Over my 30 years, I have worked with sales teams as small as three and as large as approximately 50. Each experience provided me the opportunity to work in partnership with individuals from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and socio-economic levels. Exposure to a diverse workforce is a vital experience that is important to a person’s ability to engage and motivate a team.

What do you think makes a sales team great? What strengths or characteristics do you try to cultivate?

  • Diversity is key to a successful sales team. There is much to learn from each other’s life experiences that can be woven into a team’s successes.
  • Cultivating an inclusive environment where everyone’s ideas are considered or at the very least heard. 
  • Working in partnership makes a strong leader. Always show that you are not above the work that is being asked; do the work with your team.

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?

Never a blanket motivator, though there can be a blanket expectation. Each team member brings to the group/organization different expertise. It takes conversations, getting to know the team, their past experiences and where each individual felt they thrived in a past position or company. I have always asked team members ‘what drives you?’, and ‘where do you feel the most comfortable?’

What strategies have you tried to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity? We want to hear it all; the stranger, the better!

Early in my career there was a focus on contests; they worked but these have transitioned to more focused analytical exercises.

Building small teams within the larger group and ensuring that each of these smaller teams has individuals with various levels of expertise and their own skill sets. You're basically creating a level playing field. Giving each team realistic goals and support.

Having other key selling associates, people they look up to who produce results, or someone from management take an interest in their department. A person can be motivated by having someone they respect show and care about their work. Simple example: having a manager from another department congratulate them on a great sale.

Making the goal-setting exercises fun and engaging.

Of all the strategies you've tried, which did you find to be most effective? Did this have a direct correlation to sales?

Focused smaller teams within the overall team to accomplish sales goals and initiatives utilizing the direction noted above that each smaller team is a combination of different personalities and expertise.

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?

We over-performed on a project by an additional $1M plus. It required the input and support of many people from a variety of areas within the company. It was a square peg/round hole initiative. The reason it went well and provided a customer reaction far beyond expectations was our teamwork. The positive result stemmed from the focus and enthusiasm from all areas that were involved in the project, from design, procurement, finance, packaging, shipping and more.

Great things often take time. What do you think is a realistic timeline to take a sales team from good to great? 

I think the question is how you take a group of “individuals” and expand on their passions, which ultimately produces a “strong team.”

Based on your experience and success, what are the five strategies that will help turn a good sales team into a great one?

1 . Respect – listen, be aware, and never assume.

2 . Motivate – through example.

3 . Engage – be accepting of new ideas.

4 . Create – a positive, open, objective environment. 

5 . ALLOW FAILURE – it strengthens one’s growth.

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?

If for one hour each day, we could put our devices down to allow for genuine human engagement and connection that is not driven by technology.

How can our readers further follow your work online? 

You can connect and follow me on LinkedIn.

By Phil Gray

Philip Gray is the COO of Black and White Zebra and Founding Editor of The RevOps Team. A business renaissance man with his hands in many departmental pies, he is an advocate of centralized data management, holistic planning, and process automation. It's this love for data and all things revenue operations landed him the role as resident big brain for The RevOps Team.

With 10+ years of experience in leadership and operations in industries that include biotechnology, healthcare, logistics, and SaaS, he applies a considerable broad scope of experience in business that lets him see the big picture. An unapologetic buzzword apologist, you can often find him double clicking, drilling down, and unpacking all the things.