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 Jo Alapatt.
Thank you for doing this with us! To start, can you share a bit of your 'backstory' and what brought you to this career path?
I received a bachelor’s degree in business/managerial economics from St. Thomas College, Thrissur in Thrissur, Kerala, India. After earning a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Madras in 1998, I had the opportunity to work with one of the newest segments of sales at the time – software. It was challenging working with CAD/CAM/CAE type analysis tools and I-DEAS (Integrated Design and Engineering Analysis Software) originally from SDRC and now owned by Siemens. Today, I am the regional sales lead for SmartBear for India and South Asia. I love technology sales as it brings a great opportunity to learn the most modern technology while interacting with various people.
Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway?
In my current role at SmartBear, I was working with a large system integrator as my client proposing a large initiative. I had a good rapport with their senior management which I had carried forward from my previous organization’s engagements. This helped us to get the right connections with the right stakeholders along with creating the value proposition for the right use cases. It took time, but we finally won the contract. It was the start of a great relationship with a large system integrator. Having a career in sales for 25 years, I have always believed that people buy from people. Relationships are important.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!
As a provider of software development and visibility tools, SmartBear is an important player in the software quality solutions domain. I am happy and excited to be part of this journey. In India, our goal is for the motto, “Think Software Automation Testing, Think SmartBear” to be top of mind in our space. In line with this, we are working on many aspects to increase our reach with large system integrators and key partnerships across the India-South Asia region.
SmartBear, which has given great support to the open source domain with solutions like Swagger, SoapUI, and Cucumber, has great flexibility to work on any software development lifecycle (SDLC) industry solutions. Currently, the industry needs more solutions for software developers that can integrate with other solutions in the market that developers use. We meet our customers where they are – no matter if they are trying to solve an individual problem or looking to solve organizational challenges or initiatives.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
Yes, I attribute this to my brother, Franco. He was then a startup entrepreneur. Early in my career, I found targeted-based sales intensive and difficult especially working with multinational corporations. Franco encouraged me to face the many challenges and take risks. If not now, when? He was inspirational to me, and I loved that our careers ran in parallel.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience leading sales teams? How many years of experience do you have, and what size teams?
I have 25 years of experience in sales, direct sales, sales support, and business planning for software products and services in the high tech industry. I have enjoyed working with many teams focused on various regions around the world, including APAC, EMEA, and the U.S. The teams I have worked with have varied in all sizes based on the territory and the number of accounts we have managed.
What do you think makes a sales team great? What strengths or characteristics do you try to cultivate?
In my experience, sales teams perform well if they have ownership of their goals, feel a sense of belonging to the larger team and company, and feel their inputs are valued. This all leads to their positive engagement. Sales team success starts from the hiring stage onward, so you must be thorough and thoughtful.
Get to know the team well through individual SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. The team should feel comfortable in sharing their ideas and inputs with you. Compensation is a critical part for a sales person, so be clear on what that is while assigning responsibilities and creating a highly healthy competitive atmosphere.
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 strength of dealing successfully with diversity is open and honest communication. In a diverse workplace, we should all feel free to be ourselves – while treating others with respect. We should be able to tell each other when something bothers us. It’s helpful to know and understand that each individual is unique and to recognize our individual differences.
What strategies have you tried to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity? We want to hear it all!
Ultimately, every individual should feel valued, respected, and relevant within the organization. The key aspects I have used are 1) Always use positive motivation. A person should feel psychological safety to deliver value and overachieve. 2) Recognize milestones and achievements. This goes a long way to team members feeling valued. 3) Be a role model for the team – someone they can look to and count on. 4) Improve team involvement by building trust and driving their ownership of responsibilities.
Of all the strategies you've tried, which did you find to be most effective? Did it have a direct correlation to sales?
The key differentiator I have found is getting the team’s involvement. Once we build the trust and make them own the goals and objectives, we see a set transition of results and determination. They will work as individual entrepreneurs with razor focus.
One of the key strategies that I have found to be effective for empowerment is team members always love constructive feedback. Gone are the days of negative input to scare employees. Constructive feedback they can use to improve is always best.
Also, give autonomy over assignments and provide resources and time. Today’s ideas and inputs should not just flow from manager to team members. With the advancement in technology, it is a two-way process. You should always recognize team members for achievements both large and small.
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?
There are many instances in which we outperformed our targets. Starting with a highly defined written plan, we have detailed out a proven sales process with measurable performance indicators. The customer is King, so we have to align our goals and objectives with key account plans. As they say in Rome, this is not built in a day.
First, put 125% (against your target) as your minimum threshold. Split the plan into quarters, months, weeks, and at times, even days. Create a discipline and urgency that is aligned.
Great things often take time. What do you think is a realistic timeline to take a sales team from good to great?
It depends. A great team is a mix of individuals with unique and complementary talents, skills, experience, and expertise. Different individuals will have varied interests – for some, it’s money or prestige and perhaps recognition. For others, it's about balancing time with their loved ones. For many, it will make a world of difference learning new things, solving complex problems, and building lasting friendships with clients. So, it is critical to determine what suits which team members and plan accordingly. The timeline could be shortened considerably with this strategy.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five strategies that will help turn a good sales team into a great one?
Here are my top five:
- Clear goals and metrics: To move a good sales team to a great one, it is mandatory to have clear and achievable goals and metrics. The goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound). There was an instance when I was managing a sales support team focused in the U.S. and EMEA. Initially, it was challenging to motivate the team as they were in a supportive role. We created a metric around each lead tied to revenue along with end client support clarifications. It was a game changer.
- Training and development: Training and development are crucial to improving the performance of a sales team. Providing opportunities with continuous learning and development can also help improve team morale and retention. Training and development are an ongoing process. The key focus should be given to improve the individual's level of awareness, individual's skill in one or more areas of expertise, and motivation to perform the job well.
- Develop a culture of collaboration: Focusing on collaboration among team members can help increase communication and motivation while bringing a sense of camaraderie. Sales teams who feel free to work together share ideas, best practices, and strategies. In my experience, collaboration is critical. If teams do not collaborate, this could bring about damaging results.
- Reward and recognize outstanding performance: Recognizing and rewarding outstanding performance can help motivate salespeople to perform at their best. This can also help improve morale and create a positive work environment. While working with several partners, we proposed giving quarterly-based awards and performance incentives for one quarter. We saw a huge upward shift in performance, which was critical for me achieving my regional yearly goal.
- Data and analytics drive decision making: Data and analytics can provide valuable insights into client behavior and sales trends along with other key performance indicators. This can help the sales team to work with informed decisions to develop effective strategies. For me, it’s proven true that seeing numbers in black and white is critical. While working with a set of clients from a certain domain, we realized the efforts we were putting in this sector was not yielding favorable results. We had done a study on the business our organization had done in this sector both regionally and globally. We also did a general business analysis from competitors in these sectors, which was quite eye opening.
Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the most people, what would that be?
Success is not luck. Many times, we do not see the hard work put in by an individual or a team. Life does not need to be complex. Be punctual, persistent, innovative, assertive. Keep things simple and stay humble. A movement that encompasses all these aspects could do wonders for our world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow and connect with me on LinkedIn.
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