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 Patrick Kagan.
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?
I came from very humble beginnings, and learned early on that I had a knack for listening actively to people, understanding their situation very empathetically, and was able to translate back to those people the solution to their unmet need.
Being from a humble background, the most valuable lesson I learned was that the better I was at sales, the more “recession proof” the profession was, and no matter the economic climate, or the background I came from…. if better than most at the profession of sales, I could “write myself a raise” each and every day!
Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway?
As the sales leader for a multi-billion dollar North American organization, I would conduct monthly meetings on sales expectations with the members of my team. On one such occasion, a member of my team had continued for the third consecutive month to not do what he had committed to do each month prior to that. The task to get done was not a major task, and he could read the disappointment on my face when he told me he still had not done it. When he began to explain why, I held up my hands in the shape of a “time out”, and he stopped… and slowly began to cry. He said he was crying because he didn’t like to let me down. I handed him some tissues, and had him leave my office for a few minutes to pull himself together. When he returned, I began the conversation of letting him know that the reasons why the task was not done were not important. The fact that the task he chose as a priority was left undone for so long was really the issue.
What I told him next was the most valuable lesson, and one I encountered quite often in my career. I knew that my mantra was “Clear communication is kind communication,” so as clearly and kindly as I could, I told him “The more you tell me why you didn’t do what you said you would, the less the results of that change.” I continued that we were now faced with two choices, “I can either lower my expectations of you, or you can raise your performance level for me.”
This truth of expectations and performance is the driving principle behind Differentiation with clients, co-workers, and shareholders. It's a lesson that I take with me everywhere.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!
My latest project is my newest publication to go into circulation. The book is called “Sell The Difference – The Ultimate Guide To Increased Sales, Profits, and Customer Satisfaction.” The book is already helping sales people to earn more, and build their client base from a position of service.
I have heard from professionals outside the sales arena that say the tenets of the book have helped them tremendously. A lawyer who now practices more active listening to get her client better outcomes in court, a nurse who has learned the art of active listening to better serve her clients, and a consultant who now approaches her clients with the power to identify an “ideal” client, and to provide an “ideal” consultant for them.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
When I was in the infantry, I had a platoon leader who taught me, during battle situations, the magic behind the phrase “ Go With The Flow.” What was being taught is that no matter how much you plan, things can, and many times do, go the opposite of how you plan—but that does not change the mission. It was a valuable lesson on the value of strategizing, and the flexibility needed in tactical actions to reach the outcome you desire to achieve… tactics can change, but strategies, when sound, remain constant.
Can you tell us about your experience leading sales teams? How many years of experience do you have, and what size teams have you led?
I have been in the sales profession for 36 years and have spent over 30 in the role of sales leader (i.e., sales manager, regional manager, director of sales, Vice President of Sales, and finally President). I have had as few as five on my team, to as many as 100 on my many teams.
What do you think makes a sales team great? What strengths or characteristics do you try to cultivate?
Many factors go into making a team great, but I think there are 3 that are critical.
1. Understand what an ideal customer looks and behaves like and spend your time with them. Too often, salespeople waste their most precious asset, time, with clients that are not ideal candidates to do business with.
2. Understand what an ideal salesperson looks and behaves like, as described by the ideal customer, and identify where the gaps are in your own approach, and then develop a strategy to become more ideal.
3. Be able to demonstrate Differentiation with everything you do from first meetings through solution delivery. Differentiation is what helps salespeople earn more, sell more, and ultimately, what keeps customers not only coming back for more, but sending more ideal customers to the salesperson in the form of referrals.
I try to cultivate a team built on the strengths of our differences. We need teams that see things differently, and therefore, solve things differently. As a leader, the best skills you can master are learning to identify, hire, motivate, and retain top talent, and when you do that, you will cultivate a lifetime of sales champions that are loyal to you.
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?
Motivation is an individual trait, attempting to “blanket motivate” a group is like trying to paint a rainbow with one color. Keep in mind that motivation is only half of the equation. The other half is momentum. Motivation is what makes a salesperson stand up with excitement, and momentum is what drives them to take the first step, and keep taking steps thereafter. Having a deep understanding of the salesperson, and what their unique motivators are will make creating unique momentum for them much easier.
The sales leader needs to dig into the multi-faceted aspects of salespeople rather than the narrow thought of “we have hunters and farmers on our team.” To work with someone individually and bring the best out in them as an individual, they need to understand their importance to the big picture and that the manager has a sincere appreciation for their talents, and they need to experience a two-way flow of trust with their leadership.
The best way to motivate a sales team, as a sales leader, is to lead with your actions, to inspect what you expect, to communicate with a “clear is kind” approach, and to involve the team members in the plan, as opposed to just the process of the outcome. Finally, it's also important to command their respect, and not demand their respect.
What strategies have you tried to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity? We want to hear it all; the stranger, the better!
One specific strategy was to pull people from several departments to “fix” a sales issue. I formed this “new department”, with the marching orders to “leave your previous departmental roles at the door.”
I posed the sales issue to the group and told them they had to lean on their previous experience to come up with several solutions to the issue, and then they had to implement those solutions. I then told them to give me updates every month, and set up “help meetings” with whatever resources they were aware of in the company to help remove obstacles and make their “dreams a reality." Then, I got out of their way.
This “new department” had some bumps along the way at first, but learned each other’s skills, and strengths, rather than their titles from previous roles, and eventually the outcome they generated was a brand-new solutions offering to clients based on needs we had not seen before. They reduced costs by over 30%, and drove seven-figure revenue in less than a year. The parent organization then rolled this strategy to strategic teams out across the parent company and sister companies.
Of all the strategies you've tried, which did you find to be most effective? How did this have a direct correlation to sales?
The strategy I just described was the most effective because it focused on fixing a client situation, and did not focus on whose traditional role it had been. Had we enlisted people based on titles and departments, we would have missed opportunities that people with differing opinions come up with. We would have missed the lesson that only when we are uncomfortable do we become creative.
The net effect was seven-figure sales revenue, with healthy bottom line profits, and a more robust group of problem solvers. It made our entire team aware that sales is everyone’s responsibility, not just front line sales people, it lowered the defenses between departments, and virtually eliminated the animosity that can build between front line sales and other departments. It made us put client needs first, and assigned whomever was best at accomplishing that to the situation. When everyone sees sales and clients as part of their job, great salespeople are born, and organizations thrive.
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?
Early in my sales leadership, the company had a contest where the salespeople and their significant others could win a prize: an all-expenses paid, 7-day cruise to the Bahamas.
The goal was to finish the 4th quarter at double what the previous 4th quarter sales had been, so for my team, that was about an additional $5 Million or a total of $10 Million in sales. Each region in the company had the challenge to double their 4th quarter sales, and each could win. My region was the only region to win that contest out of 50 regions in the United States. It was extremely exciting for everyone. The contest was named “Sales for Success" and a lot had gone into it—a lot of investing into the emotional bank accounts of each individual person on my team for quite some time.
I believe a contest isn't won during the contest, but long beforehand, in the day-to-day trenches of sales and when the leader is building trust and commanding respect. So when this contest came our way, we had a team assembled with differing strengths and abilities. We teamed based on those differences, and again, I trusted my team, so I got out of their way. I removed obstacles, but I let them decide how to tackle the objective, how to track results, how often to meet, etc. If it was important to them, they would do it, and nothing I could do or say would change that so the momentum had to be theirs.
I did, however, make a personal visit to each salesperson’s significant other, and brought them an “advance gift” to help them get ready for the cruise that was coming their way. Another valuable lesson—if the one you love at home is enthused, supportive, and also trusts the leader, then the momentum stays alive when the workday is done. The final days were intense, the countdown was visible to all, and the salespeople held each other accountable for the results. When all was said and done, we were over the goal by about 10%. We had a huge celebration party for our team, and then enjoyed celebrating each other on the cruise in the Bahamas.
Great things often take time. What do you think is a realistic timeline to take a sales team from good to great?
I think it takes time, patience and vision. Many leaders don’t take the time to define “What does a great sales team look like?” “What does a great sales team perform like?” and “What is great?”
If you, as the leader, can define the result, then you can get there. I think it can happen within a year’s period, but I would caution that the process is bound to fail if the definition in specific terms, is not laid out with great effort before the building begins.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five strategies that will help turn a good sales team into a great one?
- Build a profile of the characteristics you want in an ideal salesperson, and only hire those people.
- Clear Communication is Kind Communication – corrective communication happens in private, and praise happens in public. Both types are contagious.
- Inspect what you Expect, so that your leadership is not a “flavor of the month.”
- Develop a profile of what an “ideal” or “perfect” client looks like and develop a strategy to find and do business with them. From that ideal client, diligently work to understand what an “ideal” or “perfect” salesperson does, and become that to them.
- Practice the art of Differentiation, so that solutions and sales teams are distinguished from all competitors
Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would it be?
Simple—the movement I would inspire would be to work to create a system of valued differences. What I have benefited most from in my time is the power of differing opinions. When people who are like minded about the mission get together with other minded ways of accomplishing the mission—and those other minded ways are listened to with a deep need to understand—great things happen.
So if I could create a movement, it would truly be to patiently awaken the ability to see, feel, hear, and appreciate the differences we all have to work toward the same mission differently. It would be to perfect the ongoing challenge of differentiation.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit my website, PK Solutions Group, follow me on LinkedIn or listen my Podcast, Sales Hindsights with Patrick Kagan.