Field Team Management: Burn the frills and get back to the basics

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The biggest complaint I hear from almost all the companies we meet in the course of our business is about the challenge of managing their field sales teams. These teams of TSEs, TSIs, SOs, ASMs etc. are a significant asset for most companies, and they are willing to do what it takes to make them work at their highest potential. Companies run fancy programs that involve foreign travel, CEO Clubs, parties and celebrations and what not – and still fret that their teams have a low performance. I’ve interacted with the managers and field teams of hundreds of companies, and my company Channelplay has the experience of managing thousands of field sales people who work for many global brands as well as small startups. Our conclusion through all this experience is that most organizations are missing the woods for the trees – they focus on initiatives that perhaps make for good photo-sharing and presentations, but ignore the fundamental building blocks of a good sales management process.
Most field sales jobs are simple. All you have to do is to show up, talk about your product, and ask for an order. That’s all it really boils down to. But surprisingly, it’s these three things that are not done well.
Most organizations do not do a good job at getting their teams to show up. Compared to the prospect of being out in the heat and grime of the field to achieve targets – staying at home and working through phone is attractive, even if the incentive won’t be earned. The first step is to take ‘not being in the market’ out of the question. Most companies depend on supervisory oversight and ad-hoc mechanisms to achieve this – but that doesn’t work well. It is awkward for people to ‘police’ their subordinates, and when caught, all sales people seem to have an encyclopedia of excuses. This is a problem best solved by Sales Force Automation systems. They’re impersonal and ubiquitous, and can assure 100% reliability and transparency when implemented well. With a good SFA solution, not only do we get a more disciplined workforce, but also their features like efficient beat planning, scientific order suggestions and easier reporting etc. which reduce the data overhead of sales teams, and make them more productive.
The second thing that most companies are doing poorly is not equipping sales executives with everything they need to know. Team members are hired on the field, and given a beat plan to work on day one. New products or new schemes and margin structures are launched – and all they get is an email. The only ‘selling skill’ that field sales executives need to have is the ability to effectively communicate the features and benefits of a product, and the financials around it. While the communication skills for selling are evaluated during recruitment – the knowledge required for selling can only be provided through an ongoing process that’s thorough, close-ended and measurable. Depending on the scope of the new content, classroom training or field training is required, but if that’s not financially feasible –an online course with in-built assessment for every new product or scheme is the bare minimum that companies must do to train their field teams.
The third step is to ask for an order, but that’s not a binary process. An employee’s motivation to deliver results has correlation to their success, and motivation is dependent on incentives and communication. Many companies only pay lip-service to the power of targets (and hence incentives). They create ad-hoc targets which are sometimes easily achieved, other times impossible to achieve – in both cases it’s a killer of motivation for putting in effort. They publish monthly targets when a significant part of the month is already gone, which not only leaves less time to do what’s needed to achieve the targets, but also sends a subtle message that this doesn’t really matter. They pay incentives with tardiness, thus destroying the correlation between performance and reward. Lastly, incentives are not just about monetary reward – there’s also a significant psychological reward linked to doing a good job. This psychological reward can be amplified by good communication. Instead of giving a target and then informing people after the end of the month whether or not they achieved the target – results would be better if they got a daily communication on how they’re doing on their target, and compared to their peers. When paying out incentives, it would reinforce the importance of targets to share a statement of how incentives were calculated.
There are of course many other things that can be done. Sure, that Thailand trip once a year will be a great motivator. But to have a high performing team every day and every month, companies must focus on managing discipline, training and incentives.

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