A Little Bit of Structure Goes a Long Way

If you are reading this article, it is likely that you are interested in learning more about developing a sales management rhythm and want to avoid the common pitfalls encountered by many managers before you. In this short article, we follow the progress of our newly promoted sales manager Nick, his efforts at improving his effectiveness as a sales manager, and the well-intended, but harmful assistance provided by his sales leader Anna. Read on and experience the real-life struggles Nick and Anna face and how too much of a good thing can further impeded sales manager effectiveness.

Now let’s return to our journey with Nick….

One morning while Nick was preparing for his weekly management meeting, it occurred to him that the scrubbing of the pipeline and the creation of the forecast were very predictable. Nick knew what his boss Anna expected of him and he did the things necessary to give her what she wanted. Nick’s preparation typically involved getting updates from each of his team members on Wednesday afternoon so that he could update the forecast and deliver it in his management meeting on Thursday afternoon. This happened week in and week out. Although the rest of Nick’s job seemed like utter chaos, this one aspect―the preparation of the weekly forecast―was like a well-oiled machine. Nick began to wonder if the tight structure he experienced with his boss could be recreated to some degree with his team.

This idea began to take root. Nick began to think about the kinds of activities and conversations he conducted with his team members. Were there elements of those interactions that were repeatable and predictable in nature, which could possibly benefit from a little more structure? Was there some benefit to creating a rhythm with his team members to discuss certain topics? Perhaps, Nick thought, this might calm some of the chaos and make him feel a bit more in control of his destiny; or at a minimum, in control of how he dealt with his team members. As Nick navigated each day, he began to think that more one-on-one time with each of his sellers would be beneficial. It might even lead to more coaching. Imagine that!

Nick was so enamored of this idea that he instituted formal one-on-ones with each member of his team every other week. At first, the team resisted. They were used to having a lot of freedom in their schedules and didn’t relish the idea of having to reserve dedicated time for conversations with Nick. They had a sneaking suspicion that Nick was moving in the direction of micro-management. Surely this was not a good thing. But they really didn’t have much choice. Nick shared his intent with them on their team call and announced that meeting invitations for the first month of one-on-ones would be forthcoming. Even the idea of being more proactive was making Nick feel calmer, more in control. Ah, perhaps this was a good idea after all.

In his management meeting the following week Nick shared his plan with his boss Anna and the rest of the sales management team. Anna was intrigued and asked lots of questions about what Nick hoped to accomplish with this change. She even learned that other managers were having regularly scheduled meetings with their sellers, although the meetings were not necessarily similar across the management team.

Anna’s Curiosity is Piqued

Anna was intrigued enough to explore this idea of structure more fully. She reached out to a friend from business school who was now an organizational consultant. She described her observations and what she was hoping to accomplish. The conversation helped Anna to scope (and get approval for) a small consulting project to uncover and codify her management team’s best practices.

Her managers were initially skeptical, and somewhat reluctant to work with the consultant. But Anna assured them that the outcome would make their jobs easier, not harder. In the end, they agreed to be poked and prodded short-term for the greater good of the team, albeit without much enthusiasm.

Over the next few months the consultant spent time with each of Anna’s sales managers learning about their management practices. What types of meetings were they having with their team members? Why? How often were they meeting? What did they discuss in these meetings? There were lots of details to discuss.

Day by day the consultant was getting a clearer understanding of the wide variety of ways Anna’s managers were managing their teams. These insights were both interesting and alarming. The interesting part was that each one had very specific practices they felt contributed to their overall effectiveness. The alarming part was that each approach was vastly different from all the others. This level of variability is rarely a good thing. Surely there must be some “best practices” that could be gleaned from all of this effort and then leveraged across the management team.

In order to determine the best way to assimilate all of the information, the consultant began to classify and analyze the practices of each manager. There were five sales managers reporting to Anna. Nick, Stephanie, and Dennis had similar roles, each managing roughly ten territory reps. Sean managed an inside sales team with 12 reps, and Marty managed a team of six major account managers. Although each team had some unique characteristics, surely there must be some common threads that could benefit all the teams.

The consultant began by analyzing Nick’s approach. Nick conducted bi-weekly one-on-ones to get updates from each of his sellers on the previous week’s activity and plans for the coming week. They reviewed recent sales calls and the status of key opportunities in the pipeline; and time permitting they discussed upcoming activities, including key sales calls.

Nick also regularly had short conversations with each rep in order to update the pipeline and prepare the forecast. These calls were typically no more than 10 or 15 minutes long. Finally, Nick hosted a monthly team meeting in which he provided product and strategy updates, dealt with administrative items, and collected data requested by marketing and other departments. Interestingly, Nick’s team had one of the highest close rates in the company.

Stephanie had monthly one-on-ones that were somewhat like Nick’s, though less frequent—a detail the consultant thought notable because Stephanie’s team was about the same size as Nick’s. That might be worth thinking about. Also like Nick, Stephanie had brief conversations with each rep during the week to prepare the forecast.

Unlike Nick, Stephanie conducted quarterly account reviews. In these reviews, the rep would provide an update on progress within each account (which had been updated in the CRM prior to the meeting), status of current opportunities, as well as challenges to progress. Strategies, action items, and associated action plans were captured for each account and added to the account plan within the CRM. This process was particularly attractive because it involved a high level of rep accountability. Stephanie’s team had larger average deal sizes than either Nick’s or Dennis’ team.

Dennis had weekly one-on-ones with each rep. These meetings lasted 30 minutes or so. They were primarily geared to scrubbing the pipeline in order to help produce the forecast. Deals that were late in the sales process were discussed, close dates adjusted, and next steps determined. Perhaps this focus on scrubbing the pipeline during the one-on-ones was a useful exercise because Dennis’ team had the highest forecast accuracy amongst the management team. Hmmm. Something else to ponder. Should all of the managers be scrubbing the pipeline during their one-on-ones? Should they hold them more frequently? This definitely warranted further consideration.

Like Nick, Dennis conducted monthly team meetings, and with a similar agenda. He also reviewed territory plans with each team member twice a year. His territory reps were required to submit a territory business plan, but it was common knowledge that once the plan was submitted in January it was promptly forgotten until the next “forced update” six months later. Dennis thought this “oversight” ensured that sellers were approaching their territories in accordance with the approved plans.

Sean conducted both a team meeting and individual meetings with each of his inside sales reps on a weekly basis. These one-on-ones were laser focused on deals closing within the next 15 days. His team’s deals were typically smaller than those of the other teams and the sales cycles were shorter. Sean’s meetings took about 30 minutes each and were a lot like the ones Dennis conducted: he and his reps would run down the list of active opportunities, gain updates on each one, and establish next steps. Short, sweet, and to the point. That was the way Sean operated. With a team of 12 reps, efficiency was top of mind for Sean.

Marty had a completely different approach. While he did conduct quarterly account reviews with each rep, he did not have regularly scheduled one-on-ones. The quarterly account reviews were typically a half-day per rep and involved an in-depth examination of each account. Like Stephanie, Marty expected his reps to update their account plans prior to their quarterly review. Marty also spent quite a bit of time in the field with each of his six reps and felt that one-on-ones would be redundant to what he was already doing. His perspective was that since he communicated with each of his reps every day, formalizing this communication would be a waste of time. He also didn’t want to appear to micro-manage a team of tenured reps. Marty’s common practice was to spend two days in the field each month with each of his reps. He felt this field time was critical. Although the account reviews were very important to the team’s success, Marty felt he had to see his reps in action, meeting with customers. In his opinion this was where the best coaching took place. Like the other managers, Marty conducted virtual monthly team meetings. Similar to the other managers, Marty used this time to provide updates to the team.

Anna’s Good Intentions

Wow, what a lot of information to consider. Anna was energized by the consultant’s early findings and committed to gaining some level of consistency in practices across the management team. Surely she could take the best practices the consultant gleaned from each manager and use those to develop a “best of breed” approach. She was increasingly confident that the consultant could iron out the details and create a “playbook” for all of the sales managers to follow. This would hopefully take the guesswork out of effective management. Oh, the possibilities!

Anna encouraged the consultant to plow into the task with increased vigor. Over the next several weeks, the consultant mapped out the playbook. When it was finished and presented to Anna, she sat back and marveled. All of the consultant’s discoveries, codifications and analysis were reflected in the masterpiece before her. Anna was excited. She couldn’t wait to share the findings at the next management meeting. Anna was confident that her managers would appreciate their new playbook.

From Nick, the consultant incorporated the idea of bi-weekly one-on-ones to discuss individual deals and sales calls. Reviewing recent activity and planning for upcoming activity was an appealing thought. This depth of discussion must certainly be a contributing factor to the high close rate enjoyed by Nick’s team. The estimated time needed for these one-on-ones was one hour each.

From Stephanie and Marty, the consultant explored the idea of quarterly account reviews. Certainly, all reps had at least a few substantial accounts and would benefit from a more in-depth approach to strategy and planning. The estimated time needed for account reviews was between two and four hours depending on the number of large accounts within a given rep’s assignment. The consultant felt strongly that the account plans for each of these accounts should be completed on the company template and reside in the CRM. Each account plan should be updated immediately after the account review and then monthly thereafter.

From Dennis, the consultant examined the idea of biannual territory reviews. The first would be used to develop the coming year’s territory business plan, using the company template. After six months, the second would be used to evaluate progress against the plan and adjust plans accordingly. The goal of these meetings would be to ensure that sellers were allocating their effort toward the highest potential accounts and prospects. The consultant also incorporated the idea of weekly pipeline updates to feed the forecast. Managers were required to submit a weekly forecast anyway, so why not formalize the process? The estimated time needed for weekly pipeline updates was approximately 20 minutes per rep. This would likely help the other managers achieve Dennis’ level of forecast accuracy.

Finally, the consultant formalized the team meeting frequency and format. It seemed prudent to continue with the monthly format used by most sales managers. The estimated time needed for effective team meetings was approximately an hour. These meetings would be used for company and product updates as well as general communication with the team. This would also be a good venue for addressing any issues that surfaced during one-on-ones that needed to be addressed with the entire team.

In addition to discussing team interactions, the consultant shared insights and suggestions for the management-only meetings. It seemed appropriate to continue with the weekly forecast scrubbing. In addition, the consultant recommended a quarterly operations meeting to assess the state of the business. In these quarterly meetings, managers would provide updates on team performance against key metrics, raise any concerns with their progress, and revisit their plans to reach the goal.

Anna felt good about the consultant’s playbook design. It was comprehensive and addressed all of the important types of coaching sellers needed. Yes, it was a bit prescriptive, but it had all the right stuff. She couldn’t imagine why any of her sales managers would object to the relevance and validity of the playbook components. The more she thought about it, the more confident she became that she cracked the code for her managers’ success.

The following week, with much fanfare, Anna introduced the new playbook. She boldly proclaimed it the recipe for success. She reminded the managers that it represented a compilation of their own best practices. Copies were distributed, and the team spent the next two hours examining each element of the playbook. Anna was mindful to credit each manager with their contributions to the whole. The playbook was truly a best of the best approach. It left no stone unturned. It mapped out in fine detail every important type of discussion managers should be having with their reps.

As the meeting progressed, fewer and fewer questions surfaced. The initial enthusiasm Anna sensed from the team seemed to wane. She was sure that the playbook was the right mix of structure based on what the consultant had learned. It seemed obvious to her that if the managers would conduct the meetings as outlined, with the suggested frequency, they would surely succeed. They would even provide more and better coaching as a result. This was truly a win-win for everyone, including the reps. Hadn’t the reps indicated they wanted more coaching? Hadn’t the managers struggled to provide that coaching? Here was the answer. In black and white. No ambiguity. Why the lack of enthusiasm?

Anna went around the table and asked each of her managers to comment on the playbook. She asked them to consider how they thought it would help them better manage and coach their teams. Each of the managers shared similar sentiments: It would provide structure; it would certainly result in more coaching; blah, blah, blah. They told Anna exactly what she wanted to hear and she believed them. Why shouldn’t she? After all, she had hired a highly skilled consultant who had taken all of their individual best practices and combined them into a winning formula. How could they NOT be relieved? Surely once they began to implement the playbook with their teams they would become quickly convinced of the effectiveness of this new approach. She was more committed than ever to help ensure their success and felt that the playbook was a huge step in the right direction. Anna concluded the meeting by having each manager sign the last page of their playbook as an indication of their commitment. She didn’t want lip service, she wanted action.

The Dust Settles

As the meeting adjourned and the managers began to disperse, Anna pulled Nick aside and asked him how he felt the meeting had gone. She was keenly interested in his perspective because of his desire to improve as a sales manager. She knew Nick had been struggling and hoped he viewed this latest initiative of hers as a move in the right direction. Nick agreed that her suggestions were valid and that the only way the plan would succeed was with the commitment of each and every sales manager. Here again, Anna was seeking validation of her approach. Nick was more than willing to provide it. Then he went into his office and closed the door.

As Nick reflected on the meeting and the playbook sitting on his desk, he felt a bit shell-shocked. The logical argument for the playbook was solid. It was built on the best practices that the sales managers were already employing. It was comprehensive, well-designed, and in his opinion, completely unrealistic. How could he possibly find time to do all of the things incorporated in the playbook in addition to everything he was already doing? He couldn’t find time to coach as it was. It was a struggle getting consistency around his bi-weekly one-on-ones. The thought of adding all of these additional meetings to his calendar was paralyzing. Nick desperately wanted to talk to the other managers and find out if they had similar concerns. On the other hand, he didn’t want to appear incapable. Maybe they thought this would really work. Who knows?

As you might have guessed, the other managers reacted just like Nick. They all made an honest effort to implement the playbook. And each of them failed miserably. They didn’t talk about it, and it wasn’t something that Anna inspected. She assumed everyone was executing according to plan. They were actively participating in all of the management meetings so Anna believed things were fine. Well, actually, she wasn’t really sure. The playbook became the elephant in the room; no one talked about it. The managers were going about their jobs the same way they had before the playbook, as was Anna.