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Instead of a 100% direct sales force, many companies elect to use sale reps to augment their sales effort. The thought is that the reps have relationships in place that will bring new customers to you. That's a great concept, but, after the initial bounce of the honeymoon, then what?
I have heard some say that you must treat your sales rep like a customer. While there may be some benefit to that, but, by following the same logic, we would also treat our direct sales people like customers. The reality, however, is that sales reps and direct sales employees are typically treated differently.
My thought is that reps are part of your sales team and should be aligned with your goals, values and present your products in a way that meets your standard. If a sales person worked directly for you, would you have set goals, key measures, a sales process and ongoing performance expectations? Perhaps your reps have their own processes, but they should be aligned with yours. If your only measure is the number of sales they bring in, that's one thing; however, if your expectation is higher, you must communicate this fact.
I was recently talking with a PCB fabricator sales manager who has a network of sales reps. She explained that she travels frequently to support the reps. When she arrives at the rep's location, she will typically go and spend a day or two with them making sales calls. As she got in the car with her East coast sales representative, the rep said, "I think today is going to be a good one." As it turned out, the rep had not set up one single meeting. Her plan was to drive around and knock on some doors.
The sales manager explained to me that she would never run her business like that. For example, when she travels, she makes sure to set up her meetings in advance. As she traveled that day with her rep, they did not have a single substantive meeting. She felt like her whole trip there was a waste of time. I asked her why she is not explaining to her rep how she wants the job done. She replied by saying that the sales rep has been established for many years, and she was not comfortable telling her how to run her business.
When you hire a sales rep, they work for you and they should follow your guidelines. For example, not having meetings set up prior to randomly knocking on doors is the wrong way to sell. Had the rep been a part of her customer's sales process, meetings would have been set up and likely would have produced the desired results. To what standard would you hold a direct sales person? You would undoubtedly measure your employee's performance and make adjustments as necessary.
If your reps only bring you leads and you wind up having to sell them, why have reps? The sales manager that I was talking with said that this is often the case, and she felt that the commission she pays is for closing the sale--not for generating a lead. Perhaps two commission levels are in order here: One basic level for a lead and a higher commission for managing the entire selling process.
All of this isn't to say reps are not beneficial; moreover, it's to say that if you expect reps to make the sale, you have to build a system that empowers and guides them. You have to convey your expectations as you would with a direct employee. You don't have to mandate--you can find agreement by asking the reps how many new substantive leads they will generates in a month. How many pre-arranged sales calls they will make in a month? How many sales can you expect in a month? Whatever is important to you and your sales effort should be found in this agreement.
Once you agree on key sales measures, you now have a common standard to assess your sales rep's performance. If the rep meets his or her commitment, that's great. If the rep keeps missing the agreed upon targets, find out what's going on. If the rep continually misses what was agreed to, it may be time to find a new rep.
This measured and measurable approach will make your relationship with your reps much better. Your focus will then be on supporting them, like team members, and not wondering whether or not the relationship is working.