The problem with being the smartest person in the room.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to show people just how much you know. And how smart you are. Especially when the people who work for you don’t possess your level of knowledge or experience. When they have sales challenges and problems that need to be addressed, it’s easy to display your vast understanding of the topic and just give them the solution.
In fact, you might even believe that you are being extremely efficient by cutting short a discussion and providing quick answers to questions.
But, your primary responsibility as a sales manager is not to answer questions, solve problems or put out fires. Your job is to help the people you manage learn how to succeed at their jobs. You can’t do that if you feel compelled to be the answer man. When asked a question, don’t just jump in and say “Okay, this is what you should do…”
My first boss in sales, Ray, taught me this lesson very early in my career. “Don’t come to me with your problems. Talk to me about how you think you should solve those problems.”
In your coaching sessions, account reviews and sales meetings, you want to coach people to come to you with their solutions to the problems they’re facing. They shouldn’t ask, “I have this problem with the XYZ Corp deal. What do you think I should do?” Instead, your people should say, “I have this problem with XYZ Corp deal. I’ve thought about how to handle it. And, here’s what I think I should do.”
You have to be a bit like a therapist in this regard. Help your people identify the problem they need to solve, talk about potential solutions and outcomes and have the salesperson decide which would be the best course of action for them to take.
Here are four questions that a sales manager should ask to help his or her salespeople develop solutions to the sales challenges they encounter:
1. What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve?
This is an important starting point. It forces the sales rep to examine their assumptions about the situation that they face with the customer. Accurately defining the problem is where your input can be most valuable.
2. What action(s) do you think you should take?
Be prepared to ask additional questions that will help your salesperson work through the logic of their solution and explore whether there are gaps that need to be filled. Your role is not to judge whether their answer is correct.
3. What will happen if you do that?
It’s not enough for salespeople to know the action they should take. They need to think the problem through to its logical end. What will be the outcome(s) of the strategy that they propose?
4. What’s an alternative solution to that problem?
There’s always more than one way to solve a problem. Challenge the logic of the preferred solution by exploring other options.
After you’ve discussed these questions with your salesperson comes the hard part for you as a manager. Staying quiet. You may not agree with the solution the salesperson has come up with. But, you have to let the salesperson run with their solution, even if you think that they are wrong.
Learn to let go
I worked with one very successful CEO, Ken, who was very good at enabling his people to learn from their mistakes. I remember one meeting with his sales manager who was briefing Ken on the strategy he wanted to take on a particular deal. Ken and I believed that the sales manager and his team were heading in the wrong direction with that account. And, yet, Ken didn’t try to change the sales manager’s mind or tell him what to do.
I asked Ken how he could just let the sales manager go if he thought he was going to fail. He said, “First, it’s just one sale in this person’s career. He’ll recover if he loses. Either way, he’ll take something valuable away from this experience. If I told him what to do, he wouldn’t learn what signs to watch for and how to listen to and read the customer. Second, it’s his strategy. He’ll be much more committed, and accountable, to its outcome than if I forced him to do what I thought was best. And, third, who’s to say that my solution would be more successful? After all, maybe he knows something I don’t.”
If you’re a sales manager, your job is not to be a know-it-all. It’s to be a sales leader. A good sales leader inspires others to act. But, a strong sales leader inspires and prepares others to succeed.