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Sales Management: What Should Happen Behind Closed Doors?

Furniture World Magazine


One-On-One Sales Meetings

The one-on-one meeting between sales manager and salesperson is an indispensable component of the sales management process. Last month's article looked at the one-on-one meeting as a venue to provide performance feedback to salespeople. This month we will delve deeper into the these meetings to give you some additional insight into what should happen behind closed doors.

The one-on-one meeting is a terrific communications tool that lets you talk with a sales person, giving him or her detailed feedback about performance, attitude, and other behaviors. Plus, it lets the salesperson give you advice about what is working and what isn't. You may be thinking, "I hold sales meetings on a regular basis, why should I take the time to hold individual meetings with sales people? After all, neither of us is selling furniture while we're in a meeting."

The worst way to communicate with individuals is to group everyone together and to try to talk with them all at once. It is more effective to break your staff into smaller groups of individuals with similar problems. The most effective way to communicate with salespeople, however, is to work with them one-on-one. Individual meetings give a sales manager the opportunity to address each and every issue a particular salesperson may wish or need to address.

A second reason to meet one-on-one is to train your sales people. On-going training is the only way to ensure consistent performance improvement. The one-on-one meeting is an ideal setting for on-going training, follow-up, and reinforcement because it takes place every month with every salesperson. During the one-on-one meeting you can focus on the individual's training needs . . . based on your careful observation of that salesperson on the floor. Training in groups is valuable, but it does not substitute for the impact that you can get by coaching salespeople individually.

Next, sales managers should take advantage of the one-on-one meeting to build relationships with individual salespeople. We should be asking the salesperson three questions in these meetings:

  • What are your concerns?
  • What are the roadblocks preventing you from reaching your goals?
  • What can I do to help you? In other words, how can I be a better manager?

Sales managers have a great opportunity to learn about problems on the sales floor when they ask about the concerns of individual staff members. This simple question can yield a great deal of information about current conflicts, potential conflicts, or other issues that may eventually hurt staff morale. If a manager learns about these problems before they happen or early in their life cycle, he or she can prevent them from exploding into more serious issues. This is also when we find out about people who intend to leave and other important information that can impact sales. If sales managers do not take the time and effort to build relationships with their people, they are effectively cutting off a major source of intelligence.

In stores that do not schedule regular one-on-one meetings, salespeople often avoid discussing problems with their manager. This happens because the staff believes that something is wrong when they see a peer in the sales manager's office with the door closed. They also generally suspect that they are being betrayed by their peer. On the other hand, if closed door one-on-one meetings occur monthly and every salesperson meets with the sales manager for 40 minutes or more, any information staff members provide becomes anonymous. This opens up the channels of communication because salespeople know that they can speak candidly without fear of reprisal from their peers.

This question communicates that a sales manager has the salesperson's best interest in mind in everything that he does. It also sends the message that the he cares about his people, and that he is there to help them achieve their goals. Going into the meeting the manager should already have some idea of the roadblocks based on his or her observations on the floor and individual performance numbers. However, salespeople may be dealing with other issues that are holding them back as well. These could range from personal issues, to conflicts with other staff members, to any number of other things. Often the only way to find out about these roadblocks is by asking.

Do not fall into the trap of asking the salesperson to cure his or her own problems without your help. I call this the 'What could you do better?' syndrome. If the salesperson had a clear vision of what she could do better, she would probably be doing it! Instead, make the one-on-one meeting a collaborative discussion of what roadblocks the salesperson needs to overcome to reach her goals. Your advice should be based on carefully observing the salesperson as she sells. Is she using a social greeting? Does she handle a just looking customer effectively? Does her sketch book show that she is making sketches? When a salesperson is not achieving her goals, she needs detailed coaching, not generalities.

The third question asks salespeople to explain what a manager could do to improve his effectiveness as a sales manager. Sales managers often learn more about how to manage their people by asking this simple question than they can learn from years of experience. All we have to do is ask and then listen with our ears, rather than our mouths. Typically a sales manager's first response is to be defensive and quickly explain why the sales person's advice is wrong or does not apply. That is listening with one's mouth! Instead, ask questions like "Do you mean that I embarrass you when I give you advice in front of a customer? How would you like me to give you advice?"

One-on-one meetings should always end with a performance agreement. Performance agreements document what the sales person will do to reach goals or make improvements and how to measure these actions. All salespeople should be working over and above their day-to-day jobs by additionally focusing on improving some aspect of their performance. A typical agreement will have the following components:

1. Goal - The goal should be clearly defined, easily measured, and achievable. Use words that you and the salesperson clearly understand. For example 'raise your average sale to $1,000' is clear and simple. 'Increase average sale by selling more items to each customer' is unclear and hard to measure.

2. Deadline - Deadlines can be used to motivate salespeople and ourselves to achieve goals. The time frame should be reasonable to allow for achievement of the goal, but it should also be challenging in order to motivate the individual. Work with the sales person to get consensus on the deadline. If a sales manager imposes the deadline unilaterally it is less likely to be motivational. Start by asking the salesperson, "What do you think is a reasonable time to achieve this goal." If their answer seems reasonable to you, use it. Otherwise, explain what you think is a reasonable deadline, using evidence and logic to support your view.

3. Measurement - It is critical to define exactly how performance and progress toward the goal will be measured so we know when the goal has been reached. Agreeing on the measurement ahead of time, makes it clear how success is defined. This sharpens the focus for the salesperson and sets the intent to follow-up on the goal.

4. What the salesperson will do - These are the actions the salesperson agrees to take in order to achieve his or her goal.

5. Support that will be needed - This is what the sales manager agrees to do to help the individual reach his or her goal. An example would be that the manager would agree to observe the salesperson selling for 30 minutes every day for a week and provide immediate feedback following the sale.

6. Follow-up date - A date when sales manager and salesperson agree to meet to review progress toward the goal. Setting goals with no follow-up date or establishing a pattern of failing to follow-up communicates a message that this is just an exercise. If it is important enough to work to achieve the goal, it is important enough to follow-up on the results.

7. Signatures - To make the performance agreements official both the sales manager and sales people are asked to sign at the bottom. While this may seem like an unnecessary formality, it emphasizes the contractual nature of what the sales manager and the salesperson have agreed to do. The manager owns responsibility for doing his or her part and the salesperson also owns responsibility. If we set the expectation that we sign performance agreements, then it will not become a problem getting signatures at uncomfortable times (for example: when the agreement is the result of a salesperson performing below minimum acceptable standards for sales performance or is having other problems that could lead to termination).

The performance agreement should be the focal point of the one-on-one meeting. During meetings previous agreements should be followed up on and new agreements should be made. This process should occur on an on-going basis so salespeople are constantly trying to improve some skill or behavior on the floor. If the process occurs properly, over time you should notice marked changes in the effectiveness of your sales staff.

One-on-one meetings provide sales managers and sales people with a valuable venue to learn from each other. Feedback, training, intelligence gathering, and relationship building must all occur in these monthly meetings. Once a store starts utilizing this one-on-one time as it should be used the results are unmistakable.

Name Joe Salesperson
Date: 6/22/96
My goal: Increase average sale to $1,000 by increasing the number items sold/ customer.
When I will reach my goal: First week in Aug.
How we will measure this: Normal weekly progress report.
My actions: Use better probing technique to find out additional customer needs. Slow down.
Support I need from management: Solve staffing problems at peak and slow periods.
Follow-up date: 6/27/96
Sales Person: Jan Manager's Signature
Sales Manager: Joe Salesperson's Signature

Ted Shepherd is the founder and CEO of Shepherd Management Group. The company specializes in changing the selling culture of furniture stores from merchandise-driven to customer-driven using an intensive hands-on process of consulting, training, and mentoring. For more information on the topics in this article contact tshepherd@furninfo.com.