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Great Sales Managers Don't Manage Salespeople!

Furniture World Magazine


I’ve spent the last two issues talking about salespeople and how under-led, under-motivated, under-trained, and under-paid they are. It’s time now to look at sales management in our industry to see how we might change things to make life better for salespeople, managers, owners, and customers.

In the August/September issue of FURNITURE WORLD (posted to the sales management article index on furninfo.com) we discussed the issue of sales training, and how sadly under-valued it is by owners in our industry. Ongoing training in how to deal with today’s customers is critical to long-term success for individual salespeople and for stores, but for the most part, furniture storeowners just don’t give a hoot. If more money were to be spent on training and less on advertising, long-term results would be dramatically improved. It bugs me that owners will spend tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising, most of which doesn’t work, or produces less-than-acceptable improvements in traffic (which no one can verify one way or the other, because most stores don’t even count traffic) only to turn these customers over to salespeople who successfully convert fewer than 20% of this traffic into buying customers.

Anyway, what should sales managers be managing? Sales managers shouldn’t be managing people. People need to manage themselves, and any adult working for you in a sales position who cannot manage himself or herself, should be working somewhere else. Hold this idea aside for a while. Salespeople are in the customer business. This is the business of helping customers achieve their goals for creating beautiful rooms and homes. Sales managers should be in the salesperson business, helping salespeople achieve sales volume and income goals. There are two modes of management that a sales manager can adopt:

  • She can come to work every day and manage the things that happen.
  • She can choose to make things happen.

In virtually all cases, the former mode is the modus operendi for sales managers in retail furniture stores. If we want to begin to improve overall store and individual performance, this scenario has to change. We have to allow our front-line sales managers to manage sales performance, not sales administration or service.

Sales managers should come to work every day for the sole purpose of doing something to improve performance in one of the three critical sales metrics:

•Close ratio
•Average sale

These three sales metrics were covered in detail in “Understanding Sales Performance Metrics” parts, 1,2 & 3 that began with the February/March 2004 issue of FURNITURE WORLD. These articles are posted to the sales management article indexes on furninfo.com.
Now, this is where strategic thinking comes in. Stores need to devise systems sales managers can follow to improve the three critical metrics. They need an orderly list of things to do that will effectively improve performance -- they need a selling system. Developing or finding, then implementing systems to achieve goals is a foundation issue for managers. It’s what managers are supposed to be doing. Good systems produce good outcomes. This is a gravity issue in all business, but the whole concept goes out the window in most retail furniture stores when it comes to sales. Store owners know that they must have systems for managing accounting, inventory and logistics, but have no such understanding when they think about the most important of all business areas – sales!

One reason for this lack of understanding is that most sales training doesn’t work. Neither sales trainers nor salespeople are responsible for these failures. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of owners. Without a guiding coalition at the top, no effective organizational change can occur. Owners, when buying sales training, must be the driving force behind changes any new system will cause. They have to talk-the-talk, and walk-the-walk for as long as it takes to make the new system part of the company’s culture. Almost all sales training fails because, in general, owners are removed from the process. They don’t demand, or expect that the information and techniques presented in training sessions will actually be used by the salespeople. Training is offered, by most stores, as a suggestion to the salespeople as to how things should be done, but there is little or no real expectation that those things must be done.

And, back to the main point of this article – systems are what sales managers should be managing -- not people. People need coaching, not managing. They need help, not manipulation, and this coaching must be measured against a documented system for selling in your store. If the critical sales metrics are traffic, close rate, and average sale, then that’s all your coaches should be paying attention to, and your selling strategy and system should be developed around doing the things that improve each one of those critical factors.

And, finally, here’s the one thing in our industry that bugs me the most: it’s that too many owners allow too many salespeople – usually top performers, but often just long-term mediocre performers – to dictate what gets done, and what doesn’t. They allow these salespeople to determine how they’ll serve customers, and to ignore any new methods brought to the store by outside trainers. Owners lament that, “I just can’t get my people to do it.” What a weak approach to business management!

For all the reasons given in the last two issues of FURNITURE WORLD (posted to the sales management article index on furninfo.com), furniture retailers find it difficult to attract new people to the profession of furniture sales. Owners and managers often accept any kind of behavior from their more productive and experienced salespeople. Never mind that performance is abysmally poor overall. Forget that close ratios are under 20%. Ignore the lack of a systemic follow-up system for non-buyers. Turn a blind eye to a range of performance in average sale of more than 50% from the best to the worst. Since new salespeople are so hard to find and to retain, existing staff is allowed to get away with almost any behavior without sanction.
Sales managers should be managing performance, through living in the day-to-day metrics. They should be implementing selling systems that deal with the needs of today’s consumers (not the consumers of 30 years ago), and they should be coaching – just like a sports coach – people’s on-the-floor actions and behaviors. Only by looking at performance metrics, and the behaviors of individual salespeople, will they help them to achieve their goals for sales volume and income.
When home furnishing stores have a management system in place that actually supports training, new ideas, methods and systems; plus sales managers who are in the business of getting salespeople to achieve their income goals; they then see that it’s far easier to attract new, quality people.

They find that they don’t have to seek experienced people (who are usually mediocre performers). Instead they are able to offer rewarding careers to people with no experience, but with great interpersonal skills, drive, and motivation to succeed. But they never achieve this if their sales manager is in the customer service business, or the price-tagging business, or the order processing business.