Representor Summer 2024 - Cover Story


Win the hearts and minds of your sales team

Best practices for managing a sales force

By Cameron English, CPMR
With contributions from ERA Consultants Michael Calabria and Cesare Giammarco

Effective management of a sales force is crucial for any organization looking to drive revenue growth and achieve its business objectives. In this article, we will explore the best practices for managing a sales force, highlighting strategies that can help you optimize your sales team’s performance and drive business success.

Have you ever wondered how to get your sales force to be motivated and productive, to find those critical new business opportunities? I had the honor of interviewing two of the most well-known industry executive sales managers in this industry, Michael Calabria and Cesare Giammarco. Cesare Giammarco spent 35 years in the electronics components industry instituting, managing and integrating manufacturers’ reps globally into multiple organizations. Michael Calabria spent 45 years in this industry and was recognized for his incredible leadership in growing market share and brand recognition on behalf of the companies for which he worked. Both men now serve as consultants for the industry and for ERA. Each has earned a reputation for unprecedented success in deploying manufacturers’ representatives and a winning strategy on behalf of their organizations.

Culture trumps strategy

In these recent challenging times, one of my manufacturer’s managers approached me and asked: “How do we structure the commission plans, policies and procedures to build productivity with our sales representatives?” It made me think, “What makes the high performing salesperson tick? What gets their attention?” The results and answers I learned from Mike and Cesare may surprise you. Here are some basics about their view of managing a sales organization:

– Make your representatives a very real extension of your organization. Both Mike and Cesare reinforced the need to integrate and embed the rep network into the organization. Practically, this means elevated communications, intense connectivity and a high level of feedback. – Ask your representatives: What would be a meaningful incentive that would inspire your team? Mike deployed this technique during one of the most volatile supply chain eras in the electronics industry. His representatives came back with a proposal for high levels of commissions on new, strategic products.

– Show your representatives that they are a part of your organization, valued and included in policy making, compensation plans and aligning together in goals and objectives. If you do this, they will believe in your mission. Additionally, ask questions such as: “How do you want to be paid? How should we support you in new product roll-out initiatives?” Make this effort a process, not just a one-off conversation.

– Build a positive culture. The manufacturers’ representative business is a tough business; a positive culture of inclusivity will win your representatives’ hearts and minds. Mike stated that when a representative earned record commissions, he would make a call to management and congratulate them for their incredible success! This really hit home with me. (My own story: Recently a supplier paid a record amount in the month of February — a shipment worth over a quarter million dollars shipped to a single customer. Our sales manager and I were ecstatic. Then I got the call from the president of said supplier. His exact words: “I was forced to write a check for $87,000 — my CFO is not happy!” What a buzzkill. We went from feeling like this particular supplier was the most strategic, critical partner, to wondering if we were now on the chopping block because we were being paid “too much.” You may be wondering how we responded. Our answer was, “I would hope we both made a mutual profit!” But the damage was done and the culture of that partnership was poisoned.)

– Get buy-in and commitment from your sales team on the front end of NPI (new product initiatives) — how to reach the customers and distribution partners, and what the representative feels are effective go-to market strategies.

Some of the same strategies of working with a manufacturers’ representative firm also apply to direct or interdependent sales organizations. The concept is to act as if your representative is no different than any employees. Take the rep owner, manager, sales leader and treat them as an extension of your personal management team. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, made clear similar philosophical strategies in the way he prioritized his management team. He gathered them into an “inner circle” and made it clear to them that they were the strategic leaders of the organization and ingrained the priority of executing the priorities of the organization. Sound good? I would hope so — we would all do well to get the results that Jack Welch achieved at GE! The old saying, “Culture trumps strategy,” is a perfect exampleof what I believe Mike was sharing with me about his success.

This begs the questions: Are you treating your representative leadership as an extension of your team? Are you gathering them in as strategic leaders in your company? As an executive leader, do you connect to the rep leadership? Do you have a CFO that complains about the outflow of commission dollars? And, the milliondollar question: Does your organization view the representative partners strategically or as a necessary evil/expense?

If you are a supplier, you might be thinking, “Hold on. Is it not the representative’s job to connect with us as well?” And the answer would be yes, of course. I would add that in my experience, often times representatives are viewed as outliers, or necessary evils, in a structured organization.

The basic block-and-tackle for sales force management remains the same, for either a representative or a direct sales force. The common mistake made by sales leadership in deploying a representative is one of perspective. Do you view your representative as an outside, third-party entity and independent representative body? Can you move the perspective of your executive leadership to view your representatives as “interdependent” or as an extension of your priorities of sales and marketing?

Investing in your sales team

Cesare and I talked about the perspective of larger organizations and the struggle with a complex hierarchy. Of course, politics, personal ambition and differing views are a challenge for any organization. Cesare has a gift for persuading his management team to view the sales representative commission investment as strategic and critical to the growth of the organization. In Cesare’s view, if the sales function is viewed and prioritized equally to, let’s say, R&D, CRM systems or top talent recruitment, the funnel will prosper.

His observation is that management commitment to the representative model is key. When you see new managers come in and flip-flop back and forth between representative models and direct, or put in a hybrid structure, it sends a message of a lack of commitment. The often-held policy of commission rates going down as sales exceed certain benchmark levels — sometimes decreasing 10-20 percent — sends a very clear message that success and progress are not a corporate priority. Taking accounts “in-house” that have become very strong strategic accounts over time due to the contribution of the representative, kills all feeling of connection with a representative wanting to continue to invest their time, talent and resources in your company’s product development. Consider the fact that some electronic technology segments can see development times of 2-5 years. The FDA and military aerospace industry require certification and approvals for funding. In aviation, all aircraft and internal systems used on aircraft must be certified, taking a minimum of 3 to 5 years prior to production. Your representatives need a reason to invest and trust in their investment of that much “long tail” development work.

Cesare explained how critical it is to create a “macro message” — one that permeates the management team with a buy-in to support and embrace the representative model and to educate the organization of the role of the representative.

At this point, I realize you may be thinking how onesided this perspective is. This is a representative’s myopic perspective of how organizations should work. Here’s the key point, and the part I think was most surprising to me — the fact that both Cesare and Mike were in violent agreement that successful representative management was directly tied to integrating and including the representative organization in the very heart of the organization. The success they both experienced with building the presence of their companies’ position in the market was a direct result of this strategy.

Finally, here are a few more concepts that I gleaned from the conversation. These may resonate with you, and possibly help you provide your own organization with a framework to build upon.

Set clear goals and objectives. Establishing clear goals and objectives is the foundation of effective sales force management. Communicate these goals to your sales team, providing them with a clear understanding of what is expected of them.

Hire the right talent. Look for individuals who possess the necessary skills, knowledge and traits to excel in their roles. Consider factors such as sales experience, product knowledge, communication skills and adaptability when making hiring decisions.

Provide ongoing training and development. Invest in your sales team’s ongoing training and development to ensure they have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed. Provide regular coaching, feedback and mentoring to help them improve their performance. Consider offering training programs, workshops or conferences to enhance their skills and knowledge.

Foster a positive sales culture. Create a positive sales culture that encourages collaboration, innovation and continuous improvement. Recognize and reward outstanding performance, provide opportunities for growth and advancement, and encourage open communication and feedback. Use data-driven insights.

Use data-driven insights to monitor and analyze your sales team’s performance. Track key metrics such as sales volume, conversion rates, customer satisfaction and employee engagement to identify areas for improvement. Use data to make informed decisions about training, coaching and resource allocation.

Empower sales teams. Empower your sales teams to make decisions and take ownership of their work. Provide them with the necessary resources, autonomy and authority to make deals happen. Encourage them to take calculated risks and think creatively to solve problems.

Leverage technology. Leverage technology to streamline sales processes, improve efficiency and enhance customer engagement. Consider using CRM software, sales automation tools and other technologies to help your sales team stay organized and focused. Recognize and reward outstanding performance.

Recognize and reward outstanding performance to motivate your sales team to achieve their goals. Consider offering incentives such as bonuses, commissions or recognition programs to reward top performers. Monitor progress and adjust. Monitor your sales team’s progress regularly and make adjustments as needed. Identify areas for improvement and implement changes to optimize performance.

Lead by example. Lead by example by setting a positive tone at the top of the organization. Demonstrate your commitment to the sales team’s success by being accessible, approachable and transparent.

Final thoughts

Are there any concepts above that do not apply to a representative firm versus a direct sales force? I would argue that the nature of sales is universal and what works, simply works. Mike, Cesare and I all agree on these final thoughts and best practices to consider.

– Keep your sales representatives integrated, communicating and connected to the organization. Develop a strong customer relationship strategy. Conduct regular feedback sessions. – Encourage collaboration between sales teams.

– Incentives work. Ask your representatives what motivates and works to get their team focused. Celebrate milestones and achievements. – Sales and marketing must be a priority in your organization; if not, no strategy will work.

– Culture matters. Customer-facing and responsive support, and clear and accurate information flow to the sales team will differentiate you from 80 percent of your competition.

– Structure your commissions so that they pay out, to the point of ludicrous profit, to your representatives. I know this may be a point of contention for the CFO, but this one thing will gain the attention of your sales team and establish your long-term market share and presence in your technology, perhaps more than any other aspect of strategy and execution.

A well-managed sales team can not only meet but exceed sales targets, build strong customer relationships and provide a competitive edge in the market for your company.

About the author

Cameron English, CPMR, is president of English Technical Sales and Senior Vice President of Industry on the ERA Executive Committee. Mike Calabria and Cesare Giammarco possess more than 80 years combined of sales management experience in the electronics components industry and are now consultants for ERA.