In business, it’s tempting to focus on product to the exclusion of everything else. Simply build a great product and the rest will fall into place. But the Field of Dreams mentality—“if you build it, they will come”—is just that: the stuff of dreams. Good businesses develop not just from great ideas, but also from the nurturing of interpersonal relationships inside and outside the company.
This means the focus has to be on creating strong, mutually beneficial relationships with your employees as well as with your customers.
The best way to achieve both is to build healthy, long-term relationships with your sales reps. If they feel valued within the company, their contentment and security will translate to the customer, who will in turn receive the benefit of happy, personable, motivated sales reps willing to go the extra mile for the customer—and for you.
Here are some tips on how to build a successful long-term relationship with a sales rep to ensure a profitable future for all concerned.
The Only Way To Do Great Work Is To Love What You Do - Steve Jobs
“Recruiting is hard,” said Steve Jobs. Yet as so often with Jobs, his solution to the recruiting problem was simple and concise: “[G]o after the cream of the cream… A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.”
An A+ sales rep is an expert in their field and can give a forthright, trustworthy opinion. They are upfront about costs and keen to give you the benefit of their extensive knowledge.
They’re more like a consultant helping you to build your business than a motormouth pressuring you into hurried decisions. Crucially, you respect them intellectually. This means you are far more likely to have a mutually rewarding relationship and see eye-to-eye—and you’ll be more confident in their ability to engage clients, too.
This process starts when you actually hire. The super touchy-feely 'great listener' rep isn't always the most effective - see below for more on that - but a capacity for active listening is vital for creating real dialogue, and sales happen in conversations, not broadcasts or monologues.
So feel reps out when you hire them. Look deeper than eye contact and a smile: 'We have an epidemic of fake listening,' warns author Nicky Morgan, in which the exterior signs are in place but 'it's not really happening.'
Sure, you can watch for body language cues - heads too still, fingers drumming or feet pointing toward the door - and if you like you can try making a body language change like crossing your legs or folding your arms and seeing if they mirror you.
But all those things can be gamed. What you should really look for is honest engagement and creative input. Look at what they say: does it feel informed by your half of the conversation? Or are they nodding, smiling and getting right back on script?
Remember, you're this person's first sale for your company. They have to sell you on them as a rep before they sell any of your products to anyone else. Do you want them as the public face of your brand? Do they bring what it takes to build an honest, yet goal-oriented relationship with you, and then with customers?
The next challenge is to maintain that relationship into the future. Such sales reps are difficult to find and as such, you want to hold onto them as long as you can. Building any long-term relationship—business or otherwise—requires care and compromise on both sides.
Good Sales Relationships Are A Two-Way Street
LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman said:
“No Matter How Brilliant Your Mind Or Strategy, If You’re Playing A Solo Game, You’ll Always Lose Out To A Team”
It’s tempting to think of the sales rep as being dependent on you, the employer: they are at your whim, they rely on you for their income, and you can find a new one anytime. But if you’ve found a good rep, such a hierarchical attitude can be counterproductive.
Try to think of the relationship less in terms of employer and employee and more as an equal, mutually beneficial partnership. A good sales rep can use their marketing nous and business savvy to provide you with invaluable tips, and their experience in dealing with other clients in your field can help you see the bigger picture and stop you from developing tunnel vision.
Just like your reps need to actually listen, not just tick off the list of behaviors that make it look like they’re listening, so you need to really listen to your reps. That might mean structural or procedural changes at the company come as a result of things your reps have said to you in meetings or conversations.
‘Consider Germany’s BMW,’ says author Andrew M Jones, ‘which expects employees at all levels of the company to generate new ideas.’ Sales reps know sales in a deep, granular way that you just can’t know unless you’re making those calls all day; if they say something will shave time off or add value, consider it - very seriously.
Respect tends to flow both ways and you will have a more loyal, more determined sales rep at your disposal as a result of this approach.
Keep Listening To Each Other
Malcolm Forbes, the American entrepreneur and founder of Forbes magazine, said:
"The Art Of Conversation Lies In Listening"
Not paying attention is one of the biggest insults you can give anyone, professionally or personally, and ignorance on either side will lead to a breakdown in your business relationship.
If your sales rep has provided you with sound advice early on and your business has grown because of it, remember that and give them credit for it rather than suddenly deciding that you’re the new Rockefeller and you can get by fine on your own, thank you very much.
Humility is required—acknowledge the part the sales rep has played in your success. Equally, the sales rep needs to show that they are still actively listening, that this wasn’t just something they did to secure the job at the beginning and then let fall by the wayside. Are they listening to you and asking intelligent follow-up questions? Are they delivering exactly what you want to the customer?
If they are doing this, then ask yourself: Am I listening to their expert knowledge on where to make my next move? Active listening on both sides breeds respect and will help your sales relationship flourish.
- Drop everything and listen: don’t text or multitask
- Keep it relevant on both sides
- Remember you’re talking to an expert: ask for a breakdown of jargon or concepts, and be OK with hearing things that surprise you. They have the skills: you have the company.
- Team members like direction. Don’t hesitate to provide it: it’s part of what you bring to the relationship.
Rise To The Challenger
Most people would rather avoid confrontation if they can. And we tend to think of confrontation as a sign that relationships are getting rocky and we're moving further from agreement. That fits our mental image of a killer sales rep, all smiles, everybody's friend, powering sales along by making and maintaining emotional as well as business connections.
But sometimes conflict, challenge, can be a good thing. In fact, it's sometimes the best thing for a sales rep!
In their book The Challenger Sale, CEB managing directors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson examined five types of sales rep: the hard worker, the problem solver, the relationship builder, the lone wolf and the challenger.
Aside from being the most successful of the five in terms of sales, challengers were typified by their ability to teach their client something new and change their thinking by asserting their extensive insider knowledge. If you’ve got a set idea of how you’re going to carry something through and challenger sales rep questions it, you might be tempted to see it as insubordinate: don’t.
Try to see your relationship as being on an equal footing and ask yourself: Would I rather have a yes-man or someone who is going to passionately articulate why they believe a certain method is right or wrong?
Don’t be intimidated by a challenger—embrace the debate. You might decide eventually that your way is correct, but you’ll feel even more secure your decision-making if you’ve had your methods questioned by an expert in the field. Incidentally relationship builders—those who try to avoid confrontation, don’t want to come across as pushy and are generous with their time—came in dead last in terms of sales effectiveness in the survey.
- Take what your reps say seriously. It’s an expert opinion.
- Disagreement isn’t insubordination or hostility. It’s a chance to make a better decision, even if the ultimate decision will be yours.
- Only insist on goals or methods over the advice of your reps if you’re really, really sure you’re right. They want to succeed too!
Don’t Be Rash
We all make mistakes, but those of a sales rep can be particularly costly to a business. Try to avoid knee-jerk reactions if a rep drops the ball on an important sale. Terry Paulson, author of business bible The Optimism Advantage, said:
“Winners Lose More Than Losers. They Win And Lose More Than Losers Because They Stay In The Game”
So ask yourself: Has this rep ever let me down before? What has their service to the company been like previously? How did this happen?
If you create a culture where everyone's 'only as good as the last thing you did,' that looks like it should motivate reps to achieve more; to never slip on any sale. In reality, it punishes risk-taking and puts people in a position where they're covering their backs the whole time: not growth friendly.
Instead, discuss performance, not worth, and seek to analyse mistakes rather than punish them.
Aside from making the moral concession that we are all fallible—even you, the CEO—such a decision can have other benefits. Honesty and integrity are hard qualities to come by in a sales rep—don’t throw them away in a fit of pique because someone made an isolated blunder.
- Analyse mistakes, don’t punish them. Look for causes, not scapegoats.
- Remember reps are on your side and they want to succeed. They didn’t make a mistake because they don’t care.
- Look for ways to support that rep to be successful in the future. Look forward and up, not back and down.
Be Clear About Your Expectations
The Serbian-American poet Dejan Stojanović said:
“The Most Complicated Skill Is To Be Simple”
CEOs, enthused about their business, often bombard their salespeople with information and ideas that are unnecessary for the rep to do their job. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but resist.
Communication with sales people should be sales-centric: sales people want to know, ‘what’s the brief?’ They want a target they can see now and hit today. And it’s hard to have a conversation about missed targets with a rep who legitimately didn’t have good information to work with.
Sit down together and create a list of simple targets that you would like to hit so that the rep has absolute clarity of purpose when pursuing a client. The rep can then never fail as a result of having misunderstood your aims: you can simply point to the disparity between the objectives you came up with together and the rep’s results.
If the rep is clear about their purpose every day, the job will be more fulfilling and they will be more likely to stay with the company for longer.
- Involve sales reps in target planning. Make sure they know their targets and agree that they’re achievable.
- Clarity is your friend. Try to cut it down to numbers.
- Go in with strategic goals figured out, and talk with sales about how to reach them tactically.
Evaluate Your Relationship Periodically
Michael Denisoff, CEO of Denisoff Consulting Group, said:
“Without Strong Relationships, It Is Impossible To Have Success As A Business Owner”
Professional or personal, relationships change over time. The sales rep you met at the start of your relationship might be different to the one who has just had three years of uninterrupted success—and so might his or her CEO.
Just as success can breed loyalty and respect, so to it can lead to the development of egos and loss of drive as previously diligent employees begin to coast, thinking the hard work has been accomplished. Take the time to sit down and properly evaluate your relationship with your sales rep. Note what is working, what is not working and what you would like to do to improve that relationship.
This makes clear which areas require improvement. In the case of a rep with whom you are currently having problems, it might make you remember how much they contribute to the company in the first place and lead to you taking a softer line with them than you previously would have. Equally, it might make you aware of problems with other reps that you hadn’t previously considered and would like to iron out.
- Celebrate your successes, but don’t let them feel deserved or habitual.
- Be specific - figure out exactly how or why a relationship isn’t where you’d like it to be.
If They’re Good, Pay Them Well
A good sales rep can sometimes make so much on commission that their salary approaches that of the CEO. It can be tempting to take offence at this—after all, you’re the person that’s running the company and that hired the rep in the first place. Don’t. Congratulations are in order.
Firstly, congratulate yourself on making a fantastic hiring decision. Secondly, congratulate the rep for the wonderful job they’ve been doing and make sure that they feel happy in their role. Make sure they understand how pleased you are with their work and that you don’t begrudge them making such amounts of commission—on the contrary, you want them to surpass their personal best next month.
A sales rep who is well paid and feels valued by his superiors is unlikely to want to move anywhere else, meaning you’ll have the benefit of their expertise for the foreseeable. As Robert Bosch said:
“I Don’t Pay Good Wages Because I Have A Lot Of Money; I Have A Lot Of Money Because I Pay Good Wages”
- Ideally you want sales reps earning good commission: it means they’re selling well for you!
- Congratulate the successful and encourage success, but don’t let an elite develop: even if they’re stand-outs, they’re still on the team.
A strong, long-term relationship with your sales reps means a similar relationship with your customers. Keep your reps feeling valued by setting out clear goals, listening to them, taking care over your decisions and paying them a salary commensurate with their ability. Making sure you do these things takes little time but can lead to a fruitful, long-term relationship that will make you both a lot of money and enrich your professional and personal lives along the way.
“I Have Always Believed That The Way You Treat Your Employees Is The Way They Will Treat Your Customers, And That People Flourish When They Are Praised”
― Sir Richard Branson
About the Author
A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.More Content by Geoffrey Walters