I’ve gotten to know the folks at AchieveGlobal much better during the past year than in the past. They invited me to sit on a panel at their client conference held in New York City last October. At dinner the evening before the event, I spent some quality time with Sharon Daniels, their CEO, as well as other members of the management team.
For those of you who aren’t aware, Sharon participated in two panels hosted by ESR last fall:
What you also may not know is that AchieveGlobal is owned by Informa, plc, a $2 billion UK corporation, with headquarters in Switzerland. Informa also owns Forum and Huthwaite, two other leading sales performance improvement providers.
I visited AchieveGlobal at their Tampa headquarters earlier this year. I met more of the team and got an opportunity to get a terrific tour of their operation. (Note: AchieveGlobal subscribes to ES Research Group’s research.)
One of the senior executives at the meeting that day was Chris Cowen, VP of U.S. Sales. Chris was kind enough to spend some time on this interview on the subject of sales management. I’m sure you’ll appreciate his experience, insight, and his focus on the customer…
Here is the interview:
Dave Stein: What do you see are the two or three most significant challenges facing sales managers today?
Chris Cowan: I think many of the challenges sales managers face today are similar to those confronting everyone in the sales organization, including price pressures, reduced customer spending, and sometimes longer sales cycles. As a result, more and more time tends to be spent chasing revenue and less on more strategic activities like territory growth strategies and coaching their direct reports. Long-term benefits are deferred to short-term revenue needs. Yet this is all compounded for managers because they are responsible for their business as a region or territory as well as for the performance of their sales peoples’ business.
I believe a more thoughtful and strategic approach to the marketplace, focusing on key verticals or market segments and developing more tailored and impactful approaches will yield greater results in the medium to long term. Similarly, setting aside real quality time to work on developmental matters with direct reports can also have a powerful effect over a longer time horizon. A manager can be a “force of one” as he works individually with reps on deals, or he can become a “force of many” as he works to get many reps operating at a higher level.
One other significant challenge is in effectively managing and leveraging data. As sales force automation is maturing and the technology available in the field is growing exponentially, there is an incredible opportunity to collect and organize enormous amounts of customer and market data. Better sales data, call reporting, data on the customer’s business and their market or industry, etc. are becoming critical for not only making sales organizations more efficient and competitive, but driving loyalty as well. As a sales manager, how do I keep up with all of this data and ensure I’m getting everything out of it that I can? It can become difficult for sales managers.
DS: What are the most important things sales managers can do to improve sales performance?
CC: Following up on the data issue, information is only valuable if it is collected consistently and accurately. This means 100% compliance with our sales force automation in the field and the sales manager is ultimately responsible for ensuring everyone one of their reps is taking the time to enter data and complete all of the fields. When we see successful, high performing sales organizations they are very rigorous and have high standards when it comes to compliance around data collection in the field.
I think sales managers need to continually coach and reinforce the organization’s sales strategy. It’s very easy for reps to become focused on their day to day activities, managing accounts, responding to client requests, working to close deals, etc. The sales strategy and the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going to get there can become lost in all of that. The sales manager really needs to ensure that reps are staying focused on the message and strategy and while it may not result in a large deal overnight, over time revenues will grow and performance improves Also, I think it is important for the sales manager to step back from the day-to-day periodically and assess the issues impacting the business across their area of responsibility. Taking the time to work on those more strategic issues that either remove obstacles or provide enablement for all of their representatives can have a very profound effect. Sales representatives also recognize those efforts undertaken on their behalf and it improves morale and retention.
DS: Are there any sales management skills or behaviors that are more important today than in the past, and if so, what are they?
CC: I think we see that many are just as important today as say five years ago. Clearly, managers still need to be good coaches and know how to motivate their reps. However, we are seeing a growing importance in some other skills, particularly as deals become more complex or strategic in nature. Some of our own research has found that as it becomes increasingly important to add more value to the customer and their organization, sales reps and their managers need to be more creative and innovative in their thinking and approach to problems. They need to take the time to read and research and understand larger economic issues or those that are particular to their client’s industry and be able to show how their product or service can help drive particular business outcomes and help clients solve those problems.
DS: You’re right about that, Chris. I’ve been on a few rants recently regarding the lack of business and financial savvy among a large percentage of B2B salespeople (and their managers).
CC: The creativity I just mentioned really begins with the manager as they work with reps to strategize their accounts and engage with the client to work to uncover innovative solutions to problems. The manager is in the position to help leverage organizational resources and take a bigger picture view of the account. This allows them to become an important resource to the rep in helping customers see problems they didn’t know they had and offering valuable and unique insights to solve those problems.
DS: How do you see the role and requirements of sales managers changing in the next five years?
CC: Managers will need to be more adept at helping sales reps take more ownership and be more effective at running their own business. They need to approach it as their business and make decisions to increase productivity and become more efficient while closing more deals and driving revenue. These are the central tenets for any business and a rep’s territory is no different. But sales managers will need to help reps better leverage their own data, provide the support and guidance that will help them to grow their business and ultimately provide them the knowledge and autonomy to succeed.
Finally, we can’t ignore the importance of being customer-focused and the emerging role of sales managers in helping to drive that with their reps. Research has shown that more than half of customer loyalty is directly attributable to the sales person. Other findings suggest that organizations that practice customer-focused activities are more likely to perform better. Each and every interaction a sales person has with a customer or prospect is what we call a “moment of truth” or defining moment where the rep has an opportunity to ensure delivery of an outstanding customer experience.
Some sales people mistakenly believe this means meeting every customer demand or giving away the bank on pricing. Others confuse this with just providing better customer service – returning phone calls in a timely manner, being friendly, etc. Managers will need to take a leadership role to ensure sales people are able to consistently deliver a deliberate customer experience and exceed customer expectations while balancing that with profitability. This is emerging as an important strategy for many sales organizations and managers will need to ensure their sales people follow the sales process that supports this strategy, as well as engage in the behaviors and activities required to drive loyalty and revenue.
A good leader helps to define and clarify the landscape their team is operating in and what needs to be done to be successful. In this day and age of rapid and massive movement of information and data, a good manager needs to be able to help his people sift through the data and focus on the key things. It is very easy for individuals to be distracted by all that is coming at them and a leader will help people focus on what is important and put blinders on what is not.
About Chris Cowan
As Vice President of Sales, Chris Cowan leads the business development efforts of AchieveGlobal’s U.S. sales organization. He is responsible for strategic direction, development of long-term partnerships, client satisfaction, and oversight of a geographically dispersed sales team.
Mr. Cowan has a long and distinguished career spanning the financial services, consulting, travel and entertainment and technology sectors. During his 22 years with American Express, he led a variety of sales and client development teams, developing highly-integrated partnerships and marketing programs in the consumer and commercial markets. In his last role, as Vice President and General Manager in the Global Merchant Services group, he directed the business development activities with leading merchants in the hotel, private jet, and luxury club industries.
Prior to joining AchieveGlobal in late 2011 Mr. Cowan was the Senior Vice President of Sales for LOYAL3, a disruptive technology firm that enabled companies to sell stock directly to consumers over their website or Facebook page.
Chris Cowan is a graduate of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.