Managing a Remote Sales Force: a View from the Trenches
By: Jessica Rathke (Jonckers Translation & Engineering) - Jonckers Translation & Engineering
09 December 2010
Having worked in sales and sales management for a number of LSPs in both the US and Europe, I have experienced a wide variety of approaches to hiring, training and managing remote–sometimes very remote–salespeople. This article will focus on what LSPs can do to ensure success in their sales team.
While I’ve witnessed some spectacular successes, I’ve heard more than a few sales managers express their frustration about not being able to find the right salesperson to spearhead their launch into a new country or market. Fortunately, the growing respect for and maturity of sales organizations in our industry has helped remote salespeople succeed and has mitigated sales staff turnover.
So how do you go about creating a sales force that is highly motivated, engaged and able to achieve or even over-achieve its sales targets? It all comes down to choosing the right candidate, training them properly, and providing ongoing support and motivation.
Hiring: Choosing the Right Team Members
Let’s face it, even when managed well, some salespeople are not cut out for working remotely, and they need the interaction that comes with being based in an office. Someone can be the best salesperson in the world who has always achieved sales targets, but could fail in a less structured, remote environment. But how can you tell?
In my experience, the sales interview process focuses solely on obvious questions such as “how much business can you close” with very little attention paid to “how do you function in a remote environment?” This is a particularly important line of questioning when establishing a presence in a new market or country. Asking a few simple questions can help you to ascertain this:
- What experience do you have in working remotely?
- What do you like best/least about it?
- How do you structure your day?
- How do you build relationships with co-workers from a remote location?
- Do you mind participating in calls at unusual times to accommodate time zone differences with HQ and other remote co-workers?
- Have you ever worked for someone from another culture that has not done a significant amount of business in your home country? How will you handle these differences?
- What support do you feel you need from your manager/company in order to be successful in a remote environment?
Beyond assessing a salesperson’s ability to work remotely, I’ve also heard many discussions about whether it is better to send someone from HQ to open a new, remote office or whether hiring locally will achieve greater success. I’ve experienced and seen success in both cases, but there are pluses and minuses for each strategy and much of it boils down to the available candidates, their particular skill sets and the corporate culture of the hiring company.
Sending a Salesperson Abroad
Being an American working in a remote sales office in London, I do have a particular bias that it is possible for a non-local to be successful in a remote office in a foreign country. I’ve seen many others succeed in similar circumstances in both the US and in Europe. I’ve also seen many challenging circumstances and even failures, which I believe were in large part due to unrealistic expectations and a lack of preparation on the part of the hiring company.
I imagine the majority of people who are sent abroad to sell in a foreign country originate from the LSP’s HQ or home market and that they are sent on the belief that their company expertise will help them do well selling abroad. After all, they understand the LSP’s value proposition, know how to navigate internally to get what they need and usually have access to key decision makers from their experience with the company.
However, I have also seen people underestimate the challenges of working remotely in a foreign country (including myself!). Selling in a foreign market and coping with remote employment does present very real challenges. It can be a very isolating experience for someone accustomed to working in the company HQ with all its support and familiarity. Even the simplest tasks can become a quite a challenge if you don’t understand how things work. For example, when I relocated to London for the first time from Dallas, I was surprised to find out how long it took for a phone line and broadband to be installed. It was not days; it was weeks! I spent a lot of time (and money) working from a local internet cafe trying to be productive until I had proper internet access.
Although the vast majority of people in our industry have international experience and understand that things are done differently, in my experience this understanding only goes so far. Understanding sources of information, leads, business groups, and frankly, how to sell, takes a lot of effort and a deeper understanding of the market and business practices. This can greatly increase ramp-up time and cost of sales if underestimated.
Local salespeople, on the other hand, don’t have to think about such issues. They know how to get things done, what works and what doesn’t. They have established sources of information and they understand the nuances of doing business in their home market. Their challenge is to understand the company for which they work.
Hiring locally should (in theory) provide you with immediate access to the market in which you want to sell.
However, hiring locally means you, the LSP, will need to integrate the new hire into the company, and quickly! Most LSPs have thankfully gotten beyond providing a phone and computer and assuming that’s enough to “get selling.” Fortunately most LSPs routinely train their remote salespeople on why their service offering is unique and why buyers in the new market should buy from them over another company. A new hire absolutely needs to know this in order to be successful, so training is essential. It is also critical that HQ and other personnel are aware that this new salesperson exists (hopefully have met) so they are not surprised when the salesperson asks for support.
I strongly believe that many remote employment arrangements -- particularly when hiring locally -- don’t work out because there is a discrepancy between what the LSP thinks they want (or what they are willing to pay for) and what they get. This is particularly the case when the remote employee is opening a brand new office in a new country that is 7-10 time zones away from HQ.
Some questions LSPs should be asking themselves in order to determine whether they are prepared for the challenges of managing remote salespeople:
- Is it really just a sales position, or do you expect them to do their own marketing and deal with business, legal and taxation issues that crop up? If so, does the salary you are offering fairly compensate them for performing these tasks?
- Is your compensation plan in line with comparable positions in the target market? For example, I’ve seen European companies offer substantially lower salaries in the US and end up hiring someone who sounded good, but was not the caliber they expected.
- Will you provide adequate training about your company’s capabilities, provide access to key production and other personnel, provide a communications infrastructure, provide technical support for equipment problems, etc.?
- Do you plan to make regular visits to your remote staff and/or bring them to HQ for strategy and business meetings?
- What is your plan for making your remote salespeople feel a part of the overall team?
Training: On-boarding Your Remote Salespeople
Training for a salesperson coming from outside the localization industry is well understood. Processes, technologies, linguistic issues, etc. all need to be covered. However, no matter how experienced the newly recruited salesperson might be, they still need to understand what makes their new company unique. More to the point, since they are selling an intangible service, they are selling the production teams within the company. Knowing members of these teams can help the salesperson present the company much more effectively.
My personal on-boarding experiences have run from fabulous to non-existent to “oh, you’re in sales, what training do you really need?” The companies who have been the best in terms of training remote staff have been mid-size to larger LSPs that had formal training programs. One program in particular stands out. I spent several weeks at HQ learning the organization from the inside out. I had a combination of reading, one-on-one meetings with production team leads, departmental heads, project managers and, of course, my own manager and the marketing director. The initial part of the training focused on the company’s culture, goals and differentiators and addressed key questions such as:
- What makes the company unique?
- What are the goals of the company?
- Who are the key players in the company?
- Where does certain expertise lie (software, life sciences, etc.)?
- What tools and technology are used?
- What is the history of the company?
- What sales and marketing tools are available to me?
The remainder of the training focused on production process and technology, which enabled me to meet and build a rapport with production team leads, departmental heads, project managers and support staff. I was required to shadow various staff to learn how we did things and why and then had to manage a few projects myself so I could experience not just production, but also the systems in place that kept the company running on a day-to-day basis. By the time I was released into the world of selling, I could explain our processes and technology quite thoroughly. It was excellent!
When my training ended, I felt instilled with the company culture, understood the company’s goals, the brand, and our differentiators. I also knew all the key people in the company, departmental managers, most of the project managers and the overseas staff with whom I was most likely to be in contact. I came away knowing who the go-to person was for just about any question that popped into my head. This saved me a lot of time later!
In this case I was also trained alongside other remote salespeople who were hired at roughly the same time as me. That helped our team form a mutually supportive bond that we carried on into the remote sales environment.
Support and Motivation
A strong sales team starts with strong leadership, particularly a strong sales manager. From the rolodex of companies I’ve worked for, the best sales managers worked a lot, travelled a lot and thrived on the culture they created. These managers were highly engaged with each member of their remote team, which encouraged the sales team to engage with the company. Our strongest sales team managers possessed some common traits that made this possible:
- They communicated often, using all available channels. Communicating with remote employees has never been easier: IM, Skype, conference calls, webinars, webcasts, text messaging and, of course, our industry’s notorious overuse of email all offer opportunities for easy communication. The best of the best avoided the dreaded “round robin” team conference calls, but, rather, had highly structured calls with a particular focus: successes, challenges, solutions and knowledge sharing (e.g. overcoming a difficult situation, brainstorming answers to arduous questions on RFPs, sharing wins and how they were achieved, feedback from clients about service offerings, pricing, etc.).
- They made themselves available and were responsive. Most sales managers I know are extremely busy people, but responsiveness is critical, not only in establishing trust with the team, but also for the sake of the client. One of my very overworked former managers established a simple protocol around phone calls. If it was urgent, say so immediately in the voicemail message. This helped him prioritize the dozens of calls he received every hour. As a result, I rarely had to wait longer than 30 minutes for a returned call. Most were returned within 10 minutes! This enabled me to be far more responsive to my clients, and these days, client experience is everything!
- They kept me up to date on company developments. It can be discouraging to hear important news through the grapevine or worse, from sources external to the company. Again, it is incumbent upon salespeople to stay informed, but I’ve seen this happen more than once where executives told some, but not all, staff about important news.
- They helped educate me on new technologies, value-added services, and partnership arrangements that enhanced our service offering. It is so discouraging to hear that internal teams are receiving training on a new technology/process/service offering/change in strategy and remote salespeople are not included. Not all technical training is relevant of course, but if it enhances the service offering, your sales team should know about it.
- They brought the sales team together several times a year to for training or to have brainstorming, team building and strategy meetings, or to participate in broader company meetings. This was fabulous for morale.
- They communicated my goals and responsibilities very clearly and focused on my progress in regularly scheduled one-on-one calls.
All of these attributes served to keep me engaged with the company and motivated me to help the company achieve its broader goals. I truly felt like an important part of the company and not a “remote employee.”
Hiring, training, supporting and motivating a remote sales team takes significant investment on the part of the LSPs, but is a necessary part of expanding your reach to win new business.
Next time, I would like to explore this issue from the other side of the coin and investigate what remote salespeople can do to live up to their end of the bargain and ensure their success!
Jessica Rathke works in business development for Jonckers Translation & Engineering and is currently based in London. A native of Texas, Jessica has previously worked on sales teams of McElroy Translation, Conversis and Rubric.