The Remote Sales Office: How to Survive Common Pitfalls
By: Jessica Rathke (Jonckers Translation & Engineering) - Jonckers Translation & Engineering
02 March 2011
In my last article I looked at ways that LSPs can more effectively manage their remote sales teams. This time I examine the other side of the coin: things a remote sales person can do to ensure their success.
I suspect there are many remote, home-based sales people out there who, like me, find that working remotely does not come naturally. I think this is especially true for people who have a history of working in an office environment, with all its inherent support, structure, and camaraderie.
In this article I will focus on ways to avoid the pitfalls of working remotely, based on my own experience working remotely with multinational corporations and smaller LSPs. I will also share anecdotal experience from friends and colleagues whose experience has helped me to develop effective ways to structure my time, reduce distractions, and work more effectively in my remote office.
There are so many benefits to working remotely that fit into the sales mentality: you are closer to your customers; you have the independence and flexibility to structure your day around clients, conferences, or networking events without the rigidity of a 9-5 schedule; you have fewer distractions from co-workers when you need to write proposals/RFP responses; and you don’t have an audience while cold calling or having long telephone conversations with clients. Most sales people like these aspects of working remotely.
However, the drawbacks of remote work can also be significant, especially if the LSP has little to no structured way of managing its remote employees, or if the sales person is based several time zones away from the head office. In my experience, the sense of isolation is the most difficult problem to cope with on a day-to-day basis: no water cooler chats, less contact with co-workers, dealing with the frequent rejection associated with outbound calling, during which it’s nearly impossible to speak to another human. It can be too quiet. Moreover, while the distraction of co-workers isn’t present, there are other distractions inherent in working from home: laundry, your spouse, your neighbors, and finally, the lack of immediate support when things go wrong.
In my previous article I mentioned that the interviewing process tends to focus solely on how well sales people achieve their revenue targets, but overlooks how well they function in a remote environment. Similarly, sales people are likely to overlook the same issues when interviewing a potential employer. Typical questions focus on the company’s client base, processes, and technology and management style. Less emphasis is placed on how the LSP manages its remote sales force.
Getting potential issues on the table early enables both parties to make more considered and better remote employment decisions. When talking with potential LSP employers, you may want to consider asking questions such as:
- What is your approach to managing remote sales people?
- How many remote sales people currently work for the company, and may I speak with one of them?
- What will my exact responsibilities be? (i.e., Am I expected to take care of finances, taxation issues, marketing, etc.)? This is particularly important for employees who are located in another country.
- What infrastructure is in place?
- How do you communicate with your remote sales people?
- What kind of on-going support do you provide (i.e., tech support for laptops, etc.)?
- How often do you have sales team meetings in person?
- How do you foster teamwork with other departments?
- Is there a formal induction program through which I will meet my peers and co-workers and understand processes, company culture, etc?
Discussing questions such as these will help prevent disconnect between the sales person’s and the LSP’s expectations before employment commences, and will go a long way to prevent dissatisfaction and sales person “churn” in the long run.
Discipline, Structure, Rules
It seems too obvious to mention that working remotely requires structure. It also goes without saying that structuring your day as if you are in an office is advisable. But the flexibility inherent in a remote work environment can sometimes reduce effectiveness. It is easy to think “Oh, I’ll just do this and then I’ll start working…” Structure creates routine, and can help prevent distraction.
Feeling and looking like you are going to work can set the tone for your remote situation. Many of my remote sales colleagues act as if they are going to “the office” by going through the routine of getting ready for work: dressing more formally, for some women wearing make-up, and arriving in their office at 8:00 a.m. on the dot. For me, feeling professional helps me resist the lure of distractions at home.
What I have found much more difficult is switching off—both physically and mentally—at the end of the day. While working long hours can be admirable, it is also good to get away from the laptop and have a home life. Studies show that remote employees work longer hours than their office-based counterparts. Mulki, Bardhi, Lassk, and Vanavaty-Dahl (2009), for example, found through interviews conducted in 2007 and 2008 with remote workers that these employees worked more hours than they did in traditional work environments. These remote workers put in longer days, and often worked on holidays, weekends, and evenings, including when they otherwise might call in sick. Another study, published by the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom, similarly suggests that workers with flexible work hours tend to work longer hours and more intensely (Clark, 2010). Given this tendency, which can add to stress and can decrease productivity, shutting down is a healthy thing to do.
I have learned that I literally have to shut the door to my home office at the end of the day so that work doesn’t creep into my private time in the evenings and on weekends. Simply walking by the open door to my office would get me thinking about what needed to be done at work, and would sometimes pull me in. The closed door symbolized the end of the work day, and also enabled me to switch off my working mind for a few hours. If space constraints prevent closing off workspace completely, I would suggest putting laptops away or screening off the workspace to distinguish between work and home.
Such habits as closing the door at the end of the work day are a reminder of the value of establishing rules related to your work routine. Establishing rules is also very helpful if you have children, a spouse, or even neighbors who are home for some or part of the day. Once again this seems obvious, but I’ve had more than one telephone conversation with remote colleagues who had disruptions that created a less-than-professional atmosphere. I even suggest informing neighbors of the rules.
The relative isolation in a remote sales environment is probably the most common frustration I hear about. It certainly is for me. The isolation can be especially acute when remote sales people are poorly managed, or when time zone differences are so great that there is only a brief window of time for direct communication each day. The most successful remote sales people I’ve known have overcome this isolation in a number of ways (some of them quite creative!).
In the absence of formal, structured communication that is organized by management, it is important to make your presence known. Take the initiative to schedule time to speak with co-workers or other support staff with whom you won’t have regular contact, but who are potentially important to your success. For example, support staff and others who don’t have frequent contact with you can sometimes leave you out of communication loops, or may fail to inform you of important issues, such as when the company server may be down or when email is failing. Although such situations should never happen, they have occurred frequently enough to me to mention it here. Making sure others are aware of your presence will ensure that you are not accidentally overlooked in company communications.
Manage Up and Across
Take it upon yourself to schedule regular calls with your manager and/or co-workers. This is particularly important in situations in which no formal management structure exists. Discussing issues you are facing, brainstorming solutions, and simply connecting with co-workers can be a huge boost after a day of rejection by potential clients. Sometimes this can be a catalyst for your management to establish a regular communication platform when there isn’t one in place.
A good example of this was when one of my remote sales colleagues and I began talking informally, collaborating on proposals and quotations, and sharing information we had gleaned from our corporate HQ and manager. These calls gradually became regularly scheduled and formal, so we began to document our results, and eventually felt compelled to invite our manager to participate. In other words, we created a team in the absence of one, and it helped our productivity immensely. We did get buy-in from our manager, who left it to us to run the meetings, with him taking part as a participant.
Making yourself known to others in your organization can also be invaluable. Discussing client issues with, or making suggestions to, departmental heads can help you gain visibility and be more attuned to important initiatives within your company. Such conversations can also get you access to help more quickly. I suspect most sales people do this, but I believe many do not. The hesitation may come from fear of bothering someone, a memory of a negative reaction by a colleague, or simply uncertainty about whom to contact about a particular problem. I’ve found brief, pre-planned calls with my global colleagues go a long way in reducing feelings of isolation. Such contact has the added benefit of bridging the gap between sales and production (best when initiated by sales).
Culturally Adapt and Educate
Our industry is richly multi-cultural, and we are accustomed to working with people of different cultures. Nevertheless, the focus still tends to be on production and operational issues, rather than on management issues. Operations and production practices may be standardized and understood, but this by no means ensures work—and more importantly communication—will be approached in exactly the same way. In my experience there is usually a culture gap between offices located in different geographical locations that generally conform to the different cultures (or countries) in which the offices are based. This can have important repercussions in a remote sales environment, especially when the sales person is operating in a location remote from HQ (e.g., in a different country from the home office). Expectations for communication and collaboration can be vastly different, and frustrations can arise when these expectations are not met.
Cultural differences are sometimes difficult to spot, but it’s worthwhile for the sales person to discuss any frustrations with their manager, and when needed to ask for more, less, or different kinds of communication. I’ve had to do this several times in my career with European-based employers who were not used to providing the frequent feedback that American employees are accustomed to receiving. Europeans typically find it patronizing to congratulate someone for doing what they are supposed to do, but Americans view this as encouragement and acknowledgement that they are indeed doing the right thing. In my case, the need for this was made more important by the fact that I was very remotely located and was uncomfortable with the infrequent communication from management. When I asked for more communication, it opened the door to some quite fruitful discussions about mutual expectations, and we arrived at an agreeable compromise.
Finally, inviting management to meet with your clients can be an invaluable way to reduce isolation from HQ. It can also help your management understand that they have a role to play in your success. Make sure they know this! The best personal example I can think of was when I worked for ICL, a British computer company that had a global presence, with the exception of North America, where I was tasked with growing one division’s business…on my own. The UK team relied on their significant market presence to help establish their credibility when meeting with their potential clients. Without such a high profile, gaining traction in the US took longer. It was only when my manager came to the US to accompany me on sales calls that he began to understand the difference. When my manager started his pitch about ICL this, that, and tomorrow, the brusque east coast US prospect cut him off in mid-sentence and said, “Who the hell is ICL, never heard of it.” Get your management to visit your turf and with your clients. That way the management can gain a better understanding of the markets in which they are doing business, and thus can better assist you in succeeding
These are but a few thoughts about how to make your remote working situation more productive and enjoyable. For more in-depth discussions about successful remote sales and sales management, please join Jenny Grajpel, VP of Business Development at text & form, and me on Monday, March 28 at the GALA Conference in Lisbon. In addition to our presentation, we will be leading an informal discussion on various sales related topics. We look forward to seeing you there!
Clark, J. (2010, February 4). Employees with flex time put in more hours. Discovery News. Retrieved from http://news.discovery.com/human/telecommuting-productivity-flex-time.html
Mulki, J., Bardhi, F., Lassk, F., & Nanavaty-Dahl, J. (2009, October 1). Set up remote workers to thrive. MIT Sloan Management Review. Retrieved from http://sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/articles/2009/fall/51116/set-up-remote-workers-to-thrive/
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.