Rocking the Boat to Drive Team Success

Kevin F. Davis

In a SMMConnect webinar I delivered to over 100 sales managers recently, I talked about eight instincts they developed as salespeople that are now harming their effectiveness as team leaders. Interestingly, about 30 percent of the participants said that the sales instinct they struggle with the most is “avoiding conflict.”

What does that mean?

Sometimes it may make sense to tell the customer they’re wrong. But for the most part, a rep doesn’t want to rock the boat with a prospect. They want to steer clear of any kind of conflict. Unnecessary disagreements can hurt rapport and trust, and make the customer less likely to listen to the rep about issues that actually matter.

Knowing how to avoid conflict may be a useful skill for sales reps but works to the detriment of many sales managers. How do I know? In all of my sales manager workshops, I ask, “How many of you have a performance problem with a sales rep that is just unacceptable, and you know you need to address the situation?” Everyone raises their hand.
Then I ask, “How long have you known this?” The answer I hear is often months and occasionally years.

Clearly many sales managers are still in the mode of avoiding conflict – only now it’s with their sales team instead of customers. That means problems simply don’t get dealt with and pretty soon they develop a reputation for tolerating mediocrity on their team. Next thing you know, the whole team has been negatively affected by their manager’s reluctance to have a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

Sales managers need to abandon the conflict avoidance mindset and embrace productive conflict. Without this mental shift, they can’t push their salespeople to achieve their full potential.

To drive progress and growth in their team, great sales managers must learn how to rock the boat when it’s required. Here are three skills that will help you feel more confident in addressing issues sooner.

1. Make the decision to “Do it now.” 

The greatest barrier we have to sales management success is ourselves. We see a sales rep do something that is not up to our expectations and standards, but we’re usually too busy to deal with it. So we file it away mentally, with the best of intentions to raise the issue later on when we have more time (which is never).

Here’s a simple truth: The sooner you talk to a rep about a problem with their skills, attitude or numbers, the less negative emotion will be involved in fixing the situation. When you don’t say anything, they rightly assume, “well, it must be OK with my boss.” And so, over time, it becomes a bad habit. Now you really have a big problem to solve. Remember this: what you don’t confront – you condone.

2. Don’t make judgmental statements

Choose your words carefully. Even if you think it’s warranted, avoid using loaded terms. Instead, frame the problem as “we all have to.…” Avoid using the word “you.”
For example, don’t say, “You didn’t tell the pricing team soon enough about that RFP, which left the team under major pressure at the last-minute.” Instead, say, “We all need to work together as a team to submit the best quality proposals and win more business. What could we do to better coordinate the timing the next time around?”

3. Focus on the future fix

In any conversation with a problem performer, you have one goal: to make sure the problem you’re addressing is quickly solved. You can’t just talk about what the person has done wrong in the past, you both need to discuss what the fix will be.

Be clear with the rep about what needs change going forward, and discuss how that will that be accomplished. Does the rep need more training? A better approach or process? Mentoring by a more-experienced rep? Agree on a path forward and a timeline.

You Can’t Manage and Lead Without Conflict

As a sales manager, your company expects you to manage your people, not let them flounder because you’re trying to avoid conflict. The nuance of how you do that – your attitude during the discussion — makes all the difference in the world. It is vital that you have the right mindset for each of these discussions. Your purpose is to help the rep get better. Be a coach, not a critic.

If you want more tips on how to deal with problems, especially poor attitudes on your team, look here. And if you have a chronic under-performer, perhaps you should stop wasting your time, as I discuss here.

Kevin F. Davis is the author of “The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness: 10 Essential Strategies for Leading Your Team to the Top,” which describes methods for everything from leading, coaching, and managing priorities, to hiring, forecasting, and driving rep accountability. For more information visit TopLine Leadership, Inc.