How a manufacturer sales person can lead without authority

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

I was recently onsite working with the sales leadership of a manufacturer client of ours. We were brainstorming ideas that would boost the influence of their regional sales managers with their channel partners. Leadership’s perception was that their field sales managers were working so hard on the day-to-day that they were making less of an impact on their partners. In the opening discussion, when I try to spark conversation and get all the problems scattered on a white board, someone said it: “… and we can’t fire their sales people, so how can we influence them?” 

That’s when I smiled. That’s when I knew that we were going to have a major impact on this team. That’s when I confirmed my assumption. My client equated influence with authority, and probably hadn’t implemented any ideas on leading their channel partners without authority. The sky was the limit on the changes and positive outcome we could make. I was still smiling.

Since childhood, when our parents would influence our behavior with their authority, we’ve likened punishment and fear as primary tools of leadership. As most successful leaders will tell you, using their title is their last resort to influencing behavior. Great leaders influence without using their titles or scaring their people, and sales people can do the same with their channel partners. Below I’ve listed five best practices that are relevant to sales people that need to influence others over whom they have no authority.

1.    Help solve their biggest challenges. Don’t assume you know their problems.  Imagine your channel partner at a cocktail party talking to a new friend they just met. The friend asks them: “What’s the biggest challenges you have in your job?” Not challenges about you and your company, but in general … what are their biggest problems? Now, solve the ones that are relevant.

2.    Clearly communicate your objective. I used to work with a retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant. While having beers together, he told me that one of the main obstacles he faced in the business world was the lack of communication. “Just tell me my objective and who I report to, and I’ll get the job done.”

Do your channel partners fully understand why you’re traveling to their area next month? What is your objective of meeting with them on Wednesday morning?  What is your goal in their region next year? Be crystal clear with these answers.

3.    Get in the field. When I worked for a distributor over 20 years ago, we represented about 30 primary product lines, but I devoted my time and loyalty to one company. You know who? The one for who Joe Dabinski worked. Joe worked in the field every day. With or without his distribution reps, he got dirty. I loved the guy because of his fieldwork, and regardless of his product line, I gave him most of my effort.

4.    Share in their shortfalls and develop solutions. One of the major sales leadership mistakes I see—whether one has authority or not—is telling a salesperson about their shortfalls but not developing a solution with them. People know when they’re failing, and they’ll follow teammates and partners that share in their failures and help them create solutions to their problems.  

So, no more “Well, you’re 30% behind year-to-date. I’m not sure if I can save the line for you if you don’t pick it up.” Instead, approach them like this: “We’re 30% behind. Let’s figure out a solution and start catching up together. We’re in this together.”

5.    Create a fun, competitive environment. I have a friend who, practically speaking, is not that reliable. He’s 50 years old and still lives a single life like we did 25 years ago. He doesn’t like sports. He’s a lawyer and has no idea about my business world. He RSVP’d to attend our wedding and missed it. My wife doesn’t like him. However, every time he calls or visits Orlando, I feel like a nine-year-old on Christmas Eve. And that is because the guy is “fun.” He makes his environment fun. With all his faults, I still look forward to speaking to and seeing him. 

Don’t be a typical regional sales manager. When you send the email that you’ll be in the area in four weeks, give them reason to be excited. Make it fun. Make their work competitive and fun.

Chris Peterson is president of the Vector Firm, a leader in helping security companies improve their sales and digital marketing performance.