Challenges of the Sales Leader #2

Managing self-employed sales teams

cats of differing shapes & sizes

It doesn’t have to be like herding cats

Is there anything special about managing self-employed sales people?  Does the topic deserve an article in its own right?  The answer to these questions depends in part on your point of view about what good management looks like and what expectations you have of your sales team.

Just to clarify, we are talking about self-employed individuals rather than a channel business partner, which is yet another management challenge.

A debate which often occurs around self-employed sales people is whether this is just a means of paying the person or does it define a different “animal”?  In many cases companies who use self-employed staff adopt the stance that they are self-sufficient so they need only limited support.  There is also a belief that the self-employed person will be motivated by the need to earn money so again they need little management.

Far from being a motivator, money can cause a distortion in the way the person thinks about their job.  If through necessity they are mainly focused on satisfying their own financial needs they will spend less time than you might hope on your needs such as promoting your products or defending your brand.

It is also common that self-employed people are required to satisfy only very basic selection criteria with the belief being that no salary = no cost so, if they don’t work out, then they can be replaced.  This is an entirely false belief as there is a real cost in lost opportunities, a risk of reputational damage and of course the cost of continually recruiting and inducting new people.

Most people want to do a good job and to be successful for themselves and their employers, but without the correct type and amount of management and leadership most people under-perform.  The need for good management and leadership is magnified if the recruitment selection process has been “lite touch”.

Sales Performance

An important part of helping sales people to perform to their optimum level is to equip them with; appropriate training, good sales and selling processes, the tools they need to do the job and the appropriate support.  Once these things are in place you have a foundation to support good performance and productivity.  Then the critical differentiating factor is on-going coaching and this is the key role for those of us who manage sales people.

Sales coaching, addresses two main needs.  Firstly, it focuses on helping the sales person with strategy and tactics around specific prospects and individual opportunities; this helps them to sell more for you.  The second coaching role is to support sales people by helping them to maintain motivation for what is a tough, lonely and challenging job.

Having observed many companies with self-employed sales people we find that in many cases both levels of coaching are inadequate.  The main reasons have been laid out above and can be summarised as a belief that the nature of self-employment makes the people self-sufficient and it also means they will be motivated by the need to earn money.

So, do we need to treat the self-employed differently?  In the main no; they are human beings with the same basic needs as employed people.  The one key difference comes from the insecurity created by self-employment so people on these contracts will typically reward you through loyalty and performance if you demonstrate that you see them as equal to all other employees.

Some key points to consider:

The key to managing self-employed sales people is not to treat them as though they are any different to salaried people, hence most of these points also apply to salaried staff:

  • Break the cycle of belief (throughout the organisation) that self-employed sales people will behave in a particular way which dictates how you will treat them. This leads to a destructive negative spiral which is costly for you.
  • Recruit, induct and train all sales people in the same way.  Understand what the prime skills, attitudes and competencies need to be.
  • If you have self-employed and salaried people, treat them as one team.  They should attend the same sales meetings, functions and celebrations, receive equivalent rewards and in the event of failure they should suffer the same outcomes as your salaried staff.
  • Regardless of their employment status all sales people need to be supported, lead and coached.
  • The self-employed are often home based which increases their isolation and loneliness.  Maintain regular contact; one-to-one meetings, joint customer visits, regular sales meetings and frequent telephone contact.  Weekly webinars for the whole team is an effective way of staying in touch and maintaining the sense of “team”.
  • Money of itself is not the only motivator so you need to coach self-employed sales people to help them maintain motivation.
  • Being self-employed is for many not a choice and it can lead to a general feeling of insecurity.  There is nothing to buffer the odd poor month when they still have to pay the household bills.  So be mindful of the needs of each individual and treat them accordingly.
  • High churn, even of the self-employed, comes at a cost both financially and through its impact on customer service and your reputation.  If you make the effort to recruit good people and demonstrate your commitment to them, they will reward you with loyalty, hard work and commitment to you and your brand.

You have spent time and money finding and recruiting your self-employed sales people so it must make sense to maximise the return you can get on that investment.  Once recruited, the fixed cost of employment is close to zero which means you have more money to spend to helping these people perform as well as they possibly can for themselves and for you.

Self-employment should only define the way people are paid not how they are treated, managed, led or coached.