Cultivating crops isn’t much different from leading a sales team.
Like the farmer, sales leaders face challenges largely outside your control: lack of talented staff, sales rep turnover, inadequate lead generation, not enough marketing support, competitive pressures, and insufficient product development.
In spite of these lousy conditions, you’re expected to produce a harvest — hit revenue goals.
Undeniable forces are at play both in farming and in business. Just as the seasons of nature shape a farmer’s approach, the seasons of an industry or market dictate what is required of the sales leader. Experience isn’t enough. Good intentions aren’t enough. What worked before won’t in today’s conditions.
These principles from my sales leadership book Revenue Harvest are inspired by the parallels between selling and farming, two of the world’s oldest professions. We can apply seven timeless principles of farming to sales management in order to yield the revenue harvest that your team is expected to produce.
Seven Principles for Sales Leaders
The most important of the seven principles, sales planning requires you to imagine every worst-case scenario that may crop up during the selling season and consider how you’ll deal with it. Otherwise your sales playbook template will quickly become obsolete. The planning phase also challenges you to interject the sales function into your company’s business objectives and understand how your team’s goals support those larger objectives. Finally, the Plan chapter will prompt you to rethink how you distribute sales targets to your reps — and, in fact, how you ultimately organize and manage your team.
Your sales team may willingly embrace your plans for the upcoming selling year. Or they may not. Does the plan change the way they work, challenge them with stretch revenue goals, or assign them to new roles? Understand that your plan will face resistance, subtle or otherwise. The steps you take to position the plan — to gain buy-in first from key influencers and then from the full team — will make or break your revenue harvest.
A good plan that’s embraced by an unprepared sales team is a recipe for a long selling year. The Prepare chapter outlines the steps you need to take to set you and your team up for success. Setting you up for success means surrounding yourself with the right people, properly trained, in the right positions. Your success also depends on your ability to hire quickly when a key player inevitably departs.
Preparing your team means offering your reps constant opportunity for learning and skills development — not just when they first join the company, but throughout the selling year and throughout their time with you. Training builds competency, absolutely, but it should also build cohesion and culture among the group. Furthermore, it demonstrates your commitment (and the company’s) to each employee and their future, making them feel appreciated and respected … and less likely to jump ship.
The farmer who doesn’t plant has nothing to harvest. And yet most sales leaders spend too much time harvesting (closing) and not enough time planting (prospecting). What’s worse, some teams simply stop planting altogether; they get so caught up in managing existing customer relationships that they lose sight of business development. And that’s a guaranteed path to a poor harvest, perhaps not this year, but soon.
As you consider strategies to increase your team’s capacity to plant, you’ll begin to see the wisdom of creating two distinct roles for your reps. The sales development rep — a role that may be new to your organization — is assigned to working the top of your sales funnel, to planting new accounts. Account reps are tasked with closing highly qualified prospects, maintaining client relationships, and seeking new business within existing accounts. You’re not planting enough if your sales team is responsible for every stage of your sales process, from prospecting through relationship management.
The Tend chapter in my sales book may be the one that is most disruptive to your current way of doing business. It will prompt you to take actions that challenge your status quo — particularly to restructure your team to focus not on geographic territories (long the m.o. for sales teams) but on accounts. Tending well for a successful revenue harvest begins with defining the two sales rep roles as discussed in the Plant chapter, and then redefining sales territories so that account managers oversee all business related to a single customer instead of subdividing that customer region-by-region. Account-based management leverages the reasons why customers buy from you (spoiler alert: their decisions aren’t based on location) and deepens account relationships.
Shifting your team in this way will also alter the way you (and they) plan for the selling year and how you communicate during the tending period. In the Tend chapter, you’ll get the tools and concepts you need to implement an account-based management system.
The harvest. It’s the goal of all the planning and planting and tending. Sales reps and their leaders spend loads of energy on the harvest — and plenty of the best books on sales cover the art of closing. Yet a strong harvest is never guaranteed.
As with farming, the harvest happens out in the field. It’s the most intimate part of the sales process. It has to be done with care. This chapter will teach you how to harvest — to close — with dignity and respect. And it will outline your very personal role in harvesting.
Farmers use techniques like rotation and cover crops to regenerate the soil after its nutrients have been depleted throughout the growing season.
We both know that sales is a consuming profession. Client interactions sap personal energy. Travel and long hours take their toll. Pressure to exceed targets wears down even veteran reps. The sprint to the finish line of the selling year leaves the team exhausted. Yet they’ll be expected to be at the top of their game when the calendar ticks over to the new season.
As a leader, your responsibility is to maintain your own level of energy and commitment, and to provide time and space for your team to restore theirs. Find the right times during your selling season to make rest and restoration a priority.
A Path to Confident Leadership and Business Results
Sales is not the profession it was ten, even two years ago. It’s never been easier to identify and contact customers than it is today. Because it’s so easy to find your ideal customer, investors and executives expect results — often aggressive results — instantaneously. This means that the pressure on you, the sales leader, is higher than it’s ever been in your career.
These seven principles will guide you in the coming sales year and also build your confidence as a leader. Since the beginning of time, farmers have been using these same seven principles to feed generations. Sales leaders who apply these principles will produce results, regardless of the market’s conditions.
Nigel Green helps investors, executives, and sales leaders of quickly-growing companies eliminate chance and create predictable sales growth.