Despite the dual challenges of Brexit and Covid-19, the U.K. remains one of the best places in the world to build a technology company.
The readily available ingredients include a strong research culture in our world-renowned universities; a deep pool of world-class technical talent; abundant capital (aided by well-crafted tax breaks for investors); and a mature ecosystem that enables knowledge transfer and provides support.
However, one ingredient that is found far too rarely is founders who understand how to build a world-class sales team. Perhaps it is an outdated view that sales is not a ‘profession’ or a long-term career. Or maybe it is a reflection on our education system, which is long on theory and technical understanding, but short on real-world skills. Or perhaps the lack of operators in venture capital with sales experience is to blame.
Regardless of the cause, the most successful companies being built in the U.K. today recognize that sales is a critical part of their business.
For founders starting on their journey, here are six tips to build the foundations for a world-class sales team.
Hiring. A world-class sales team needs world-class salespeople. Whilst hiring any type of talent is hard, founders need to be especially wary here. A sales vacancy will generate a large number of applications from people who are naturally good at selling themselves (but not necessarily your product or service) and have always ‘smashed their targets’. Add steps to your hiring process that include interviews with experienced salespeople from your team (or your wider network if you are just starting out), take references from all previous positions, and request evidence of their achievements by asking for three to six months of payslips showing basic salary and commission. This last step can be particularly effective at weeding out candidates with a sub-optimal track record.
Team structure. Salespeople tend to operate better as part of a team, rather than on their own. This reflects the challenging nature of working in sales, where success requires a considerable amount of failure and rejection along the way. A sales team acts not just as a way of encouraging friendly competition, but as a support network for those difficult days where nothing is going your way. Without a team, lone salespeople can easily become demoralized and quit without fulfilling their potential. Hiring several salespeople at once and bringing them into your company together is more likely to succeed than building a team more slowly, one person at a time.
Team motivation. To get the best out of your salespeople, you need to figure out what motivates them. Start with a product or service that they thoroughly understand and can get passionate about – sales teams frequently fall at the first hurdle when they lack a comprehensive understanding of what they are selling or feel ambivalent towards it. It is your job as a founder to convey this knowledge and passion to your sales team and then reinforce and update it through a comprehensive training program. Once they have this, build a strong culture that encourages friendly competition, rewards and celebrates success, and supports team members through the difficult times.
Individual motivation. Stereotypes about salespeople have spawned an entire category of memes and, for those without experience managing a sales team, it would be easy to assume The Wolf of Wall Street is some kind of sales management 101. Stop! Salespeople are individuals and the most powerful thing you can do as a founder is to get to know each of them on a personal level. Figuring out why they get out of bed each morning to do a tough job should give you the insights you need to help support them better in their day-to-day work and find truly impactful ways of rewarding their success with personalized treats.
Working environment. Put yourself in the shoes of your sales team when creating their working environment. Whilst a day of focused coding requires peace and quiet, a day of cold calling and getting rejected on 99 percent of your calls requires something quite different! A bit of background music, impromptu competitions, pizza deliveries, bell-ringing/horn blasting when a deal closes – just some of the tried and tested ideas to implement on a buzzing sales floor. Consider also leaderboards and other internal leagues (for example, most outbound calls in a day) to create a fun atmosphere that drives people to achieve more. They need to be big, bold, and visible to everybody in the office. Of course, different industries will require slightly different approaches, but in general, remember that it should be full of energy and a fun place to be.
Commission plans. A well-thought-out commission plan aligns the interests of the sales team with the objectives of the company. Start by choosing the right metrics – are you measuring units sold, revenue, profit, or something else? Once you have chosen the metrics, ensure you can readily measure them so that you and your salespeople can monitor their achievements in real-time (a lack of transparency here can lead to people becoming demotivated). Keep the plan simple – accelerators, decelerators, kickers and bonuses tend to complicate matters and create unintended consequences (the most obvious of which is sandbagging). Communicate the plan thoroughly so everybody understands and buys into it. Once the plan is running, build trust by minimizing changes (targets or metrics being adjusted create the impression that you are trying to minimize the amount of commission being paid out). Finally, if the plan is not working, sit down with the team, explain why and then explain the new scheme in detail so that they fully understand and buy into the changes.
Once you have your team set up for success, you need to monitor performance. This may feel a little uncomfortable at first, but it is key to ensure that you have objective information about how the team is doing on a day-to-day basis, allowing you to proactively react to any looming disasters. Sitting back, hoping for the best, and then missing your target at month-end is not a viable option here. Start by measuring actuals (such as calls, emails, and talk time) and benchmarking across your team to provide some initial insights into performance and then optimize from there.
Sales is both an art and a science, and the best practitioners are some of the most valuable people in any business. Founders should recognize this at the earliest stages of building their companies to embed a strong sales mentality in their DNA.
Combining world-class salespeople with world-class technical talent is a recipe for success for the U.K. to continue building some of the world’s great technology companies.