Are you feeding the Sales Beast?

Are you feeding the beasts?If you want to keep a beast happy – feed him.

If you want to keep your salespeople happy – feed them too. But feed them with good leads and qualified prospects.

All too often, salespeople are told to find their own leads and prospects. There is nothing wrong with that. When times are slow, doing some research on the side is OK. But if your salespeople are spending too much prospecting, that means they are spending too little time selling.

Based on numerous studies, the average salesperson only spends about 30 percent of his time actually selling. The rest of the time is spent on training, administrative work, account management and other tasks.

This is why it’s so important to have a marketing team on board to help your sales team. Using tools like (formerly Jigsaw), DiscoverOrg, Zoominfo, and others can help your sales team generate more business.

What’s worse than a bad salesperson? A bored one.  Why?  Because bored salespeople who are good in their profession start seeking other opportunities. And you don’t want that to happen.

So always feed the sales beast.

Note: If you like my post, please check out my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

Five bad habits to break at Trade Shows

I just got back from a large trade show and I notice five bad habits that I think all vendors should break.

don't be late for a trade show1). Tardiness – if the trade show starts at 9:00 a.m., then make sure you get your ass there on time. The last thing you want to do is come to a booth late, and find a note from a potentially good prospect who writes that he may stop by later. We all know from experience that most prospects are not going to “stop by later” because they get busy visiting other booths, attending workshops…or meeting with your competitors!

2). Arrive early to set up your booth or tabletop display. I know. As much as we try to plan ahead, things happen. Your flight is delayed. Your hotel claims they don’t have your reservation. The taxi cab driver doesn’t know where the convention center is located. I get that. But try to get to the exhibit hall area ASAP. You never know what problems you are going to face, e.g., there are no chairs because your department didn’t know they had to rent them before the trade show, or there is no electricity because you didn’t know you had to purchase it for the booth, or the scanner you are renting isn’t working properly, etc. You get the drift.

I actually once worked for a company that required all salespeople to arrive one day in advance to set up the booth. However, I realize that some companies have tight budgets and depending on the location and flight availability, you may have to fly in the same day the trade show begins and quickly set things up a couple of hours before the doors open. I understand. Just do the best you can.

3). Don’t leave your leads out all night – I will sometimes arrive early to an exhibit hall to check out other exhibits and get ideas. This is especially true if I’m the only one managing the booth and I don’t have time during the day to walk around. I’m constantly surprised by the number of vendors who leave their leads out on the table all night long. Sure, we’re professionals. We don’t steal. But how can you be sure that some unscrupulous competitor isn’t going to come along and pinch your leads? This is especially true at large trade shows where there isn’t enough security. Either hide your leads in your booth (some trade shows rent locked cabinets) or take them to your hotel room.

BTW, the same goes for candy. I once left a candy bowl out on the display table and when I returned in the morning, most of my sweets were gone. So hide your candy too!

4). Don’t stand or sit like a statue – engage. It amazes me that companies will spend thousands of dollars sending salespeople to attend trade shows and they don’t engage with attendees. Instead, they sit on their butts working on their laptops (which only signals to prospects that are you too busy to be bothered) or read their own marketing literature that they should be handing out.

You need to engage.

That means if someone gives you eye contact or looks at your booth, you may ask them “does anything catch your eye?” or “have you heard of our company or product?” Hopefully, by asking those or other questions, attendees may approach your booth and you can engage them in a conversation to determine if they are good prospects or not.

engage with attendees at trade showsAlso, don’t trust that your booth display or table top will be enough to draw prospects to you. While your marketing department may do a good job developing interesting visuals, at the end of the day it’s up to you to bring home good leads. That means if someone walks by and starts avoiding eye contact with you, call them out by asking them a direct question. By doing so, they may come over and speak with you. This tactic is especially helpful at large trade shows of 100 plus vendors where attendees are overwhelmed, busy and tired. You have to think of attendees as cattle – you have to drive them home through the open range.

Attendees, like cattle, need direction.

5). Turn your frown upside down. I understand. Trade shows can be long and sometimes boring when walk-thru traffic is slow. You get tired. Your feet ache.

But put yourself in the place of the attendees – they are sometimes spending hours walking from booth to booth, listening to sales pitches, and having sales literature thrust among them.

The last thing an attendee wants to see is a sad or disappointed salesperson at a booth. So smile. Be enthusiastic. Show real interest. Be curious. Who knows, you may land a sale or two that could put you over the top when meeting quota.

There, you have it. Break those five bad habits and you should do well.

Now go sell!

Note: If you like my post, please check out my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

Are you a sales lead squatter?

I recently read comments on a discussion board from a salesperson who complained that he and his team were being laid off partly because senior “lazy” salespeople were sitting on good leads for too long. In addition, another sales office might be shut down soon.

His argument was that if the senior salespeople cannot convert leads into sales by a certain time period, they should transfer those leads over to junior salespeople who may have a better chance of converting them. He further argued that junior salespeople are more hungry and motivated to close good leads because they don’t have large pipelines to cushion themselves when meeting quota.

Are you a sales lead squatter?Squatting on good leads has always been a touchy subject in sales. On the one hand, you want to be fair to salespeople and give them enough time to work the leads. Depending on the industry you are in, it can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to two years before you can convert a lead into an order.  On the other hand, if you suspect that a salesperson isn’t putting enough time and effort into working the lead, and you feel you could do better, what should you do?

While you can privately complain to others, the best approach is to discuss the issue with your sales manager. But you don’t want to appear greedy or bad mouth your colleague. Instead, you want to take a more “we need to work as a team” or “we need to do what’s right for the company” approach. Maybe offer some suggestions on how you would approach the non-responsive lead. Chances are if your manager is smart, he probably is already aware that there may be a problem. But if you don’t complain, he may not move quickly to resolve the issue.

Why? Because most managers know how sensitive lead transfers can be. It takes a certain amount of deftness and diplomacy to remove leads from one salesperson to transfer them to others. I’ve seen fights and arguments break out on this very issue. In fact, I’ve seen salespeople quit on this very issue.

While this problem can be handled on a case-by-case basis, the best way to avoid sitting on good leads too long is to set some ground rules from the very beginning. This way everyone knows up front what is expected of them, and what benchmarks they need to achieve in order to keep their leads.

The ground rules could include the following –

1). Number of attempts – while I don’t believe that sales is a process or a numbers game, you would expect a salesperson to make anywhere from 6 to 8 attempts, i.e., phone calls, emails, voice mail and maybe even a customized direct marketing piece. Again, depending on the industry you are in, the attempts could stretch out for weeks, if not months, before a good lead is transferred to someone else, or goes into the dormant file for a while.

2). Has contact been made? – If after x-number of attempts and time goes by, the salesperson hasn’t reached the decision maker (or even knows who the decision maker is), then maybe it’s time to hand it off to someone else. In exchange, give the salesperson some other qualified leads to pursue.

3). Contact has been made, but you’re not getting anywhere – Let’s say the salesperson has made contact with the decision maker, but an order hasn’t been placed. For whatever reason, the decision maker isn’t budging, and no end appears in sight. The salesperson has been sitting on the lead for months (if not years). At this stage, it’s usually better to have the sales manager step in and work closely with the salesperson rather than yank the lead from him. Simply handing the lead off to someone else may undermine your efforts, and force your company to start from square one. Once your manager has reviewed the situation, he can better determine who and how the lead should be managed.

a helping hand in sales4). You know someone who could help – If a salesperson has been sitting on a good lead for a while, and you know of a contact who can help you reach the decision maker, what should you do? In that situation, it may be better to hand off the lead to you. Sometimes, the salesperson sitting on the lead may be grateful that you’re taking over because it means he can focus on more productive leads. In addition, he may appreciate your efforts because he doesn’t want to look bad to his sales manager for not closing the sale. Sure, he may have some initial resentment towards you, but eventually, he may see you as being his white knight rescuing him from a bad situation.

Besides laying out some ground rules, another approach to avoid lead squatting to is hold regular pipeline meetings to review leads and accounts. Usually, pipeline meetings are held once a week. Come to your pipeline prepared. Don’t be defensive. Tell your manager upfront if you are having problems with specific leads or accounts. Ask him for his advice – after all, he’s the manager!

If you know you’re not getting anywhere with a lead, and you’ve tried everything you can, recommend that the account is transferred to someone else. While some may consider this a show of weakness, in reality, most good managers will see this as a sign of strength and maturity on your part. Better to cut your losses early than let them linger on to have your competitors pluck your sale from the company.

Remember, your leads and accounts don’t belong to you. They belong to your employer. Like it or not, your employer sometimes needs to make unpopular decisions that may not appear to be in your best interest, but what is in the best interest of the company as a whole.

Better to hand off unproductive leads to others than lose your job because the company isn’t generating enough sales. Exercising good judgment is better than squatting.

Note: If you like my post, please read my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

Top photo credit: Brighton housing action via photopin (license)

Do you have a clogged sales pipeline?

clogged sales pipelineWhen your pipes are clogged, you call the plumber.

When your sales pipeline is clogged, who do you call?

You can speak to your sales manager. Maybe he can help you. Or, you could speak to your co-workers and seek their advice.

But at the end of the day, your sales pipeline is your responsibility.

Before I move forward, let’s define what a clogged sales pipeline is – it is a pipeline in your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system where you have too many leads that you are not following up on, or have fallen through the cracks.

This can happen for several reasons. Maybe you are spending too much time attending trade shows, and you haven’t had time to make follow-up phone calls. Maybe your sales territory is too large, and you don’t have time to cover it all. Maybe you are receiving too many inbound leads, and you don’t have time to call them. Whatever the reason, a clogged sales pipeline can hurt your ability to increase sales, which in turn, means smaller commission checks.

What is the solution?

1). Winnow down your leads – review them on a monthly basis and eliminate the leads that are not high priorities, and you strongly suspect are not going to buy soon. That doesn’t mean that you should drop them completely. You can always circle back in a few months. But for now, put them on the back-burner and focus on ones that will close soon.

The biggest mistake a lot of salespeople make is that they sit on leads far too long when they know in their guts they are not going to order. Keeping those leads in your pipeline only distracts you, and makes you look incompetent. And depending on how leads are distributed to your sales team, you may be hurting yourself from obtaining fresher and better leads from your sales manager.

2). Do you have real leads? Or are you sitting on a bunch of prospects? What is the difference? A lead is a client that has either contacted you and has expressed an interest in your products or services or is a referral that you received from one of your existing customers. A lead is also someone who you have contacted directly and is interested in speaking with your further, but he hasn’t “sealed the deal” yet. On the other hand, a prospect is a potential lead that fits your client profile, but you haven’t contacted him yet.

My point is to make sure you have a pipeline of active leads that could close soon, and not a bunch of prospects that you have to weed through.

3). What is your sales cycle? Every industry has its own sales cycle. Depending on what you are selling, it can take anywhere from a few days to two years to close a sale. For example, if you are selling products or services that historically have a two-week sales cycle, but you are still sitting on leads after six months, maybe it’s time to close those leads lead and circle back later. Or better yet, make sure you are actually contacting the right decision maker. Maybe the real reason your sales pipeline is clogged is that you are contacting interns and secretaries rather than the CEO or someone in upper management. And check the phone number – I actually know of salespeople who spent months calling the same phone number only to find out later they were calling the wrong number. Or worst, they find out the hard way that the lead left the company months ago, and the HR department never bothered to forward the phone calls or emails to another employee.

4). Are you following up enough? Another reason you may have a clogged sales pipeline is that you’re not following up enough. As a general rule, when making cold calls, space your contacts out every 4 days. Unless you’re told otherwise by a lead, stretching out your contacts too long could be hurting your sales. Make at least 8 to 12 attempts (by phone, voicemail, and email). After all of those attempts, if you still haven’t talked to your lead, put him on the back-burner and contact him later.

Clogged pipelines are not difficult to clean. Just use some best practices and common sense, you will find yourself back on the right track.

Note: If you like my post, please read my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career

20 Questions to Ask during a Sales Position Interview, Part 2

This is part 2 of my post on questions to ask during a sales position interview.

sales cycleQuestion 11). What is the average sales cycle?

This question is important because it will tell you when you will start earning commission or bonuses. If a company has a long sales cycle, chances are it may be weeks or months before you earn any commission. If that’s the case, is the base salary high enough to sustain you until you receive your first commission check? I’ve worked in sales jobs where it can take up to two months to two years before companies make buying decisions. This is especially true when you are dealing with large corporations. Can you afford to wait that long before receiving a commission? Make sure you have a clear idea of how you are expected to build up your pipeline, and the time frame for achieving that goal.

customersQuestion 12). Who within those companies will I be selling to?   

The purpose of this question is to determine the types of clients you will be expected to deal with. This will give you a sense of how comfortable you will be working with certain groups of prospects. If you have been selling mainly to small business owners, and are now expected to sell to C-Level officers who are more powerful and influential, can you handle that? Only you can answer that question, but at least you will have some idea what you are walking into.

In relation to this, you may want to find out which is the most profitable group of clients the company is selling to. Many companies sell to different market segments, and some do better than others. For example, if you are told that law firms are the most profitable, compared to the nonprofit organizations for which there’s a sales opening, is this a job you want to pursue? Now granted, maybe the compensation package is different to make up for the fact that you are selling to a less profitable group. If that’s the case, now would be a good time to find out.

hurdles of sellingQuestion 13). What are some of the common hurdles or challenges your sales team is facing right now?

Your goal is to find out what problems the sales team is facing and what management is doing about it. For example, if their competitors are kicking their butts, how is the company addressing that problem? If the sales team is spending thirty minutes or longer processing simple orders, is the company planning to streamline the order entry system?

who is your boss?Question 14). Who do I report to?

Chances are, one of the people doing the interview will be your sales manager. But beyond him or her, will you need to report to others? If yes, now would be a good time to find out.

I once worked for a sales manager who was extremely weak. He had the title, but not the backbone to do his job. I found out the hard way that the real boss was an outside consultant who burst into our office about once or twice a week. While our sales manager pretended to be the decision maker, it was the consultant who really called the shots.

And if you are lucky enough to be interviewed by the sales manager, now would be a good time to ask your prospective boss a few questions: Why did you decide to work for the company? How would you describe your management style? Can you give me a little background on your sales career? If you did your homework, you probably read the manager’s LinkedIn profile, but it wouldn’t hurt to show some interest in the career of someone you hope to work for.

A related question would be:

“What is my sales manager’s leadership style like?”

a successful saleswomanQuestion 15). What are you looking for in a salesperson?

This is good to ask early in the interview process because it will signal what type of candidate they are trying to hire. Are they seeking a road warrior who will travel a great deal throughout the year? Are they seeking a cold caller who will be banging the phones all day? Are they seeking someone who has a consultative sales style, or a hunter who persistently seeks new leads and doesn’t take no for an answer?

Once you find what type of salesperson they are looking for, you can either tailor your answers to match their questions, or realize you made a mistake applying for the job, and politely walk away from the interview. My advice is to walk away if you’re not a good fit. In the short run, you may get the job, but in the long run you will be miserable trying to be someone you’re not.

If you like this post, please read my book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career for more help.

resources for salespeopleQuestion 16). What resources do you have available to help salespeople accomplish their jobs?

Are they using the latest and greatest CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool to manage your accounts and sales, or are they still using Excel spreadsheets? Do they have an ample inventory of office supplies, or do you have to run to Staples or Office Depot every time you need new pens? If you are dealing with overseas clients, are there any restrictions on making long-distance phone calls?

I have worked at companies where I had to buy thank-you cards out of my own pocket. I’ve even bought my own pop-up Post-It notes because the company considered the product too expensive to buy and stock.

marketing teamQuestion 17). Can you describe to me what your Marketing Department is doing to help the sales team?

This question is important because it will give you a good insight into how sophisticated the company’s marketing efforts are in generating leads for the sales team. Is the Marketing Department generating leads or are salespeople expected to generate most of their own? Are they following a good social media plan? Or better yet, do they have someone on staff devoted exclusively to maintaining the company’s social media? How well is the Marketing Department working to promote the company’s brand? Are they planning to attend a lot of trade shows?

In short, the better the Marketing Department is at helping you, the better you should do in sales.

Related questions would be:

“What type of marketing does the company do?”

“Is the marketing department helpful to the sales team?”

“How does the company obtain leads?”

competitionQuestion 18). Can you please tell me more about your competitors? Which ones are you most worried about?

Ideally, you did your homework and you already know who some of the competitors are. You may even want to impress the interviewer by mentioning a few during the interview. The purpose of this question is to get the potential employer’s perception of who his competitors are and the strength and weaknesses of the major ones you will do battle with. I actually had one owner who lied to me when I asked if his company had any competitors. I didn’t find out until after I accepted the job that I was facing at least four competitors in the market. So don’t make the same mistake I did. Do your homework.

Here are some related questions to ask:

“What are your competitors doing that your company is not doing?”

“What advantage does your sales team have over the competition?”

Don’t feel that you are offending your potential employer by asking these questions. You may have done your homework, and know some of the answers, but it’s better to hear it from the horse’s mouth. All companies face competition. Your goal is to get the potential employer’s spin on the competition and determine if their perceptions match reality. If not, don’t jump on their fantasy bandwagon. Go to another interview.

knowledge and information sharingQuestion 19). How is information shared among the sales staff and various groups within the company?

The purpose of this question is to determine whether you are working in a transparent or secretive company. This is important to you because it could determine how successful you are. Working in an open environment means you have access to what is going on in other departments. As a salesperson, it would be extremely helpful to know what the marketing and production teams are doing. In marketing, what new campaigns are they planning to release this year? Are they planning to obtain new leads? Are they planning more trade shows for you to attend? About production, what new products are they planning to release this year? Are any new enhancements or upgrades to this year’s roadmap? Are they planning to discontinue any products?

Working in a secretive environment is unhealthy and counterproductive. If you have no idea what other departments are doing, or where the company is heading, it’s going to be tough to sell confidently. You don’t want to be caught off guard or look foolish to your customers if a product is suddenly discontinued, or enhancements are made without any advance warning. You will benefit when you remain in the loop.

I actually worked at one small publishing company that would not internally announce any job openings. One day you walk in, and suddenly a new employee is sitting close by. At one of my previous jobs, a saleswoman was shocked to find that another salesperson had been hired without her knowledge and that her sales territories would be divided up.

The more secretive a company, the more difficult it is to share and offer suggestions. When ideas flow, a company grows. If there is little willingness for employees to collaborate and exchange ideas, your sales efforts could be crippled.

I have worked with both transparent and secretive companies. Transparent companies are more healthy places to work. People trust each other and are more willing to work together. Secretive companies tend to make people suspicious and wary of one another.

job interview for salesQuestion 20). If you were me, what would you do differently now that you didn’t do when you started working here?

Potential employers are always surprised when I ask this question. Apparently, it’s one of those questions that job candidates rarely ask. The purpose of the question is to gain insight into the mistakes your potential employer made so that you don’t follow in his footsteps. It also puts your potential employer in your shoes for a second by reminding him of what it was like to start a new job at his company.

The questions I’ve suggested above are not in any particular order. You don’t have to ask them all. Since most interviews are normally one hour-long, you probably won’t have time to ask most of them anyway. That’s OK. Just select which questions are most important to you and be prepared to ask them.

I would encourage you to create your own list of questions. However, I hope you get the point that you need to take responsibility for your career and financial future. Put your fear and anxiety aside and ask tough questions. I guarantee that most potential employers will respect you for it. This shows you have done your homework, you are prepared, and that you take sales seriously. That’s exactly the type of salesperson most companies are looking for.

Please let me know if you have any comments.

Note: The above questions were published in my e-book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.


20 Questions to Ask during a Sales Position Interview, Part 1

Questions to ask during a sales job interviewWhen it comes to job interviews, asking questions is a two-way street. In fact, most career counselors encourage you to ask questions during an interview. Why? Because it shows the potential employer that you are interested in the position and that you’ve done your homework.

Below is a list of questions that I recommend you ask. I will explain why each question is important and help you determine if the answers you receive are red flags.  Part 2 of this post will be published next week.

Question 1). I notice based on my research that there appears to be a high turnover of salespeople in your company. Is that true and could you explain to me why that is the case?

If an employer admits turnover is high, that’s actually a good sign. At least he’s being honest with you. I actually had one potential employer tell me up front there was high turnover. He had just taken over the department a few months earlier and felt it would be better, to be honest, and let me know what I was getting myself into.

But few of us are that lucky to have a potential employer tell us the truth. So in most cases, you need to dig deeper and find out what is causing the high turnover. Some companies may tell you turnover is high because they have “high expectations” of salespeople; if they don’t achieve their goals, they are asked to leave.

What they are really telling you is that the quotas are extremely or unrealistically high, and frankly may be out of reach for most salespeople. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some companies are looking for the crème de la crème. If you can’t hack it, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Selling is hard work. Maybe they are not looking for glorified order takers, but real hunters and aggressive closers. Maybe they are looking for salespeople to work late hours or be road warriors and travel to all parts of the country or world. Just know that if you accept this job, you had been warned up front about the high turnover. Be prepared for a major sales workout.

If a company doesn’t admit it has high turnover or brushes off the question, they are not telling you the truth. If a company isn’t honest with you on that question, they may not be honest with you about your other questions. My advice: don’t work for them. Politely leave the interview and don’t look back.

Of course, there may be other reasons for high turnover. Sometimes bad management plays a major role in people leaving. Some companies may be reluctant to fire a bad manager because he has strong relationships with major accounts, or he’s married to the boss’s daughter. Whatever the reason, companies may look the other way.

Other reasons for high turnover may be a bad compensation plan, or a poor allocation of accounts, or territories that are not paying out well. We all get dealt a bad hand of cards in life. It happens. You may be good at your job, but no matter how many sales calls you make, or how thoroughly you know your product line, you’re not cutting it. As they say in poker, you have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

As I mentioned earlier, turnover may be high because companies are not successfully qualifying job candidates, or not setting the right expectations for a sales position. For example, I worked for a cruise vacation company that would cast a wide net to bring in several salespeople at once. After a two-week training program, you had three months or less to prove yourself. The turnover rate was so high that after a few months maybe one or two employees were left standing. The rest either quit or were fired. There were situations where entire training classes were gone in a few months.

Why did this happen? Because the company believed quantity was more important than quality when hiring salespeople. If they had invested the time to screen job candidates more carefully during the interview process, they may have hired fewer salespeople but would have had lower turnover.

slicing up or dividing prospects or sales leadsQuestion 2). How are accounts and leads assigned or divided up?

Unless you are coming on board with a stellar resume, or left a competitor to work for a new employer and can bring your old accounts with you, chances are you will not be assigned large accounts or prime leads right away. Until an employer believes you are thoroughly knowledgeable about the product line and have demonstrated good sales skills, you will be assigned old expired leads and smaller accounts. Don’t be offended by this. You are on your training wheels right now. Before you can start contacting and working with the big boys, you have to prove yourself to a new employer. This is true even for someone who has been in sales for a while. Don’t walk into a job expecting large accounts and great leads to be handed to you on a silver platter. It’s not going to happen. With every new job, you have to prove yourself all over again. However, if you know what you are doing, and can demonstrate solid sales skills, a good employer will move you to the fast track right away.

With assigned accounts, you are looking at the projected sales. While this is not always very scientific, if an employer has been managing those accounts for a while, they have a pretty good gauge of their potential. They may at first assign you to smaller accounts. As you develop and demonstrate good sales skills, they may gradually assign you larger and more profitable accounts.

Sometimes smaller accounts or leads can yield surprises because the previous account manager didn’t work those accounts or leads thoroughly enough. I once worked for a company where a new sales rep was assigned a “double zero” account. That means a prospect that had never placed an order. The account was transferred to him by a senior sales rep. A few weeks after the transfer, that account ordered more than $5,000 worth of products, a big order by our standards. What happened? The customer got fed up waiting for back orders from a competitor and decided to order our products. Lucky? Maybe. But this underscores why you shouldn’t thumb your nose at smaller accounts or leads. Because in sales, sometimes luck is all you have to keep you going until you build your pipeline.

Besides luck, sometimes it’s all about timing.

I know a young saleswoman who started her first real sales job at a publishing company. She was selling and managing accounts for an online subscription service. She wasn’t making much money and was becoming discouraged. However, within a few months, a senior account manager resigned, and she was assigned all the departing manager’s large accounts with better sales potential. The manager decided it was easier to assign her the large accounts while the outgoing account manager was available to help her than to replace her. (In fact, many sales managers are reluctant to post help wanted ads for new hires. If they can hire someone internally for the position, or get a good referral, they will move quickly to fill the open spot).

When it comes to finding out how accounts and leads are assigned, don’t be afraid to get down to specifics. Are accounts assigned by market segmentation? Are accounts assigned by geographic territories? Account assignments by market segmentation normally are based on the revenue size of the account in a specific industry. Generally speaking, smaller accounts are assigned to new sales representatives and the larger accounts to the more senior ones. Market segmentation accounts may also be assigned by the account’s field. For example, some salespeople will focus only on law firms, while others will focus on non-profit organizations or medical facilities. It comes down to what type of services and products your company is selling.

If the accounts are assigned by geographic territories, then you probably will get a mixed bag of small and large customers.

Some companies do not rely on territories at all but divide up accounts based on the percentage of leads you currently have. One way to think of this is that each salesperson has a lead bucket. If your lead bucket is too full, you will get fewer or no leads for a while. Conversely, if you have very few leads, you will receive more leads until your bucket is almost full. Usually, the most senior salespeople have the highest number of leads because they have been with the company the longest. A few new leads will trickle in from time to time, but those top performers are expected to devote most of their time to managing what’s already in their large buckets.

This system of allocating leads works well when you are selling products with a long sales cycle, and where not having a territory really doesn’t dramatically affect your sales.

Regardless of how accounts are assigned, you need to have a thorough understanding before accepting a job offer. You don’t want to get burned or be caught by surprise.

paid training for sales peopleQuestion 3). Do you offer paid training? If so, for how long? What type of training is involved?

Are they going to throw you into the fire, or offer you some good product training? Generally speaking, the more complex the products or services you sell, the more training you will undergo. If you are selling software or cars, you will probably take extensive in-person and self-study courses before you meet your first customer or prospect. If you are selling subscriptions or advertisements, your training will be shorter and not so extensive.

Before I sold durable medical equipment and software, I went through two weeks of paid training. Some of my training was class work, but most of it was from reading the company’s product and sales material. I had to study the company’s catalog inside and out. I also had hands-on training by working in the company’s warehouse. For example, I would work with a specific product one day like hand rims and then work in the shipping department the next day. I found this to be very helpful and gave me a better appreciation of the shop employees’ work.

Before I sold any software, I would also take some coursework. But most of what I learned was from studying online material, watching demos, and listening and watching other salespeople work.

While product training isn’t going to make you a better salesperson per se, at least you will start out with a strong grounding in the products you are selling.

After my formal training, my studies did not stop. I continued to learn more about my employer’s product line on my own time. I also spent time studying the competition and the industry in general.

are you hitting your quota?Question 4). Is there a quota? If yes, how is that quota determined?

I’ve discussed quotas before in a previous post.  You should always know up front what type of quotas you are expected to meet. Are quotas measured on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis? This could be a good measuring stick on whether the company has realistic expectations or pie-in-the-sky goals.

For example, I know an old-school salesman who once sold cars for a very popular dealership in Maryland. His sales manager had a very strict quota system: Every month the salesperson with the lowest numbers would be fired. It made no difference what his sales had been year-to-date, or his level of seniority. In fact, a five-year veteran car salesman was fired because he had the lowest sales one month. He cried at his desk because he was afraid his wife would divorce him for being unemployed.

When my friend asked his boss why he has such a strict quota system, his reply was, “I want to keep everyone on their toes.”

Nice guy.

The salespeople tolerated the strict quota system because the dealership offered good benefits and a good compensation plan.

No matter what type of quota system you work under, just know up front what you are getting yourself into.

Related to this, you may ask what percentage of salespeople meet or exceed their quota. This will give you a good indication of how realistic or doable the quotas are at your prospective employer. Obviously, if only a small percentage of salespeople are meeting or exceeding their quotas, this may be a bad sign that the turnover rate is high, and you may find yourself working in a “churn and burn” sales department.

If you like this post so far, please check out my book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career for more help.

improvements in products or servicesQuestion 5). What plans do you have to improve your products or services down the road?

Most interviewers like to ask what you plan on doing in the next five years. Well, you can turn that question around and ask what the company plans on doing in the next five years. This question shows you want to know if the company has a good roadmap for developing its product line. And more important, it shows whether you are hooking on to a company with a bright future, or one with static business plans.

If you have done your homework, you may already know about a company’s plans. You may want to bring this up during an interview, and ask a potential employer to provide you with more details. However, some privately owned companies may not be very public with their plans. In that case, you will have to dig a little deeper. You are not trying to be nosy. Your goal is to see if the company is growing and if your income will grow with it.

did a salesperson leave the company?Question 6). Why is this sales position open? Are you expanding or did someone leave?

If you have done your homework, you may already know the answer to this question, but it doesn’t hurt to ask anyway. Your goal here is to see if the employer is telling the truth. But you also want to get a sense of what direction the company is going, and if hitching a ride with a potential employer will help you with your financial success.

As I mentioned earlier, a high turnover rate is not necessarily a bad thing. You just need to be prepared for a hectic ride. If the position is open because someone found another job, no big deal. It happens. If the company is truly expanding its sales staff because they can’t keep up with all their leads, and they expect more sales in the near future, then you could be in the catbird seat to rake in some big bucks.

Be careful if you are told you are replacing someone currently employed but who may soon be fired. While it may be your ideal job, be prepared initially to deal with some cold shoulders and evil eyes from the previous employee’s friends and co-workers. While they may not blame you for your predecessor’s downfall, you will feel their wrath at his boss’s decision to terminate him. If you find that you are replacing a current employee, find out why. You have to right to know if you are walking into a minefield. If you do replace a terminated employee, stay cool, keep your nose to the grindstone and do your job. After a while, your colleagues will come around and respect you. We all have to make a living.

Even if you are not told that you are replacing someone who will be fired, you can pick up on certain signs. For example, I was once asked to go to two interviews for a company: one at 7:00 a.m. on one day and one at 6:00 p.m. the next day. It was very clear to me that they were trying to replace an existing employee and didn’t want him to see me walking in wearing my interview suit.

Related questions would be:

“How many salespeople do you have on your staff?

“Has the number of salespeople increased or decreased during the past few years?

This is a good question because it will give you a sign of whether the company is experiencing growth or has been downsizing its sales team.

“Are you planning to hire more than one salesperson at the same time?”

The answer to this question will determine if you are walking into a “churn and burn” sales department. I once knew someone who moved to California after accepting a job selling digital advertisements. When she arrived at her new job, to her amazement, she found herself joining several other new salespeople who had accepted the same job offer. It turned out she was part of a class of newly hired salespeople who were all going to do the same work. She quickly realized that she was being roped into a high-turnover sales department with tough quotas. After working for a few weeks, she quit and found another job.

Sometimes owners will be sneaky and hire two new salespeople at the same time without telling you. The goal is to pit one against the other and see who wins. Right out of the front gate, you find yourself competing with another new hire, crawling and scratching your way to obtain only one sales job. In a few weeks or months, the best person wins while the loser is licking his wounds and taking the long walk

typical day of a salespersonQuestion 7). Can you describe for me the typical day of a salesperson at your company?

The goal with this question is to get a sense of what you are getting yourself into. You want to find out what the workload is like, learn how you are supposed to set your priorities and get a better understanding of what your potential employer expects you to do. How much time are you expected to be on the phone or making outside sales calls? How much administrative work are you expected to do each day? How many sales meetings are you expected to attend?

This is a good time to get down to specifics here. How many outbound phone calls are you expected to make? How long does it take to enter orders? Are you expected to do your own research for prospects, or not? Do a lot of sales reps work overtime? Is there a lot of traveling involved?

Also, try to find out if any tasks will require your immediate attention once you come on board. This will give you an idea of whether you are coming aboard a well-run ship or a rat’s nest of problems.

For example, when I applied for an exhibit booth sales position for a non-profit organization, I found out the person I was replacing had been fired. Her supervisor was trying to clean up the mess she had left behind while selling booths for a major trade show. In short, her mess was going to become my mess. I didn’t mind that too much, but then I found out it would take more than a month before they would even consider me or others for the second round of interviews. That meant more of a mess piling up that I would have to deal with when I joined the company. I politely took myself out of the running and declined to come back in for a second interview.

when are commissions paid outQuestion 8). When are commissions paid out?

Although most career interview advice books discourage you from bringing up salary until you get an offer, or at least until you feel you are close to getting a job, in sales, it is almost expected that compensation will be on the forefront of your mind.

Some employers may already tell you up front how much you will be expected to make. They may even give you detailed (and sometimes confusing) charts to show you how and when you will earn a commission.

My point is: don’t be shy about asking about commission up front. The better you understand how commissions are paid, the better off you are in making an intelligent decision about accepting a job offer.

I once worked for a publishing company that created a new advertising position for our bi-weekly newsletter. Most of us thought the job was an uphill battle. We believed the new position wouldn’t generate enough advertising revenue to support a salesperson. We were right. They hired a young woman with little sales experience who quickly became discouraged. She became even more frustrated when she realized she wouldn’t get paid any commission until the company collected the revenue. To make a long story short, she lied about getting paid by advertisers so she could collect her commission. When this was discovered, she was fired.

The moral here is simple: she didn’t ask in advance how commissions would be paid. If she had known from the beginning, she may not have accepted the job.

(By the way, after she was fired, the position was never filled. The publisher quickly dropped the idea of selling ads for the newsletter.)

Related questions would be:

“How much is an average sale?”

“How many salespeople achieve bonuses for a high level of sales?”

If only a handful of salespeople are achieving a high level of sales, ask why. What makes them better than the other salespeople? What are they doing differently than the average or less than average salespeople? Or do the salespeople achieving the most bonuses have better territories or account assignments? Dig deep here. You have a right to know.

advancement opportunities in salesQuestion 9). What kinds of advancement opportunities, if any, are available?

Are you eager to move ahead in your career at the company? Most companies have only one sales manager. Some may have an assistant sales manager or two. But beyond that, if you want to remain in sales, your advancement opportunities may be limited. It depends on the type of sales environment. If you are working in the Inside Sales department, and you decide to work in outside sales, this may offer greater opportunity for advancement and more income. It doesn’t hurt to ask this question. It shows ambition.

However, if you want to move up the corporate ladder and become a VP or director of something, working slavishly in the sales department may not be your ticket to the top. Some companies like to promote from within while others hire from the outside. Ask the right questions and do some research and you will find your answer.

ramp up time to do well in salesQuestion 10). What is the ramp-up time before I’m expected to meet my quota or earn commission or bonuses?

The purpose of this question is to determine how much breathing room you have before you are expected to earn your “keep” in the company. Most companies expect you will go through a learning curve before hitting your stride.

At one company, I earned a higher than expected base salary for the first two months on the job, but my base salary was lowered once I began earning sales commission.

At another company, I was actually paid a small fee for every trial I generated from a prospect. This was on top of the commission I earned for my sales. This fee was paid during my first five months on the job.

If you are working for a company that pays straight commission, in some cases it may pay you a small base salary for the first two or three months to give you time to build up your pipeline.

Some companies may not give you any breathing room at all, and you are expected hit the ground running. If that’s the case, ask yourself if it is the right job for you. If not, move on to the next interview.

Look for Part 2 of this post next week. 

Note: The above questions were published in my e-book Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.

photo credit: 178/365 – Don’t Be Blinded via photopin (license) (cash in hand photo)