In sales, should you use a Mentor?

The first few weeks of any new sales job are critical to your success. How you are treated and on boarded can make the difference between staying or leaving your new job.

Since January is “National Mentoring Month,” I recommend that one of the best ways of reducing high turnover in a sales department is for the sales manager to appoint a mentor to help a new salesperson.

should salespeople use mentorsNow, I know what you are thinking – isn’t mentoring supposed to be the job of the sales manager? Well….no.

Here’s why –

1). Sales managers are busy. Depending on the company and industry, the sales manager may be managing his own set of accounts, or even making prospecting sales calls. In addition, sales managers are frequently attending meetings, doing administrative work, coaching, conducting weekly meetings or pipeline reviews. As a result, they are not always going to be available to help new salespeople.

2). Sales managers can be intimating. Let’s face it, if you are fresh out of college or if this is your first or second sales job, your sales manager may be a lot older and more experienced than you. As a result, you may feel embarrassed coming to him with your problems. After all, the sales manager is the person who conducts your annual or mid-year reviews, and signs off on your commission or bonus checks, and ultimately determines whether you have a career with his company or not.

3). Sales managers are human. That means they have their own pet peeves. Some may not like you bothering them with too many questions or concerns. Some may interpret your constant questioning as a sign of weakness or stupidity (while forgetting what it was like when they started out in sales).

4). Sales managers must adhere to the company’s policies. Even if your manager privately agrees with your criticism of the company or its policies, as a subordinate to upper management, he must publicly support the company. Like you, he doesn’t want to lose his job. So if you complain too much or loudly, the sales manager may fire you or force you out by assigning you bad leads.

Here are the advantages to having a mentor on your sales team –

1). Comfort – Some sales people may feel more comfortable speaking with someone who is considered his “equal” – by age or experience. Also, if you have any specific problems with your employer, your mentor maybe more receptive to hear your complaints without ratting you out. In fact, he may even privately agree with you. However, I wouldn’t be too open to your mentor until you trust him enough to keep your concerns confidential. Think of your mentor as being your sounding board – someone you can confide in and get things off your chest.

2). Saves time – both the salesperson and manager may appreciate a mentor saving time by being accessible, especially for easy questions such as how to use a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) more efficiently, or how to enter orders, or how to make international phone calls, or how to use the scanner on the printer.

den of angry wolves3). Peace of mind – the new salesperson has the peace of mind that someone is watching his back, and is available for help. Too often new salespeople feel like they are walking into a den of wolves, and thus get the cold or cool shoulder from senior salespeople who feel threatened by a new face. This is especially true if there have been grumblings about the poor quality or quantity of sales leads. Or maybe senior salespeople are upset because they feel the recent sales territory assignments are unfair. For whatever reason, at least initially, some salespeople are treated like an uninvited guest to a party or wedding.

Should the salesperson select a mentor?

Sometimes. But I recommend that initially the sales manager selects a mentor for a new salesperson. Remember – starting a new job is difficult enough without a new salesperson walking into a minefield of different (and sometimes difficult) personalities to find the right mentor. The goal of the sales manager is to help the new salesperson hit the ground running, build up his pipeline, learn about the company’s products and services, and understand the industry as a whole. The last thing you want is a salesperson wasting time trying to find a mentor, and getting the brush off from busy senior salespeople. Of course, after a few months, the new salesperson will naturally build relationships with others on the sales team, and may find a de facto mentor. But in the beginning, I would recommend selecting a mentor for him jump-start his career.

Who should be the mentor?

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe it should always be the more senior or experienced salesperson. Instead, I would select someone who is patient and emphatic. The mentor doesn’t have to be a smartest or most knowledgeable person on your sales team; instead, he should be someone who remembers what it was like to be the new “sales guy”, and how he wished he had someone around to show him the ropes.

To make the task a little easier, you may want to give the mentor a bonus or some other incentive like x-number of extra vacation days for the time he’s spending to help the new salesperson. This will make a mentor more willing to assist a new employee.

I remember watching a documentary a few years ago about an American family that moved to Japan. Rather than enroll their teenage daughter in an exclusive international school, they decided to have her attend a Japanese public school (the daughter knew how to speak Japanese).

On the first day of school, the principal assigned the young woman to a student mentor. It was the role of the mentor to attend the young woman’s classes with her, introduce her to other students, and be her “buddy” until she could feel more comfortable in her new academic environment.

That’s why having a mentor is so important – to make new salespeople more comfortable until they are ready to tackle major accounts and assignments.

Selling is tough. You face daily rejection. You deal with the challenge of making your monthly or quarterly quota. You have to learn about new products or a new industry. You have to find out who you can trust and not trust on your sales team. You have to deal with office politics.

But by assigning a mentor to a new salesperson, his first few weeks will go a lot smoother and hopefully you will have a long-term employee working for you.

Below are some helpful articles on mentoring –

“Leadership and Mentoring of Young Employees,” by Jim Horwath
“Benefits of Establishing an Employee Mentoring Program,” by Andrea Poe