A little advice to a struggling Territory Manager

I had dinner with a colleague tonight.  He’s a Territory Manager and he’s not doing well.  There are some bright spots in his performance but it’s more cloudy than sunny these days.  He’s been mired up for months.  He fidgeted at the table.  He played with his water glass, twisted his napkin, and crossed his arms tightly across his chest.  He looked afraid.  He might have worried that he was being going to be fired.  When I asked him how the job was going he looked down and said “I don’t know what I’m doing…”  The sentence was ghostly.

His hopelessness reminded me of my early years as a Territory Manager.  I thought the job was going to be cakewalk.  I envisioned days on the golf course, the expense account lunches, clients who were always excited to sit down and talk about ideas and business and who were automatically loyal.  I envisioned a big paycheck and, in hindsight, that was my ignorant motivation for taking the job.  I was wrong.  Purpose always pays better.

I was assigned a mentor.  He gave me a few hours of his time.  His only advise was “don’t fuck this job up.”  In lieu of practical insight I committed myself to having the most organized van–plastic milk crates filled with neatly stacked files and product literature and a few trinkets.  I committed myself to having the most Frankliny Franklin Planner and carefully decided that a 9mm mechanical pencil was the best pencil to improve the Frankliny Franklin Planner.  Comical really.  In the face in uncertainty we often turn to the small things in order to provide a sense of direction and progress.

It reminded me of the afternoon when my brakes failed.  Months of thoughtless, empty appointments and I’d driven the brakes off a company car.  I dangerously drifted through Ballard, terrified.  Dumbfounded that the brakes had given out.  I couldn’t stop.  Out of control.  Stupidly unprepared.  Like my friend.

There are things that I wish someone would have shared with me when I was a young salesman.  It would have saved me all of the insecurity and aimlessness that I felt at a time when structure and direction would have felt like true north.  To my colleague I’ll share these thoughts:

1.  A plan isn’t something you create the night before the workday.  If you’re building your schedule the morning of then you’re in a bad place.  Start planning your day and your week well in advance.  It’ll give you time to anticipate, prepare, contact your clients, and have a predetermined agenda to go in to the meeting and to go out of the meeting.  Take the guesswork out of the planning by planning well and planning ahead of time.  Don’t get caught flat footed because your clients won’t tolerate it for long.  Business owners generally hate having their time wasted.

2.  Confidence isn’t a shell game.  You can try to fake it ’till you make it but that only lasts so long.  Confident salespeople are confident because they have a plan and work the plan.  This gives them control.  Control removes ambiguity to a certain extent.  You’ll sleep better knowing you’ve accomplished your goals.

3.  Be merciless with your time.  Spend time with accounts who are regular buyers and have a demonstrated loyalty and commitment to your brand.  Use the rest of your time to get new business.

4.  Fill your pipeline.  If you’re not adding new business (which is to say “buyers”) then you’re not doing your job.  Adding new, qualified accounts is a priority not something to do in between meetings.  Do this on a regular basis.  Don’t wait until you’re in panic mode to find new business.  You’ll make poor decisions.

5.  White Whale prospects generally have longer conversion cycles than smaller targets.  It’s easy to obsess about converting the 800 lb. gorilla in the market.  If you want to flip these guys you’re going to need to anticipate multiple decision makers, hidden influences, various divisions, and demanding owners.  Prepare like mad if you want to take a swing.  And get ready to have to take lots of swings.  Just don’t burn the ships in search of the city of gold.

6.  Small dealers grow fast, are fairly easy to influence, and will grow much faster (proportionally) than large accounts.  There is a solid case to be made that you’ll have an easier time and make more money flipping smaller accounts who have high-growth potential.  Personally, I love these guys.

7.  It’s ok to fire accounts.  You’re not doing yourself or your company a favor by spending priceless time with accounts who will not drop a competitive product, give your product a fair shot in their mix, participate in your programs, demand unreasonable requests of your time or company, brow beat you, regularly reschedule meetings, and create a win-lose relationship.  Your accounts, your best accounts, practice win-win business.  If you’re paid on growth then seriously consider moving non-growth accounts in to house accounts.  Your life will get better.

8.  Know your numbers.  Your boss expects you to know your numbers.  Your clients benefit from this as well.  If your business acumen is lacking then jump on to the Khan Academy, take a few free business modules, and learn to speak the language of business.  This will pay dividends down the line.  Business owners speak business and you should too.

9.  Find a mentor.  Not a buddy, not a water-cooler pal.  A mentor.  Find your Obi Wan Kenobi.  A good mentor will help you find maturity and stability.  A mentor takes your from Padwan to Jedi.

10. Learn to say “No.”  Trying to be everything for everybody detracts from sales-facing activities.  Setting boundaries will actually free you up to focus on what matters.

11.  An endless to-list only means you’re busy.  It doesn’t mean you’re getting anything done.  Too many TMs wrongly equate a perpetual state of self-imposed stress with productivity.

12. Don’t kid yourself.  Your last month was crap?  Your last month was great?  Super.  It’s over.  You’re only as good as your last sale.  Own the moment and be prepared for the next.  Above all, be honest with yourself.

13.  People spend time with people they like.  But they buy from people who bring value.  If your clients aren’t growing with you then it’s probably because the time-to-value equation is out of whack.

14.  Most business owners prefer you show them how to improve top/bottom line growth over an incremental discount, ball game tickets, free stuff, or lunch. Stay focused on their profitability.  It’s their primary goal.

15.  The job title is Territory Manager.  Not Territory Monitor or Territory Maintainer.  Recruit the best talent you can.  Coach them.  Train them. Support them.  Partner in their success.  Above all, be active.  Be IN your accounts.  They’re YOUR team.  Take pride in their growth and own their failures.  This isn’t going to happen automatically.  Make your luck.

There’s a lot more to the job than my friend anticipated.  I think he thought it was going to be a snap to jump in to a new role and automatically see the results.  It’s never easy.  That’s business.  There aren’t any accidental successes.  There’s only planning, inspiration, strategy, repetition, refinement, learning, decisions, integrity, confidence, humility, honesty, value, acumen, risk, forecasting, hard work, grinding it out, fortitude.  You know, the easy stuff.

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