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How to create a healthier culture in your sales team

It may seem counterintuitive to some managers, but running a high-achieving sales team requires a more holistic approach – including a focus on staff wellbeing – than chasing the next revenue target

All too often in a target-driven profession such as sales, managing the health and wellbeing of employees plays second fiddle to hitting the numbers. A common problem is that, while firms may be happy to focus on wellbeing when times are good, “it’s the first thing to go if teams start underperforming”. 

So says Ashlie Collins, the founder and CEO of Humane Startup, a consultancy that specialises in training and coaching business leaders and sales professionals.

“It’s a short-sighted approach, but there is an erroneous assumption that sales targets aren’t being hit because people aren’t working hard or smart enough,” she says. “Their leaders will ramp up the pressure to generate immediate results when they’re behind, but the long-term impact of this will be detrimental.” 

Carl Day, chief sales officer at managed service provider Apogee, agrees. Such pressure is rarely effective, he says, but it does generate significant levels of stress, particularly if the goals are unrealistic.

“No matter how successful a salesperson is, they always fear they’ll be out of a job if they don’t hit their targets,” Day says. “If the company doesn’t create the right opportunities, offer the right support or change the inputs, it can create a lot of anxiety, because things are simply out of your control.” 

Other actions that generate an unhealthy sales environment include the consistent application of short-term incentives; the use of language laden with military metaphors and analogies; and publicly praising people who work when they’re meant to be on holiday or sick leave.

Any team leader can get sales by applying pressure, but that approach has a short shelf life. You’ll never grow the business organically that way

The upshot of this kind of approach, Collins says, is “an entire generation of folks who just burn out”. Alcohol and drug abuse also tends to be common among teams that are managed in such a way.

Another common, if less dramatic, outcome is that “people simply run out of ideas and become stale”, Day adds. This is because “their focus tends to narrow” when they are put under too much pressure.

So what can leaders of sales teams do to create an appropriate balance between pushing for first-rate results and maintaining employee wellbeing in the process? 

The key to long-term results

The first thing is to understand that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, Day believes that ensuring the wellbeing of the team is vital if high levels of performance are to be maintained. 

“I’d argue that it’s the only way if you want good long-term results,” he says. “Any team leader can get sales by applying pressure, but that approach has a short shelf life. You’ll never grow the business organically that way. Indeed, you’re more likely to encourage unethical behaviour.”

But Day adds that “it’s quite a brave executive who’ll support you” in introducing the appropriate cultural changes. This is mainly because a sales team’s performance will often level off as its members adjust to the move away from a “carrot-and-stick, command-and-control culture”. The initial disruption caused in this transitional period, he says, tends to make people “jumpy”.

Day speaks from experience, having led such a process himself. He had the slight advantage of doing so during the UK’s first pandemic lockdown, when trading conditions were difficult and expectations were relatively low. 

His sales managers also had more time available than usual for training and development activities. He focused on teaching them how to get the best out of their team members by adopting more of a coaching role, finding more constructive and personalised ways to motivate individuals. 

Apogee also implemented a scoring system that assessed sales team members’ competence in a range of activities, including account management. The results informed which training and coaching interventions were needed to help individuals develop their skills and work to jointly set improvement targets.

Managers need to understand their people and what motivates them, but too many aren’t spending enough time on this

The company then engaged a highly decorated former Royal Marine to provide coaching to the teams and their managers. This ongoing programme emphasises the importance of mental wellbeing in building resilience.

Collins believes that sales professionals and high-performance athletes have a key factor in common. She explains: “The secret to success for both lies in unlocking what’s standing between them and achieving their goals, most of which resides in the unconscious. People don’t suddenly wake up one morning and forget how to sell, but there are lots of things that can inhibit them, especially if they’re working in a sustained high-stress environment.”

As a result, it’s crucial that they “become aware of what shuts them down and find new ways to respond, rather than reacting with fear and simply repeating old patterns”, Collins argues.

Building a positive culture

Pete Evans, co-owner of sales training and coaching provider SalesStar UK, stresses the vital role that leaders of sales teams have to play in creating a culture based on trust and psychological safety. Doing this will enable their teams to feel heard, understood, valued and supported, he argues. 

“The crux of it is that managers need to understand their people and what motivates them, but too many aren’t spending enough time on this, as they get drawn into admin,” he says. “The problem then is that they don’t know where their teams are facing challenges.”

Day observes that making such a cultural shift will “take time and require resilience”. On the one hand, it’s about encouraging managers to change bad habits that may be deeply ingrained in certain cases.

“Some managers believe that the only way to get results is to scream and shout. If you want them to adopt a more supportive approach, it can feel very alien to them and make them feel exposed,” he warns. “Some will actively resist such a change.”

On the other hand, creating a better-balanced sales team also requires shifting the focus away from one or two ‘superstars’. Training and coaching are key to ensuring that everyone makes a valued contribution to their team’s overall performance. 

Day believes that the considerable effort required to change the culture of Apogee’s sales team has been worthwhile, not least in performance terms. Its profit generation per head has risen by 25% since before the pandemic, for instance.

“An element of this improvement has been market-driven, but much of it is down to the cultural shift in how the team is motivated and supported,” he says. “While an executive-level understanding of the challenges that sales professionals face is always helpful, I would put wellbeing at the top of the list of factors contributing to the team’s success.”