3 Big challenges of managing remote sales teams
The days of polyester suit-wearing, whiskey-swilling salesmen (back when they were almost exclusively men) are behind us. Even the days with a dozen salespeople sharing the same office and going down the list of their leads are becoming a thing of the past. There are still many companies that do it this way, probably the majority of them actually.
However, we are also seeing the rise of a new kind of a sales team – a sales team that does not share an office and whose boss is not physically behind them, overseeing their every step.
We are seeing the rise of the remote sales team.
The anatomy of a remote sales team
We live in the days that would probably be best described as the infancy of remote sales teams. Therefore, they are far from an established practice and they take many forms, depending on a number of factors.
For example, you have hybrid sales teams where the management and a few of the salespeople are in a single location while they have additional team members who may be hundreds of even thousands of kilometers away.
You also have sales teams that are fully remote where the manager of the team actually never gets face to face with their team and where other team members also never share the same room.
Furthermore, you can have a remote sales team that will be assembled in one location and managed by a remote manager who is at the headquarters.
Some such teams even manage to operate in different time zones and with members that speak different languages as their mother tongues. Other such teams will work in the same city, but, for whatever reason, they will decide to sell remotely.
As you can see, there are many variations to a remote sales team and depending on the anatomy of any specific case; the challenges of managing such a team will differ.
Challenge #1 – Less face-to-face contact
One of the tenets of sales team management is communication. In a more traditional “in-situ” sales team, a manager can simply walk to a sales rep’s desk and tell them what they had in mind. This allows for a rapid response and effective feedback when needed and it also allows for a superbly nuanced approach to managing sales reps. The value of nuance in communication cannot be overstated.
This becomes much more difficult with remote sales teams and individual remote sales reps. Much of the communication is done via the phone or using some kind of a chat software. In the majority of cases, a sales team manager will have to depend on textual communication or just audio. In such communication, nuance is often lost and it is more difficult to give timely input.
On a more “big picture” level, managing remote sales teams and reps often suffers from certain mis-communications and, what is most often, unexplained things that should have been explained.
An added problem can be multilingual and multicultural teams that require even more tact and even more time spent promoting increased, neutral and comprehensive communication.
Since these communication breakdowns can have a devastating effect on how a sales team does, a manager of a remote sales team has to do everything in their power to encourage and facilitate communication. This should entail as much video conferencing as possible, even for one-on-one situations. It should also entail regular meetings with the entire team that will last for as long as they need to last.
Finally, the manager needs to ensure that the remote members of the team feel free to ask anything that has to do with their work. Absolutely anything.
Challenge #2 – Reduced oversight
There are sales managers who like to let things work themselves out and who do as little actual managing as possible. These sales managers are in the minority and for an average manager, this is the surest way to mess things up.
Most sales managers like to have great oversight and to be able to react at a moment’s notice. With remote sales teams and reps, this becomes much more difficult to do.
For one, it is all but impossible to spend a day just listening to the salespeople and absorbing everything they are doing right and wrong. Unless you manage to hook up some kind of an elaborate video conferencing (or even surveillance) system, this is impossible. For many a sales manager, this can be a big issue.
Also, remote workers sometimes tend to feel less accountable. This is often the case in sales teams that have on-site salespeople and remote ones. Remote ones sometimes lose sight of the fact this is their workplace and they soon start showing signs they are not working as hard as they should be.
A manager needs to make sure this does not happen. Just because the salespeople are half way around the world, if their office hours begin at 8 a.m. (whatever the time zone), they need to be present and selling at 8 a.m. at the latest.
In managing a remote sales team, the manager will simply have to start employing some kind of a project management tool so as to stay on top of what everyone is doing, how goals are being met and how this ties in with the bottom line. The best way to approach this is to do some serious project management software comparison and find the solution that best suits one’s needs.
The important thing is for the manager to stay on top of their remote sales team and never allow their salespeople to forget this is a job.
Challenge #3 – No sense of team
We have already touched a bit upon the third big challenge of managing a remote sales team as part of the first two – the diminished sense of belonging to a team. Still, this can be such a huge problem for some sales managers that it definitely deserves more attention.
The nature of remote sales teams is that they operate as teams mostly only on paper. In reality, these are separate individuals going about their business on their own, only being called a team because this is how things used to be done in the past.
Probably the main reason for this is that we still see mostly-digital teams as less real and connected than actual, in-person ones. You have to remember that these are still the very earliest days of digital and virtual business and it will take us more than a few years to start seeing virtual teams as actual teams.
A manager of a remote sales team will want to try to speed up this process. Unless they are perfectly happy with their salespeople working totally on their own (some managers are fine with this), they will need to try and instill this team feeling in their remote sales reps.
Team meetings will be the first step here. However, keep in mind that these will not be your regular business-oriented meetings. These will be informal chats where people will talk about their passions and personal preferences, getting to know each other.
Managers should also encourage the use of Skype, Slack or similar tools where sales reps can talk during office hours, and not just about their work. Of course, these should not take over entire days, but some informal chat should be tolerated and even encouraged. A manager should also do everything in their power to encourage sales reps to reach out to one another when they need help or advice.
In-person meetups can also be a good thing if it is possible to organize them and if they do not ask too much out of team members, like traveling for half a day just to reach the meetup.
One other thing that can help turn a remote sales team into an actual team is to remember to onboard new employees. From the first day, they have to be aware of the fact they are becoming a member of a team and that they are not just a cog that is being inserted for a certain period of time. Virtual onboarding is different from the more traditional onboarding, but it can still do wonders.
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James D. Burbank has managed all kinds of teams in his 15-plus years in the trade show industry. With a few friends, he runs a business-oriented blog called BizzMarkBlog.