The management game Featured

9:55am EDT July 22, 2002

Scott Madzia, manager of corporate accounts for Nextel, demands a lot from his top sales people. “It’s tough sometimes to manage great sales people,” he maintains. “They’re often arrogant and cocky.”

It is the attitude of those overachievers, however, that separates them from the ones who struggle to meet their monthly quota.

“I treat top performers harder than others because the expectations are higher,” Madzia says. “It’s a pitfall for some managers, though, because other reps see all the attention they get and feel shortchanged.”

Madzia is not alone with his dilemma. As any supervisor who manages superstar talent knows, there is a fine line between giving top performers what they need and ignoring the rest of the staff. The last thing you want to do is neglect young sales people who may need, or want, a little extra help to get them over the hump.

The balancing act means ensuring the stars don’t rest on past laurels and let their numbers fall.

“I don’t want my top guys to get comfortable,” Madzia says. “I want them to keep their edge.”

Keeping that edge is what helps drives superior sales numbers month after month, maintains Joe LaGuardia, regional vice president of Ohio Sales for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

“Fire in the gut is what keeps salespeople in the top 20 percent,” he says, referring to the commonly held perception that 20 percent of your sales force produces 80 percent of your revenues. “It’s like Vince Lombardi said, ‘If you’re not fired up with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.’”

It’s why LaGuardia gives his top people as much of his time as they need.

“I tell them I’m available from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. That way, they’ve got my attention if they need it.”

LaGuardia combines that access with extensive freedom, letting his most consistent performers make command decisions without micromanaging.

“They know what needs to be done without me,” he says.

When his input is required, it is usually to land a major account or lend his expertise to a large-scale project.

But not every sales manager subscribes to the let-them-loose-and-see-what-happens theory.

“They have to be coachable,” says Paul Hanna, president of Meritech Blue. “Sales people are not born, they are developed. There is no such thing as a natural born sales person. They have to be trained. That’s not to say they don’t start with those talents, but they have to be brought out and developed properly. I’m a firm believer of constant training.’

At Meritech Blue, sales people — even the top ones — undergo weekly training sessions to keep them sharp. “I preach one thing,” says Hanna. “A disciplined, well-trained, highly motivated sales force.”

Despite any difference in philosophy, the desired result is the same — production.

So what happens when your sales people hit upon a formula that works and duplicate it over and over? Madzia says at that point, it’s important to devise new challenges to keep their competitive spirits active.

“I’ll challenge my guys to come up with new applications for existing accounts or other ways to improve their numbers,” he says.

Another school of thought is to give them more responsibility, such as tutoring other sales people.

“We’re a team,” explains Michael Faix, manager of sales and marketing for Great Lakes Computer Corp. “Individual accomplishments are part of a bigger whole. The very best sales people are those who not only meet and exceed individual goals, but also assist others in meeting their goals and improving themselves.”

At Sprint PCS, district sales manager Chuck Schiffhauer offers his top sales people the opportunity to get involved in the planning process.

“It’s motivational,” he says. “A smart manager knows when to jump in and assist when he sees his top guys’ eyes starting to wander. I’ll get them to start thinking about ideas which can help improve our entire organization.”

But no matter what your philosophy for managing top sales people, one constant remains: Do whatever it takes to keep them performing.

“Sales is not an easy profession,” Schiffhauer says. “And you have to treat every person in it differently.”