Sales team management: How to inspire change from within

by Steli Efti

Your latest sales strategy isn’t working. Your team is losing steam, close rates are down, and your lead pipeline is almost empty. You spend all night putting together a revamped strategy to turn performance around—but when you announce your 10-point plan to the team, you’re met with blank stares and apathy. They’re not biting.

How do you get them on board? How do you get them to trust your new decision, and believe that you’re right this time around?

As a sales manager, the first thing you need to do is take a step back and fix your attitude. Even if you know exactly what needs to change, it’ll never happen if you expect your team to switch direction on a dime, take your word for it, and commit 100% to a new strategy just because you tell them to. Instead of looking at numbers on a spreadsheet, and how you can get them higher, look to your team.

If you work at a startup, your reality and your environment are constantly in flux—and not every strategy can work out every time. Getting your sales team to embrace change from the ground-up is the only way you can survive, and it has to start with you.


1. Be transparent about the “why” and “how”

When current FlipBoard CEO Mike McCue was running his first startup, he faced a decision that would put most teams at each other’s throats: license his software to AT&T for a boatload of cash, or face them as a competitor.

He knew there was only one right call. But instead of just giving the order, he got the team in a room and started an open conversation around the decision. He started with first principles: “immutable facts, which, once known, can be built upon to enable further discoveries.” Within 45 minutes, they agreed to turn AT&T down—which is what he wanted from the start.

McCue could have handed his decision down from on high. By starting with the problem and the facts, he got the team thinking about solutions instead of objections. Even people who still disagreed with the final call had to respect that it was reasonable under his assumptions.

As a sales manager, this is one of the most powerful tactics of persuasion in your arsenal. Writers call this “show vs. tell.” Sell your team on a strategy change by showing them the problem, and lead them through the facts so they’re able to reach the decision you made by themselves.

You and your sales team need to reach what Hiten Shah calls problem alignment, where everyone understands three things:

  • The problem: the key result that isn’t being met. This is a measurable fact, not an opinion.
  • The root of the problem: why the current system isn’t working.
  • The solution: the change you plan to implement, and why you think it will solve the problem.

It’s all about giving your team context. If you lay out the rationale behind the change, they'll understand the potential upside rather than look for reasons to disagree.

Documentation means authority

“The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.” — Warren Buffet

However, it’s not enough just to reach problem alignment—you need to follow through, and transparently document the new strategy as you implement it.

It’s human nature to fall back in old, bad habits. As Harvard Business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out, change in the workplace often creates feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty, and self-doubt. Even when your team agrees that the old way of doing things is failing, they’ll lapse back into it without clear direction.

Share clear, written documentation outlining what’s going wrong and how your strategy will fix it. Make everything about a new strategy 100% clear, in one central place, and available for everyone to access. When you give a one-off speech, it becomes “tribal knowledge” and is forgotten within minutes.

When you write something down, it becomes an actual strategy and a process that can be scaled. Instead of being buried as “something our boss said one time,” the new strategy becomes an explicit credo that everyone can easily follow and look back at in times of uncertainty.

2. Get down in the trenches and lead by example

In 208 BC, Chinese general Xiang Yu faced nearly impossible odds, leading 50,000 men against an army of 400,000. So he did something drastic: he burned his army's ships—their only means of retreat—so that their only option was to win the battle. Xiang was telling his men, “No one gets to go home. Including me.

Xiang was doing more than just making sure no one could run away. He was putting himself and his soldiers on even footing. He wasn’t just giving them an impossible task and throwing them to the wolves—he was diving in with them.

Anyone can just tell their team to do something hard and then disappear. But you need to burn the ships, lead by example, and show your team you’re fighting with them. Show them that you’re 100% committed to the new strategy and not asking them to do anything you’re not willing to do yourself.

Get your hands dirty

Here’s what leading by example looks like in the context of a new strategy:

  • Imagine you’ve determined that tripling the number of times reps follow up with new leads from two to six will increase sales.
  • It’ll be a tough pill to swallow. You know that the strategy is an improvement measure. But your team will be thinking, “Does he really think this will work? It’s easy to just dump extra work on us when he’s not the one on the front lines.”
  • The solution: You need to get in front of the team and do your six follow-ups in front of them. That shifts their interpretation of the new strategy to “Wow, he wouldn’t be wasting his time on this if he didn’t really believe in it.”

That’s why when David Greenberger onboards new sales reps, he sets their quota at a third of what he can do. If a rep comes to him and says, “It’s not possible to close 60 leads in 60 days,” he can respond with, “I know it’s possible. I closed 180 in that span.” By showing reps that he's basing expectations and strategy on what he does himself, he gets his reps clocking up to 300 calls a day.

3. Measure and iterate relentlessly

Jeff Bezos’ #1 measurement of intelligence isn’t IQ. It’s willingness to change one’s mind. The smartest people aren’t the ones who come charging in with a plan, guns blazing—they’re the one’s who have a plan, but are willing to adapt it to the facts. They constantly look for new takes on “problems they think they’ve solved.”

Your new strategy can’t be something you cooked up in a day and said, “Yup, this is perfect.” That’s the same mentality that makes your sales team resistant to change in the first place. No strategy is ever perfect, because circumstances are always changing.

Practice what you preach and obsessively measure and test the success of the new strategy with your whole team. Admit when you’re wrong, and take ownership for your own mistakes. Go to the team for new suggestions, and implement them. You’ll build more efficiency, learn better, and improve faster. More importantly, your team will feel actually invested in the new strategy.

As a sales team manager, you don’t want your sales team to accept change—you need them to seek it out proactively.

Rally the team around metrics

Keep performance at the forefront of your team’s mind. Put up a scoreboard of the metrics measuring both the strategy’s results and the team’s output. That keeps both parties accountable—them for putting in the work, and you for guiding the strategy's success. Then, have weekly meetings where you update everyone on the team's progress, and ask for feedback.

That acts as a huge motivator in two ways:

  • When your team is crushing its goals, you tap into the science of small wins. Each little bit of progress will make your team want to keep improving. As the numbers improve, it both validates their hard work and motivates them to get even better.
  • Even falling short is an opportunity to reinforce commitment to the new strategy. Your sales reps are out there, working on the ground—go to them for ideas on what’s working and what isn’t. By opening the floor, you give them a sense of ownership over the strategy.

Constant testing and iterating is what allows startups to adapt—but without purpose, it’s often demoralizing for team members. Let the numbers speak for the success or failure of your strategy, and inform your next move.

Adapt or die

At a startup, you have to jump quickly on chances to improve—new market opportunities, big product improvements, new sales strategies—but that can only happen if your team is willing to pivot and try new things.

More often than not, you’re at the mercy of factors out of your control, so focus on what you can control. By fostering a mindset in your sales team that actively embraces and seeks out change, you transform the unpredictable into opportunity. In the long-run, it’ll create far more upside for you and your business than any single new strategy.

Recommended read:

Trial by fire: The new manager’s guide to building a sales team
Building your first SaaS sales team? Don't rush into hiring or creating commission plans. Here's how to create and manage a great sales team.

Sales team seasonality: How to maximize downtime
Even in sales, business slows down—but you don't have to. Maximize downtime by doing these three things and when sales picks up again, you'll crush it.

The #1 avoidable mistake 99% of sales managers make
It's a small mistake but too many sales managers are making this mistake—and it's HURTING their sales reps' performances. Fortunately, it's easy to fix.