From the October 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

Are you attempting to pilot a sales squad while shackled to your desk? While you may be cranking out an awe-worthy pile of paperwork, succumbing to the never-ending administrative requirements of running a sales team may render you a moribund manager. To truly gauge the health and competence of your sales team, you need to ramp up for habitual field visits with your reps. Why must you relinquish your comfy Aeron roost? Because "behavior can't be changed in a classroom or sales meeting," explains Karen Lund, owner of The Lund Group, a productivity and profitability consulting firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. Here's how to get your mentorship motor running:

  • Know what you want to learn on the call. Make the most of your time by deciding what you want to know before you jump into the passenger seat. Todd Miller is the founder of SalesHeads.com, an Oklahoma City Internet job board for sales professionals nationwide. Miller suggests determining five to seven key areas of accountability, which may include the rep's presentation skills, the customer's overall satisfaction level, and how happy the client is with the content and timing of the rep's visits.
  • What's the frequency? The timing of field visits will vary, but shoot for a regular schedule. Newer reps may require your tutelage more often (perhaps monthly), while seasoned reps can go longer stretches between check-ins (perhaps quarterly). Miller encourages sales managers to accompany newer reps at least once a month for the first three months, while cautioning that timing will require tweaking to allow "breathing room for the rep and planning time for the manager."
  • Understand ride-along etiquette. Your role as a manager on a field visit is mostly to observe, gather information, and provide feedback to your reps privately. Never upstage a rep in front of a client. In fact, Miller encourages managers to "[stay] in the background and avoid taking control of the meeting."

Lund concurs, adding that the sales manager's role at the meeting must be active but not principal. "The salesperson is in charge," stresses Lund.

  • Use the time as a bonding experience. While you're seeking to understand how you can better serve clients, don't overlook the opportunity for one-on-one time with your reps. Try to work in lunch or dinner, and ask lots of questions.

Wally Bock, a Wilmington, North Carolina, consultant who helps small businesses with leadership strategy, believes a ride-along is an ideal time to gather "internal intelligence." He says managers should solicit feedback from reps, including how reps see the company, what the company does that keeps reps from selling as much and as effectively as possible, and what the salesperson thinks needs to be fixed at the company.

  • Make ride-alongs part of your quota. Rather than arbitrary visits when something has gone awry, let your team know you'll be accompanying them on a regular basis. This approach will not only curb reps' grumbling about having you along, but also keep them from speculating too much about the motives for your involvement. If you only go out when there's a problem, your reps may fear an "Oh, no, I'm gonna get fired" road trip.

Miller cautions there may be some initial resistance from reps when you announce your intentions, but you should "make it clear that field visits are a vital component in determining the direction of the organization, and that visits will occur regularly. Period."


Kimberly L. McCall (aka Marketing Angel) is the president of McCall Media & Marketing Inc. (www.marketingangel. com), a business communications firm in Durham, Maine.