By asking the right questions, and then carefully listening to the answers, an astute leader can influence and gain insight into an employee's business competence and morale, as well as a team's overall effectiveness. As a bonus, you'll enrich morale by showing your sales team you understand their key concerns.
Here are five smart questions that can give you a deeper understanding of employees, the business, and the competitive marketplace.
1. What is the biggest obstacle to adding new customers?
Reps are cautious to court new accounts if they believe the company will not be able to service them effectively. So the answers to this question can reveal operational issues, such as a lengthy procedure for setting up new accounts or order processing problems within your company.
On the other hand, if you get the answer, "Only my lack of time," that's good news: It says that all systems are in good order and that morale is likely high.
2. What is working and what isn't?
Such open-ended questions will quickly identify chronic complainers as well as uncover significant problems. When asking this question, be prepared for fix-it requests that may or may not be valid, such as, "We need more samples," "Delivery is too slow," or "We are not competitive." You may need to do some digging to find out whether the problems really need solving.
Most importantly, answers to this question communicate morale. If the responses suggest that little or nothing is working, then you have a morale issue. That's a sales killer, and a leader should uncover and fix causative issues.
3. What are your most (and least) significant opportunities?
4. If you had a magic wand and could fix one problem, what would it be?
This question forces a targeted answer to avoid a rambling discussion. A wise leader will ask why an employee picked a particular answer, and follow up by soliciting suggestions to correct it.
While the specific answer may give you additional insight into business challenges, it's the suggestions that indicate the depth of a salesperson's business understanding. An unfeasible answer implies a shallow understanding; practical answers convey a solid business understanding.
5. Who is your toughest competitor--and what are they doing right?
One of a leader's most important duties is to stay current with competitors. Your sales force faces the competition each day; team members should have the best on-the-ground reconnaissance.
Once you know the competitive landscape, you can proceed with "risk vs. opportunity" analyses. What you do not want is to find out after the fact that you could have avoided a sales failure by countering competitive activity.
By asking power questions of the sales team, leaders keep in touch with team morale while staying informed about the competition and showing that they care about the team's success. When issues need correction, take action quickly, and give credit to an idea's originator--both clear signals that a good leader is in charge.