Have these discussions immediately, even if you think you know the answers

The answers to these seven questions are critical for your success as you join any organization.  Originally, I titled this “7 questions every new salesperson should ask their manager”.  But then I realized, the answers are critical to every new hire.  No matter which part of a company you work in, the answers to these questions will help you be a better employee.  You will have a much better picture of how your role fits into the bigger picture of serving the customer.

Another important point: These questions are more for your first day on the job; not during the interview.  Some could be asked in the interview process, but most involve confidential information and you might be overstepping confidentiality boundaries a bit. 

It’s also important to understand that your manager may not have great answers to all of these questions.  That’s perfectly ok.  If that happens and your manager is completely stumped by the question, turn the question into an open discussion.  They might prompt her to seek the answers from her manager and generate further discussion with you later on.

Here are the seven questions:

  1. What customer segment do we serve?

The typical answer: “Farmers.  Sorry, that’s just not good enough.  You need to know what kind of farmers.  Once you ask to describe what they mean by farmers, you will get a wide variety of answers.  So, I like to narrow in on geography, acreage or livestock size, and any other way you can slice their purchasing of your products.  This eventually gets into the bigger category of customer segmentation. 

2. Why do our best customers buy from us?

The typical answer: “Quality, service, we care about our customers.  Sorry, that’s just not good enough.  Every company in the world thinks and says that.  Ask the deeper questions about the company’s best customers.  By best, I’m referring to the core 20% of customers that generate 80% of business.  If your manager struggles with this answer, then ask him to select three or four top customers and think about how they might answer that question.

3. What does a successful territory look like? (Substitute the word territory for your job title: marketing manager, accounting coordinator, etc.)

You will be evaluated by some set of performance and behavior standards.  Every job has what you might call “Par”.    Sorry for the golf term, but it fits here.  Par is the performance standard or the “Meets Expectation” you will get on your annual review.  It also can be the expected performance when you are fully functional in your job.  When hired, you want to know that from day one.  That is your first goal:  meet expectations.  You want to know those measurements and how they are determined. 

I have met, managed, coached, trained, and interviewed thousands of Ag salespeople.  All I can say is there are far too many who do not know how they are being measured as a successful salesperson.  I’m referring to hard numbers, like tons, gross margin, sales dollars, etc. 

I’m also referring to behaviors, that aren’t as numbers-based.  When it comes to behaviors and team culture, the vagueness of performance expectations is even greater.  If you get a vague answer to this question, then ask the follow-up question: “Who on the team is the most successful salesperson in these areas?”  Then ask, “What is it that he does that makes him so good at these areas?”

4. How would you describe the culture of the sales team? What about the inter-department culture?

Expect this question to generate more discussion than an exact answer.  It will give you some great insight from your manager’s point of view.  It might also give you some idea of their management style and how they view the company.  You want to know if everyone is as happy as they appeared when you interviewed.  Or, is there a toxic minefield culture waiting for you out there? 

On my first day on the job many years ago, my British manager asked me if I wanted to have a “look in the Loo!”  I absolutely had no idea what he was talking about.  I thought the Loo might be a reference to a toilet, but then I thought how weird that question would be if it did refer to looking into the toilet.  He explained quickly as I gave him a strange look and backed away from him.  He meant, ask me anything you want to.  You have taken the job.  Now you can ask me about anything that will help you understand the job, the company, or the culture.  We spent the next 45 minutes discussing the background of the department I was going to work in and how they got along with other departments.  That time was invaluable as I set out on my new job.

5 & 6.  

What do you think is the biggest strength of the sales team?  How about their biggest opportunity for improvement? 

What’s the one thing you wish the sales team understood but doesn’t?

Questions 5 and 6 are very similar and should provide you with some direction for where to go and what to work on in your role.  If the strength of the team and the value they bring to the market is a high level of technical expertise on the products sold, then you know the skills to work towards to fit into this team. 

You can also take these answers from your manager and “ground proof” them as you meet your peers and co-workers.  I’ve been told by sales managers, “This team needs to get out and prospect more.  They’re not making the calls!”.   Great, I say.  Then, when talking with salespeople, I ask about their prospecting efforts.  How it’s going and do they feel they are prospecting enough?  Cross-referencing what I hear from the manager and the salespeople, I get a great view of how functional a team is and how connected a manager is to them.

7. Who on the team is the best at:

  • Time and territory management?

  • Cold calling and prospecting?

  • Collaborating within the company to achieve more?

After you get those answers, find these people and ride along or job shadow them.  Find out the details of how they are getting it done.  How do they prospect so much or manage their time?  Don’t do this by Zoom or phone.  Maybe later on or for a quick question, you can call or Zoom, but not the first meeting.  Ride with them as they work in their territory.  Later on, ask them to come ride with you.  The techniques and habits you learn on a ride-along are invaluable

Bonus question:  Ask about the History of the areas discussed above.  It’s not really a separate question but learn as much as you can about the history of the topics in these seven questions.  As a new member of the team, you can often appear critical of the way things are being done.  This is especially true if you start asking “Why” questions, such as, “Why do we do business with that type of customer or sell that product line?”. 

Most likely, there is a history that explains why something is the way it is. 

Best of luck as you approach these questions with your manager and co-workers.  If they get too in-depth, maybe break them up and ask them over a few meetings versus an all-in-one session.  My educated guess is that you are going to be very happy and thankful that you asked these questions.  You will have deeper insight into the company, the market segment you serve, and what is expected of you in your new role. 

Lastly, if you are not a new hire, but don’t know the answers or never discussed them with your manager, then I highly suggest sitting down and asking them.  It might be more of a dialogue than a Q&A session as you have a better understanding of the company than a new hire.  Frequently, I run into salespeople with 5-10 years of experience at their company and they don’t have solid answers to these questions.

So, schedule the discussion today!

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