What makes a successful sales team?
What is the secret to long-term sales success? In this remarkable interview, Eric van Antwerpen, VP & GM Global Enterprise Sales at Manpower Group, shares what he's learned building a global sales and account management organization, the power of transformation and why winning isn't everything.
Let’s start with how you got started in sales? What led you down that path?
I'm not sure if it was a conscious choice. My first role was in an international electronics, manufacturing company that had country organizations and in countries where they were not present, they had channel partners.
I led the teams at Headquarters and in the countries to make sure that the entire organisation was focused on satisfying client needs because everything we built was to client specifications. My role was to give the markets a way into the organization from a fulfilment point of view; from client requests to final delivery as well as what our organisation and products should look like.
So I was really a bit "spider in the web" between research and development, product management, but also logistics, manufacturing, et cetera. And so, yes, it was sales, but also the experience around it to make sure that sales were maximized.
And I still think that today, 25 years later, that is what sales are all about for me.
That must've been excellent grounding because you got exposure to all functions of the business, plus you understand how they work. That would be invaluable in sales because winning business is a team effort.
That experience has helped me a lot because we're operating in complex matrix organisations with geographical dimensions and diverse functions. Sales has to manoeuvre within that potential minefield to orchestrate different elements.
I really feel starting in that role, not only leading successful sales teams but also the other aspects helped me tremendously to be more effective in managing sales and account management teams to focus on the client experience in complex environments.
What do you enjoy most about sales or account management and what you deliver to your clients?
I'd be lying if I did not mention the word winning because I think that it's just great to win. And not just win in the sense of seeing results or closing a deal, but also win in moving business from one level of profitability or one level of growth to the next. That's definitely an element.
But what I do enjoy most is working with people and building the machinery as it were. I really enjoy putting the different parts together and making them move, which helps you create leverage within your organisation. Because in the end, I think the magic word is leverage within sales in today's world at least.
I like how you think of winning not only as achieving a result (like hitting quotas) but also making a difference. Making an impact on an outcome for your team or your clients can be winning too.
Building machinery that creates winning as a sustainable event and not this one time of winning a deal or winning a piece from the competition. I'm really looking into the longer term.
Creating machinery that operates and continues on the path of growth, being more profitable, winning more business. You could almost step back and see things unfold in front of you.
That's what I call sustainable winning. And that for me is the key.
I'm a strong believer in my responsibility to help people be their best. It's not just focusing on why you didn’t meet target.
Eric van Antwerpen
Let's talk about that a little. Sales, account management, customer success all often have playbooks that try to systematise everything, so outcomes are repeatable and sustainable. How granular do you get when designing the 'machinery'? How rigid is the box?
You need a minimum of quality, process, governance, which very often is seen as something negative and linked to bureaucracy. But with a minimum viable level of bureaucracy; you actually create flexibility. You can't script everything. And you shouldn't aim to.
In today's world of sales and account management, working with clients, there are so many variables and elements that come into play that it will be, for me, impossible to script. You need some hooks that you can hang your hat on, but you need to work with the people and explain your philosophy and get them on board and leverage their skills and input to make this machinery work.
The key is leadership. In the end, you're working with people, and you don't need to be too prescriptive or build a very rigid box. It's a minimum form of bureaucracy, but loaded with a philosophy of coaching and talking and working with people (based on a number of set KPIs, et cetera of course).
I don't believe in approaching it only through very strict pipeline management, calculating conversion rates, et cetera, and then leave it like that. It needs to be something different. It needs to be a flexible machine that can adapt to any client or organisational situation depending on the complexity, culture and where the market is going.
I think that's the trick if you're a sales leader.
I like the way you say you need these things to hang your hat on; a framework that guides people and gives people starting points and resources, but still gives them flexibility. Something that came to mind as you were talking was on how KPI's for sales, customer success or account management seem to be set independently of all the admin, processes and systems that they have to follow. How do you make sure that the 'machinery' and resources are aligned?
I create such an atmosphere that encourages feedback. People in my team are vocal because we're building the 'machinery' together. I don't like to insist on things if they do not add value. I'm very keen on that. It needs to fit into that machinery, and it needs to make sense. If it doesn't add value, why would you pursue something?
You need support tools, technology and governance, yet if it doesn't create flexibility and it doesn't enable you to be successful, you should ask yourself more than twice: do you really need this process?
Create buy-in by sharing why you are doing certain things, what you're trying to achieve and collaborate with your teams. That helps you focus on what you really need to improve the situation and avoids clogging the system up with processes, tools et cetera.
You can get bloated with just processes.
As a leader, you need to be very vigilant about that.
Clients have become much more sophisticated, but it doesn’t mean that they have all the answers and then just push a button and make a sales decision. They may be starting from a higher point of knowledge, but clients still need expert advice and additional insight and they’re looking to our sales team for that.
Eric van Antwerpen
It's great that you encourage your teams to collaborate and that you've created a safe place for them to share feedback. But what about inter-departmental communication?
Getting other leaders and their teams to cooperate and get on the same page is a big challenge for sales and account management. They end up taking on work that really doesn't belong to them, just to get it done. Any advice on solving this problem?
You see that often in organisations. The question is always, what is the problem you're trying to solve here? A client may have a requirement that has not been properly fulfilled or the experience is not where it needs to be, and your solution isn't adequate. Obviously, we can't ignore operational dissatisfaction from clients that needs to be solved. But the question is where and how do you want to address this?
If account managers are bogged down solving these types of requests, then it will be hard for them to meet their targets to grow the business, upsell and cross-sell.
My organisation spans 80 countries and multiple brands, so I understand this challenge. We realised it was necessary to create a centralised sales and account management team because client experience was being affected, and that is a key differentiator in today's market. It's not about package, price or service; it's the experience.
At first, the team were immediately being bogged down with these kind of issues because the client finally had one face to turn to. We did a study to quantify how much time people spent on other issues instead of farming, growing accounts and driving new business. As a result, we created new roles in the organisation to take to take care of those issues. It's an intermediate step to ultimately embed those roles in the delivery organisations.
But for now, I have pulled them within my team. They go where there is a problem across countries and across brands. It's very effective and a much better experience for the client now. And the other side is that the sales and account leaders now have more time on their hands to focus on strategic planning and intensify the relationship, creating insights for clients, the things that we actually want them to do.
Which means you can really position your sales and account management team as experts in that space where your solution and your client into intersect. Give them the time to develop the client conversation away from price and to more value-based discussions. To stop being a commodity and become a partner.
They need time to create insights that is relevant for clients, what’s happening in the industry, what other clients are doing and have those kinds of conversations. And that's what I'm trying to build into the ‘machinery’ through a knowledge base platform and working closely with marketing to create. And also, literally giving people the time to spend reading, thinking, exchanging so they can bring that information to the clients.
Because that is very important today. Clients have become much more sophisticated, but it doesn't mean that they have all the answers and then just push a button and make a sales decision. They may be starting from a higher point of knowledge, but clients still need expert advice and additional insight and they’re looking to our sales team for that.
It’s not always a matter of hiring some additional people. It's often reshuffling the deck and using what you have in an organization, the strengths, the assets, and combine them in a different way.
Create virtual teams, create communities and I as a leader really want to build those bridges within the organization and bring people across those bridges. And then you see that things are happening, people talk to each other, exchange information, visit clients together et cetera. And that's very powerful approach in today's world where you need something like that.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO thinks about decisions as one-way doors (those from which there’s no return), and two-way doors (those that are easily reversible).
To me, what you’re talking about talking about is a two-way door. You could send somebody from sales a day a week to go do something somewhere else and help uncover the gaps, build the bridges, bring the conversations together and help collaboration in a way that you could easily turn off tomorrow if you decided to.
You’re talking about around bringing people together as a starting point, which is such an easy way to get started don’t you think?
I really like how you phrase that because that's how I see this. I am looking to bring different skill sets into the team, building upon certain strengths even if that means creating temporary teams.
I think it's easier said than done but if you put your mind to it and if you’re prepared to start discussions with leaders and spend time with peers in your organisation, you’ll find there are enough resources in the company.
Get that conversation started: how can we share, how can we leverage if we do it slightly differently or if your team works closer with my team, et cetera? You’ll see the inefficiencies in your organisation get resolved without putting extra strain on resources because people are sharing and learning. They get more effective and more efficient.
One of the great things I enjoy most is the feedback of the people once you start. They see it as positive; they feel part of a team and they see it as a great chance to learn or to develop in some different area. People are not the problem. I think it’s the leaders who have to look in the mirror.
It’s not about hunter vs. farmer, sales vs. account management. It’s about the client experience.
Eric van Antwerpen
What's a common inefficiency or mistake you see regularly coming up in sales and account management?
I’ve never fully understood is the difference between farming and hunting. I don't understand why are those two opposite skills and why can't they be united in one person or within one client context? Just doing account management, keeping the client happy doesn't mean you're entitled to grow your business.
To change that dynamic, you don't need to change people. Coaching, training, free up time to focus on the right things, incentivise the right activities. People can hunt AND farm. It’s not one or the other.
Everybody sells. The big difference I see is that when you're in sales, when you win the business, the relationship ends. When you're in account management, when you win the business, the relationship begins. Both roles are about uncovering your clients’ problems and how your solutions can solve them.
In my team, we have International Account Directors who are as much sales as account management. They orchestrate the client experience. And wherever they put the needle is up to them because they know where in the process, where in the life cycle, where in the moment that needle needs to point in terms of involving other people, opening doors, creating conversations and bringing insights.
It’s quite a job and you need have the right skills and to roll up your sleeves It's also how we develop and asses those skills. I like to give my team the tools and training to make sure that we stay on the right path. I’m always evaluating that, talking to people about their role and understanding their situation, what’s working and what’s not.
It’s not about hunter vs. farmer, sales vs. account management. It’s about the client experience.
What advice would you give to someone to get started on building some of those organizational bridges?
Sales is the end goal. And to reach an end goal, you need to have a very good feeling for people, cultures, diversity in terms of skills and look outside the standard boxes and how you can organise and inspire your team to solve challenges on the way to creating a sale.
The way I do it, people would not necessarily think, “Oh yeah, that's sales.” I see the end result from a target point of view, but I'm not approaching sales through a funnel. I'm not sure if I've ever read a sales book as such. I think there are better books to read than sales books if you want to be successful in sales.
That's controversial perhaps but I really do believe if you're a sales leader, leading other people in a complex organization, then you need to come at it from a different way. You need a much broader sense of understanding your organisational dynamics and how you can put different pieces together (people, processes, tools) to create this ‘machinery’ that creates skills and as a result, sales, retention and client experience.
That is so powerful. By thinking of sales as the last thing that happens in the conversation versus the first thing that happens, you free your mind up to think about what will get me a result?
Obviously, the people in my teams have very clear targets in terms of top line growth, penetration of new business, new markets, all, the things you would expect. But that's really an outcome of a set of activities that are not necessarily immediately linked to sales by some people, but I know it will get you to that result.
Of course, there is an aspect of discipline and planning around opportunities and engaging with clients. I ask my team to do business plans, who are we going to talk to and why? What are the themes? Yes, of course. All of that. But it's just part of a bigger process.
I think that it’s just great to win. And not just win in the sense of seeing results or closing a deal, but also win in moving business from one level of profitability or one level of growth to the next.
Eric van Antwerpen
For me that's really compelling. What you’ve created isn’t just about winning and the narrow sales process from contact to conversion. Does that mean there is less pressure on meeting quotas or sales targets?
There’s always pressure to meet targets, but I tend to take a slightly longer term view. If your pipeline is in a certain shape, if you hit the numbers or not, if you closed or you didn't close – I’m interested in the why? What do we need to do different? What would have made the change for you to be able to actually reach your target?
That is where I think the learning comes and you can say next time, we do it differently or next time we focus here or et cetera.
It’s very important to be a learning organization to move forward. If you don’t do that, it's a missed opportunity.
Absolutely. If you asked those questions, maybe you wouldn’t have non-performers?
I'm a strong believer in my responsibility to help people be their best. And it's also not just focusing on why you didn’t meet target. You can apply the same logic the other way around to people who exceeded their target.
So why did that happen? What was the difference? What did you do? How did you get the value out of each step of the process? What can we learn?
That’s such a great point because that's how you capture some of that ‘lightning in a bottle’ of your star performers and share that across your team.
So last question as we wrap it up. Any parting piece of advice you’d like to share that’s helped you in your career?
I've been given many pieces of advice that I’ve embraced.
- Keep an open mind. Look beyond the treaded path and what everybody else is doing.
- Listening is very, very important in my view. Some people told me to make sure you listen, so you ask the right questions, so you learn.
- Sometimes you get knocked out of the fight, but don't mind, get up again. Tomorrow is a different day. Don’t drag it with you.
- Build on small successes. Especially if you have a large transformation ahead of you. Count every small success. Go and stand on the shoulders of that success to get to the next step in the process.
Great pieces of advice: celebrate the progress not just the results. Thank you so much for your time and wonderful insights Eric, I truly appreciate it.