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Successfully Leading Virtual Sales Teams

Friday, May 2, 2014
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Building and managing a remote team is different than managing a team that works together in the same building, but sales managers have known this for years. Forming a geographically dispersed sales team requires deliberate action—and deliberate intention—to make people feel part of a larger team. So, what specifically does it take to build a successful virtual, or remote, team?

Building the virtual team

An important part of building a sales team is to establish trust and build relationships among the team members. This takes deliberate time and effort to establish. As the sales team leader, your behavior sets the tone and provides an example for the team.

Be sure that you connect with each individual during occasional face-to-face meetings. For other communications, establish a schedule for team meetings and phone calls with individual reps to check in. You can also use email to keep in touch, but it should be used for less pressing issues or topics.

Here are some of the key best practice tips to help build a cohesive virtual team:

  • Be available. Access to managers is a huge issue for salespeople. Try to be available when they need you, if not, let them know when you will be, or provide an alternate way to reach you.

  • Demonstrate value. Show that each person is important and that you value him or her. Never talk badly about another team member.

  • Get to know people. Prior to the start of your team meetings, take a few minutes for some “coffee talk.” This can be an informal discussion on any non-work-related topic that interests the team. It’s a great way for the team to get to know each other better. Encourage participation from all team members. Have each team member post a photo—something fun, from a recent vacation, a new baby or pet (on Pinterest or a Google Drive doc). Have everyone share something to stimulate the personal connection.

  • Listen actively. Above all, be a good listener. Listen intently to hear what they are saying and what they mean.
  • Make a plan and follow through. Good follow-through helps with efficiency and setting expectations.

  • Schedule face-to-face time. Face-to-face events build strong working relationships, help connect the team to the larger mission, and assist in career development and exposure. There is a cost for face-to-face meetings, but there is a potentially greater cost for not having them—turnover and disconnected, dissatisfied employees and customers.

Foster cultural understanding

Team members can be located across town, in another state, in another country or all of the above.  The challenge for managers of multicultural teams is to build an atmosphere of camaraderie, mutual respect, effective communication, and productivity despite differing worldviews and physical environments.

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In essence, leaders must take a disparate group of people and cultures, and develop a team that is an amalgamation of the best of each of the cultures and strengths that the individual team members bring with them.  

Here are some tried and true resources and approaches for building your multicultural
team.

  • When working with people from a different countries, use a resource like When Cultures Collide by Richard Lewis or Gestures: The Dos and Taboos of Body Language Around the World by Roger Axtell. There are valuable and helpful insights there that can help you to learn about the new cultures.

  • Stay open to ideas and solutions. A different culture may have a different approach that will work better for them.

  • Be aware of direct versus indirect communication styles. If you are working with someone from a culture that prefers a more indirect communication style, start conversations gently and be sensitive when giving constructive feedback.

  • If you are working with non-native speakers, allow extra time in one-on-one or group discussions. Watch jargon, sarcasm, and jokes. They will not be helpful in communicating your message.

  • Do not rely on email as your only communication method. Establish a relationship using webcams, webcasts, or phone calls. Using Skype is a cheap way to call with video.

  • Don’t avoid differences, showcase them. Help the team to understand the cultures of fellow team members. It can improve understanding and build trust.

  • Rotate the time of meetings so everyone is inconvenienced equally. Keep a master holiday calendar.

Bottom line

The stakes for building virtual sales teams are high. Not being with employees in person and bridging cultures may make it hard to pick up on issues. The impact can be significant in terms of sales quotas and profits missed, as well as in turnover costs of finding a replacement and having an open territory. The manager of a virtual team needs to provide the glue to spot and fix the issues that lack of human contact can cause: lack of team spirit, trust, and productivity.

The solution is simple: Managers of virtual teams have to be better than managers who see their people every day. They need to deliberately reach out for the things they would learn and see on the way to the coffee pot.

Resources

  • Duarte, D., and Snyder, N. (1999). Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques That Succeed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Irwin, L., and McClay, R. (2008). The Essential Guide to Training Global Audiences. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
  • McClay, R., (2009) 10 Steps to Successful Teams. Alexandra, Virginia: ASTD Press.
About the Author
Renie McClay, CPLP, is a learning project manager for Caveo Learning. She is passionate about travel and about developing people. Having visited more than 40 countries, she has facilitated training for corporate, academic, and nonprofit audiences in Europe, Asia, Australia, North America, and Latin America. Her past roles have included sales, sales management, and training management for multiple Fortune 500 companies.
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