The idea of having staff working in different locations around the world was once the domain of the large multinationals.
Now with high-speed internet accessible by more people every day, more and more businesses are taking advantage to snatch up the best talent from around the world.
Recruitment is now a worldwide net. Sometimes the idea of remote work is less about bringing in international staff and more about letting staff work from home.
But remote teams aren’t without their challenges. Earlier this year it was reported that IBM was reversing their policy on remote work and banning telecommuting, with staff told they’d need to either work from a main location or quit.
Does this mean that it’s impossible to effectively manage remote sales teams?
Having worked with remote sales teams for close to ten years, my experience is it’s not only possible to run a remote team, but when done right they’re a powerful asset for your company. They’re an asset that’s integral to Reply.io’s success.
So how is it possible to keep your sales development reps (SDRs) motivated when they’re on the other side of the globe? How to manage sales staff that works remotely?
How do you make sure they’re contributing to the company, rather than binging on Netflix on your dime? And are there times when you shouldn’t use a remote sales team?
Advantages and disadvantages of remote sales teams
First, let’s have a look at some of the main benefits of having a remote sales team:
- Reduced costs. The big advantage of having remote teams is the savings. Office overhead is a massive expense to cover; according to a 2016 report in Forbes, a square foot of office space in New York will set you back on average a hefty of $75.35 per square foot. Even if you’re not setting up an office in America’s most expensive city, the costs of setting up and running a physical office can be especially crippling for newer companies still trying to establish themselves.
- Unparalleled access to top talent.When you’re building a remote team, you have an opportunity to hire the best people from around the world. There are millions of talented people out there who are overlooked because they don’t live in an established business hub. Imagine how powerful your sales team can be when it’s not limited to the talent in your geography.
- Getting the best work from your team. Many people worry that remote workers are going to skate by and do the bare minimum. They probably think that because most people in offices don’t work all the time they’re there. In my experience though, when people are given the chance to work on their own terms, they do their best work. That means your remote team may very well outperform the one chained to their office.
However, that doesn’t mean that running a remote sales team isn’t without its challenges. I’ve found the two biggest disadvantages are a lack of knowledge share and communication difficulties.
No matter how well you’ve set things up, nothing can replace being beside a group of your colleagues and sharing feedback from a meeting and customers when managing inside sales teams.
It can also be difficult to establish sufficient levels of trust, especially in the first few months. While many people can work remotely without any problems, it’s not for everyone.
You can never know with 100% certainty how someone will perform. Even with their best intentions, if this is their first remote position, it can be especially hard making that transition.
Are there circumstances I wouldn’t use a remote sales team? Yes, absolutely. If I were a startup that had just raised funding and needed to accelerate sales fast, I wouldn’t start with a remote sales team.
Being able to build a team that sits together every day is invaluable in the early days of a growing company. The knowledge share that takes place in that initial period can’t be replaced or replicated remotely.
Starting an inside sales team to hire 5-10 reps that can operate efficiently remotely just wouldn’t be possible at that stage.
Presuming you’re not at that stage in your business, how can you set up and manage a remote team that will help, rather than hinder your business?
Using Sales Development Reps to supercharge your sales
An important member of a sales team, remote or otherwise, is the Sales Development Rep (SDR). Simply put, their role is to generate leads for the inside sales team.
Their focus is on targeting the right type of prospects for your business, not closing the sale.
In my experience, this is one of the hardest sales employees jobs to fill and train. One reason is the job is always changing. Typically the sales process looks something like this:
- Qualify and contact your lead
- Run through your discovery questions/fact-finding to make sure your prospect is a fit for your business
- Go through the cycle of requirements and product fit
- Discuss details such as pricing
- Close the sale
With most SDR’s, there’s a whole new stack of technology that most typical salespeople have never seen or used before. The workflow is always changing. Most SDRs also have the disadvantage of being new to how technology is sold or purchased.
There’s a lot of training that goes into the role of the SDR, and a lot of companies don’t have a dedicated SDR manager to scale this team properly.
Despite the challenges, I’d recommend that you seriously consider bringing on an SDR once you have 2-3 reps. You want your sales team focusing on revenue, not prospecting.
I know there are different opinions on this, and not everyone will agree, but I’ve never understood why sales leaders would want their highest paid salespeople spending 25-50% of their day doing the work of an SDR. It simply doesn’t make sense.
The companies that do this right understand the value of an SDR and their ROI to the organization.
One thing I was taught early in my career was that, as a sales leader, you want to give your sales team as much time in front of your prospects as possible.
One solution I’ve seen a lot of companies use is hiring outsourced companies as the first SDR.
The costs are the same (if not lower) than hiring one internally, but now you get all the knowledge share and experience of a professional managing your campaigns. Everyone is happy.
Your VP has one less person to train and get through the first three months to find out if this hire is going to work out or not. The sales team is getting pumped with leads, and you’ve dramatically increased the chances of hitting your targets. Outsourcing staff can seem daunting at first, but there are many benefits to doing so that makes it worth the effort.
Once the model is working for you, then start building the team internally.
Building your remote dream team
When you’re looking for the right people for your team, practical experience is invaluable. I use previous sales as a baseline, to give me an idea whether someone will be able to contribute to the success of the team.
For example, someone selling a similar contract value or sales cycle. Personally, I find qualifications to be overrated.
Instead, I look for character and drive in people. I want to see someone that wants to help people, instead of just closing another deal.
That’s not part of our culture at Reply; we’re not pushing the hard sell with our foot in the door. Rather, we seek to understand our client’s business and educate them to help them succeed with their goals. If we can’t do that for our prospects, we don’t deserve their business.
An often overlooked aspect of attracting the right talent for your business is sharing your passion for the business.
If you can’t show excitement for your company, how can you expect a potential hire to want to work for you?
When it comes to the team size, it’s not a case of one size fits all. You hire as business demands. For example, at Reply, we currently have three teams in Toronto and 1 in Europe, each with 3-5 staff.
As the business grows, it’s likely the number of remote staff will too.
It’s important to follow the same process you’d follow hiring someone in-house. Too often I see companies reducing the hiring process to a quick Skype call and an offer letter. It’s not enough. You can use a conversational pre-hire aptitude test to assess the cognitive abilities and essential skills of your applicants.
Get on a plane and get to know who you’re hiring.
Make sure you have adequate training in place for remote workers. If you don’t have a playbook on how to onboard new staff you may want to hold off until you have one in place.
Have your training playbook ready before you hire. Alternatively, have two weeks on site for training and getting to know the staff and workflow.
This way your new employees will feel part of the team from day one, understanding the people and business practices for your company.
How to manage remote employees
Active management is central to a high performing team. For remote teams, that means regular virtual team communication. Fortunately, the technology today makes that cheap and easy.
Nothing beats calling and talking to your team members. Sometimes, that means picking up the phone.
We also have a CRM in place with excellent activity reporting to help with managing a remote sales team. It’s also easier to keep track of performance for sales teams compared to other teams, as the results are easy to interpret: How many leads have been contacted? How many sales have been made?
Some teams would also monitor remote employees using dedicated tools to keep an eye on their daily activity and overall performance. However, you have to be careful not to go overboard. Building a great remote sales team without trust is impossible.
To keep that productivity high, you need to make everyone accountable. We look for people who can manage themselves and take responsibility. Your remote team’s not going to work if you’re constantly watching over them.
So often I hear people worrying about how they can be sure the team is working and how you can trust them. It’s an understandable concern.
That’s why you need to make your remote hires accountable just like anyone else in your company. Make sure your expectations are defined and then make sure there are easy communication methods in place.
It’s also worth noting that managing sales team effectively across multiple time zones can be a challenge. We experienced this firsthand at Reply, and fine tuning the system took time. Our development team is in Europe, along with half of our support team.
Initially, when sales needed something technical answered or a support ticket reviewed, we only had a few hours in the morning to do so. As one team was starting up, the other team was finishing for the day.
Needless to say, this caused some problems. To solve this issue with remote sales team management, we had to adjust the shifts and made sure someone from each department was specifically assigned as the agent for the week. That way, we knew someone would always be on hand to help with any issues.
In the end, this became a benefit for our company. As we had a team that was global and operating around the clock, we realized it made sense to offer support around the clock too. We had the people and resources available, so we decided to use that to our advantage.
We started to offer support from 1 AM to 8 PM ET, a change that gave us great results. Not only were we able to get to clients at all times of the day, but we also managed to decrease our response times to 1 minute.
Going forward this will affect our future hiring, as we take into account the demand from different time zones.
Make your remote teams part of the company
The best companies make sure remote teams are as much a part of the business as any employee. We never want it to sink in to a them vs. us attitude.
Our remote teams are an integral part of our business; we want every employee to have a share in shaping our company’s culture. As an example, we held a company retreat.
This meant everyone was coming together, flying people in from Europe and North America for a week. We had set a goal, one that was visible to the entire company, and when we hit it, the whole company shared the reward. That was a key moment and helped make those bonds between the employees even stronger.
We also regularly organize team building for sales teams and other joint events.
Yes, remote sales teams can be a powerful part of your company, if you set them up and manage them correctly. Make communication a priority, and give constructive feedback.
Hold people accountable, with clear goals and expectations. Build trust that goes both ways. Recognize your remote team’s work and reward their efforts. In turn, they’ll reward you too.
Have you managed a remote team, or worked as part of one? Let me know your experiences in the comments.