Future of work: Five lessons startups can learn from their sales teams as the world goes remote

One of the COVID-related changes that seems unlikely to be reversed is the increase in remote work. Particularly in tech, many companies have done away with office requirements entirely. For startups, this will have a profound effect on the ways they will grow, hire, and build culture. For individuals, it will mean figuring out a new routine and approach to daily life. 

There are lessons to be learned here from sales teams, which have always been remote and distributed, even before the pandemic. Salespeople are constantly in the theater of action, and most have never had the luxury of working consistently from a comfortable office. Their homes are their primary workspaces, with their work and personal lives intertwined. As someone who has been a seller and led sales teams, I know this firsthand. 

In my experience, the teams and individuals who are most successful share common traits and practices. Startup leaders and their emplyees can learn a lot from the way high performing sales teams stay productive, healthy, happy and connected, as more of us transition into increasingly remote roles.

Rethink work/life balance

Every employer I’ve ever worked for has talked about work/life balance, and most people determine theirs based on how much time they spend in the office versus out. When the office is gone, how do you balance work and life when they happen in the same spaces? 

Salespeople understand that instead of trying to establish boundaries between work and life, it makes more sense to weave them together. Sales is not a 9-5 job. You might need to read emails before breakfast, or make a few calls from Starbucks between picking the kids up and dropping them off at school. Most successful salespeople I know achieved a work/life balance not by trying to balance these separate worlds, but by integrating them. They find time to coach their kids’ little league teams while still being present at work. This requires thought, self-knowledge and discipline.

Prioritize travel and face time

Travel is built into the expectation around sales. At tech and early stage companies in particular, most salespeople have never had access to structured offices. They find ways to collaborate and schedule in-person time without a permanent space, and that requires being on the move. Salespeople have to travel constantly, whether it's for QBRs, monthly reviews or customer meetings. They have to find face time, because it’s not naturally built into their day-to-day. Distributed doesn't mean disconnected, so less time in the office may mean you need to travel a bit more to solidify important relationships. 

For managers at startups, this means advocating for team travel and in-person meetings. Company leaders need to rethink quarterly plans to bring different parts of the business together in person and align each function within the business, not only their regional sales teams. Creating opportunities for employees in the same geographical region to meet up locally will also be a critical part of the strategy going forward.

Work 360 degrees

Great salespeople maintain good relationships in every direction. They must sell to their customers, manage the expectations of their bosses, communicate with engineers and ensure their relationship with the product team is strong. This ability to work 360 is built into the DNA of salespeople and is a massive advantage in terms of staying connected to your ecosystem. Remote work, by its nature, creates silos. Thus, remote workers need to break down those silos by learning how to trigger and create positive responses from colleagues across other functions. This is something at which remote salespeople are especially adept.

Embrace disruption

As remote workers, salespeople run a gauntlet of disruptive outside factors every day. A meeting runs late, or they don’t get to one on time because there wasn’t any parking. Maybe the entire meeting is choppy because the coffee shop Wi-Fi wasn’t up to the task. Salespeople deal with discomfort and suboptimal conditions all the time. They're conditioned to thrive in this world of uncertainty. Today, many of us are experiencing these disruptions for the first time. Accepting this and learning to take it in stride is a must-have skill for increasingly remote workers.

Make human connection a priority

A good seller, at their core, is a great connector. Good sellers give credit to others, make others feel comfortable, important, and included, and build trust. At fast-growing startups today, building trust is more difficult than ever because so much of that process traditionally happened over a meal or a conversation or an in-person moment. 

Without a defined office space, the social aspect of work is missing, and we can learn from salespeople here, too. Customers usually give them an hour at most, and in that hour the salesperson has to establish trust, be credible, be likable, communicate value and walk away with a concrete action. It’s a lot to accomplish within a tight timeframe, and they can’t do any of it without first establishing a relationship. So for remote workers, relationship building must become a purposeful part of the agenda. The first and final few minutes of any call should be about establishing that all-important human connection. 

The world feels like an uncertain place when you’re constantly on the move, when you’re the only one truly responsible for your time and actions. Curveballs are difficult to deal with, for anyone. But for salespeople, the challenges of remote life remain largely the same as they always have — and startups should look to their expertise as they adapt to the new working reality.