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Why Remote Sales Doesn’t Work

Add Dan Pink’s thinking on the power of intrinsic motivation and autonomy to exploding connectivity and you get the perfect recipe for rapidly rising interest in telecommuting. Inside sales is burgeoning, but the organization of the future is dispersed. More sales pros will be working from behind a desk but those desks could be anywhere.

Creative Commons-licensed image by rocketlass on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/rocketlass/1202582973/sizes/m/in/photostream/There’s no better way to see how widely this thinking has spread and how deeply it’s been internalized than to look at the response to Marissa Mayer’s decision to bring teleworking Yahooers back to the office. Eventually there was some sober minded considerations of why she may not be totally insane, but the kneejerk reaction was one giant collective groan.

But not Jim Kreller. Currently the senior VP of sales operations at Chicago-based tag management startup BrightTag, Kreller had a contrarian take on Mayer’s move: “My immediate reaction to that was ‘Great idea. Great job. That’s what you need to do with that organization.’”

Why was Kreller’s response so out of step with most observers? Because Kreller has a fairly unfashionable attitude towards telecommuting in general. Remote work makes for good thought pieces in the media and it may even be appropriate for some companies, but Kreller feels hype has overtaken reality when it comes to teleworking, particularly for sales teams at startups

Tribal Knowledge

With few exceptions, BrightTag asks all its employees to report into the office most days. There’s enough flexibility to work from home now and again, but most days the company expects to see you at headquarters. From his perch atop the sales team, Kreller sees this preference for showing up as largely positive.

“In many sales organizations there is a lot of tribal knowledge — people in the organization who are subject matter experts on how certain software works, what can we do, what can’t we do, customers ask questions who knows the answers to those questions — that’s in people’s heads and laptops,” he says. Organizations can try to capture and distribute that tribal knowledge via various tech tools like Salesforce, Chatter, Jive, and Yammer, “so that you don’t have to go over to someone’s desk to pick their brain, but it’s very useful to have your people in the office where they can access the collective brain of the organization readily and easily.”

These tools may improve, he feels, but for fast-changing companies like startups, nothing can quite match a metaphorical gathering around the fire at HQ. “Everyone in our space is new and is evolving,” he explains. Given the rate of change it’s often preferable “to keep your people close. The more standardized and repeatable and scalable your products and offerings are, the easier it is to roll them out remotely.”

The Culture Hug

This same sense that unsettled companies and cultures aren’t the best match for remote setups informed Keller’s response to Mayer’s decision. Nailing down your company’s culture is a prerequisite for thinking about letting your people wander where they will, and Yahoo doesn’t exactly seem like they have the whole cultural thing nailed down.

“I don’t know a lot about the internal workings of Yahoo, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you told me that Yahoo has a serious culture problem, a lot of the employees are disengaged, feeling a little beaten down. And if you are going to fix that, you need to hug everybody close,” he says. “If your culture is healthy, if your business is healthy, if your product and your marketing is scalable and distributable and you can get people on the same page because you’re pretty well buttoned up, then you can extend your organization remotely. If things are in flux, it’s appropriate to hold your people in close.”

And that doesn’t just apply to Yahoo, Kreller feels. “There’s a lot of talk today about social business and often times that talk is centered on tools, but in my mind tools are just that — enablers. How social is your culture? How open is your management team? Do they communicate openly and therefore everyone knows the mission and everyone’s signed up for the mission? It’s much easier to ensure that when everyone is in the room. That doesn’t mean you can’t good at it in a distributed manner and many organizations have, but it certainly is easier to affect that social culture when folks are in the building.”