I have tremendous respect and empathy for sales managers. Frankly, I can’t think of a job that is more difficult and complex than managing salespeople. Effective salespeople, by nature, are pretty stubborn in their ways and are always adjusting things based on the specific conversation they’re having at any given time.
I remember when I was in a sales manager’s role, I often felt like I could never win. I was responsible for implementing the strategy and approach that was devised by others (my bosses and their bosses) and required to achieve results through others (the salespeople that reported to me) that I had, at best, only a slight degree of control. Having been a top sales performer, I was always fighting against my natural inclination to just take care of everything myself.
Yet, despite the challenge, sales managers can have great impact. For most organizations, it’s the highest leverage, highest impact position in the organization. For the company, a strong sales manager yields growth and results across multiple performers. For the manager, success at this level opens the door for lucrative opportunities in the future.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s nothing quite so good as a strong sales manager and there’s nothing quite so bad as an average or weak one. In my experience, there are seven killer habits that sink managers who would otherwise be strong.
Creating an Environment of Ambiguity
Strong sales managers create certainty and instill confidence in their sales reps. They are clear, open and authentic. Regardless of the challenges or uncertainties they’re dealing with, they don’t let that impact the rep. This is true in all business environments and especially true when things are difficult.
One of the biggest weaknesses of sales managers is that they constantly create moving expectations or behave in a manner that demonstrates the manager is just a “pawn” in the process. Salespeople don’t perform well when they’re confused or concerned and great sales managers provide the environment that enables reps to perform confidently.
A close cousin of the first problem is inconsistency. I think the toughest part of being a sales manager is that managers can’t let their mood impact them. Far too often managers are easy-going, happy and forgiving when things are going well; and absolute SOBs (putting it mildly) when they’re not.
Salespeople are like children in a family. They have an over-heightened sense of the mood and outlook of those above them. Managing and parenting are both far more effective when they’re applied consistently.
This can be very challenging for those who became managers because they were high-performing sales reps. Intensity and emotion can go a long way to enhancing performance in sales. It’s a mindset that can be an asset in a contributor's role, but it’s a liability in leadership and management.
This also manifests itself when sales managers have other duties as well, like selling themselves, participating in organizational initiatives or leading the company (which is common in smaller organizations). Managers are often non-existent and abdicate the role when they get busy with other responsibilities. Then, they try to “make up for it” and it feels like micro-management to reps.
Running Pipeline Reviews as Interrogations
The most common complaint I hear from reps about managers is how weekly sales meetings and/or pipeline reviews are handled. They complain that reviews are:
- Monotonous and tedious as every detail is dug into.
- Feel more like interrogations and punishment.
Let’s be clear about a few important points on running sales meeting and pipeline reviews:
- If you’re a manager and you need a review to know what’s happening in an account: YOU. ARE. NOT. DOING. YOUR. JOB.
- If you are asking reps to go over every detail about an account, then either your reps are not using CRM effectively or you’re not using CRM effectively. Use these two rules to avoid this problem in the future: 1) if it should be in the CRM and it’s not, then it didn’t happen, and 2) if it’s in the CRM, then you shouldn’t have to ask your reps about it.
Sales meetings and pipeline reviews have two purposes. If you can’t stick to these two points, then don’t hold the meeting:
- Team learning. These meetings are a great opportunity to discuss what’s happening within various opportunities in a way that all reps can learn from each other and/or brainstorm how to handle common scenarios (which become fodder for new plays to update in the playbook).
- Create alignment. There’s nothing wrong with reviewing performance as long as it’s done in a positive manner and used to motivate everyone.
These meetings should be positive, tight and only as long as absolutely necessary.
The most important and powerful role a sales manager plays is the role of a coach and teacher. Unfortunately, this role is often completely overlooked in most organizations. Sure, managers need to provide oversight, ensure compliance with processes, procedures and policies, but it should only be a small part of the job.
Letting the “Stuff” Only Roll Downhill
Whenever I think of a great sales manager I think of the second sales manager I had in my career. Pat Europe exemplified everything a sales manager should do (including handling all seven of the items outlined in this blog post in precisely the right way). Yet, for all the great things she did, what I remember most about working with her is that I firmly believed that she always had my back.
I’ve learned that this is rare in the sales rep - sales manager relationship. Most sales reps feel as though the manager's primary jobs are to let shit roll downhill and to “roll them under the bus.” While a manager certainly represents the organization to the sales reps, the real value comes when the manager becomes the voice of the sales team to the executive team. When reps know you have their back, they’ll run through walls. When they fear you don’t, they’ll lie, cheat and backstab.
Failure to Engage with Marketing
A primary theme of this blog has always been the importance of marketing and sales working together. It is the sales manager who is in the position to best make this happen. When the manager regularly involves marketing by highlighting activities and insights that have been done, sales reps are more likely to utilize them.
Further, as managers provide ongoing feedback of what’s being seen and encourage reps to do the same, then the marketing team is able to create better, relevant content and provide sales reps with the important insights and data to do their jobs better and faster.
Talking the Talk, Not Walking the Walk
When I talk with managers, they share with me that the hardest part of the transition from sales rep to sales manager is that as a manager you don’t sell anymore. While it’s natural to feel that way, it’s not true.
Managers sell every day. They sell to their reps and they sell to the executive team. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a rep talk about the importance of asking good questions and enabling the prospect to come to understand their situation. Then when they work with their reps they jump into ‘tell, tell, tell’.
The simplest and fastest way to lose the respect of your sales team is to tell them to behave one way, while you behave differently.
Sales management is a powerful force. Utilize it correctly and sales increase, employee satisfaction and loyalty increases and an environment for growth is established. Fail to, and making sales is the simplest challenge you’ll deal with.