Sales managers fulfil a critical but widely misunderstood role in any sales organisation, argues President of SalesAssessment.com Andrew Dugdale. Today’s newer, flatter style of sales organisation may be impeding sales performance.
As organisations hire more salespeople, while simultaneously seeking to reduce costs in the management layer, the ratio of reps to sales managers has been steadily growing. It was due to reach seven or eight to one last year, according to CSO Insights, while many organisations have eliminated the first-line sales management role altogether.
This may be a mistake, a trio of US academics warns. They argue that first-line sales managers (FLMs) are the most critical players in any sales operation.
Writing in a recent Harvard Business Review blog, authors Andris A Zoltners, PK Sinha and Sally E. Lorimer claim that, just as in the military where talented top officers can’t make up for weakness in the ranks of frontline leaders, it’s the mid-level managers who are vital in driving day-to-day sales performance.
They declare: ‘“In any sales force, you can get along without the vice president of sales, the regional sales directors, and the training manager,” a sales leader once told us. “But you cannot get along without first-line sales managers.”‘
According to Zoltners and his colleagues, successful sales managers excel at three key management roles:
1. people manager — they select, build, manage, lead, and reward a team of salespeople;
2. customer manager — they participate appropriately in the sales process to drive success with key customers; and
3. business manager — they act as a conduit for information flowing between headquarters and the field to keep sales force activity aligned with company goals.
Many do not, however. Significantly, the authors stress that most of the mistakes that FLMs make “aren’t corrected through better management support, tools, and training. Rather, the mistakes are the result of selecting the wrong person for the FLM job.”
They conclude: ‘Excellent managers are a must if you want to consistently recruit the best sales talent. Remember the aphorism: “First-class hires first-class; second-class hires third-class.” It’s hard to recover from bad hiring, which is why it’s so important to make hiring (or promoting) the right first line managers who’ll oversee so many hiring decisions such a priority.”
Part of the problem is that the role of the sales manager remains widely misunderstood, even today. Writing some five years ago in the foreword to Beth Roger’s well-regarded book Rethinking Sales Management, Professor Neil Rackham noted: “There have been more than 5,000 books written for salespeople but less than 50 for sales managers.” He added: “A sales manager today can no longer survive as a seat-of-the-pants generalist.”
So, what exactly does a good sales manager do? The one thing a good sales manager is not, is a ‘super-salesperson’. In the sales world, we have been telling ourselves this for almost half a century but the message has yet to filter through to many places.
Interviewed for a CSO Insights whitepaper, Laura Andrus agrees: “Everybody knows a good sales rep does not always make a good sales manager.”
CSO Insights reveals that organisations find their sales managers from several sources: 26 per cent of appointments tend to be ‘successful sales reps from within the company’, while another 37 per cent are ‘experienced managers from within the industry’.
Frankly, this is a recipe for perpetuating poor sales management.
Only 8 per cent were found to be ‘experienced managers within the company, but with no previous experience in sales’ and 18 per cent were ’experienced managers from outside the industry’. And this is despite the fact that the important qualities of a sales manager lie in his or her management ability, just as much as any sales expertise they may have.
Andrus reckons that a sales manager has to be a “great coach, building a successful team that pulls together. The manager must be an evangelist, selling the benefits of the sales process, the channel strategy, the CRM system, the customer service policies throughout the organisation”. She continues: “If your managers don’t do this, the thousands of dollars you spent developing the processes will be wasted. And it doesn’t hurt if the sales manager is a caring parent-type, praising those at the head of the pack and admonishing slackers.”
Indeed, in a world where there has been so little support and guidance for new sales managers, Andrus was forced to draw on her parenting experience when she assumed a sales management role. “Parenthood was my best preparation for sales management.
You teach your kids what to do to be successful, cultivate their strengths, give them lots of love, and hand out scathing criticism when they screw up. It’s exactly the same with sales reps.”
Luckily, these days we can be a bit more scientific about the qualities that help make a good sales manager, even if the parent analogy remains a useful one. In terms of numbers, the sales manager role is by far the most popular assessment requested by our clients. So, what does a good sales manager look like? You can download a detailed description of the role here: http://www.salesassessment.com/english-usa/wp-content/uploads/sales-manager-role.pdf.
In our view, sales managers are responsible for critical decisions regarding hiring, developing, coaching and controlling the focus, direction and performance of the sales team, while also engaging with other strategic areas of the business.
Ever-increasing customer expectation of and the resulting need for constant change in operating approaches and engagement strategies within sales organisations mean sales managers perform a crucial and astonishingly busy role, which often widens to providing input to and support for: strategy and planning, performance management, quality improvement, change management, and corporate governance.
Like Zoltners and his fellow Harvard Business Review authors and others such as IDC, we find that success is predicated on the same ability to master three functions, albeit that we give them marginally different labels:
1. people management, which comprises recruiting, hiring, on boarding, training, coaching, retention, and leadership;
2. selling management, which comprises opportunity planning, territory planning, quota management, customer engagement planning and process, pipeline management, and forecasting; and
3. business management, which comprises business acumen, organisational awareness, relationship management, financial management, and resource planning.
A robust assessment will test all aspects of the sales management role and give you proper insight into candidates’ potential. It will tell you whether a candidate has the requisite behavioural attributes for the role and will also identify where the skills gaps lie, so they can be effectively addressed through proper management development. Indeed, the development needs analysis integrated with the best assessments will help you create a development plan for both new and experienced managers to get up to speed more quickly as part of their ‘onboarding’ process.
In particular, assessment will help you decide whether the people you promote or hire as sales managers are capable of managing in a facilitative way and can learn how to give recognition and credit for team success. It will help you judge whether they are able to coach their people effectively, instead of jumping in to take over customer relationships with the inevitable consequence of undermining team motivation and morale. It will also give you confidence that the managers you hire focus on what matters to the business rather spending too much time on low-value activities simply because they are urgent or within their comfort zone.
Above all, assessment provides a valuable tool for the sales managers themselves to ensure that they don’t recruit the wrong people, perhaps by hiring ‘in their own image’ – a common conceit amongst sales managers. Proper assessment brings clarity and objectivity to the recruitment process.
On a strategic level, assessment and analysis tools enable senior managers to assess the capabilities of their entire sales management team across the organisation and put in place an organisational change programme.
There is one final factor that may be relevant to the effectiveness of today’s sales management community – their gender. There are significantly fewer women in sales management roles and even fewer in leadership roles. Yet a 2004 study by Professor Nigel Piercy and Dr Nikala Lane of Warwick Business School and Professor David W Cravens of Texas Christian University found that:
· sales units supervised by female managers achieved significantly higher levels of effectiveness;
· women display higher levels of ‘behaviour control’ in how they manage rather than relying on commission and bonus to motivate their team; and
· female sales managers do more coaching and support activities in managing their units and appear to do it better than male managers.
We view the role of the sales manager as pivotal to business success, yet typically it remains one of the least understood roles within the sales operation. Whether your sales managers are male or female, effective sales talent assessment enables the organisation to develop the necessary insight into the capabilities and potential of your people carrying out this most misunderstood of roles.
About the author
With a background in both direct and indirect sales, as well as sales management, Andrew Dugdale has been engaged in selling and managing sales teams for blue-chip companies on a global basis for over 30 years. Since leaving corporate life in 2000, Andrew has founded a number of successful companies, most recently, SalesAssessment.com.
Andrew qualified initially as an Electronics Engineer and now also holds a post-graduate Diploma in Sales Management from Portsmouth University. He is both a Chartered Marketer and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, a Fellow of the British Institute for Learning & Development, a Member of the Institute of Directors, and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors in the City of London.