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What Makes an Ideal Sales Manager

By Lisa Gschwandtner

They want to be called leader…coach…mentor…facilitator…analyst…and the ever popular VP of something – anything. Anything, that is, but MANAGER. The word alone conjures an image of paper-pushing automatons filling out forms in quadruplicate and making sure all the proper cubbyholes are filled to capacity in an endless sea of cubicles. A Dilbert world where managing means little more than showing up and punching a keyboard.

In such a corporate setting, anyone can be a manager. But what about a SALES manager? Doesn’t that require a bit more on the people skills side? Isn’t a sales manager someone who moves the ball forward? A leader, coach, mentor, facilitator, analyst – well, yeah, all those things. And then throw in psychologist, goal setter, motivator, number cruncher, communicator, listener and a few other functions and, bingo, you’ve got yourself a sales manager. An all-around fire starter and putter outer. A sales manager lights the fire under the sales team and puts out the fires that daily life creates.

And what about the bottom line? Yes, the sales manager is a strategist, marketer and link between the sales team and the executive suite. And, in many cases, one day the sales manager becomes the CEO. So what about it? What does it take?

To find out what qualities and skills make up the ideal sales manager, Selling Power talked to sales reps, sales managers and experts in the sales field. Here are their views on what it takes to be the best sales manager possible.*

First of all, sales management requires a jack-of-all-trades mentality. The ideal sales manager must be able to juggle the demands of conducting business and directing people.

“Sales managers say their job is really difficult because they have to focus on sales, strategy and managing their people all at the same time,” says Jocelyn Davis, vice president of product development at the Boston-based Forum Corporation, a training and consulting firm. She quotes a comprehensive study the Forum Corporation recently conducted of the best practices of top sales organizations around the world. What else did the study reveal? “All of our respondents were unanimous in saying the most important roles for sales managers today – and also the role they need the most help with – is the coaching and developing of their sales staff.”

Typically, sales managers have risen through the ranks, distinguishing themselves as top performers along the way. However, the skills that made them sales stars may not necessarily translate into instant management magic.

“Sales managers often tell us they first got their job because they were great salespeople and that their initial tendency is to want to go out and sell,” Davis explains. “They know they have to work with their sales team, but their natural inclination is to want to stay on top of all these different sales situations, stay on top of their salespeople all the time and generally be in the mix, because that’s what they love to do. They’re used to being self-starters, used to being out with customers, used to the sales role.”

Promoting sales reps to sales managers can be a wise choice or a disastrous mistake, depending on the individual manager. On the disaster side, a sales manager who overcontrols can harm more than help. And it can be a typical response when a new sales manager takes over an existing team or, worse, has to hire from scratch. Such a manager may feel the need to help and prod the reps, creating resentment, dependency or outright hostility. But worst of all, it removes the reps’ incentive to produce sales.

Bob Butler, president and CEO of Butler Learning Systems in Dayton, OH, says that fear of losing control is understandable but wastes valuable time and energy. “When my wife and I went out to dinner for the first time after our first kid was born, we were petrified,” Butler recalls. “We grabbed hold of the sitter and said, ‘Make sure you test the milk before you feed him, please be careful not to let him fall, please do this, please do that…’ The sales manager has the same fear syndrome. But the sales manager’s predominant responsibility is coaching and supporting, not micromanaging.”

Amy Gerdnic, an account executive at QRS in New York, agrees. “I feel that every salesperson is like a player on a basketball team, and every team needs a coach,” she says. “You need a plan before your game, and your manager will go through all the possible scenarios. The manager will work with you on what obstacles you might come across and what to do about them.” Pregame planning, postgame review – all in a day’s coaching.

Second, the ideal sales manager can make the critical shift from managing sales to managing people. Such a manager realizes that positive reinforcement builds a stronger sense of worth.

Like overanxious parents, sales managers who suffocate reps risk stifling the growth of their sales team. Effective managers, on the other hand, spend more energy fostering independence and autonomy in reps. “The managers who are ultimately successful shift their focus from being the top salesperson to realizing, ‘Oh, this is about getting stuff done through my people,'” explains Davis. “The key is to make that mental shift from ‘I am the lead salesperson’ to ‘I am the teacher, influencer and coach for my people, and my success consists of their successes.'”

However, sometimes managers let their new positions – and power – go to their heads. “When I first became a sales manager myself it was a badge I felt I had earned,” says executive sales coach Marc Corsini, president of Corsini Consulting Group in Birmingham, AL. “I would say things that would be distasteful to me today, like ‘She works for me, he works for me, they’re on my team.’ I was puffing myself up by playing them down. I had taken the role. It was my job, by God, to whip them into shape. And you reap what you sow.”

Corsini has worked with thousands of salespeople and managers and has seen firsthand the damaging effects of such domination tactics. “I have seen all styles of sales management,” he says, “and the kind of old-school techniques of beating your sales force down and trying to modify behavior through intimidation are terrible. It doesn’t work long term at all. The companies that I see growing are the ones where the sales managers and upper management have created an environment where people can flourish.

“A good sales manager is not the one who is attracting attention to himself all the time, but is making stars out of his salespeople by helping them overachieve,” says Corsini. “If you’re helping your salespeople overachieve, you will overachieve by default.”

Many sales managers are puzzled by what motivates people. “I see it as logic more than anything else,” says Chris McDonnell, sales manager for Eureka Broadband in New York. “When I need people to do something, I’m a fan of using the carrot, not the stick. I would use positive reinforcement, praise and goal setting rather than the hammer-and-nail approach or breaking somebody down. Maybe we’ll have to negotiate, and I’ll give in a little and they’ll give in a little, but I don’t like to threaten and take away commissions. I think that demoralizes reps, and it puts managers in a position where their authority and presence are resented.”

Third, the ideal sales manager works for the good of the sales team, sells to the team and sells with the team.

Jason Bergman, global account representative with BAX Global in Fort Lee, NJ, has worked as a manager and a salesperson and says management is simply a different kind of sale. “The difference between a sales manager and a salesperson is that the salesperson is selling the company’s product or service, and the sales manager is selling salespeople on performance,” he says. “So one is an internal sale and one is an external sale. Salespeople work for managers, but to a certain extent the best sales managers really work for their sales reps.”

As a rule, managers who adopt this kind of mind-set also practice highly effective management strategies. Treating salespeople as customers enables managers to capitalize on the skills that made them top performers. The Forum’s Davis recalls, “One sales manager in our study told us, ‘Whenever I start to panic, I remember that I can still be a salesperson. It is just that now my employees – my sales staff – are my customers. So I try to use the same skills that I would use with customers in influencing them, in listening to them, in trying to uncover their needs, in trying to persuade them through my involvement.'”

In fact, listening and keeping lines of communication open are essential skills for managers and their sales teams. Sales reps commonly give high praise to managers who are readily available to talk and who return phone calls or emails promptly. The manager who comes through in the clutch will gain more respect and authority. When a rep wants to talk, the ideal sales manager listens first, diagnoses the issue and offers solutions but never imposes them. Often it takes only a little help to solve a problem that may initially seem cataclysmic to a salesperson.

Fourth, the ideal sales manager is a good communicator who is accessible, responsive and reality based.

“I love working with salespeople, but sometimes it’s very difficult to keep my door open because I’m so busy,” admits Stella Evans, regional director of sales and marketing for Liverton Hotels in Vancouver, Canada. “Yet when I see salespeople coming at me with this look on their faces like ‘Somebody has to help me with this’ and they have a contract in their hand, I turn away from my computer and say, ‘What’s up?’ That’s all it takes. Usually it’s something minor, and they just need some encouragement and a pat on the back and they’re perfectly OK.”

Of course, there’s good communication and then there’s bad communication. Sometimes managers miscalculate the quality of their interaction with salespeople. “Everyone agrees that communication is important, and a lot of sales managers will tell us, ‘I have an open door policy’ or that they communicate with their sales staff constantly,” Davis explains. “But for some sales managers that translates to ‘communication out’ – where they’re doing 90 percent of the communicating and the salesperson is doing 10 percent. That means to the salesperson, ‘I have an open door policy and you have permission to come into my office whenever you want and have me give you a lecture.’ Or, ‘I leave voice mails for my people all the time telling them what I think.’ Sales managers often overlook the fact that communication needs to be two ways.”

Meetings are a perfect illustration of good communication gone bad. Nearly every rep has been to one of those interminable, seemingly pointless meetings, emerging with nothing more than a handful of doodles on a note pad. Sales meetings should be consistent, brief and focused on reality. Use the time as an opportunity to discuss challenges, motivate the team and establish or reevaluate goals.

Fifth, the ideal sales manager values the time of everyone on the team. This means not wasting the sales reps’ time and not allowing salespeople to waste the manager’s time.

“We often schedule time – a half-hour to 45 minutes – anytime during the week that the reps have open,” says Eureka Broadband’s McDonnell, who manages nine salespeople. “I’m here early and late and always available to sit down and talk. In our meetings, we go through everything from ‘How are you today?’ to ‘Let’s talk about what you envision for the month.’ Sometimes we can find things that I can help them with, like getting some muscle from management or helping them come up with creative pricing solutions or strategies. But basically I help them get out of ruts. It’s sometimes not too hard to get sidetracked, and these are focusing meetings. You discuss a little bit of the personal, a bit of the professional, and balance it out. You can typically develop a relationship and find out what motivates them pretty easily this way. So I make it a priority to sit down with reps one-on-one regularly.”

Some circumstances give good managers an opportunity to show how valuable they really can be to their sales team. Salespeople often need to talk about their lives, whether it’s business or at home, and managers must acknowledge that these issues are part of what makes salespeople perform well or not. Consequently, managers must act as counselors when salespeople face challenges they can’t work through on their own. “I need someone to talk to, almost like a therapist,” says QRS’ Gerdnic. “No one wants to hear you complain, so when I have a problem, I go to my manager and say, ‘This is the problem and here are three possible solutions. Do you have any suggestions?'”

What about reps who are struggling to meet goals? This should signal a coaching opportunity for managers. “If you’re talking about a salesperson who said he wanted to make $100,000,” says Corsini, “then the manager has to come in and say, ‘Look, you’ve only made x number of dollars so far. Based on where you’re going, you’re probably not going to meet your goal. Do you still want to make $100,000?’ ‘Well, yeah.’ ‘OK, so what do you think you need to do to make more money?’ ‘Well, I need to go out and see more people.’ ‘That seems logical. OK, let me help you. Who do you want to see in the next 30 days? Let me help you by holding you accountable to doing that, because I want to see you make $100,000, too.’ That’s a lot more positive than the manager saying, ‘Either get your butt in order or get out.'”

Sixth, the ideal sales manager helps reps set realistic yet challenging goals. Ideally the goal should strike a balance that revs the team members up and makes them proud when they reach the goal.

Setting goals is one of the critical ways managers influence, motivate and help keep their sales teams on track. The right approach to helping salespeople set and meet objectives can make the manager’s job infinitely easier. Sales reps who feel a sense of ownership over goals will work harder to meet them as a matter of course. “To me, it’s important that salespeople set their own goals,” says Beverly Knapp, northeast regional manager at Ablest Staffing in Clifton Park, NY. “If I set goals for them, they’re my goals that I’ve given to them, and it’s not going to have much meaning.”

Mistakes, setbacks and unexpected changes also present ideal learning and motivational opportunities. “Let’s say a sale doesn’t go through,” says Kim Whitworth, regional sales manager at AT&T in Madison, AL. “The reps call; they’re upset. Depending on the individuals, we may review past successes or look to the future and opportunities on the horizon, reinforcing their positives and pointing out what they do well.”

In times of crisis or disappointment, reps can lose sight of the big picture, so it’s up to the manager to make sure they keep the right perspective. “Sales as a way of making a living is full of rejection and ups and downs, so you try to get up, brush yourself off and move along,” says Eureka Broadband’s McDonnell. “Every rep out there has had a big loss of something they were really counting on. It’s part of the business. The manager is there to help make those losses a learning experience, to evaluate the situation. Typically there are two or three really good reasons for why they lost it, and when that happens, you can help them with what to do next time. You always make it a learning process.”

Seventh, the ideal sales manager establishes an atmosphere of trust. Nothing can replace it once it is lost.

By going the extra mile to increase their sales team’s chances for success, managers create a more level playing field. They exert their authority while eliminating the kinds of micromanaging habits that tend to flourish in a strictly enforced hierarchy. “If you establish things so that you’re the boss and the sales reps report to you and that’s it, you’re not going to get the performance from the salespeople that you need,” says BAX Global’s Bergman. “Nor are you going to establish a trusting relationship.”

Ideal managers also build trust by putting the best interests of their sales reps first. “It’s a return on your investment,” Bergman says. “When you support a sales rep in that way, you get a level of trust and loyalty from that individual and the event brings down that wall between boss and employee. The sales rep realizes, ‘This person really cares about me. This is a good person who is working in my best interest.’ Most good salespeople will respond by working harder at their jobs.”

Eighth, the ideal sales manager is a master motivator.

Because every salesperson is different, it is important to know what motivates each individual. “It is about literally asking, ‘What motivates you?’ Most sales managers don’t do this because they assume they know or because they assume that what motivates them motivates the salesperson,” explains The Forum’s Davis. “It’s true to an extent that everyone is driven by money, for example, but it’s also true that each individual is going to be motivated by something different. Sales reps talk a lot about wanting their manager to ask them what they need and what motivates them.”

In some ways, successful sales managers see their sales team as racehorses that need a clear path to reach the finish line. “I don’t want them bogged down with things I can handle for them,” AT&T’s Whitworth says. “If it’s paperwork that I can do or phone calls I can return, then let me do it. I want them freed up to be able to be cold calling, prospecting for new business and working with customers.

“They don’t work for me. They work for themselves and they work for the company. My role is to see that they have the resources and the tools they need to be successful and to remove any obstacles in their way.”

During unsettling times, managers can do much to reassure their teams. The right attitude can go a long way to soften the blow and help reps find ways to bounce back. “The company I’m with has been sold four times,” says Joseph Murtha, a district sales manager in Pittsburgh, PA. “When my boss told me not to worry, it made me appreciate him more because there is a certain amount of uncertainty when you’re being bought out. Life has no guarantees, but he tries to keep everyone in tune with the changes and help us react to them. When our commission plan changed suddenly – another surprise – I spent three hours talking and he listened to all my complaints and problems. He helped me iron them out and put a different perspective on things because, as salespeople, we’re sometimes selfish, spoiled and maybe have to be hit with a punch of reality sometimes. I look to him for that because he’s a leader and I respect him.”

When companies must reduce their sales forces to compete during lean economic times, managers have to roll with the punches. No manager likes dealing with the fallout of company layoffs, smaller sales teams and more competition for fewer customers. It’s traumatizing even for the most confident salespeople.

Andy Zoltners, managing director of ZS Associates in Evanston, IL, says these challenges are a good opportunity to raise standards. “In a more cautious buying environment, salespeople have to change the way they sell,” he says. “The manager has to respond to that as a trainer by listening to the concerns from the field and then figuring out ways to survive in a tougher marketplace.”

Ninth, the ideal sales manager is a leader. Leadership means keeping your head when the business community, your markets, the economy, the competition and the customer base seem to be a swirling sea of turmoil. A good leader supplies vision, courage and discipline.

Above all the other qualities of a leader, nothing is more powerful than leading by example while understanding what it feels like to be in the salesperson’s shoes. Liverton Hotels’ Evans explains, “I think it’s important for managers to walk in the salesperson’s shoes in order to understand what they’re going through. Empathy for the other person makes it much easier to work together as a team.”

Leading at a higher level requires flexibility, diligence, perseverance and heart. The best managers are constantly trying to improve their performance in order to help their teams excel. “I think you need to make the reps want to do well for you, for the team and for themselves,” says BAX Global’s Bergman. “You have to be someone they want to be like and want to succeed for. You do that by treating them well, giving them attention, caring about what they’re going through, recognizing their needs and supporting them. You have to fight their battles for them, especially with upper management, and if you have a good record of doing that, you succeed and the team does well.”

* The results of a survey of sales managers and sales reps from appear throughout this article. To view the complete results, go to