The Seven Qualities of Top Sales Managers

By Gerhard Gschwandtner and maryann hammers

If you think becoming a sales manager is easy, here’s the lowdown from seasoned sales managers who look back at what they learned – the hard way.

Dave Anderson has something to say to the first group of sales reps that he managed 13 years ago. "I am so, so sorry," he says. "I didn’t know what I was doing."

Like many new managers, Anderson was promoted to his position based on his sales ability – but he didn’t have a clue about dealing with people. So he held reps accountable but didn’t communicate what was expected of them. He managed by intimidation, instead of motivation. Rather than coach his team, he stayed aloof, locking himself in his office and immersing himself in administrative tasks.

"I could close deals and do budgets, but I was just horrible when it came to leading people," he admits. "I didn’t teach anyone anything – I managed by command control and whips and chains. I don’t know how anyone could stand to work with me."

Nowadays, Anderson is a lot savvier about sales management. In fact, you could say he wrote the book on the topic: he’s the author of Selling Above the Crowd (Horizon Business Press, 1999) and No-Nonsense Leadership (Creative Broadcast Concepts, 2001), and he’s president of LearntoLead, a sales and leadership training company in Los Altos, CA.

As Anderson’s experience proves, being a top rep doesn’t mean you can manage people. But what does it take to succeed? We asked managers who’ve built great teams, reps who report to them, and executives who direct the whole sales organization. Here’s what they said.

1. Become a master of change.

The biggest and most challenging task of a sales manager is to prepare the sales team for the constantly changing marketplace. "Every organization," says Peter Drucker, "has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Great sales managers are the arch role model for change. Business is never a straight series of predictable evolutions that will produce a happy, boldface chart pointing north. Today’s business is the result of uncontrollable, unpredictable eruptions of simultaneous financial, technological and economic revolutions. The ideal sales manager will calmly face chaos, enthusiastically embrace change, and always adjust to whatever tough challenges lie ahead.

That’s why great managers set the bar high with their own work ethic, and they lead in change management. Leilani Lutali, a rep with Comforce Technical Services, a Woodbury, New York-based consulting and staffing company, says her first manager did just that. "Diana expected as much of herself as she did of her sales force. And she wasn’t afraid of her reps surpassing her – in fact, she encouraged it. Through her mentoring, she helped us rise to our highest levels of excellence."

Troy Berns, a rep with All Copy Products, a Denver, Colorado-based dealer for copiers, printers, facsimile machines, postage meters and scanners, says he appreciates that his current manager works just as hard as – or harder than – the reps he oversees. "My manager gets in the office before I do, and when I stay late he’s right here strategizing with me. He won’t ask me to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself."

"When we’re faced with change," says Tom Miller, a sales-training consultant, "salespeople will automatically focus on what they must give up. To them, virtually all change will be perceived as loss. That’s why good sales managers add value when it comes to selling the pain of gain. They help the salespeople vividly imagine the raisins in a huge cake, and then they will tell them that they will lead them personally through a potentially unnerving gauntlet that ultimately gets them unscathed into a big cake factory."

2. Earn their trust.

Salespeople do not pay so much attention to what their sales manager says; they judge their managers by what they do. Trust is the foundation of any relationship. Trust means that your word is as good as gold, that salespeople don’t have to second-guess anything you tell them, and that they can count on you. Trust is not what you preach to your team, it is what you do when nobody is watching.

"Managers who have a reputation for changing their views based on who was in their office last have no credibility," says Lawrence B. Chonko, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, TX, and founder of the school’s Center for Professional Selling and Sales Management.

That means if you set rules and deadlines, you’d better enforce them. If you schedule meetings, you must hold them. "Otherwise you become a joke," says Doug Stevens, a sales-and-marketing consultant with Carrera Agency, a talent management firm in Aliso Viejo, CA.

Most importantly, reps must believe their manager is working for the good of the team and will go to bat for them when needed. If you become complacent, have a bad attitude, make rude or abusive comments, or are caught lying or cheating, you betray their trust and end up with a demoralized, unmotivated sales force.

"You may think that you are watching your reps," Anderson says. "But actually, they are watching you. Reps won’t buy into what you say unless they buy into your character, your competence and your consistency."

When you make as a mistake as a manager, don’t hide it, don’t gloss over it, but admit it quickly by saying, "I blew it, I made a mistake and I take full responsibility for it." Your honest response will silence the critics and everyone who has ever made a mistake will understand and respect your honesty. If you are too proud to admit your mistakes, you will lose people’s trust. When you lose trust, your team will no longer be able to function smoothly and your ability to manage will suffer.

3. Give feedback.

Good salespeople stop working hard when the sales manager fails to provide objective feedback. Without the pat on the back or the celebration of a stretch goal achieved, salespeople will ask themselves, "Why am I working so hard?" If there are no consequences for goals missed and no rewards for goals exceeded, sales productivity will decline.

Good managers set clear expectations and realistic goals. Give plenty of feedback and let reps know where they stand – and not just during annual or quarterly reviews. "Delayed consequences lose their punch, so you should give feedback on the fly," Anderson says. "Reps will try to hit a standard if they know what it is. If you don’t create clarity, how can you create accountability? How can reps know if they are cutting it if they don’t know what ‘it’ is?"

In one company, the VP of sales was so preoccupied with moving up the ladder – and fishing for compliments from the CEO – that he overlooked the need for complimenting and thanking his regional managers for their extra efforts. Every time they achieved their goals, he asked them to set their expectations higher and told them that their salespeople could do a lot more. Within a year, five of his 12 regional managers moved out of his division, sales suffered, and when a new CEO took over, he was let go. Remember to balance criticism with elegant, positive reinforcement. "Managers who give only criticism without building us back up don’t help," Berns says. "They just make us feel less motivated."

Diego Lombardo, an account manager for MobilSense Technologies Inc., an Agoura Hills, CA, company that provides cost-management solutions for the wireless industry, remembers his first sales manager fondly. "He was completely honest and put everything on the table with no facades," Lombardo says. "He would tell us if we weren’t doing the job. When we asked him for help, he never pushed us off to someone else."

4. Build enthusiasm.

"I want to keep the salespeople happy and engaged," says Brad Knepper, CEO of All Copy Products, who brought his company’s revenues from $1.2 million to $11 million during the three years he’s been in charge. He says creative competitions keep enthusiasm high. For example, during a recent week-long Survivor contest – complete with palm trees, grass skirts and tiki torches – reps earned points for making calls, setting appointments and demonstrating products, and those with the fewest points got booted off their tribal teams.

"I really wanted people to get into the theme – and they did," Knepper says. "Productivity jumped, people stayed extra late at the office, and they shared tips and ideas across the cubes. The contest made it less about cold calling and pitching and more about competitive spirit."

The contest also showed the reps just how much they were capable of producing, Berns says. "For that week, we worked hard, but we enjoyed it. People stepped up to the plate and were doing quite a bit more than in the past. Then they realized that they could do that every week."

In companies that went through the pain of layoffs during the recent economic recession, it was much harder to maintain a high level of enthusiasm. "We went though a really tough period," said a sales manager at an online media company. "In one week, our entire marketing team and half of our sales force was let go. After the initial shock wore off, I decided to have an honest conversation with every member of my team. I told them that there was no guarantee that our company would make it. There are no guarantees in life. I told them that if they wanted to quit, I would understand and accept their decision. But, if we worked as a team and gave it our best effort, and adjusted our approach, we’d have a good chance at winning. Within the next nine months, we recovered, our company broke even and we lost only one salesperson."

5. Get involved.

Many salespeople are overly preoccupied with their efforts rather than with results. They worry about what their sales managers would or should do for them. They’d rather complain about the poor quality of sales leads instead of taking the initiative through cold calling. Instead of taking total ownership of their job, they feel that their managers owe them. As a result, they become ineffectual.

Management guru Peter Drucker once said, "The manager who focuses on contribution and who takes responsibility for results, no matter how junior, is in the most literal sense of the phrase ‘top management,’ for he holds himself accountable for the performance of the whole."

The key to great sales management is to get involved and be highly visible to your customers and highly accessible to your sales team. Don’t get so immersed in paperwork that you forget about how people work. Armchair managers don’t cut it. "Poor managers hide in their offices. Good managers are visible and accessible. They are down in the trenches showing their people how to get the job done," Anderson says.

That kind of involvement breeds loyalty. "My previous sales manager didn’t play an active role in my job," Berns says. "He didn’t work with me one-on-one; he didn’t go on appointments with me; he kept his distance. He had no interest in anything except what I was going to close and when I was going to do it."

In contrast, Berns’ current manager frequently accompanies him out in the field, teaches by example, provides honest feedback, and coaches him on how he could have done better. "I feel loyal towards him because he is involved," Berns says.

Vital involvement of the sales manager at the customer level keeps sales organization more rooted in the marketplace, and as a result customers feel more connected to the company. For example, it is not uncommon for the room manager or the catering manager at a Ritz Carlton hotel to greet customers at the door and thank them for visiting. Why? Research shows that customers feel honored by the presence of management.

6. Grow and Develop Your Team.

We live in a knowledge-based society where information moves at lightening speed. The speed and volume of information create new challenges. Salespeople have deeper access to a company’s knowledge universe than their customer, but customers have a deeper knowledge of their own situations. While information suffers from inflation, quality human contact has become a rare commodity. The best sales-training strategy is to encourage salespeople to spend more time learning about their customers’ situations and then invest more time digging deeper to create better fitting solutions for their customers.

Great managers provide ongoing coaching, training and development. "You can’t expect people to be up and running after their two-week orientation. Sales training is a continual investment," Anderson says. "Don’t leave the development of your people to chance. Create a focused plan. Objectives for skill proficiency should be set and progress measured."

But that doesn’t just mean signing up for sales seminars. Great managers "stretch us outside of our comfort zones," Lutali says. Encourage reps to join associations, create community-based relationships, or continue their education. "My first sales manager encouraged me to finish my degree. That alone helped my production," says Lutali.

Good managers also separate career development from skills development. While a sales negotiation course may give a salesperson a short-term boost, it will not improve the salesperson’s long-term career. A career development process should aim at stretching a salesperson’s business acumen, judgment of people and business behavior.

In the end, successful sales managers have mastered the delicate balancing act of getting the job done for the company while advocating individual growth for each rep – and that’s as much an art as a science. "You have to hold people accountable to quotas and hard measurements," Stevens says. "That’s the science part." But, he adds, "you also have to build people up, give them hope and help them make money."

And that’s where the art – and the heart – comes in.

7. Lead people to never-ending improvement.

Excellence in selling means engaging every salesperson in a never-ending and ongoing improvement process. While it is easy for a new sales manager to implement a few quick and effective changes, it is difficult to keep the momentum going. Why? Sales managers often worry more about reaching their quarterly sales goal, which requires innovative, last-minute changes in sales strategies that often strangle the idea of ongoing improvement.

There are subtle, yet profound differences between innovation and ongoing improvement. Innovation demands big steps leading to breakthroughs and fast results. Ongoing improvement depends on small steps, relies on conventional common sense, pays great attention to process, and teases out results in small doses over time.

When business prospects are positive, the innovation-focused sales manager will roll out a new CRM solution, train the entire sales staff, or create a lavish incentive plan. In other words, cash in the pocket fuels the motivation for innovation. Unfortunately, these managers mistake innovation for improvement. In today’s challenging economic environment, ongoing improvement may be a more desirable alternative.

Here are five areas sales manager can focus on to perpetuate improvement efforts.

First, improve your measurement methods. Start with better sales forecasting, measure the closing ratio per salesperson, research how many leads you need to close one sale. Better measurement of activity leads to a better understanding of what causes better results.

Second, improve your sales process. Look at every component and get your team to identify a better way to perform each task.

Third, take a look at your management process. How much time do you spend with top performers, helping them do better, work more efficiently, capture more opportunities? How much time do you invest in coaching poor performers who are unable to grow?

Fourth, how do you motivate your people? Ask your salespeople, "How am I doing?" or "What can I do to help you win?" or "How can I help you grow?" They will tell you where improvement is needed most – you only have to ask.

Fifth, commit yourself to never-ending improvement.

Marty Edelston, the founder of Boardroom Reports, a company that’s committed to ongoing improvement, once printed the following message on a notepad and gave it to every employee. (Note the absence of spaces between words.)