The Number One Factor That Drives Success for Sales Teams

By Heather Baldwin

Which factor drives winning sales teams, excellent reps or excellent managers? Findings recently published by ZS Associates in the book Building a Winning Sales Management Team: The Force Behind the Sales Force reveals a clear answer: while excellent reps with an average manager will outsell a team of average reps with an excellent manager in the short term, their advantage will quickly taper.

According to authors Andris Zoltners, Prabhakant Sinha, and Sally Lorimer, excellent reps with mediocre managers often disengage from their jobs or leave to work elsewhere. Average managers then fill those vacancies with average reps, since they are typically either unable to recognize excellence or feel intimidated by it.

“In the long run, average managers bring all of the salespeople that they manage down to their level,” write Zoltners, Sinha, and Lorimer. “On the other hand, excellent managers bring excellence to all their territories. Great managers may inherit average salespeople, but in the long run, they counsel, coach, motivate, or replace salespeople until their entire team is excellent.”

This reality has enormous implications for organizations that continue to fill sales management positions by promoting their best sales reps. A common belief is that star reps, when promoted, will lift the performance of the sales team to his or her level. Far too often that doesn’t happen. Why? Because the skill set for managers is very different from the skill set of a rep. The key difference: where a star sales rep is adept at doing, a manager must be skilled at teaching and coaching. The independent, achievement-oriented, competitive personality traits that make a rep successful frequently work against him or her as a manager. This doesn’t mean that good reps can’t be good managers. There are certainly examples of people who have succeeded in both roles. But there are far too many examples of great reps who are promoted to management roles but don’t succeed because they don’t have the right managerial skills.

There are several other important differences in the characteristics required for management success versus sales rep success, say the authors. Where reps must know how to listen to and advocate for their customers, managers must do so for their salespeople – an important shift. Great salespeople strive for personal success, while great managers aim for team success. Similarly, great reps make each transaction successful, while great managers make the district or region successful. In sum, top reps excel at doing things themselves while top managers excel at coaching others to excellence. As one sales leader who was quoted in Building a Winning Sales Management Team observed, “The job of manager is not just a bigger job – it’s a totally different job than being a salesperson.”

“Because many salespeople who are contemplating a move to management don’t have a clear idea of what the job entails, it’s important for sales leaders to communicate their expectations clearly and screen candidates thoughtfully, assessing each candidate’s skills and interests relative to the job requirements,” say Zoltners, Sinha, and Lorimer. Above all, understand the traits for which you are hiring and know that your brightest rep may not necessarily be your best candidate.