The Seven Qualities of Top Sales Managers

By Gerhard Gschwandtner and Maryann Hammers
Five people standing in a row representing a sales team

Becoming a sales manager or sales director isn’t always easy. There are a lot of pressures on sales managers from driving sales excellence, sales performance, and sales strategy. But often, sales managers don’t know how to be a good sales manager or a good sales director. They learn the hard way what works and what doesn’t.

Dave Anderson, author of Selling Above the Crowd and No-Nonsense Leadership is a savvier when it comes to sales management. In fact, he literally wrote the book on it. But he learned the hard way how to be a good sales manager.

In fact, he wants to share a message with his 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 sales managers, Anderson was promoted to his position based on his sales ability and sales performance—but he didn’t have a clue about managing a sales team. He held reps accountable for increasing sales and increasing sales performance, but he didn’t communicate expectations. He managed by intimidation and not motivation—locking himself in his office and immersing himself in administrative tasks.

Anderson’s experience is like so many sales leaders, sales managers, and sales directors. Being a top performing sales rep doesn’t always translate to effectively managing a sales team. So, what does it take to be a good sales manager? We asked sales managers who have built great sales teams and here are the seven qualities of top sales managers they all share.

Sales Manager Quality One: 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 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, says he appreciates that his current manager works just as hard as – or harder than – the reps he oversees. “My sales 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.”

Sales Manager Quality Two: Earn Your Sales Team’s Trust

Sales teams judge their sales managers by what they do, not by what they say. This makes trust a pivotal component of the relationship between sales manager and sales rep. As a sales manager, you need to ensure you’re your sales team doesn’t have to second-guess what you tell them, that you are reliable and that you keep their world as great as it can be.

“Sales managers who have a reputation for changing their views based on who was in their office last have no credibility,” says Lawrence B. Chonko, former professor of marketing at Baylor University.

If you set rules and deadlines, enforce them. If you schedule meetings, hold them. “Otherwise, you become a joke,” says Doug Stevens, a sales-and-marketing consultant with Carrera Agency, a talent management firm.

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 sales 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 sales 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.

Sales Manager Quality Three: Give Your Sales Team Feedback

Ensure there are rewards for goals met and exceeded and consequences for goals missed. If you don’t, sales productivity will decline. Just like any employee, salespeople work hard with they are getting a pat on the back, and they stop working hard with the sales manager fails to provide feedback and recognition.

Set realistic goals and clear expectations. Communicate to your sales team where they stand through continuous feedback—not just on a quarterly basis, but weekly or even daily. “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. “Sales 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. “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.”

Sales Manager Quality Four: Build Excitement

“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 through 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.”

Sales Manager Quality Five: Get Involved

Get involved and stay involved. Majority of salespeople are more worried about their efforts instead of their results, they worry about what others, i.e., sales managers and marketing are doing for them.

The key to great sales management is to be involved—be visible and accessible to not only your customers but your sales team. Don’t get so overwhelmed with the paperwork and managerial tasks that you forget about the work your sales team is doing. 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.

Sales Manager Quality Six: Develop Your Sales Reps

The best sales training is driving sales strategy through customer research. Learning about your customers’ situations, digging deep into their worlds, and creating solutions that make their work more efficient. It’s the key to any great sales rep—and the key to great sales managers developing their sales team in ways that will make a difference.

It’s not a one-time thing, it’s 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 sales 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 sales 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.

Sales Manager Quality Seven: Lead Sales to Never-Ending Improvement

Sales excellence is something every sales manager strives to achieve for their sales team. It’s easy to implement a few quick changes but it’s more difficult to keep the momentum. Why is this? Sales managers often worry more about meeting quarterly sales goals—which lead to last minute and impromptu changes at the end of the quarter—changes and sales strategies that often-hurt 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.

To avoid this, learn the five areas a sales manager can focus on to perpetuate sales improvement efforts.

Sales Improvement Effort One: Incorporate better sales forecasting by researching current sales activities. Measure the closing ratio per sales rep and then research how many leads you need to close one deal. Afterall, better measurement of activity leads to a better understanding of what brings results.

Sales Improvement Effort Two: Look at every nook and cranny of your sales process and ask your sales team to identify a better, more efficient, way to perform each task.

Sales Improvement Effort Three: Analyze your time as a sales manager. How much time do you spend coaching your top sales performers, and how much time do you spend with low sales performers who are unable to grow? Ensure the balance is the right balance.

Sales Improvement Effort Four: Ask your sales team what you can do to help. Ask them how you can help them grow, help them win, and help motivate them. They will tell you if you ask.

Sales Improvement Effort Five: Commit yourself to never-ending improvement.