Avoid the traps of a first-line sales manager


The role of a first-line sales manager can be exciting. But it can also be challenging, juggling a multitude of demands from overseeing the sales team, to developing your people, to managing customer relationships.

The secret to success lies in being able to drive results through others, without ignoring other critical responsibilities (like the business and administrative management and owning your own customers).

Great leaders can strategise and energise their people. They can lead the team to deliver the goals of their sales strategy whilst developing them into the next set of high achievers.

Unfortunately, it is too often the case that first-line sales leaders aren't good at managing people. This may be because barely a quarter of them receive any relevant training or coaching before moving into a people management position.

What's more, our own research suggests that about 80 per cent of what managers - including sales managers - spend their time on is technical, administrative or sales-specific rather than mobilising their team strategically to get results. In short, they're focusing too much on time on low-value activity and wasting their time.

As long ago as 1918, Charles R. Mann asserted that how good a manager is at managing people impacts 80 per cent of their own personal success. This is particularly pertinent for sales managers because they are supervising almost the entire revenue-producing workforce. If the sales team aren't performing, the organisation will ultimately fail.

So the three questions any first-line sales manager should ask themselves are: - How can I be more strategic? How can I get great results from my people? And how can I motivate and energise my team?

Focus upstream

Sales managers spend so much time concentrating on downstream activities - those that generate immediate results - that they forget to think upstream - focusing on the long term goals that will build the team and their performance. A great sales manager will maintain a strategic focus on:

  • Growing salespeople: developing the individual capability and independence of their salespeople.
  • Building relationships: spending time with customers to leverage important relationships and build the credibility of their salespeople.
  • Creating a proactive territory strategy: continuously creating, implementing and refining a plan to make each sales person as effective as possible in their region.
  • Creating internal sales partnerships: establish a shared set of goals and objectives with the team and the sales organisation's internal supply chain.

These goals may not always make an immediate impact. But any great leader knows that upstream activities are critical to build the capability of the sales department and meet the financial goals of the business.

Refine your leadership style to get great results

A decade ago, research by consulting firm Hay/McBer found that the way a leader behaves has a measurable impact on the climate of a team - how they feel about where they work - and on financial results. After all, climate impacts staff's motivation, behaviour and, therefore, their performance.

So it's important to consider your style of leadership when trying to get the best from people in all situations. But what is the best approach?

The finest managers are the ones who have a multifaceted style and they stay focused on the needs of their team. They can integrate various different styles of leadership - from developing individuals by giving responsibility, to inspiring by delivering cohesive direction and strategy-driven actions, to being commanding and taking charge when the situation requires. And they adapt these styles as situations change. Unfortunately there are few managers able to do this with most relying on just one or two familiar approaches - even when circumstances demand a different tact.

Motivate and energise the team

Because the single most important determinant of an organisation's climate is the day-to-day actions of the manager, the best way to motivate and energise your team comes back to how you behave.

If you think about climate in three 'sections' then it's easier to consider ways to change and shape it into a positive, high performance environment. And each zone impacts the next one.

Personal climate: this is your outlook, mood and level of confidence which will impact your performance as well as the motivation and climate of your team.

The sales team climate: as your behaviour influences your sales team's climate, ensure your actions inspire a positive environment which increases their confidence, energy and performance.

The customer climate: if you and your team's climate is positive then customers are more likely to want to do business with you.

Being a great sales manager is a balancing act, with many different roles and responsibilities. But focusing on high-value activities, the highest of which is people management, is critical to success. Strategise, mobilise and motivate your team and you'll not only make a good but a great first-line manager.


About The Author

Graham Scrivener
Graham Scrivener

Graham Scrivener, Managing Director of Forum EMEA, a UK-based provider of leadership development and sales performance training.