Critical Skills for Effective Sales Managers

My very first sales manager welcomed me on board, showed me where the tea and coffee was, identified on a map where my customers were and then gave me the keys to my car and told me to get lost for a week! In nearly 30 years since, I’ve experienced other sales managers, been a sales manager and managed sales managers, so let's consider those skills critical to effective sales management and in this case, my top five ...

1. Clarity

First up is clarity, the need for a sales manager to be clear about their teams’ goals and objectives. Far too often, sales people are not focused on objectives, instead given vague/woolly instructions and this simply isn't good enough. Objectives must be well thought out and presented in SMART terminology. KPIs should include turnover, profitability, activity levels, gross profit, timescales and conversion rates to name but a few. What also needs to be made clear is the responsibility the sales person must accept for leading the process. A trend has developed in recent years whereby selling has been downgraded to active buying - that state of being where the buyer rather than the sales person leads the process. What nonsense! Selling should always be a proactive function and a ‘numbers’ game, where it’s the process that delivers the outcome and where results are simply a by-product of sales people doing the right things at the right time.

2. Communication

Good communication is the lifeblood of any business and in regard to selling is absolutely critical. However, it’s not uncommon for sales people to be allowed to go native, to do their thing free from regular or structured communication such that they can be in the field (or even the office) for days on end without meaningful communication from their sales manager. Communication doesn't need to be lengthy but it does need to be regular, motivational, inspirational and above all supportive. This last point is key; salespeople regularly tremble at the thought of a sales meeting because they know they have missed target and as a result are likely to be pilloried in a sales meeting - this isn’t helpful. By communicating regularly and having clear objectives, effective sales management provides the tools for supporting sales people to improve in key areas.

3. Accountability

Possibly THE critical area of effective sales management is holding sales people accountable for their objectives. Typically there are two things absent here; one is being clear about what they are accountable for (KPIs/activity levels/etc) and the second is that very often, sales managers are too weak to have meaningful performance conversations with salespeople and to challenge them about the reasons for them not getting results. This is not to lay blame at the salesperson’s door as very often sales people need support and development in key skill areas. However, the absence of accountability means sales people are more likely to remain unproductive, unsuccessful and ultimately demotivated. The avoidance of these things is THE core of effective sales management.

4. Coaching

Before coaching begins a sales person/sales team should show up on a competency matrix such that an individual's sales skills, strengths and weaknesses are known - preferably at the time they are recruited to a sales position. This rarely happens but there are still myriad opportunities to identify areas of development opportunity for sales people and to coach them for performance in key skill areas. Selling is not a black-art, it is a simple, defined process like any other and as such, there are many opportunities to coach people for performance in areas where they need it most.

5. Respect

Respect for a sales manager will be forthcoming when they satisfy these four management areas. That is, 1) they are clear about objectives and SMART in how they direct a sales team, 2) when they communicate regularly and supportively throughout the year, 3) where they hold people accountable for their performance and 4) where they allocate time and resources to develop the skills of a salesperson through timely coaching interventions. First and foremost a sales manager is a manager; they do not necessarily need to be the most accomplished sales person themselves as I was reminded many years ago. Management - in many instances - is that job people get through being good at something else and it’s the same in sales management. Good sales people don't always make the best sales managers, but providing a sales manager manages effectively, they are entirely capable of winning over the respect of the team they manage.