What Makes a Great Sales Manager
19 Qualities of a Successful Sales Leader
Sales rep vs. Sales manager
Even though “sales rep” and “sales manager” share the same first word, the two positions couldn’t be more different. In fact, employees who excel as reps may not enjoy the same success as a leader.
A great sales manager must have equal parts sales knowledge and soft skills. After all, closing sales is a lot different than inspiring people and keeping them satisfied in their work. Sales reps don’t just need a manager, they need a leader.
And leadership requires acute emotional intelligence. The skillset of a sales manager must be nuanced because people are nuanced. And in any organization, people are the most valuable assets by far.
Perhaps you’re looking to hire a sales manager or you’ve recently become one yourself. Here are some time-tested qualities of a great sales manager. Refer back to them often and they will serve you and your organization well.
Qualities of a Great Sales Manager
Hire slow, fire fast
The old adage sounds harsh, but those in recruiting can attest that a bad hire costs far more money and headaches than a good, albeit delayed one. Take your time with the interview process and get multiple opinions. Assess core competencies, strengths, weaknesses, and emotional health. Pay close attention to culture fit. Don’t let red flags slip under the radar. Let your reps interview the candidate and weigh in with their thoughts.
“Fire fast” may be an overstatement. This isn’t to say employees should be terminated for minor offenses. Rather, the sentiment is that consistently problematic, toxic, or underperforming employees are detrimental to your team. Give them official warnings, put them on performance improvement plans, but do not be lulled into letting them remain on a team that they’re bringing down.
SEE ALSO: The True Cost of a Bad Sales Rep
Author and researcher Jim Collins studied nearly a dozen companies to try to uncover the underlying qualities of their success. He published his findings in the revered business classic Good to Great. One of the key characteristics all great businesses share is what Collins calls the First Who, Then What principle.
The basic idea is that you first load up your “bus” with the right people, then worry about your destination or finding “seats” for them later. In other words, focus primarily on hiring for culture fit. Things like technical and mechanical skills can be taught. A great attitude and emotional intelligence cannot.
If your team struggles to identify underperformers, look into sales management AI solutions that will provide visibility into sales activities, opportunity health, buyer engagement, and then intelligently score reps on their ability to move deals forward to close.
Don’t require that which you can’t do yourself
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re asking your team to accomplish a task, you should be sure that you can also accomplish that task to a satisfactory level. Unless you’re coaching professional athletes or world-renowned performers.
Sales managers are often, but not always, promoted from within the organization for this very reason. When you understand the pain points of sales reps, you can better empathize and problem solve with them. Indeed, you’ve lived what they’re experiencing, so leading them through it is all the more natural.
In the food service industry, it’s customary for the manager to be thoroughly trained in every job in the restaurant. This means that if the place is slammed or someone calls out sick, they can hop on the line, serve drinks, or even bus tables.
A baseline competence in the responsibilities of your sales reps is essential. Not only does this demonstrate to your employees that you understand their day-to-day workflow, but you also earn their respect by showing that you’re not above helping out with tasks that aren’t in your job description.
Set clear expectations
One of the biggest causes of rifts or conflict in relationships of all kinds is unmet expectations. When expectations don’t align, there will be frustration. That’s true whether it’s a friendship, a marriage, or the relationship a manager has with their employees.
For sales managers, this means being crystal clear on what you expect from your team. That goes for KPIs, staff culture, communication, and anything else that’s important to you. Then, these expectations must often be reiterated many times and through many different mediums.
Frankly, not hitting numbers or miscommunication gaffes will be laid at the feet of a sales manager, especially by company leadership. This means that the onus of making sure your team understands what’s expected of them lies squarely on your shoulders.
It’s not fun to set expectations, especially when they’re unpopular ones. But the potential up-front friction is far less painful than a miscommunication and compounding stress on you and your team.
The right sales enablement tools will help you lay guard rails for your team and reinforce processes and best practices. Make sure you invest in solutions that make communicating these expectations simple, seamless, and a no-brainer for your team to execute.
Don’t micromanage; let the data speak for itself
I can’t think of any employee in an organization that hates being micromanaged more than a salesperson. It can be tempting, especially for newer sales managers, to obsess over the forecasts and hover over reps that aren’t hitting their short term numbers.
Give them space, give them time, and let them solve the problem on their own. Sellers are usually aware of their shortfalls and don’t need to be hounded. If the problem is systemic and ongoing, address it accordingly. But if you email or message your people after every slight dip in their numbers, you will drive them insane (or drive them into the arms of another company).
Sales Management AI helps alleviate these common headaches on both the manager and the employee side. It intelligently captures all sales data, logs it into the appropriate fields in your CRM and visualizes it for managers. This means less time trying to decipher vague notes left by reps in the sales record; and more time coaching and strategizing on the complexities that need your expertise.
It also eliminates the need for reps to be hounded by managers eager for an update on how a deal is progressing.
In a matter of seconds, managers can discern the health of the deal and any problematic bottlenecks. This way, the conversation can move away from interrogation. Instead it can be productive problem-solving and strategy.
Establish clear processes and guidelines
This point follows the preceding one for a distinct reason. You can fall off either side of this horse. Giving absolutely no guidance, structure, or processes to your team is not “autonomy” as much as it is throwing them in the deep end.
This is where the “manager” portion of sales manager really comes into play. It’s your responsibility to establish the processes and guidelines that govern your team’s success. The following are some common procedures a sales manager will establish:
- Meeting cadences
- Expense report deadlines
- One-on-one meetings
- Contract and quote generation processes
- Lead assignment protocols
- Meetings with stakeholders
- Campaign organization
It’s impossible for managers to hold all these reminders, deadlines, and meetings in their head. As soon as possible, find some sort of automated system to track these important dates, deadlines, and milestones.
For example, to maximize your individual meetings, you can use a tool like Accent Sales Management to automatically see the health of all the deals in progress. This gives you a clear roadmap of how to structure your one-on-ones and best coach your reps for success without spending half the meeting on an update.
And if you don’t want to spend all day refreshing a dashboard, you can use AI-driven tools analyze and keep tabs on employees that need help in real-time.
This way, nothing falls through the cracks and managers are freed up to focus on higher-level strategy.
In summary, automate these regular tasks as much as possible and keep the lines of communication open with your reps. Speaking of good communication…
Be approachable and humble
The first time someone criticizes something you’ve done, it’s an unspoken litmus test of your approachability and humility. Will you immediately respond with defensiveness? Will you ask probing questions to better understand their problem? Will you placate them but do nothing to fix the issue?
If you act in a combative or defensive way, your team will no longer trust you. If they sense you’re seeking to protect your own reputation, they will circumvent your authority to solve problems. Why? Because you’ve proven yourself not to be a safe sounding board for constructive feedback or criticism.
This is much easier said than done. Nobody likes being criticized, especially when they feel like the criticism is undeserved or unfair. But the expectations of approachability are higher for those in leadership. It’s one of the many ways they earn their higher compensation.
Regardless of whether you think the criticism is fair, when employees come to you with issues, the last thing you want to do is develop a reputation for defensiveness or anger. Accept the feedback, thank them for bringing it to your attention, and sift through it for things you can do to improve. If you don’t, employee grievances will still be aired, just not to your face. Which is a surefire way to create a toxic culture.
Set smart goals
This dovetails from setting clear expectations. But deserves its own point because of the milestone-oriented nature of sales. Obviously, this is why you were hired and why your team exists. You’re a sales manager of a sales team, and you exist to sell.
Goal setting is part art and part science, but mostly science. Lean on historical data, business intelligence insights, and analytics from your sales enablement or marketing automation platform. Ensure that whatever goals you set are SMART:
Before presenting your goals to the organization at large, clue your team into the discussion. Don’t let it turn into a debate; you are the leader, after all. But if the first time they hear about their new goals is at a company-wide meeting, they won’t be happy.
Uncover what motivates your people
The old adage “criticize in private, praise in public” is helpful, if only a bit incomplete. It’s fair to say that dressing down an employee over a minor offense in the presence of his peers is not only unprofessional but terrible for morale.
However, the corollary is also sometimes true. Some employees are not motivated or encouraged by public praise. In fact, among your more introverted sales reps (if there can be such a thing), it may embarrass them or come across as insincere.
A better way forward is to ask your employees in individual settings, “what can I do to make you feel like a valuable part of our team?”
It’s kind of an intimate question and it’s not a foolproof way to uncover the answer, but it’s a great place to start. At the very least, it signals to your people that you’re interested in motivating them in the ways that they want to be motivated.
Treat your team as an extension of yourself
If you’re a sales manager that was hired from within, there are lots of cultural shifts you need to navigate. One of the big ones is understanding that you’re not just looking out for “number one” anymore. Though, hopefully you were a team player in whatever previous role you had. The actions of your team reflect back on you, especially to stakeholders in the organizations and other departments.
Rather than shirk away from this, lean into it. So much loyalty and respect can be bought by owning your team’s mistakes publicly, especially if they weren’t made by you personally. On the flipside, so much respect can be lost by throwing one of your employees under the bus to try to save face with your superiors.
Sales managers must adopt the mindset of radical ownership (in the good times and the bad). Doing so is not only helpful for morale, but a respectable quality that makes your reps want to follow your lead all the more.
Celebrate the wins
Those drawn toward the sales profession tend to have a strong competitive streak in them. This can often lead to wanting to pound the pavement for more sales before the ink on the last contract is even dry. It’s great to be motivated and results-driven, but it’s equally as important to celebrate the accomplishments of your team.
Maybe this is a simple pat on the back, a nice lunch where you pick up the bill, or some sort of office ritual like ringing a bell (or maybe a gong — it’s happened before). Perhaps there’s even a monetary benefit to individual and corporate success over and above commissions.
And wins don’t have to be strictly deals. As we explored in a previous post, recognizing small wins along the way can help keep your team motivated and energized along the way. And good team energy sets you up for better productivity.
Whatever you decide, the important thing is to take a moment to pause. Appreciate the efforts of your team before you jump back into “business as usual.”
Grow a thick skin
As a general principle of leadership and success, the more responsibility you have, the more visibility you have. The more visibility you have, the more you become a target for critique, nitpicking, and blame.
There’s no way around it: if you want to lead a team well, you will be criticized from without and within. Some criticism will be valid, some won’t. The point is that you can’t let it rattle you or discourage you from accomplishing your professional and personal goals. Winston Churchill, a man who knows a thing or two about leadership, said it best.
“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”
Stop toxic culture before it spreads
The culture of your sales team will only be as healthy as its most unhealthy employee. In other words, all it takes is one jerk (however talented he or she may be) to kill the entire spirit of a group.
If there’s a problematic employee that’s killing morale, sowing dissension among your people, or attempting to assert unwanted authority, that’s going to cause a lot of damage.
Toxicity in a work culture spreads like an infectious disease. It never stays isolated. It will inevitably lower the baseline level happiness and raise the baseline level stress of your team.
What makes this especially challenging is when the problem employee is a high performer. It doesn’t look good to the higher-ups when you axe your biggest revenue generator. However, it displays an incredible level of integrity and care to the people who look to you for leadership. And if you want to maintain a healthy culture and keep their respect, that’s more important.
Develop your employees
Many modern organizations have recognized the importance of continuous employee development. As a result, standard budgets come with a line item specifically for employee training, conferences, and online learning curriculum. This is an excellent place to start.
But if you want to be a great sales manager and a great leader, it behooves you to go a layer deeper. Don’t just send your employees away to the latest and greatest conference in California or New York and call it a day. Get down to the bottom of their goals and discover what skills they want to develop.
Maybe conferences aren’t their favorite way to learn and grow. Perhaps intimate workshops, meetups, or online training from sites like Skillshare or LinkedIn Learning are more their speed. The best way to figure out how your individual employees learn and grow is through regular one-on-one touchpoints.
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Prioritize one-on-one meetings
If you get nothing done in a week’s time except meeting with each of your employees in a one-on-one context, I’d still call that week a success. This is one of the easiest, simplest ways to ensure your employees feel valued, listened to, and stay loyal to you and your organization.
Schedule recurring one-on-ones in the calendar and don’t move them unless you absolutely have to. If possible, book your one-on-ones on different days throughout the week and not on one day. Otherwise, your 4:30 PM employee will invariably get the short end of the stick with the most exhausted version of their boss.
Make the agendas loose. Check in on the status of certain work projects, address culture issues if need be, and make sure all is well inside and outside of work. It doesn’t need to be a therapy session, but simply asking cursory questions about how your sellers are doing goes a really long way in their feeling like a valid part of the team.
As an added benefit, some of the best feedback and cultural insights come from one-on-one meetings.
Discover and highlight employee strengths
There are two general schools of thought when it comes to strengths and weaknesses in the corporate world. One is to maximize and optimize the natural strengths of a person. After all, why try to fit a square peg in a round hole and go against someone’s natural skills?
Others believe that confronting and improving weaknesses lead to more well-rounded workers with fewer gaps in their skills.
There is a third way that seems to find the best of both worlds. That is to bring up your team’s weaknesses to a baseline level of competence, then focus on optimizing their strengths. Obviously, if a sales rep is proficient at cold calling but constantly botching live demos of your product, that’s a weakness that needs to be addressed immediately.
Something like that can be fixed with proper training. Once that weakness is brought up to a baseline level of competence, you can continue developing and highlighting the rep’s natural ability at selling over the phone.
Whatever method you choose, it’s important to at least identify your team’s specific strengths, weaknesses, and personality types. The most well-renowned programs for this in the corporate world are:
- 16Personalities Myers-Briggs Test
- Gallup’s CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinders)
- The Enneagram Personality Rubric
Using AI-based technologies, managers can quickly identify the strengths and weaknesses of their team from a practical standpoint. Sales performance solutions that use machine learning can identify your team leaders and their most impactful activities. With this level of visibility, managers can reinforce the good behaviors of their top performers and use those best practices to coach those who are lagging behind.
Through insightful visualization tools, they can then discern if underperforming reps are following through on their responsibilities.
Learn to graciously say “no”
As a leader, you’re going to be pulled in a lot more directions than a member of your team. You’ll probably notice more meeting invites than usual, more demands of your time, and a fuller inbox.
Warren Buffet wisely said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
Obviously, this is a tongue-in-cheek expression, but the spirit of it rings true for leaders.
You must guard your core responsibilities like leading and managing your team, and that will likely require turning down some requests, perhaps from other leaders. The “no muscle” takes a while to build, but it will undoubtedly build respect from your team (and even those whom you turn down).
Keep a tight calendar
Directly related to the skill of saying no is keeping a prioritized and tight calendar. Tim Ferriss, author of many award-winning business and productivity books, is fond of saying, “If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist.”
Let your calendar be the rule of law that governs your work days. That way, when people try to pull you in a dozen different directions, you can point to your calendar and tell them you’ve got an existing commitment.
Furthermore, not all sales manager responsibilities are collaborative. There will be times that you’ll need to put your nose in a spreadsheet or answer critical emails. These things require concentration, and should be scheduled on your calendar (and adhered to) just as much as any other meeting.
Prioritize team building
Team building events have become something of a cliché. They immediately conjure up images of kitschy motivational speakers or trust falls. But there’s a reason this tradition is so enduring in the corporate world.
Spending time with each other outside of the office is one of the best ways to establish a well-rounded view of who your employees are as people, and vice versa with you as a manager. Certain events like escape rooms or competitive games can help you see how they solve problems and work with others on a micro scale. Plus, it just boosts morale across the board.
Whether you do quarterly or bi-annual events, choose a cadence and stick to it. It’s just as important as any other appointment you can schedule.
Connect work to the mission
The parable of the bricklayers is a familiar one. The first bricklayer says, “I’m laying bricks to feed my family.” The second bricklayer says, “I’m laying bricks to build a wall.” The third bricklayer, with enthusiasm in his voice and a pep in his step says, “I’m laying bricks to build a cathedral.”
Obviously, work is tough and will always have challenges. Not every day will feel like it’s connected to some overarching higher purpose. But as much as you can, connect the importance of what you do to something bigger than just your department.
Even if the product you offer or service you sell simply helps people save time, connect this benefit to the work of your reps. Have them consider that they’re helping people get back to their families and enjoy their work lives better. When they remember that their work truly matters, it will make a difference in their performance.
A great sales manager never stops learning and growing
These qualities will certainly set you on the right course in a sales manager position. However, one of the most important things to remember is that a great sales manager is a perpetual student. Not only a student of the craft of selling, but of productivity, personal development, skills, technology, and most importantly: people.
For more information on how Accent Technologies empowers sales teams (including sales managers) with technology, contact our team today for more information.
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