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New Sales Managers: Do This, Don’t Do That

So, you were just promoted from individual contributor to sales manager—congratulations! I doubt you were promoted against your will; I’m sure that you wanted this, you prepared for it, you interviewed for it, and you earned it. Now what? Have you ever heard the saying, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”? You’re about to find out what that means.

Of course I’m being facetious (sort of). No matter how long you’ve been waiting for this opportunity and how prepared you feel, I can promise you two things. First, you are ready and capable. If you weren’t, they wouldn’t have promoted you and given you this awesome responsibility. Second, you still have much to learn and mistakes will be made. The good news is that you can minimize the number of mistakes and shorten the learning curve by heeding advice from those who have gone before you. This post is my gift to you—wisdom from a veteran sales manager that will aid you in avoiding many rookie manager mistakes (the ones I made!).

Don’t be “super rep”

Photo by Gareth Simpson on Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Photo by Gareth Simpson on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This is the #1 mistake made by new sales managers. No matter how many times people caution you against doing it, it’s a tough one to avoid. After all, you were just a top individual contributor. You know exactly what must be done and how to do it. Furthermore, you feel compelled to prove yourself to your new team. What better way than by showing them how the master does it?

I’ll tell you a better way: instead of telling your people how to do something, help them figure it out for themselves. As the proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” You don’t need to prove you were a good rep; you need to prove that you can be a good leader. Besides, even though you think you’re helping your reps by taking over and doing their work for them, you are actually sending the message that you don’t trust them and their abilities.

Connect with your direct reports

The Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”

Get to know your reps and what makes them tick. A common mistake made by rookie managers is in thinking that everyone is wired just like themselves. This is where the Golden Rule—“Treat others the way you want to be treated”—can get you in trouble. I prefer the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” I recommend having regular one-on-ones with your reps. Put in on your calendars as a recurring meeting notice to ensure it happens. Use this time to talk about more than just sales activity, pipelines, forecasts, and customer issues. Use it also to learn about them. What are they passionate about? What incentives motivate them? What are their professional aspirations?

Guess what is the #1 reason why people quit their jobs. According to a Gallop survey of more than 1 million people, “People leave managers, not companies…in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue.” Showing empathy and genuine interest in your direct reports will serve you well in your new role.

Be likable, don’t worry about being liked

There’s nothing wrong with being likable, but that’s not the same as being liked. Being likable means being approachable, polite, respectful. Being likable is the opposite of being a jerk. There are far too many jerks in Corporate America—we don’t need another one! Someone who is trying to be liked will avoid confrontation and doing unpleasant things. Unfortunately, your job now calls for making tough, unpopular decisions at times—deal with it. As a mentor of mine once reminded me, “You are the one your reps complain about around the dinner table. If that bothers you, you shouldn’t be in management.” Instead of trying to be friends with your direct reports, strive to earn their trust and respect. If you need a friend, get a dog.

Address poor performance

Bad news doesn’t get better with age.

Addressing poor performance isn’t fun. Telling someone that they aren’t meeting expectations and that they need to improve can be a tough message to deliver. As a result, rookie sales managers have a tendency to drag their feet on addressing poor performance. Trust me, this only makes matters worse. The poor performer isn’t going to turn themselves around on their own. Your other direct reports will be demoralized by your lack of leadership. Your customers are probably suffering too. Bad news doesn’t get better with age. When you identify a performance issue, nip it in the bud. Oftentimes you can avoid major problems, including having to terminate someone’s employment, simply by addressing a problem early on.

Always, always, always document performance management issues and your discussions surrounding them! It can either be in the form of a formal document such as a memorandum or performance plan, or as simple as an e-mail following a conversation to provide a written record of what was said. Documentation helps convey the seriousness of the situation and avoid misunderstandings that could impede corrective action. Documentation will be absolutely critical if and when it comes time to terminate someone’s employment for performance-related reasons. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

Focus on your high performers

There’s plenty of research that proves you can get more incremental improvement from your top performers than you can from your middle or poor performers. Yet, most rookie sales managers spend an inordinate amount of their time focusing on their average and poor performers. They reason that their top performers know what they are doing and don’t want to be micromanaged. They forget that top performers need and want your attention too. They want to get better. Moreover, they have proven they know how to execute when given direction. Time spent with your top performers is more likely to yield positive incremental results than time spent with poor performers, who may not be able to improve no matter what you do to help them. I’m not saying you should ignore your average and poor performers, just don’t spend more time with them than you do with your top performers.

Think of it mathematically: 10% improvement by someone who is at 90% of quota results in a 9% increase in sales (90% x 1.1 = 99%). 10% improvement by someone who is at 120% of quota results in a 12% increase in sales (120% x 1.1 = 132%). Enough said.

Employ a selling, not telling, approach

You are a great salesperson. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have been promoted to sales manager. Yet, many sales managers—both rookies and veterans alike—drop their sales skills when they’re not in front of customers. You need to realize that as a sales manager, your direct reports are now your customers. You need them to buy what you’re selling—and what you’re selling may be a new corporate policy, a new sales initiative, a new compensation plan, a new training program, or a new sales tool or process.

The best way to ensure buy-in and high morale is to employ a “selling, not telling” approach with your team. Just as you would with an external customer or prospect, answer the question (from the sales rep’s perspective), “What’s in it for me?” Anticipate their questions and objections, and be prepared to address them. Unless it’s a crisis situation—such as the building is on fire and you need everyone to vacate NOW—there’s seldom a time when barking orders is called for. Go for the sale.

Hire in haste, repent in leisure

No sales manager likes to have openings on their sales team. Openings equal lost sales and commissions. Openings usually mean extra work for others on the team who must do double duty to cover the vacancy, often at expense to their own territories. Openings can also mean customer needs are going unserved. Worse, an industrious competitor can seize the opportunity of unfettered access to lock-up market share while you have openings.

Never be in a hurry to make a bad hire.

It’s no wonder then that most sales managers—especially rookie sales managers—are pressured into filling their openings quickly. The pressure could come from the sales manager’s boss or it could be self-imposed. What you must consider, however, is that there is something far worse than a protracted opening on your sales team: making a bad hire. Holding out for a great candidate to emerge, one who will be a superstar in the eyes of your company and your customers, is preferred (even though it means greater short-term “pain” in keeping the position open). Seeking a quick fix to the short-term “pain” only invites greater long-term “pain” in the form of additional recruiting and hiring expense, further disruption to your sales team, and failure in the eyes of your customers when they endure frequent turnover. In short, when hiring, never be in a hurry to make a bad hire.

Value diversity

Diversity comes in many forms. In my experience as a sales manager, it’s all good—the more diversity the better. There are the obvious forms of diversity: ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation. There are other, more subtle, forms of diversity too that are equally important. Consider things such as background, education, industry experience, job history, personality type, and skills set (strengths and weaknesses).  When you have a truly diverse team, it opens up endless potential for innovation and creative thinking. Also, it allows you to leverage the strengths of some to compensate for the weaknesses of others, and vice versa.

Many sales managers—even those that are attentive—can’t avoid hiring people that resemble themselves. Again, I’m not just talking about skin color or gender. Try and avoid what I call “mini-me hiring syndrome”—staffing your team with people that share your same thought process, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses.

Disagreement is not disrespect

Creating a team of diverse thinkers and actors is pointless if you aren’t willing to tolerate approaches and viewpoints other than your own. This can be particularly difficult for many rookie sales managers who are emboldened by their newly minted authority. It takes great maturity and humility to acknowledge your shortcomings and accept that those that report to you may have ideas and approaches just as good, or better, than your own. By doing so you create an environment of trust, respect, limitless possibilities, and true engagement.

I encourage you to establish a climate where everyone feels comfortable presenting opposing views, playing devil’s advocate, and challenging the status quo. I promise you that some of your greatest ideas will surface this way and your team will be better for it.

Give credit, take blame

Sales management is a selfless job. If you didn’t realize that and that’s not what you signed up for, get out now! Most people go into the profession of sales because they like the autonomy and direct correlation between individual effort and outcome. Sales management is a different story. As a sales manager your success is defined by the net sum of the outcomes of your team. Your success is owed to them. Great sales managers never forget this. You will never hear a great sales manager talk about “My success” or “My win” or “What I did”. It’s always “Our success” or “Our win” or “What we did”.

So, if your team deserves all the credit for the successes, it must be true that they also deserve the blame for the failures and missteps. Wrong! As sales manager you must adopt President Harry S. Truman’s motto: “The buck stops here”. Failure is the result of your inadequate training, coaching, and leadership. Success is the result of their planning, skill, and execution. If you can’t handle that, you shouldn’t be in management.

Loyalty is a two-way street

Two Way Street
Photo by Marc Averette on Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0

Every sales manager wants, needs, demands loyalty from their direct reports. Loyalty is equal parts reliability, dependability, trustworthiness, dedication, and commitment. Without loyalty I would never be willing to send my sales reps in front of customers carrying the company’s banner. Without loyalty I would have to be looking over their shoulders constantly, approving every action, and checking every detail. Without loyalty there would be chaos, rendering sales teams impotent.

Your reps take their cues from you. If you aren’t loyal to your boss, why should they be loyal to theirs? If you aren’t loyal to your direct reports, why should they be loyal to you? NEVER talk about other reps or managers behind their backs. NEVER throw executives or “the company” under the bus when communicating an unpopular decision or policy.

Do as I say AND as I do

As I previously said, your reps take their cues from you. You set the norms for them to follow. Whatever you do, don’t hold your sales team to a higher standard than you have for yourself. Model the behavior you expect and that is likely to be the behavior you get. If you expect your reps to be punctual to customer appointments or internal meetings, you better not be late yourself. If you expect your reps to return calls and e-mail to customers and internal colleagues within a certain timeframe (e.g., 12-24 hours), you better do the same. If you expect your reps to open every customer meeting with an agenda or a certain format, you better open all of your meetings the same way (even your internal team meetings). You get the picture: no double standards.

You can’t do it all, but do what you can

It won’t be long before you realize that there’s much more to being a sales manager than going on ride-alongs with your reps and helping them brainstorm sales strategies and tactics. In fact, there’s more to do than time permits. If you try to do everything yourself—and commit the mistake addressed earlier of trying to do the job of your reps too—you are going to crash and burn before ever taking flight. The key is to delegate, which is particularly tough for rookie managers who want to prove themselves worthy of the new job. There are many downsides, however, in failing to delegate. Your work quality will suffer and deadlines will be missed. Your team will sense you don’t trust them and lack confidence in their abilities. You won’t be developing your direct reports and they will resent the lack of opportunity of personal growth and development.

An action passed is not an action completed—inspect what you expect.

Delegate more than you think you should. The key word in that last sentence is “think”. I’m not saying you should delegate more than is appropriate; rather I’m saying that whatever amount you think is enough isn’t. Just remember that an action passed is not an action completed. Establish checkpoints to monitor progress of the work you delegated and give additional guidance or course corrections if necessary—inspect what you expect.

You’re not Christopher Columbus

Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel on Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel on Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The path you are setting out upon has been traveled millions of times before you. The experiences you are about to face—whether related to performance management, team building and morale, change management, or professional development—have already been faced by countless sales managers. Mistakes were made. Best practices were learned. There is absolutely no reason for you to recreate the wheel. I’m not saying you can’t be innovative or try to seek a better way—just don’t do so from ground zero.

Be humble and acknowledge your inexperience. Seek advice from others. Forge alliances and network with others from which you can learn and who can learn from you. Failure to do so will stunt your development and be seen by others as arrogance.

Who works for whom?

The org chart is clear: the sales reps on your team work for you. I advise you put away the org chart—or at least turn it upside down. One of the best things you can do as a sales manager to build a cohesive team, increase sales, and ensure your customers’ needs are being met is to recognize that your reps aren’t there to serve you, you are there to serve them. As previously discussed, sales management is a selfless job. Your reps need you to help clear organizational obstacles that are preventing them from being completely effective. Your reps need you to help identify areas for improvement and professional development. Your reps don’t need you to add tasks to their already overloaded plate that will keep them from servicing and selling to your customers.

If you made it to this point in the article, I applaud you. It is a long one—I know. I hope you found the advice helpful. Please take it to heart. Some of it may seem obvious; some perhaps not so much. I assure you that these are common mistakes that even the best sales managers made early on in their careers. Good luck to you as you progress in your career. Don’t forget to come back and share your experiences with the rest of us!

Do you have advice to share with new sales managers? Something they should do or not do, or just an interesting story that illustrates one of the tips above? If so, please leave a comment below! Adding to the conversation and helping others is great Karma.

Header image by Charles LeBlanc on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


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