3 Common Failings of Sales Management

Highly effective field sales management is the single most important driver of overall sales force performance. We see it time and again: when a company with an average sales team brings on a great manager, that manager elevates the performance of the entire team. In military terms, an excellent sales manager is a “force multiplier” as he or she enhances the effectiveness of each individual rep, leading to significantly higher rates of incremental growth.

The converse is also true – when a team of talented salespeople is led by a mediocre manager, performance slides, revenue growth stalls and turnover increases. Unfortunately, we see this latter situation all too often. Companies with disappointing revenue performance often ask us to help “fix” the sales force, but in many cases sales management is a key point of leverage that goes unaddressed. In working with hundreds of sales forces, we have found that ineffective sales management is usually due to one or more of three common failings. By addressing these issues, companies can elevate the effectiveness of their managers, which in turn will boost the performance of the sales organization as a whole.

Failing #1: Assuming that great reps automatically make great managers
By far, the most common approach to filling a sales manager position is to promote a successful sales rep. However, this approach has several problems. At the heart of the issue is the fact that the “skill/will” profiles of top reps and successful managers are not the same. A skill/will profile is an assessment of whether someone has the necessary skills for a job and the will or motivation to acquire them. Superstar reps are typically motivated to hunt and close business; great managers are motivated to develop and coach their people.

It is critical for organizations to have mechanisms in place for both assessing whether a rep has the right aptitude for a manager role and deploying manager-level training and coaching that enables new managers to realize their potential. These assessment and training programs need not be overly complex. Effective programs focus on traditional sales management skills, such as managing performance through metrics, holding reps accountable to the sales process and coaching.

Since these skills are typically not expected of sales reps, those promoted to management within organizations that lack a robust sales management training and development program will fall back on what they know how to do: sell. This typically leads to sales managers focusing too much time on helping to close big deals and not enough time on traditional sales management activities. While assisting with strategically important sales is clearly a sales management priority, staying in that comfort zone leads to another common failing—not enough coaching.

Failing #2: Poor quality and quantity of coaching
The link between coaching and performance has been well proven and documented: regular, formal sales coaching leads to improved performance in quota attainment, win rate, deal size and more. However, most companies fail to get it right. Most commonly, we find managers devote too little time – or none at all – to coaching. And when coaching does occur, it is not structured or formal enough to drive results.

Sales managers should spend at least 50 percent of their time coaching. The most successful managers aim to dedicate two days per week to being in the field with their reps and at least an hour per week on the phone with each of their remaining direct reports. For those managers who say they cannot afford to devote this much time to coaching, we argue that they can’t afford not to. The manager’s job is to develop his or her team and drive improved results. Coaching accomplishes that. Seen in this light, coaching is the most important aspect of a manger’s job and the time spent on it should reflect that importance.

Quality is key when it comes to coaching. Many managers coach during ride-alongs, but this approach means coaching is mainly around “messaging” and telling a rep what he or she could have done better during a sales call. Proactive, pre-meeting coaching that teaches reps how to target the best prospects—those with the most potential to buy and the highest incremental revenue—is usually far more effective in helping reps grow and succeed. To facilitate meaningful coaching interactions, build a cadence around six to eight key metrics that drive sales behavior and make those metrics the foundation for coaching conversations and part of the sales culture. Companies should additionally provide a defined sales process that is codified in a playbook with specific guidance for managers on how to coach reps through the process as well as supporting tools for reps such as territory plans and account plans that make it easier for managers to hold reps accountable.

Lastly, for the vast majority of field sales organizations, managers are most effective when they oversee eight to 10 direct reports. While this range will vary based on such factors as rep tenure, turnover and complexity of the sales process, the manager-to-rep ratio is a critical factor in ensuring that managers can dedicate ample time to coaching. While organizations with broad spans of control are often concerned with the cost of adding more sales managers, in our experience the incremental fixed cost of hiring more managers is quickly offset by productivity improvements in the sales force as a result of receiving more dedicated attention.

Failure #3: Significant incentive differences for reps and managers
Sales managers and their sales teams have largely the same objectives: driving new logo sales, cross-selling and retaining key accounts. But rep and manager compensation plans are often not tied directly to achieving these objectives. Frequently, we see instances where managers’ bonus incentives are tied to company growth while their reps’ compensation is not. This gives managers significantly reduced leverage when trying to hold reps accountable to desired performance levels. Another common issue is that managers can still achieve their individual bonus targets even if a fair number of their sales reps do not make quota. For example, if one or two reps have exceptional years and are responsible for the overall sales team achieving its goal, the manager still receives performance-based compensation even though many team members were not successful.

Since people do what their comp plans tell them to do, both reps’ and managers’ plans should be linked to growth objectives, and manager’s comp plans should be built around driving the performance of the overall team. Making these changes can be structurally and mathematically straightforward, but the transition and change management implications are significant. When you develop new incentives, it is critical to “shadow” the comp plan for a period of time to ensure it achieves the intended effects and that reps/managers have no downside risk to their compensation in the near term. While the right compensation and incentive structure drives improved revenue growth, flipping the switch to a new plan can be an attrition risk for both reps and customers.

Companies aiming to improve performance often zero in on “fixing” the sales force, but the best results should include making improvements in the management ranks. Each manager has the potential to raise the performance of multiple reps, making management effectiveness a top issue for organizations. While there are potentially many areas of improvement for every company’s management team, the three issues above are by far the most common and therefore the best starting points for driving revenue growth through more effective sales management.

Chris Dent is a Principal with Blue Ridge Partners, a firm focused on driving revenue growth. Chris has more than 10 years of consulting and line management experience in both sales and marketing across a variety of industries. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Marketing for DePaul’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. Chris can be reached at cdent@blueridgepartners.com.

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