Unleashing the Power of Frontline Sales Management

Brad Wilsted

Companies pour enormous resources into growth. From sales force training and compensation to investments in sales processes and technology, organizations relentlessly seek to pull the right levers that will drive revenue growth and improve sales effectiveness. These efforts frequently end up with disappointing results, however, because most companies neglect the most powerful lever in their arsenal: their frontline, field-level sales managers who directly coach, influence and guide sales reps on a daily basis. This group has the potential to drive significant growth and is the key to improving nearly every aspect of sales team performance, yet it is usually overlooked – often viewed as just a supervisory layer rather than a critical driver of improved sales results.

There is a direct and compelling link between frontline sales manager effectiveness and topline revenue performance. In one study, Wilson Learning Worldwide found “high-skill” sales managers drove 29 percent higher revenue performance and 16 percent higher customer satisfaction than managers with low-skill ratings. These results were due entirely to sales manager skills, independent of the skills of their salespeople. In another study, by Vantage Point Performance, researchers discovered a 39 percent difference in revenue performance between the top and bottom quartile of 518 sales managers in Fortune 500 companies. In this study, top managers brought in an average $3.5 million more in revenue than their lower-performing peers.

Simply put, highly effective frontline sales managers drive growth; ineffective managers hinder growth. Unfortunately, in many organizations frontline sales management leans more toward the “ineffective” side of the scale. In a 2017 survey of more than 200 senior executives about revenue growth, Blue Ridge Partners found:

  • Almost seven in 10 firms struggle with sales manager time allocation
  • More than four in 10 sales managers lack the data/metrics to manage their sales reps effectively
  • Nearly eight in 10 companies do not have a formalized sales management process, specifying management activities, cadences and metrics
  • Roughly half of the companies fill manager positions by elevating their best reps, who often lack the requisite skills to manage effectively
  • Very few had formal, repeated sales manager training programs

These gaps exist because the frontline sales management role is rarely considered a problem spot. When executives theorize about what’s driving their sales growth and effectiveness challenges, most point first to their compensation plan and/or sales rep talent. Some suggest secondary issues such as poor targeting, ineffective technology or gaps in the sales model – all of which seem to make sense. On the surface, the logical solution to a sales problem is to fix sellers or to fix the tools and processes around those sellers. Consumed by this lower-level focus, the most critical role in the sales organization is simply not on most executives’ radar screens.

After nearly two decades working with more than 500 companies around the world, we have found almost no one asking themselves the key question: “Do I have a high-performing group of frontline sales managers who are doing all the right things to move the revenue needle?”

That’s a huge opportunity for organizations of all sizes.

Why Frontline Management?

What makes the frontline sales manager such a potent influence on performance? The role drives improvement in three ways, each of which has a powerful impact on growth.

First, great frontline sales management drives revenue lift. Companies that invest in sales manager training – coaching and development, establishing a good sales management cadence, holding sales managers accountable for specific activities and results, following the Company Way of managing, etc. – experience a significant lift in the performance of their sales teams, typically in the double-digit percentage range.

Second, frontline sales management drives continuous improvement. Strong field sales managers hold their teams accountable for performance – and constant improvement of that performance – through a daily and weekly cadence of interactions with their reps. Ongoing and effective coaching reinforces desired behaviors, drives reps toward clear performance goals and pushes everyone on the team toward success so team performance isn’t riding on just one or two superstars.

Finally, great sales management drives long-term growth by helping attract and retain top sales talent. Strong managers understand what ‘good’ looks like in a sales team member and will be more likely to hire high-talent individuals as well as provide the right coaching to accelerate their ramp-up and ensure strong growth in their territories. High-performing sales managers are not satisfied with average sales reps and therefore drive turnover or talent upgrades where required.

These three benefits show up again and again when organizations focus on improving the effectiveness of their frontline sales managers. When a global finance and accounting services firm sought to reverse a steady decline in revenues, Blue Ridge Partners proposed a number of initiatives, the most important of which was an upgrade of sales management talent. For many years, this firm had been filling frontline sales manager positions with accounting and finance professionals. These folks were great at controlling costs but knew little about managing salespeople and a driving a revenue engine. Just two quarters after overhauling their sales management team and putting several other changes in place, the company saw improved sales activity and revenue stability, paving the way for long-term growth.

The magnitude of sales management influence on topline performance cannot be overstated. This is a huge – and widely under-used – lever in steering the sales organization toward improved results. Most executives miss it because they get focused on their sellers, their compensation plan, their sales process and other related issues when trying to address revenue challenges. But high-performing companies understand that sales management is their key point of leverage in the sales force and their most powerful opportunity for driving growth.

Brad Wilsted is a co-founder and senior managing director of Blue Ridge Partners, which provides management consulting services for mid-market and Fortune 500 companies. He has over 25 years of experience as a consultant and corporate executive and has advised over 150 companies across multiple industries on revenue growth strategy, pricing, customer segmentation, and sales and marketing effectiveness.