Unleashing the power of frontline sales management

Author: 
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.

Frontline sales managers coach, influence and guide sales reps on a daily basis. They have the potential to drive significant growth and are the key to improving nearly every aspect of sales team performance, yet they are 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

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?”

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.

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.