Unleashing the Power of Frontline Sales Management, Part 2: What ‘Good’ Looks Like

Brad Wilsted

Note: This is part 2 in a 3-part series on the powerful role sales management plays in driving sustained revenue growth – and how companies can better leverage this critical position for improved top-line performance.

In our first article, we showed the powerful link between front-line sales manager effectiveness and top-line revenue performance. Though the frontline sales manager is often overlooked in efforts to improve sales effectiveness, this group is the key to improving nearly every aspect of sales team performance and driving significant revenue growth.

Once executives understand the crucial importance of this role, they begin taking a closer look at their own front-line sales managers. But many find themselves wondering what they are looking for. What does great front-line sales management actually look like? And how do you determine whether your managers are meeting that standard? The most obvious differentiator of great front-line sales managers is their ability to create and drive a sales team that consistently meets or exceeds team sales goals. But what behaviors and characteristics do they exhibit in generating this level of performance?

In our work helping over 500 companies accelerate top-line revenue growth, we have identified five key characteristics that set great sales managers apart from their lower-performing peers. These are the characteristics that companies should hire and train for in order to drive consistent, strong sales growth in their organizations.

1. They are laser-focused on hitting their numbers through building the right high-performing sales team.

High-performing frontline sales managers assume real ownership of their teams, their revenue goals and the sales assets required to hit those goals. This ownership mentality manifests itself in several key behaviors:

  • World-class sales managers are deeply involved in the sales rep recruiting/hiring process and are not comfortable outsourcing it to HR.They build and maintain a pipeline of high-quality recruits, enabling them to quickly replace low performers at any time, thereby minimizing the impact of open territories.
  • They are constantly evaluating sales rep performance and are quick to replace reps who, despite great coaching, can’t or won’t hit their sales targets.
  • They become experts at onboarding new sales reps, reducing their time to productivity and revenue generation.
  • They are constantly coaching average performers to achieve higher performance levels.

Most sales organizations struggle to consistently identify and attract high-quality sales rep candidates. As a result, they often retain weaker performers, believing it is better than having an open territory. Or they hire replacement reps who aren’t any more qualified than the one who left. At the same time, much of the hiring process is usually done by a recruiting or HR function, leaving mediocre managers feeling minimal accountability for the performance of the new hires. This leads to them to make excuses like, “I missed my goals because I had three underperforming sales reps” or, “I couldn’t hit my numbers because I had two open territories for half the year.” You’ll never hear those kinds of statements from high-performing managers, who place recruiting and talent development among their top priorities. They “own” their team targets and take whatever actions are necessary to hit them.

2. They constantly reassess sales territories to optimize results.

Frontline managers often inherit outdated sales territories that are out of synch with current market/competitive dynamics, that are not aligned with sales reps’ capabilities, and that carry quotas which are not well correlated to the market opportunity. Lower-performing sales managers usually don’t think to question or change those territory structures, maintaining the status quo even when sales growth is lacking and the number or capability of sales reps changes.

Great managers don’t accept existing territories as unchangeable. Instead, they frequently review the make-up of territories, asking themselves whether and how they should be realigned to optimize growth. Most undertake a territory reassessment at least annually during the fiscal planning process and many also re-evaluate territories and quotas whenever new hires are onboarded. In doing so, they consider four critical factors:

  • What is the best way to group accounts into territories to capitalize on evolving market dynamics and opportunities?
  • Which accounts (e.g., new vs. existing, small vs. large, significant vs. limited existing business, etc.) should I group to accelerate growth? How many of those accounts can a single rep manage effectively? Does the territory size align with sales rep capacity?
  • What sales skill sets and capabilities (e.g., hunter vs. farmer, outside vs. inside, generalist vs. specialist, etc.) are required for each territory?
  • What sales goals and targets are appropriate given the opportunity in the territory?

In evaluating and re-designing territories, top managers leverage their knowledge of the market to set sales targets that are aligned with the growth opportunity. They also leverage their understanding of individual reps’ capabilities to create territories that play to their reps’ strengths, maximizing each seller’s chances of achieving sales targets.

3. They keep their sales reps relentlessly focused on the highest-priority accounts.

Basic human nature leads the average rep to gravitate toward accounts that feel comfortable, regardless of potential revenue outcome. These are the accounts where reps have good relationships or that are convenient – “on the way” to other accounts. When this natural behavior intersects with management that neglects to engage reps in thoughtful territory planning and prioritization, or fails to show a pathway to achieving sales targets through prioritized targeting and activity, the result is consistently lower-than-expected sales performance.

Our studies of over 500 sales forces have found that sales reps who consistently hit their sales targets spend over 70 percent of their time on “A” priority accounts. Great managers know this. They know that where their sales reps spend time directly impacts their ability to hit their numbers. They therefore work closely with sellers to keep their behaviors and activities focused largely on the highest-priority accounts. Specifically, world-class sales managers work with reps to:

  • Prioritize every account in the territory, clearly defining those that are the highest priority. They also update those priority levels frequently as new account intelligence becomes available.
  • Measure activity levels to ensure sales reps are focusing at least 70 percent of their time on the highest-priority accounts/prospects and minimizing the time spent on low-priority accounts.
  • Develop an account plan and a sales target for the highest-priority accounts, defining specific actions required and creating a clear link between account plans and individual quotas.
  • Use those account plans regularly as a coaching tool to review results and define the actions likely to produce sales results.

4. They leverage data and metrics, not intuition, to drive accountability and results.

Great frontline sales managers understand that sales is more science than art. They employ a fact-based, data-driven approach to managing and coaching their sales teams, creating a factory-like ‘sales system’ and cadence which quality sales reps can pair with their selling skills to produce great results.

While solid metrics underpin this performance, top managers aren’t lured into the trap of trying to track the dozens of metrics that overwhelm most sales teams. Instead, they focus on a small, manageable set of metrics and leverage it to steer individual performance in the right direction. This proactive approach to measuring activity and driving accountability occurs in three stages:

  • First, great managers define a consistent, manageable set of activity and pipeline metrics proven to drive sales results. They avoid the typical results-oriented reports with dozens of metrics that are not actionable or not directly related to hitting sales targets.
  • Second, they deploy a regular cadence for measuring, collecting and communicating these metrics. They understand what a rep needs to do weekly, monthly and quarterly to hit sales targets and they measure these actions regularly to stay ahead of potential gaps and opportunities.
  • Third, they use their metrics-tracking to drive coaching conversations, keep reps on track, and ultimately lead them to results. Unlike the managers who obsess over deals that are due to close, high-performing sales managers focus coaching conversations on the weekly, monthly, and quarterly actions that will enable sales rep success.

5. They are coaches, not managers, who are out in the field, not behind a desk.

Many front-line sales managers were once high-performing reps that got promoted and were never trained to effectively manage a sales team. Lacking the knowledge to lead, these managers often resort to what they do well – closing deals – and become de facto closers for their reps. Or they believe ‘management’ means they have graduated from being in the field and can direct their team from behind a desk. Both of these approaches limit reps’ development opportunity and reduce a manager’s leverage in driving growth throughout the sales team.

Great managers are constantly working to improve the performance of every sales rep on their team because they know it’s the best path to hitting the collective sales target. The ability to help individual reps consistently improve is a critical point of leverage. As a rep’s performance improves through coaching, they require less oversight, freeing managers to help more reps – a virtuous cycle which ultimately makes it easier to hit team sales goals.

Knowing the power in developing every individual on a team, great managers learn to become great coaches who do five critical things:

  • They spend more time in the field with reps and customers than they do behind their desks.
  • They use ride-alongs to provide real-time feedback in live selling situations. Throughout the week/month, they provide ongoing coaching that is proactive and targeted.
  • They have a clear focus on action items and specific dates for follow-up to make sure critical deals are moving forward.
  • They leverage a regular cadence of feedback and metrics-driven performance review, asking each rep a consistent set of questions weekly, monthly and quarterly so that reps learn to stay focused on the right things.
  • In addition to immediate improvements, top managers help their reps create a plan with longer-term objectives to enable critical skill development. They periodically review progress towards these objectives, helping reps adjust the plan as needed. Though often overlooked, this kind of personal career development guidance can be a powerful tool for retaining high-performing reps.

Excellent individual managers can be found in nearly every company, but the most powerful results come from building a high-performing sales management function where excellence exists across the entire sales management tier. In our third and final article in this series, we will explore what great growth companies do to create an impactful sales management function that drives sustainable, long-term 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.