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7 Things to Look for in a Sales Manager

by
Lee Salz
Nov 14, 2008, 5:12 am ET

Many execs put industry experience at the top of their criteria list for sales-management candidates.

“The successful applicant will have 10 years experience in the widget industry.”

Hogwash!

The end result of this approach is that companies hire the industry retreads.

Perhaps, employers think that this person will bring along valuable competitive secrets — maybe even some clients. While that may occasionally happen, this approach negatively impacts the company. They may as well hang a sign outside that says, “No new ideas permitted” because that is what you get when you focus your search on industry people only. What often happens is that the individual gets hired because they can create the illusion of brilliance by using industry jargon to blind the interviewer. “Eureka! We’ve found our sales manager! She is very strategic!”

Every company thinks they are in an industry that is so unique and has so many nuances that the hire must have industry background. But most industry information can be taught. The company needs to get over its hubris thinking that its industry is so special that it takes an industry veteran to be successful.

Product knowledge is not the main driver in a successful salesperson, nor is it the primary one for the successful sales manager. CEOs bounce from Fortune 1000 company to Fortune 1000 company based on their CEO acumen, not their industry knowledge.

A more prudent approach for hiring the right sales manager is to look for a candidate who comes to the table with the specialized skill-set associated with a sales manager. This is a specialized skill set that is often portable to any industry. The role of the sales manager is to both be a leader and a manager, which are not usually skills developed in the womb; they are cultivated and developed through training and experience as a sales manager. Some of the elements that companies should be focused on when hiring the right sales manager include:

  • Recruitment. Whether the company has an opening on the sales team or not, the best sales managers are on a never-ending quest for strong talent. As the prospective employer, you want to understand the candidate’s process for screening sales candidates. How do they prime the applicant pump? Can they develop a profile of the ideal salesperson, and prioritize it between required and desired attributes? What is their process for evaluating candidates against the profile? Ask any company why they miss their revenue targets and most will tell you that having unfilled slots on the team is a contributing factor. Recruitment is a very important arrow in the sales manager’s quiver.
  • Onboarding. Rarely can you hire a salesperson, hand them their territory, and send them off with a good luck kiss. Not if you expect them to be successful. Another key skill of the sales manager is their method for quickly assimilating the salesperson into the organization. What is their strategy to minimize the amount of time that the new salesperson is in a non-revenue generating capacity? What is their plan to make them productive in the least amount of time? How do they measure whether or not the neophyte salesperson is going to be successful?
  • Process. Many companies have one superstar on their sales team — their rainmaker. That’s not exactly a scalable model. It limits growth and creates exposure for the company if the rainmaker leaves. Scalable sales organizations are based on process. The entire team follows a specified model based on a defined formula. Find out if the candidate can create this process for the company, what experience they have in doing so, and what the results were.
  • Metrics. The wonderful aspect of sales is that there is so much data that can be reviewed to understand trends and make changes to the business. While interviewing, scrutinize how the sales manager uses metrics in their approach. See how they have used metrics to affect performance of their team. Learn their approach to scrutinizing a sales pipeline or forecast.
  • Compensation. The beauty of sales is that the compensation plan serves as the salesperson’s job description. This can also be a curse for the company if the wrong behaviors are rewarded by the plan. This is another important skill that a strong sales manager should possess. Find out their approach for developing the right compensation plan for the company. See how they determine which behaviors to reward, when, and how.
  • Skill development. Sales is philosophy, so no one ever knows everything about it. It’s also very easy for salespeople to develop bad habits. Thus, the sales manager should have a skill development plan for their team. Get to know their approach for developing their team members. Probe how they inspire the overachievers to continue to overachieve. Ask they manage the underperformers and lead them to either perform or deselect from the company.
  • Leadership. The first six items fall into a management category. However, the strong sales managers are also leaders. Their sales teams will run through walls for them. Their salespeople not only want to be successful for themselves, but also for their manager. Determine how this sales-management candidate creates an environment where others are inspired to follow them and their teachings. Leadership skills and sales force retention work hand-in-hand. Strong leaders keep their strong players on the team for the long haul.

In addition to cultural fit, these are the seven key elements that a company should use to make a decision to hire a particular sales-management candidate. What the employer will get with this hiring approach is a strong, scalable organization with fresh ideas.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Jim Cargill

    Lee,

    Great article!!! This should be required reading AND understanding for every CEO who wants to hire a Sales Manager. I am so tired of HA’s setting hiring requirements based on what they, themselves, had in their backgrounds. Do they want a Sales Manager, or a clone of themselves?

    I would have included one more item in your list, though I think it was not in there because it is so elementary. That is “proven sales management success”, with the emphasis on “proven”. The candidate cannot, themselves, prove their success. One must go to outside sources, not the candidate-supplied references, to validate claims of success. If available, former subordinates who reported directly to the candidate are a good source. In niche industries, a competing Sales Managercan be helpful. Industry Trade Show organizers might also give insight into the candidates drive for success.

    “Experience” does not equal “Success”, and neither does industry knowledge.

    Thanks for the great article, Lee.

  2. Kelly Magowan

    Great article and one that I am always looking to learn more about- sales and sales staff are a complex area of any business and just so crucial to get right.

    I also agree with you 100% about past experience does not equal future success. Too many businesses take the safe option and follow the box ticking process when hiring of which I have written about recently on the Six Figures blog. http://blog.sixfigures.com.au/2008/10/16/how-much-is-too-much-box-ticking/

    Until businesses learn to evolve the hiring process to reflect today’s workers, they will find they struggle when it comes to attracting and retaining the best.

  3. Bob Gately

    The talent required for success as a sales person is not the same as the talent required for success as a sales manager.

    The sticking point seems to be the word talent–it means different things to different people.

    How do we define talent?

    How do we measure talent?

    How do we know a candidate’s talent?

    How do we know what talent is required by each job?

    How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job to be filled?

    Employers that hire for talent know the answer to each question so they avoid making bad hires and are left with more good hires.

    Talent is not found in resumes or uncovered during face-to-face interviews. Future employees don’t know if their talent will lead to job success but the hiring managers know if they hire for talent.

    Bob Gately
    gately@csi.com

  4. Melanie Villapando

    Thank you for your article, Lee, it’s great to hear more comments regarding recruitment reviews of talent that truly assess based on the needs of the business application for future success vs. buzzwords we know and group thinking.

    One other critical quality that I might add for success when seeking a sales leader is the ability to collaborate across functions and build relationships within the business. A top candidate who can easily establish him/herself with others and become nimble within an organization to execute sales plans and get the work done will be successful in any industry in a short amount of time.

    Thanks again for the article,
    Melanie Villapando

  5. Shemara Henderson

    Thanks for the informative article Lee. I found it to be very comprehensive and educational- I have an interest in the fundamentals of sales management and I think that your article mentioned many areas that sales managers should constantly monitor in order to be top performers in their current roles. Too often managers look for results from top performers and ignore the fostering of growth for their lower ranking talent, often those that are still in ramp up mode, but offer long term value.

  6. 7 Things to Look for in a Sales Manager | Salesjournal

    [...] By Lee Salz [...]

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