Do Great Salespeople Make Good Sales Managers?

I’ve frequently discussed hiring salespeople ó what goes right, what goes wrong, that sort of thing. In this article, I’ll discuss how to hire sales managers ó what to look for and, more importantly, why past sales success is often the worst predictor of future sales management performance. As you might expect, the issues at stake have implications for hiring in other positions beyond sales. It’s amazing! Good salespeople are generally bad sales managers. Why? Because they are generally promoted (or recruited) for the wrong reasons. Salespeople and sales managers are different. Salespeople usually come in one flavor: “doers.” Sales managers, on the other hand, come in three: 1) doers, 2) coaches, and, 3) part-doer, part-coach. Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure, but I’ll share a few secrets with you. Doers Are Special Doers produce by their own efforts. They may sell complicated or simple products, have long sales cycles or short scales cycles, manage single buyers or multiple buyers, sell tangible or intangible products, be hunters or farmers, sell big dollar or small dollar products, and have single or multiple sales opportunities…and so forth. Although rumor has it that 10% of Ticonderoga’s annual pencil sales are made by sales managers during pre-hire interviews, a salesperson’s effectiveness can generally be attributed to their own activities ó face to face, minute by minute, and account by account. Did I mention that good salespeople also tend to be “lone wolves,” people who live and die according to their interpersonal skills? Lone wolves are self-sufficient. They make cold calls when they feel bad, effectively deal with insufferable prospects and clients, struggle to overcome a natural aversion to detail, and are willing to suffer frequent rejection in exchange for an occasional closing thrill. Now the big question: What makes sales managers different? The Sales Manager Sure, sales managers must be good at basic “doing.” But, more importantly, sales managers must know how to diagnose and transfer effective sales tactics to someone else. Transference is a different kind of skill from selling entirely. People who have it are “consciously competent,” fancy words referring simply to a person who is always conscientiously aware of how and when to do what. The consciously competent sales manager is never on automatic pilot. He or she does not coach by imitation, because sales interactions are entirely too dynamic for imitation to work consistently. “Watch and do what I do” is only effective with chimps. Although science tells us chimps share 95% of a salesperson’s genes, I am almost certain they would not make good salespeople (however, the jury is still out on whether they would make good sales managers). So, let’s throw past sales performance out the window when it comes to sales managers. An effective sales manager usually was NOT the best salesperson on the team ó but he or she does know how to effectively work through others to build their sales skills. Yes, this seems counterintuitive ó until one takes a road trip with a high sales producer and discovers that they rarely do things by the book. Top salespeople tend to run on automatic; they cut corners and often (heaven forbid!) manipulate both clients and team members to make their sales numbers. Show me a company filled with only top producers, and I’ll show you a company with severe customer service and client retention issues. What starts to become clear is that not every trait desirable in a high sales producer is also desirable in a sales manager. Managerial Selection What are some other examples of what you don’t want to see in a sales manager?

  • Failure to pre-coach a sales person prior to making a sales call
  • Taking over joint sales calls instead of letting the salesperson sink or swim on her own efforts
  • Telling the salesperson what to do instead of questioning them about how to do it
  • Using the “monkey see, monkey do” coaching style (instead of helping the salesperson become his or her own coach)
  • Inability to develop subordinates
  • Continuing to sell instead of coaching and developing

So how can you identify a good sales coach? Recruiters and hiring managers must carefully evaluate more than a candidate’s productivity record. They must evaluate a sales manager candidate’s ability to:

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  • Listen to clients and prospects
  • Empathize with others and understand the problems they face
  • Stay abreast of market trends and environmental factors
  • Question and probe for information
  • Analyze an individual salesperson’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Be comfortable with working through others instead of being a “doer”
  • Know how to develop strong, trustworthy relationships with both clients and team members
  • Be willing to put the best interests of the client foremost

There are more critical abilities, of course, but space limits. A Rose by Any Other Name… This brings us to third issue. Is the sales manager really a coach or a salesperson with a special title? If the position requires coaching and developing other salespeople, the candidate’s conscious competency becomes the big question. If the manager’s prime responsibility is selling, then you have a salesperson with a fancy title. Unfortunately, sales managers are usually selected based on a set of criteria that aren’t relevant to their actual responsibilities. Selling and managing require two entirely different skill; good sales managers are seldom the best salespeople. The distinction here is not a trivial one, for sales organizations are only as strong as the weakest link on their sales staff. All too frequently, that weak link is the sales manager. You’ll probably want to keep all this in mind the next time you’re hiring a sales manager. If you’re really smart, you’ll keep it in mind whenever you’re hiring for an occupation in which successful doers and effective managers are not necessarily the same person.