There are endless discussions about sales people and their performance. Thousands of blog posts with hints, tips, instructions focused on sales people, whether SDR’s or Corporate Account Managers. Hundreds of books, thousands of webinars and training programs all focus on the sales person. Billions are spent every year in training and tools to help make sales people more effective, efficient, and productive.
In some sense, this focus makes sense. It is these front line individuals that produce the results, it’s these people who are accountable for finding and closing deals at a level sufficient to make the business plan.
But what about the people that are accountable on a day to day basis for maximizing their performance? What about the people that make sure we have the right front line sales people in place? Or those people setting the expectations, guiding, coaching and developing people to achieve their goals and objectives? Those people who remove the barriers to performance, helping these front line sales people to do their jobs. What about the people responsible for translating the organizations strategies, goals, and priorities into day to day execution for front line sales people?
The front line sales manager is both the single most difficult and the most important job in sales!
It’s through these individuals that we build our organizations, their capabilities, and drive day to day performance. It’s these individuals that serve as the leadership core for the organization and represent the future top executives in the organization.
Yet, too often, we treat this role as an afterthought.
We pick our best sales people, turning them into managers, without knowing whether they can be great leaders. Their onboarding program consists of a congratulatory email and a request for a forecast update.
Too often, they are unclear about their roles, perhaps they emulate past managers–good or bad, perhaps they just amp up what they did in the past — selling and closing deals. Or they think their jobs are to pour over endless CRM reports and analysis, trying to identify what’s happening and managing from behind a desk. Or they get caught up in endless “important” internal meetings, not spending time with their people. Maybe they’ve heard they should be coaching–but they don’t know how to, confusing directing with coaching.
From the point of view of top sales leadership, the front line managers are the most critical people in the organization. It’s through them and their ability to maximize performance of their people that we achieve our goals and continue to grow business.
But what are you doing for them?
Are you obsessing over them? Are you equipping them with the skills and capabilities critical to their success and their ability to perform? Are you coaching and developing them, so they, in turn, can effectively coach and develop their people? Are you enabling them to reflect your values, culture, strategies and priorities to the rest of the organization?
These front line sales managers are they key leverage points to driving organizational performance. We expect them to obsess on the perfromance of their people, likewise, as top sales leaders, we need to obsess over them! We need to make sure we have the right people in place and enable them to perform at the highest levels possible.
Some thoughts on doing this:
- Make sure you have the best possible people in the role. I didn’t say best sales person in the front line manager role–that’s the mistake too many make. Take the time to build the profile of the ideal front line manager. What are the attidudes, behaviors, skills, competencies, experiences, values and beliefs critical to their success in the organization? Don’t compromise anything in filling these roles with the best possible people. Remember, you aren’t recruting them to sell—that’s the job of the people they lead. Your recruiting them for the ability to lead and maximize the performance of everyone on the team. If you are making multimillion dollar investments in sales people, then the investment you are making in the front line manager is tens of millions. (For help in doing this, get our Sales Competency Model. Also, Sales Maanger Survival Guide Part 4, Chapters 28-34 provides reminders to the recruiting, hiring process.)
- Both in recruiting and onboarding, be clear about their role and responsibilities. Too many newly minted managers don’t know anything other than, “Make your numbers, stay out of trouble.” Make sure they understand their jobs are to get things done through their people, maximizing their performance. Make sure they understand your expectations of how they should develop their people, and your expectations of them in the business. (Part 5, Chapters 35-40 of Sales Manager Survival Guide, provides tips on setting performance expectations.)
- Have an onboarding program specifically focused on them. Don’t throw them into the pool and expect them to perform immediately–even if they have held past leadership roles. Onboarding for sales managers is different from onboarding sales people. Focus on leadership development, help them understand the importance of coaching and how to be effective as a coach. Make sure they understand people development, hiring, managing performance, dealing with problem performers. Make sure they understand the culture, values, strategies and priorities of the organization. Make sure they understand how to get things done within the organization–a lot of their job is getting things done for their people, so they need to know the formal and informal methods of getting things done. Give them a chance to “shadow” you or some of their top performing peers. Let them see what top performance as a front line sales manager looks like. Remember, successfully onboarding them is critical to the performance of the team they lead. (For help doing this, look at Part 1, Chapters 1-8 of the Sales Manager Survival Guide, also look at Chapter 33.)
- Make sure you are coaching and developing them. For some reason, I don’t understand, many leaders think managers don’t need coaching! Managers/leaders at all levels need coaching and development. But this coaching is different from the coaching we provide sales people. Where we tend to coach sales people in deal, pipeline, call, territory, skills, and other areas, coaching front line managers focuses more on the process of leading their teams and developing their people. How are they dealing with poor performers? What are they doing to develop the capabilities of each of their people? How do they more effectively engage and lead their people? Where are they having problems in improving the performance of their people? How are they translating company strategies in to execution? How are they setting performance expectations? What type of example are they setting? How are they developing their people to step up to greater responsibilities? What are they doing to make sure they have a pipeline of good candidates for empty positions? Every once in a while sit in deal, territory, or pipeline reviews to see how well they are coaching their people. Let them lead the reviews, add value where you can, but afterwards, provide them feedback on their effectiveness. On at least an annual basis, make sure they have some formal training on leadership, people management/development, coaching, and business. If your company doesn’t have these programs, send them to a program conducted by a university or one of the outstanding leadership development organizations. (Part 2, particularly Chapters 9-19, of Sales Manager Survival Guide provides great reminders on your own ability to coach.)
- Find them doing things right and recognize that. People are people, regardless of the job level. They appreciate recognition, a brief comment here, a short congratulatory note there are fantastic in building their morale and confidence. If their morale is low, it will be reflected in their work with their people.
- Bring them into strategy discussions, involve them—but cautiously. The front line manager is responsible for translating strategy into day to day execution with their teams. They can’t do this unless they understand the strategy and priorities. Make sure to drill down, so they understand the “why’s,” and the implications. Make sure they contribute their ideas to the strategy and priorities, particularly how it should be executed. They know the day to day challenges their people face and those of the customers. Front line managers often have the best views of what works and doesn’t work. Make sure they own the strategies and priorities so they can be more effective in translating them into execution with their teams. The cautious part is, be careful how much time you take from them in doing this. Too many organizations have endless strategy meetings, discussions, and engage in too much navel gazing. The front line manager’s job is to be out working with their people. Make sure you aren’t robbing them of that time where they have the most impact. (In Sales Manager Survival Guide, Part 8, we start on these discussions and the roles of Front Line Managers in developing/executing strategy)
- Conduct periodic “skip level interviews,” and 360 evaluations. The purpose of these is not to go behind their backs to check on their performance, but to get information and data from their people, peers, and others in the organization so that you can do your job of coaching and developing them.
- Hire the best, keep them and retain them!!!! The data on sales management turnover is horrible, average tenure in the job is 16-18 months! It’s no wonder sales performance is so bad, we don’t have any continuity in leadership and development. Sales people are constantly breaking in and training new leaders, not getting the coaching and development they need. If we are to maximize the performance of our people and our organizations, we have to stop the management revolving door. We have to develop our managers and leaders, so they can continue to develop their teams. Attrition, including sales management attrition, is a leadership problem. Make sure it’s not your problem! (Spend some time re-reading Chapter 34 in Sales Manager Survival Guide)
Yes, our sales people are important, after all they are the people that produce revenue. But even the best need strong leadership. If we are to maximize the performance of our people and organizations, strong front line sales management is critical! As top sales leaders, making sure we have the best and we are doing everything possible to maximize their ability to perform has to be in our top two priorities.
Are you obsessing over the development of your front line sales managers?
We have a complexity crisis in our organizations. There is no place where it hits harder than in the sales organization. Just think of what sales people face every day:
- They have the complexity of working with their customers–each struggling with and managing their own complexity. Multiply that by the number of customers, deals, opportunities they are working on. Each one is different, how things get done within each organization and each deal is different. It’s the sales person’s responsibility to manage that, helping the customer manage their own problem solving/buying process to make a decision.
- They have the complexity of understanding and presenting our products/solution portfolios. Think of your own company for a moment, how many major product lines/solutions do your people have to understand. How many products or variations within each do they have to have some level of knowledge. Maybe you have specialists to provide deep knowledge in select products, but each sales person has to have enough knowledge to start to find customers, qualify opportunities, and get things going. One client, a global telecom company has over 50 major product lines their account teams have to sell. Another, a technology components supplier has over 1000 part numbers in their “catalog,” another a semiconductor manaufacturer has hundreds. For a professional services client, each offering is customized. While they have 15 key practices, the ultimate offering the sales person has to represent is a unique combination of services across those practices.
- Then sales people have the challenge of getting things done within our own organization. We have to manage handoffs between marketing and sales, SDRs and AEs, presales specialists, product specialists, other colleagues. We may have to work with legal, finance, manufacturing, product management, manufacturing, customer success/services. We may have to work with partners and channels. We have constant reviews, meetings. We have to manage these interactions in order to achieve our goals with customers. The larger the organization, the larger our “sales stack,” the more this impacts our abilities to get things done.
What are some of the warning signs of being overwhelmed by complexity?
- Time available for selling plummets: Track the time your sales people spend preparing for customers meetings/calls, conducting them, and following up. In many organizations we are seeing this fall far below 30% (Which isn’t great). Look at where they are spending their time–it’s probably navigating your own organizations.
- Increases in stalled or lost deals: CEB data indicates as much as 20% of stalled and lost deals are the results of internal complexity.
- Increases in the “sales stack;” Increasing numbers of internal systems that sales people must update decrease time spent on selling. It seems most of these systems that are supposed to help improve productivity actually may be having an adverse impact.
- Frequency of organizational changes: Constantly shifting organizational structures make it more confusing for sales people to get things done within the organization. Accompanying this, confusion about roles/responsibilities, things falling through the cracks, or overlaps and conflicts in responsibilities.
- “Program du jour” mentality: Rapidly shifting priorities, new sales/marketing programs rob sales people of time, create confusion and adversely impact focus.
- Rapid increases in internal support staff: This is a bit of a double edged sword. Increasing internal support staff can simplify the process of helping sales people get things done internally. However, sometimes, these increases cause greater confusion and take much more time if the sales person is continually having to update and work with multiple internal “helpers.”
- Increases in specialization: Again, this is one of those double edged swords. With increases in product/solution portfolio complexity, we need more specialists to support sales in presenting solutions to customers. However, the effort spent in engaging, coordinating, and managing these resources with customer situations.
- Increased voluntary turnover, absenteeism, lower morale: The more difficult and the more time required to manage internal complexity, the more sales people tune out, either by leaving or by “shutting down.”
Unfortunately, too many of our efforts to “help” these overwhelmed sales people is to provide them more tools, support, resources to free up their time to sell. Our desire to “help,” has the unintended opposite effect.
Perhaps, rather than doing more, a better strategy is to do less. Radically simplifying the sales person’s function, carefully looking at how they spend their time, what it takes to get things done and simplifying, rather than augmenting them is critical to helping reduce the complexity sales people face within their own organizations. Simple things like: Reducing the sales stack to only the most critical few tools, reducing the number of internal touchpoints, never initiating new programs/processes without first stopping two that are already in place, and others.
Rather than helping our people manage complexity, perhaps we are better served by reducing complexity.
Afterword: Thanks to CEB for some of their great research on these issues.