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Maximizing Sales Management Impact

by David Brock on February 3rd, 2012

Sales management is one of the toughest jobs around—particularly that of the first line sales manager.  Fundamentally, our job is to maximize the performance of our sales teams–both tactically and strategically.  I read a post, How the VP of Sales can Inspire their Sales Team with 4 Simple Habits.  It got me reflecting on how managers maximize their impact, and where managers should spend their time, not just the Vice President of Sales, but all levels of sales management.

The post offers some interesting suggestions, frankly a number of them I disagree with very strongly.  Let’s start with the areas in which we are in real alignment.

The biggest impact a sales manager at any level can have is by being out with their people in front of customers.  Yet too often, exactly the opposite thing happens–managers spend too much of their time internally focused.  They are chained to their desks, conducting internal meetings, conducting internal reviews, spending time reporting on what’s going on.  Some of this is necessary-we need to communicate to the rest of the organization, we need to get resources and support for our people, we need to get help for our customers.  But too often, managers are consumed with this.  They stop visiting customers, they stop visiting their people.

Being chained to the desk, being focused on reporting, staying internally focused on internal politics do not produce revenue or improve the capabilities of sales people.

Without a doubt, the number 1 and the number 1 priorities of sales managers are Customers and Your People!  If the majority of your time isn’t spent in the field working with your people and visiting your customers, you are prioritizing things incorrectly.  Nothing trumps spending your time here–period.  A number of years ago, I was EVP of Sales for a large organization.   I was scheduled to do a presentation at our Board of Directors.  It was an “important” presentation.  As the day approached, a critical customer situation arose.  It was clear that my involvement was needed and, unfortunately, the only time available with the customer conflicted with my ability to present to the Board.  The decision was easy for me–I conveyed my apologies to my boss, the CEO, and to the Board Members, saying Customers and this situation were more important.  Fortunately, my boss and the board applauded that decision–and we did get the order.

So managers need to prioritize time with customers and with their people.  We need to unchain ourselves from our desks and spend the majority of our time in the field.  Take a moment right now and look at your calendar for the past 30 days.  If you haven’t spent a minimum of 50 percent of your time in the field with your people and with customers, you’re not maximizing your impact.

Now once we’ve committed to spend our time in the field, where do we have the most impact?  This is where I think the article is dead wrong.  It suggests that managers spend the bulk of their time with A players and calling on their customers.  I don’t want to ignore the A players, but this is not where the problems are, this is not where managers have the most impact—both in driving performance of sales people and in contributing to closing business.  By definition, the A players really don’t need your help, so it’s irresponsible to focus the bulk of our time with them, unless all you want is “feel good” meetings.

Where we as managers have the greatest impact and leverage is with our B and even C players.  Maximizing the performance of that huge middle range of our people—the B players has the highest return on a manager’s time.  Working with them, we have so much more impact, so much greater room for helping them improve.  Likewise, the impact we have working with them, on their deals, helping strengthen their competitive positioning and moving the deal through the customer’s buying cycle.  (For a different perspective the value of focusing on your B players, look at what the authors of Challenger Selling have to say.)

It may be more fun hanging out with A players and their customers, but that’s not our job as sales managers.  Our job is to maximize the performance of our organization.  We have to invest our time where it has greatest impact, and frankly where we’re needed.  By  definition, it won’t be with our top performers.

This doesn’t say we ignore our C players either.  Our job is to maximize performance, this includes dealing with performance problems.  Coaching our C players–either getting them to be B’s or A’s, moving them into roles where they can be B’s or A’s (and that may be out of the company) is our responsibility as managers.

Whatever level of manager you are, spend your time where you have the greatest impact–it’s always with customers and sales people.  Once you get out to the field, don’t hide out–head straight for the people and customers where you can bring the greatest value and impact, and where you are most needed.  Don’t ignore your A players or your great customers, but they don’t really need you as much.  It’s your B and C players that need you and your attention.  It’s the tough customers where you can help both your people and the customers the most.

Serve your people, serve your customers, the rest takes care of itself.

  1. Interesting take, as always, Dave, with some sharp insights.

    I think the right answer isn’t A or B or C, as much as “it depends.” I like to get into the specifics in a real case, in a real business, with real analytics, to determine where to spend time, for the greatest return. However, since we don’t have a case, and it gets awfully complex for a blog post, I’ll stay general, too.

    Generally, in less-thoughtful organizations, I find A players to be ignored, to spend time working with the “problem children” or C (or D?) players. I usually find this to be a waste of time. To me, it’s a lot like Account Management. Do you spend most of your time with A, B, C or D accounts? And, do you actually assess the situation and likelihood of accounts moving from one band to another? If so, a B with A potential deserves more focus than a B with B potential. A solid B with potential to slide to a C needs some retention effort more a steady-state B with flat growth potential

    I don’t see this working any differently with employees.

    In my studies, I often find that a 1% increase for an A player outweighs a 10% improvement for a B player and usually more for a C. So, spending time with top producers can yield a far better return, unless you can move the needle for a LOT of the B and C players (which, actually, is part of the “magic” in my performance lever work… raising the water level everywhere, except perhaps in the top 4%).

    When an A player is working a truly major opportunity, either an acquisition or significant growth opportunity… a sales leader’s time is well-spent with A players. I believe that periodic “sharpening the saw” is also important. These top producers need to be supported, learned from, coached somewhat, and listened to. Their direct, frontline sales managers should be doing this, but for this crowd, the VPs or even C-levels, should be involved, if they really “get” the front lines.

    B players deemed to have potential to become As, is a great place to spend time, in my opinion. Newer C players (or others, I guess) deemed to have potential to become Bs, is another. But I don’t generally advocate VP levels spending time arbitrarily with B and C players (unless that “VP” is the direct manager of the employees).

    For me, as you can probably tell, there is some question about the use of the title “VP of Sales.” I believe the frontline sales managers need to be riding along, coaching, supporting, listening and problem solving, with both clients and reps, as appropriate, regardless of title. But, they should still be assessing, coaching, and prioritizing effort based on potential of the rep, and potential of their clients. If the VP is this “frontline manager” then the VP should be doing this. However, in my experience, there is often a layer or two between VP and the frontline reps. In those cases, I’d point the VP toward major clients and helping the very best sales reps get even better.

    Been a long day, so I may have just confused myself. 😉 But generally-speaking, that’s my two cents.


    • Mike, as always a thoughtful and comprehensive response. In the absence of specific data, it’s hard to say what’s right. As you point out, it’s very situationally dependent. In my experience, you have to spend time with everyone–the amount of time and the focus is dependent on what needs to be done.

      I guess the only area where I have a slight disagreement is the VP spending time with B, C players. First, regardless A, B, C the primary person responsible for coaching and development is the person’s direct manager. Having said that, my experience is top executives need to spend time with all the players, but I have found huge leverage with the B players (sometimes though seldom with the C players). There are several things that happen.

      1. It’s difficult to assess the quality of coaching/development people are getting if you focus on the A players. Often people are B or C players because their managers aren’t doing the right job. It’s difficult to assess that with the A players (Are they A’s because of coaching or are the A’s because they are A’s.) Without this, perspective, how do you coach and develop your managers to be A managers?
      2. The reinforcement of the senior manager in working with B’s and C’s is tremendously powerful. When people get the opportunity to understand “straight from the horse’s mouth (or jackass depending on the point of view), it’s tremendously powerful. The best experience I can share is several turn arounds I have done–the A players were seldom the problem in driving the change. The B’s were where the big transmromations needed to be accelerated. Sometime’s the direct managers may not be as credible or strong in communicating and helping drive the change. (they may be part of the problem themselves). There are several benefits–the people see and get the chance to understand directly, two the senior manager get’s a deeper and better understanding of what’s going on in the organization, what’s really happening.
      3. We have tended to cast this as one way–the impact the senior manager has on coaching and developing the people. But unless the senior manager is getting the pulse of the organization from across the organization, it’s very difficult to understand what’s really happening and what needs to be done. Hanging out with high performers can be very deceptive. It masks major issues, you tend to think the whole organization is acting the same way. I want to hang out with high performers to get best practices and some new ideas. I want to hang out with others to get a sense of what is REALLY happening with the organization.
      4. As far as engagement in accounts, the VP should go wherever they can contribute the most to moving a deal forward or increas the odds to win.

      As always Mike, you provoke me to look at things differently. It’s always such a pleasure. Regards, Dave

  2. Back at you, Dave. You make some very compelling points. This is always tough for me in writing, because I feel a book is needed to really make sense. And as Mark Twain might have said, I’d have written a shorter blog comment, if I had more time.

    Couple of quick points in return…

    One of the big assumptions in my perspective is that the manager CAN even assess the potential of the reps. At the outset, I often find that they can’t, and do it by personality sync or gut feel. Knowing this, I spend a lot of time on this in my performance lever implementations… helping managers diagnose how well each rep is firing on each cylinder, and what to do about the gaps.

    At that jumping off point, upon reflection, I agree with you on everyone getting the shot (for a limited time). I think you need to start “fresh” and give everyone the benefit of assessment and coaching. (Keep in mind, however, I am a big advocate of psychometric assessments, top-performer profiling, and role-matching, so combining that with past behaviors and experience with reps, I believe that you can forecast to a great degree, which non-A producers have the best shot at stepping up). However, after the initial lever diagnosis and coaching, some players will begin to respond and improve. That’s where I recommend spending time. And that’s what I mean when I say the Bs with A potential or the Cs with B potential.

    I do agree that skip-level meetings and coaching by a VP will help determine with managers are assessing and coaching well, but you’ll get a sense of that after a few good ride-alongs. I just don’t think a VP needs to be or should be rising with every player. I’m okay with us disagreeing on that. I’m opinionated on practically everything but don’t always have to be “right.” 😉

    Hope you’re enjoying your weekend!


    • Mike: I actually think that we are in wild agreement. The only area that I have been differing with other perspectives is that the executive should spend time exclusively with A players. Again, I think that does the organization a disservice and the executive a disservice.

      I don’t think the time needs to be balanced (for example the same amount of time with each individual) or the necessarily going out with everyone. Frankly, I don’t see executive doing general ride alongs. Usually the executive is engaged for a specific customer situation or a deal. The executive can kill several birds with one stone—helping move the deal forward, getting a sense of what’s happening in the field, communicating priorities and strategies and complementing the direct manager’s coaching.

      As always, your comments really stretch my thinking. Regards, Dave

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