True Sales Management Is a Balancing Act: Manage Sales and Manage Salespeople


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In a 2004 survey of 6,000 sales professionals, Sales Performance International has found the “half life” of sales training to be a little more than five weeks. That means that, without reinforcement, half of what the sales people learn in sales training is forgotten in about five weeks.

Based on my 20 years of experience with scores of sales organizations, I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of salespeople can’t be effective without an effective manager. The most important factor in achieving real improvement in sales effectiveness lies with sales management and its role in the reinforcement of what it has defined as good selling.

Nine years ago, as a part of the company’s turnaround, IBM began a project to increase the effectiveness of its sales force. Initially, it focused on training the sales professionals. After the first training session was rolled out to the salespeople, executives saw that the training was not sticking. So they changed their focus and added a sales management curriculum: training the sales managers for the job of driving improvement through the reinforcement of what the salespeople were taught.

Reinforcement includes:

  • Setting expectations of the new processes and behaviors

  • Setting the example when sales managers are involved in sales activities

  • Using the terminology introduced in the training

  • Asking the right questions

  • Personal, public commitment to the content of the training

  • Rewarding compliant behaviors that produce success

  • Most importantly, coaching

Sales managers are typically good salespeople themselves—that’s how they became managers. Where many sales managers fail to excel is in their understanding of what their role is. They believe it is to be “super salespeople.” In reality, their role is not only managing sales but also leading and coaching salespeople.

It’s important to realize that outstanding individual sales performance doesn’t happen by chance. There are very few natural-born superstar salespeople. A few have learned what works through trial and error. These salespeople have evolved into superstars through a lengthy process of observing human nature and survival of the fittest.

It might take decades for this evolutionary process to produce the superstar. But sales organizations cannot afford the time—or the “error” part of trial and error. Most superstars are formed through sales process, training, experience and, most importantly, manager coaching. The most important roles a sales manager can play in the long run are coach, mentor and tutor. But sales managers who aren’t prepared for those roles can find them difficult.

Before you can coach

To prepare the environment for effective coaching you must first have these prerequisites:

  • The expectations must be clearly articulated to the sales team. This means that there must be a set of clearly-communicated and accepted expectations that sales management has provided the salesperson. I’ve seen sales managers whose coaching approach is, “Just do it like I do it!”

    Sometimes that works as a coaching style, but often sales managers who are instinctive cannot articulate how they do it. And the way they do it may often be different from the methods of other sales managers in the organization. What works best is a common set of behaviors and processes across the organization that the sales teams have understood and agreed to. This is a prime responsibility of executive sales managers.

  • The performance of the salespeople must be measurable with facts. There can be no room for disputing the actual performance of a sales professional against the accepted expectations. Where many coaching sessions bog down is in the first step: agreement on the “coach-able” issue. It is not productive to get into a debate between the opinion of the sales manager and that of the salesperson about whether there is a problem.

Coach to behavior

The expectations are the responsibility of the sales organization and should include behaviors and processes that the company knows will lead to the sales results needed. Think of these as the “how to sell” expectations. Obviously, salespeople will always have goals and quotas—the “what”—but the excellent sales organization will also have defined behaviors and processes—the “how”—to achieve the goals. The most effective coaching is done against the “how” expectations, not the “what” expectations. It does not help the salesperson to say, “You need to sell more because you are not meeting your quota.”

What is helpful is leading the salesperson to see “how” to sell more. The coach-able issue, then, is defined as a gap between understood expectations—the behaviors and processes—and actual performance, clearly defined by the facts. An assumption, of course, is that the “how,” if properly executed, produces the “what.” If the behaviors are there, the goals will be met. There must be a generally accepted connection between the behaviors/processes and the achievement of the goals.

Effective coaching model

Coaching is like selling. The sales manager is “selling” something the salesperson needs. It is a matter of getting the salesperson to accept the state of need and then accept the remedy: the behavior change. The following is a simple coaching model based on the best-of-breed sales model:

  1. A gap: Get agreement from the salesperson on the existence of a gap between expectations and actual performance. This could be related to a goal (quota), a behavior or the execution of the sales process.

  2. Reasons: Explore and agree on the reasons for the gap. This is usually a behavior or involves sales process execution issues. If the reasons are related to issues out of the salesperson’s control, such as customer bankruptcy, the gap is not coach-able.

  3. Action plan: Identify and agree on an action plan to close the gap. The action plan addresses the reasons and includes both actions and dates of completion.

  4. Manager follow-up: The sales manager follows up to confirm that the action plan has been executed and that it did indeed close the gap.

If you are familiar with best-of-breed sales methodologies, you will recognize the similarities between them and the coaching model. In fact, it is the same basic approach. The sales manager needs to “sell” the salesperson on the problem, the reasons for the problem and the remedy/solution. This model results in the salesperson taking ownership of the problem and the action plan. The “agreement” parts of the first three steps are accomplished in the same way a good sales technique elicits the agreement of customers, by leading them to their own conclusion rather than a telling them what to do.

The coaching part of the management skill set is really not different from the basic selling skills good sales managers already have. It is a matter of using these selling skills in the coaching interaction and treating the salesperson as a customer.

Bob McGarrah
Sales Performance International
Bob McGarrah is a principle developer with Sales Performance International, a progressive sales and marketing performance improvement company, based in Charlotte, NC. McGarrah's specialty is sales management. His career spans management roles in computer engineering, business management, market support and sales.


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