What Makes a Great Sales Manager?

While talking to a friend of mine about our usual stuff, (mostly accountability check-ins), we shifted to talking about sales managers. 

I don’t even remember how we got on the subject, but it turns out that we had pretty different ideas of how a sales manager becomes successful.  

His concern was that his sales manager was always out of the office nurturing her biggest client.  Then he planted his flag in the sand,

“That is why sales managers shouldn’t actually sell.”

I was taken back by this and asked him to repeat his statement. After he did, I was quiet for a moment.  

It’s possible that I have some ridiculous standards when it comes to management and mentors.  I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of people in my life in positions of leadership that deserve admiration. 

Unfortunately, not many of them have been former sales managers.

The thing is, I want to work under someone who knows their stuff. If you haven’t gone through what I am going through, how can I trust you to guide me through the hard moments?

You know in war movies where there is the annoying officer who just slows everything down and ruins the plans of the guys who just want to help? Then when he does something really stupid and dies, the movie cast is relieved and all the fans cheer?

That is kind of how I view a sales manager who has never been a salesperson. Or they were one, but it was “back in the day.” 

There was one manager at a bank I used to work at who hadn’t actually talked to a client in years other than to placate them if they got angry. What!?

One time, he was sitting in the next cubicle and was eavesdropping on my conversation with a client, (terrible way to coach, by the way), and then came over to talk to me about it afterward.  

“Why didn’t you offer that lady the new credit card special?”

I told him that she had two cards with us already that had zero balances and had no transactions on them. Why would I talk to her about credit cards when there are other opportunities available? He got mad and stormed off.

As a lifelong salesperson, it has always upset me when I’m not trusted to do my job well. In most of the roles I’ve had, my paycheck literally depended on doing my job well. We are capable of qualifying a client and making a decision based on the best interests of both the client and the company.  

But in really large companies, this idea gets lost sometimes. The focus becomes shoving every product you can in front of a client, and this inevitably leads to many clients not trusting you. And when sales managers haven’t had that experience in a long time, they just push whatever corporate tells them to without a second thought.

I explained my thinking to Travis, and he said that the skills to manage were different than the skills to sell. While I wholeheartedly agreed with that statement, I still wasn’t sure about his whole argument. But to be honest, I had long ago noticed that the best coaches were never the best players. But I hadn’t thought about that in a sales role before that moment.

After our conversation, I sat down to think about my sales managers in the past and what separated the ones I respected vs. the ones that I didn’t. I thought about this for a while and couldn’t figure out the difference. So I started taking some notes on the information I remembered.  

It turns out that most of my managers had been managing for about the same amount of time. However, the younger managers averaged lower in my respect than the older ones. That means that my initial thoughts about the length of time from being a salesperson were wrong.

I couldn’t figure it out, and then it dawned on me. It had nothing to do with whether or not they’d been a salesperson recently. It was HOW they coached and managed that made the difference. The managers I respected were able to let me fail and coach me in a way that brought about change. The others just talked at me and never had me buy into the idea of making a change.

A sales manager’s role is to lead a team to hit sales targets that are so large he wouldn’t be able to achieve it on their own. Their time is best spent keeping up the morale of the sales team and coaching them to hit those goals.

Sales managers also create a sales team most of the time. They have to find people who they think will be coachable and trainable and will take on the mission of hitting a sales goal while holding the values of the company and the team in mind.

They should be able to come in and help a rep close a big deal, be available for coaching and roleplay, and be supportive and encouraging while going over reports with sales reps to make sure that they are on pace to hit their goals. 

They should not be taking the time to manage accounts as the first point of contact, nor should they be the one to prospect and find leads.  

They are approachable and can offer nonjudgemental feedback to the team, and they are the first person to turn to when a salesperson is struggling.  

The ability to be approachable and give feedback is something you have to cultivate. It would be hard for any manager to be accepting when a new rep tells you he lost his biggest account, but accepting they must be.  

“Man, that really sucks.  Can you let me know what happened?”

is a better response than,

“Seriously? I cannot believe you lost that account!”

You want your rep to feel comfortable coming to you if a situation like this happens, not hiding it because they know you are going to ream them out about it. Getting mad doesn’t do anything productive at that point.

By this standard, I have only had a couple of good managers that were approachable and dedicated to my success. The bad ones only focused on quotas and mistakes.

And it turns out, most of my former managers had recently been salespeople. 

I don’t love admitting when I’m wrong, but I’ve changed my tune.

While it’s possible for a great salesperson to become a great sales manager, it’s not a given. And their ability in sales has little influence on their ability to manage. Because it bears repeating, managing is a completely different skill than selling.