Growing the business means investing in the improvement of the sales force.  Most astute principals and chief sales officers realize that in this very competitive economic environment, those companies who sell better than the rest will take market share away from their less effective competitors.

Yet budgets are still tight, and nervous CEOs are hesitant to fund broad-based sales initiatives.  What to do?

Start with the sales managers.

If you want to do something to improve your sales force, the best application of limited funds is to invest in the sales managers.

It’s the sales managers who have the greatest opportunity to help salespeople unleash their potential.  Because of their daily high touch interaction with the sales force and the market, sales managers have the levers to ratchet up sales performance in the entire team.  If you can educate a sales manager in the best practices of his position, and if he then implements the principles, practices, and disciplines of professional sales management, you can see an immediate, measurable, and long-lasting improvement in the performance of the sales team.

While most people intuitively understand the link between effective sales management and improved sales results, research in the last few years has confirmed it.  For example, a study by Wilson Learning Worldwide, Inc. concluded that sales teams under the oversight of a highly skilled sales manager produced “29% higher revenue, 47% higher employee satisfaction, and 16% higher customer satisfaction.”

Unfortunately, of all the job titles and positions in a typical B2B sales force, the first-line sales managers are the least trained for their positions.  Most have never been educated in the best practices of effective sales management.  As a result, they default to the habits and practices they saw when they were salespeople.  They mimic the models of the sales managers for which they worked.  Alas, most of their models were also never educated in effective sales management.

As a result, sales management practices vary from one extreme to another, depending on the individual manager’s vision of himself.  There is a continuum from micromanager at one extreme to non-manager at the other.  Some see themselves as super salespeople – the most competent of all the salespeople, and the one who needs to go with the salespeople to close big accounts and smooth flustered relationships.  Others become administrators, busying themselves with reports, meetings, and a continuous stream of clerical functions.

Some identify with the salespeople, and wouldn’t think of impinging on anyone’s style or system of work.  Others see themselves as executives who don’t really have time for the nitty-gritty of joint sales calls.

Still, others suffering from a lack of a clear vision as to what their role could be, default to a reactive style of management, where their time is directed to the most compelling of the countless number of issues that cry for today’s attention.

The costs to the company can be huge.  Morale is not what it could be, and that impacts almost every transaction and relationship for the sales team.  Salespeople turn over more rapidly, causing a whole series of unnecessary costs.  Marginal salespeople continue in roles for which they aren’t suited, resulting in lost sales and disgruntled customers.  Unfocused salespeople default to reactive sales styles, dissipating sales efforts.

Is it any wonder that sales teams under effective sales management are so much more effective?

Sales managers can be proactive leaders who set the standards, identify the vision, and lead the company’s charge into the competitive market.  Most have never been exposed to the concept that there is a set of best practices for first-line sales managers.  They should be leading their teams, creating expectations, holding salespeople accountable, coaching, counseling when necessary, and developing the skills and capabilities of the sales force.  They should be helping their salespeople focus on the most effective customers, products, and processes.  They should create and impart important standards for sales behavior and performance, and be ready and able to act when those standards are not met and a new salesperson needs to be recruited.

A proactive, skilled sales manager can be the best thing that ever hit a group of salespeople.

Unfortunately, these kinds of activities do not proceed naturally from the skills that gave them success as salespeople.  Their time as a salesperson has not equipped them with any of the skills and practices necessary to effectively perform as sales leaders.

And, so, most B2B sales companies limp along with untrained sales managers and underachieving sales teams.

An investment in transforming the mindsets and improving the practices of sales managers can have a positive impact on the entire sales team.  If you only have limited funds to improve your sales force, start there.

The quote is from Wilson Learning Worldwide, Inc.  Sales Management as a Source of Competitive Advantage, Research Report, p. 4.


Note:  We have a variety of resources to help you improve the practices of your sales managers including two books:   How to Become an Exceptional Distributor Sales Leader, Transforming Your Sales Force for the 21st Century, and our Kahle Way® Sales Management System Course.  Visit The Sales Resource Center for more resources.