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From Sales Star to Sales Supporter

Research reveals what's sabotaging your managerial effectiveness

"We keep promoting our best salespeople to be sales managers, but most of the time they don't succeed in that role."Ever hear this statement before? Or have you even said it yourself? It's an extremely common refrain, to be sure, but why? The strategy of promoting your best sales talent to manage and develop other salespeople seems completely reasonable. Yet, the practice of doing so has an abysmally low rate of success ... abysmally low.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we don't have a clear understanding of what makes an effective sales manager. An effective salesperson is relatively easy to describe—they achieve their quotas. But what criteria do you judge a sales manager by?

Typically, managers are deemed effective if the salespeople below them achieve their quotas, but what do managers actually do to help the salespeople succeed? If we knew what makes a sales manager effective, then it would be substantially easier to help good salespeople make the transition to management.

Research to the Rescue

This very question recently was addressed by three researchers—Dawn Deeter-Schmelz of Ohio University, Daniel Goebel of Illinois State University and Karen Norman Kennedy of the University of Alabama at Birmingham—by way of a study that appeared in the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management. Their academic research is not only interesting, but also highly relevant for the numerous companies that have struggled to develop good sales managers. As a bonus, their work also provides some insight into why great sales reps often fail in management positions.

Deeter-Schmelz, Goebel and Kennedy gathered their information from the perspectives of the two stakeholders most intimate with the salesperson-manager relationship: front-line salespeople and sales managers themselves. They interviewed at length 58 sales reps and managers across a wide range of industries to garner their opinions on which attributes an effective sales manager possesses and why those attributes are important.

Of the sales professionals interviewed, there was a high level of agreement on the critical traits of an effective sales manager. The list of common attributes was:

• Communication and listening skills.

• Ability to manage relationships.

• Organization and time management skills.

• Knowledge of industry and products.

• Coaching skills.

• Motivational ability.

• Honesty and ethics.

• Leadership skills.

• Willingness to empower.

In fact, this set of characteristics was noted by both the salespeople and managers using nearly identical language and in very similar rank of importance. The striking uniformity of their responses provides a strong endorsement that these could indeed be the key attributes of an effective sales manager.

When subsequently asked why these attributes were important, several commonalities also emerged. The interviewees believed these traits would lead to several specific behaviors of an effective sales manager:

• Communicating clear expectations.

• Fostering confidence and trust.

• Developing the salesperson's abilities.

• Motivating the salesperson.

These behaviors were considered fundamental to achieving the ultimate goal of a sales manager— improving the salesperson's performance.

In sum, this research provides a fairly elegant framework for developing effective sales managers. It tells us that if you develop these key attributes in your managers and encourage these specific consequences, then you can drive improved performance in your sales force.

While the similarities between the salespeople's and sales managers' perspectives provide us with good guidance for developing effective managers, the differences in their opinions provide us with a view of why successful sales reps fail as managers.

One theme that became clear to the researchers was salespeople view the role of an effective sales manager as a supporter of the sales force. For example, managers should use their organizational skills to remove internal and external barriers for their salespeople. A manager's industry and product knowledge should function as a resource for their reps to tap. Again, again and again, the research showed that the sales reps wanted their managers to be enablers of the selling process.

In sharp contrast, sales managers wanted to be a participant in the process and have a direct impact on the sale. Interestingly, the sales managers were very concerned about their own credibility and their status as a role model in order to earn the right to engage with the sales rep.

For example, managers thought their communication skills and knowledge should be used to demonstrate their capability. Their organization and time management skills should enable them to spend more time in the field. In fact, many sales managers mentioned their own selling skills as a critical contribution to the salesperson's success, so they could model good behaviors.

Yet despite the managers' desire to be the sales hero, not a single salesperson mentioned role modeling or manager reputation as a contributor to their success. It appears that the sales reps did not want a sales sidekick.

The feedback obtained by Deeter-Schmelz, Goebel and Kennedy suggests a few actions sales practitioners can take to build legions of effective managers:

First, the role of the sales manager in your organization needs to be clearly defined. In some circumstances, a "sales hero" might actually be the right role. In other circumstances, it might be a nuisance for otherwise capable sales reps. Either way, the strategic role of the sales manager should be communicated throughout the organization so everyone's expectations are aligned.

Second, great care must be taken in deciding who should be elevated to management positions. If the manager is truly cast as an enabler, then a superstar salesperson might not be willing or able to step off stage and support the rising stars from behind the scenes. It should be acceptable to leave a star salesperson in the field and promote an average rep, so long as they possess the attributes of an effective sales manager.

Finally, training must be provided to managers to develop the skills needed to succeed. The behaviors and attitudes that make a great salesperson are not sufficient to be a great manager. And some good research has just illustrated the challenge of trying to do a sales manager's job with a sales rep's state of mind.

Jason Jordan is director of research for the University
Sales Education Foundation, as well as principal for Go
To Market Partners.