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Smart Management: Great First-Line Sales Managers

What's the secret ingredient for great first-line sales managers? Seasoned managers respond with a handful of descriptions when asked this question: "Always hits the numbers." "Reps really like 'em." "Fearless." "A great teacher."

The list goes on: "Doesn't tolerate HQ administrative distractions." "Protects and promotes their people." "Fair." "Has got the answers." "Is good with customers." "Can fix any problem." "Available."

The professional development/leadership community has its own responses: "Great coach." "Good at execution." "Helps people manage time." "Has all the CRM data entered." "Can make tough decisions about people." "A leader."

Most of us will find some meaning in these descriptions, whether they come from experienced field personnel or talent development professionals. Each of us nods in agreement even though we might have very different views about what the words mean. But these characterizations come up frustratingly short, particularly for some of the hard-to-describe personality traits—the secret ingredient.

The ultimate success of a first-line supervisor is whether his or her direct reports are successful. Surprisingly, total sales are a misleading statistic to judge managerial success by.

The number of representatives reaching and exceeding goal is a better measure of supervisory skills. While a single number for overall sales results is necessary, a separate measure of sales representative performance precludes hiding the poor performers.

Let's attempt to discover the secret ingredients of a great first-line sales manager. Use this list of features to judge yourself or your cadre of managers.

The best sales managers:

1. Are competent Many observers caution against making a great salesperson a sales supervisor. While not arguing that point, a first-line supervisor does need to be competent. A company's selling situation is often complex and requires extensive indoctrination to be proficient.

As expected, the best content training comes from being a successful salesperson. Those hired from outside can gain product, customer, and content knowledge over time, but their degree of effectiveness is directly proportional to their acquired knowledge.

Sales personnel want to "look up" to their first-line supervisor, but a poorly informed manager is disadvantaged from the start. Unless conditions dictate otherwise, promote from within or provide an extensive credibility-building ramp-up program prior to making a person a supervisor of sellers.

2. Have stature. "Stature" is hard to define. It's a combination of personal integrity, earned reputation, confidence awarded by superiors, and trust given by subordinates. Do not confuse stature with seniority—even those junior in their career can project stature.

At the heart of stature is a personal code of ethics that values results, assumes ownership of issues, and commits to actions. In other words, the adage "Say what you mean, do what you say," is fitting here.

3. Are leaders and not administrators. The job of most first-line managers is extensively task-completion-centric activities to keep the machinery of the sales department running smoothly. Although the job content is crushingly administrative, the opportunity to be a leader is not outside the grasp of the first-line managers.

Leaders do these things: 1. provide context (meaning) to others' efforts; 2. set stretchy goals; 3. commit to success; 3. encourage others to join in this effort; and 4. generously give thanks for all positive efforts, contributions, and results.

4. Are enablers and not competitors. A coach is not a barking taskmaster. He walks the path of learning with the salesperson, providing suggestions, giving encouragement, and accommodating unorthodox learning. Giving lots of choices provides a palette of learning opportunities.

For example, ask this question prior to a joint sales call: "How do you plan to handle this call?" Not: "Do this, it works." Add to the list of sales methods…but don't dictate.

After the call ask, "What worked? What didn't work?" Remember, dictating how you would have handled the call makes you a competitor. It's not easy to learn from a competitor.

5: Are inspirational and not judgmental. No other skill is more difficult to master than the art of performance correction and improvement. Generally, judgments—the criticism of actions and outcomes—provides some degree of direction. It's a necessary part of the supervisory mantle.

But as a prominent management method, it can induce "loss of hope," the primary cause of turnover. "I just can't win…no matter what I do, my boss always has something negative to say." While judgments of actions can become overbearing, judgment of persona is simply unacceptable.

Saying to a struggling representative, "You will never get this," offers no hope for improvement. The best approach for performance improvement is the constant drumbeat of "Yes, you can!" The supervisor sets the objectives and votes confidence in the subordinate by confirming their belief in the salesperson's impending success: "You're good. I know you can do this."

This approach is self-correcting. If failure is continual or improvement is tepid, both parties—the manager and the sales person—can quickly conclude this might not be the right job for the salesperson.

6: Focus on the destination and not exclusively on the route. While the popular trend among leading sales forces is to adopt a uniform "selling system," it's not the full answer to sales success. A great first-line sales manager recognizes the destination is the ultimate measure of success.

These sales managers tolerate some variation in the route—how the salesperson sells—rather than forcing everyone to comply with a single selling dogma.

Great sales managers are rare. Their secret ingredient is elusive. Use this list as a starting point for assessing and leading your front line sales managers.

David J. Cichelli is senior vice president of The Alexander Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. He can be reached at