How to Be a Sales Manager

BY C. Lee Smith
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Are you starting out in your first sales manager gig? Even if your organization has provided training, you might want to commit to doing your best work by asking those you admire how to be a sales manager. We have a few pointers, based on our recent Manage Smarter podcast episode with Kevin F. Davis, the founder and president of TopLine Leadership, and overall guru of sales manager training.

Sales management, done right, contributes to the success of your organization. The job can be overwhelming but if you focus on the following three key issues, Davis says you’re off to a great start.

  • Manage up as well as down
  • Avoid tunnel vision
  • Establish boundaries with team members

Let’s take a look at how you can become the best sales manager in your organization

Manage up as well as down

In their first supervisory role, too many sales managers spend all of their time focused on their team. Developing your team members and helping them optimize their performance is your key role in the organization. But because you’re part of an organization, you need to know what your manager and the company leaders expect from you. If you don’t establish clear objectives with your manager, you won’t know what they are holding you accountable for. Talk with your manager and agree on performance objectives as soon as you start your new position. Over time, if your manager seems to be adjusting your responsibilities, ask for a formal meeting and review your concerns. You’ll find it much easier to manage your team when you know exactly what you’re working toward.

Avoid “tunnel vision”

As a sales rep, you may have focused on closing deals. Every signed contract you brought to your boss meant you were one step closer to exceeding quota. Part of your job as a sales manager is to help your reps improve their sales skills. Unfortunately, for some sales managers, the only coaching that matters are the final steps to help a rep close a deal. Davis calls out this attitude. If you are too focused on the end of the process, you’ll end up with “tunnel vision.”

When you coach your reps, review exactly what your manager and company leaders have asked the sales department to accomplish this year. If your organization has launched a new product and is targeting a new kind of customer, your reps will need more help on discovery. Without good coaching on understanding which businesses make the best prospects for the new product, your reps could waste time and resources chasing after a lead that will never amount to much.

Establish boundaries with team members

One of the most difficult adjustments new managers must make is establishing boundaries with their team members. In our Voice of the Sales Manager survey, one respondent cautioned new sales managers to “separate business and friendship.” Good advice. If you were promoted in your organization, you may have previously developed close friendships with reps on your team. It’s easy to imagine that these reps will do what you ask on the basis of friendship. But that doesn’t always work out.

Start your sales management career by cultivating respect from your team members, not friendship. And it’s a good idea to have a direct conversation about boundaries as soon as you start your position.

Sooner or later, you’ll be faced with making hard and unpopular decisions that will impact reps, whether they are your friends or not. You have to be able to step up and decide whether or not a prospect or client will get what they are demanding. And you’ll be doing this in the context of what’s right for the business first. Then you might consider what’s right for the prospect. And finally, you’ll think about what’s right for the sales rep.

You also need to maintain some distance from your sales staff because having tough conversations is part of the job. Those kinds of conversations are much harder to have when a rep is also a good friend. For example, at some point you might have to address a performance issue. Or you might have to talk with an employee about their inaccurate sales forecast.

How to be a Sales Manager

Once you establish your groundwork for how to be a sales manager, go forward with the right mindset. Be willing to change how you approach problems and how you work with your team members. You’ll find the style that works for you and them.