To build a great company, it's important to have strong executives leading the sales organization. But just as in the military, talented top officers can't make up for weakness in the ranks of frontline leaders, the mid-level managers who are vital in driving day-to-day sales performance. "In any sales force, you can get along without the vice president of sales, the regional sales directors, and the training manager," a sales leader once told us. "But you cannot get along without first-line sales managers."
First-line sales managers (FLM) are the most critical players in a sales organization because they serve three important management roles — and successful ones excel at all three.
•People manager: They select, build, manage, lead, and reward a team of salespeople.
•Customer manager: They participate appropriately in the sales process to drive success with key customers.
•Business manager: They act as a conduit for information flowing between headquarters and the field to keep sales force activity aligned with company goals.
Here are some common mistakes that FLMs make in each of these roles, and what sales leaders can do to avoid these mistakes.
As people managers, weak FLMs:
•Hire the wrong salespeople.
•"Feed the chickens but starve the eagles" by spending too much time with low performers.
•Manage by results only and demand improvement without coaching on how to get there.
•Take credit for the team's success rather than giving others the recognition they deserve.
As customer managers, weak FLMs:
•Fail to put customer needs first.
•Take over customer relationships themselves and undermine salespeople's motivation and confidence in the process.
As business managers, weak FLMs:
•Spend too much time on low value activities just because they are urgent or within their comfort zone.
•Put off important tasks that keep headquarters and the field aligned.
Sales leaders can strengthen the FLM team and its activities by improving the management support, tools, and training they provide. For example, leaders can enable FLMs in a people manager role by providing coaching tools and training, setting performance standards for how much time to spend coaching high and low performers, and creating a salesperson hiring process with screening tools (e.g. case studies and behavioral interview questions) and training on how to use them. Leaders can also enable FLMs in a business manager role by providing tools and support to make administrative tasks easier.
But most of the mistakes that FLMs make aren't corrected through better management support, tools, and training. Rather, the mistakes are the result of selecting the wrong person for the FLM job - usually someone who was a great salesperson but who doesn't have the characteristics to succeed as a manager. Most successful salespeople, even after they are promoted to manager, are driven by a strong motivation for personal achievement. Unfortunately, this can impede their willingness to:
•Let others take the lead with customers, especially when it comes to closing sales
•Show discipline and patience when it comes to dealing with headquarters
•Take a backseat while giving team members credit for success
As a salesperson, you win through your activities; as a sales manager you with through the activities of your people.
Excellent managers are a must if you want to consistently recruit the best sales talent. Remember the aphorism: "First-class hires first-class; second-class hires third-class." It's hard to recover from bad hiring, which is why it's so important to make hiring (or promoting) the right front line managers who'll oversee so many hiring decisions such a priority.