Playing the game



If sales were a football match, the sales reps would be the players, the customers would be the referees and the sales managers would be the coaches. Sales representatives know the rules of the game and they practice by prospecting, uncovering customers’ hidden needs, presenting feasible solutions to potential buyers, negotiating through possible objections, and following up after a sale. Customers, or referees, decide which competitors make ‘buyable’ plays and which players need to be ejected from the match. Top performing sales people could be the coaches, but top performers never stand on the sidelines and watch their teammates score goals. Top performers are people who are used to getting results through their own efforts. Instead, companies appoint sales managers to coach their sales teams. Sales managers, in turn, design strategies and analyse the performance of individual players as well as the entire team.


Who is an effective sales manager? Do you know one? Two? Are you an effective sales manager? I have been spotlighting sales people and the sales process over the past few months, but in this new series I want to call sales managers from the sidelines and focus on the topics of supervision and management.


Sales visits


I met a young sales manager named Charles a few months after he began working with an independent dealer. He told me that in the three months since he had started in his supervisory position he had spent at least four days each month working directly with each of his sales reps. Charles was astounded when one of the dealer’s veteran salesmen told him that during his 30 years in sales he had never before had a manager accompany him on a sales call. The veteran went on to tell Charles that his previous manager had rarely spent any time with him at all. I was pleased to hear that Charles had chosen to be an active sales manager, but I was disheartened to hear about the veteran salesman’s experience with his previous managers. The hard truth is that sales people are often the most under-supervised group of employees in a company. Sales managers, to coin a phrase, are worth their weight in gold, yet many of the independent office products dealers that my firm works with do not have a full-time sales manager. In my experience most companies understand that a salesperson’s responsibility is to grow and develop customers. Unfortunately, many companies do not understand that a sales manager’s responsibility is to grow and develop sales people. A common practice is for a business owner or another key executive to shuffle the sales department under his/her large umbrella of responsibility.


Another way that some companies handle supervision is through the working sales supervisor model of management. A working sales supervisor is hired as a part-time sales rep and part-time manager. The working sales supervisor is not only responsible for cultivating new business and maintaining his/her own customer base, but s/he is also responsible for managing and developing the sales representatives.


The upside of a working sales supervisor is that s/he is constantly utilising and honing his/her selling skills. The downside, on the other hand, is that any person doing two full-time jobs, especially under a part-time pretence, can and will become bogged down by their own customers and possibly neglect their responsibility to the sales team. Sales managers can best sharpen their skills by selling with a salesperson, not just as a salesperson.


Companies spend a lot of time, money and effort on sales training classes, sales tools and marketing programmes geared at improving their sales team’s effectiveness. They send their sales representatives away for training and seminars. In my estimation – and I’ve been working with companies and sales teams for 15 years – many companies misplace their time, effort and money. Sales seminars are a great tool, and sending sales reps to training classes is a wise decision, but a sales manager is a company’s most powerful tool for keeping sales reps effective. The sales manager should participate in those seminars and reinforce the training with their reps on-the-job.


My job as a consultant is similar to that of a sales manager. What value would I bring to my customers if I stopped visiting sales reps and sales managers? What if I quit learning about new successes, failures, best practices, questions, and concerns? The likely result is that my business would fold. Even though I have plenty of sales and sales training experience to draw from, I know that I need to stay fresh and stay in touch with the sales community. I have to keep learning and continue spending one-on-one face time with my clients and "on-the-street" time with sales people so that I can help them to grow and be successful. The same holds true for sales managers. Sales managers who stay in touch with their sales team have successful sales people. Get to know your sales reps and most of all get to know their customers. After all, your sales representatives’ customers are also your customers.


A coach’s job is not to score goals. Players score goals. A coach’s job is to teach his team the fundamentals of the game, design plays that will result in success for the team and then watch and evaluate players. Let me pause for a moment and say that evaluate does not mean scrutinise every action. There was a saleswoman who worked for me, and she told me that she could not perform as well on sales calls when I was with her because she was afraid that I would judge her every action. I assured her that I was not there to pick apart her techniques, and I reassured her by asking positive, unimposing questions whenever we worked together. I accompanied her on several sales calls each week for about three months. I sat in on conference calls between her and her customers. As we worked together she learned that I truly was not a negative force, and she began to trust me and so did her customers. Ultimately, she, her customer and our company achieved positive results.


Take the time


There is a major US company which requires its sales managers to spend at least 70 percent of their time working directly with sales people. Seventy percent of their time! Take a moment and look through your planner. Where have you been spending your time? Last month what percentage of your time did you spend with each member of your sales team? While you have your planner open or your Blackberry booted, I suggest you schedule a meeting with your entire sales team, as a group, and explain that you are going to start spending more one-on-one time with each of them in the field and in the office. You will avoid making anyone feel paranoid or singled-out as a ‘needs improvement’ salesperson if you explain your plan to the entire group at the same time. Follow-up the meeting with a personalised email to each of your reps, which lists upcoming dates and times that you would be available for field work or in-office sales calls. I will discuss more strategies for working with your sales reps in a future article.


Supervising is a leadership role that requires you, the sales manager, to be with your sales people. A sales call is a rep’s time to shine and if you, the coach, are not there, what does that say about you? What does your absence say about your company? Supervising is also about working with your sales people face-to-face in the office. It is a time for you and your reps to ‘practice’ the fundamentals of selling. Sit down with your sales people and make plans for improving relations with existing customer. Strategise with them about how to grow their territory and win new accounts. Help them to make something happen that would not have happened if you weren’t there to coach them.


Leaders are a component of every human group on Earth. What makes a leader? Why do kids in school naturally gravitate to one person over another? Why do some sales people become sales managers, while others struggle to maintain their position as a salesperson? Sales managers hold a coveted leadership position. They have the power to lead their sales team to low levels of mediocrity or to soaring levels of success. The choice is yours. Are you going to coach from the announcer’s booth and hope that your team hears you, or are you going to get on the pitch and work with your team?