Sales Managers: Why Are They Different?

6 May 2013

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We recently completed fascinating research on corporate training and development programs for sales managers. In a recent webcast (Research Update: Developing Sales Managers), research underwriter Business Efficacy’s Kurt Theriault joined me for a preliminary review of the study findings.

The research show that firms spend less, per-person, on sales manager training and development than they do on similar salesperson investments. Unsurprisingly, companies rate their sales manager bench strength — the ready pool of promotable manager candidates — as very poor. Both findings are concerning, given the critical impact on firm performance of the first-line sales manager — and even more surprising given respondents’ expected sales manager headcount increases.

How good is the training sales managers do receive? Not good, according to our study: among those skills ratings ranked lowest were those most fundamental to the sales management role: leadership skills, delivering effective coaching, and assessing salesperson performance. Yikes.

To net this out: sales managers — despite their outsized impact on performance — are disadvantaged by low levels of training investment, waste time in training that doesn’t deliver on the sales managers’ most basic developmental requirements, and are unprepared for the role when they start. Oh yes, and we plan on adding more — 14% more sales managers, on average, over the next 18 months. As this unhappy convergence of challenges indicates, training and developing sales managers is something companies find very difficult.

Are these issues unique to sales managers? Compared to say, other managers in the firm? Most likely not; my hunch is that manager development and training is generally lousy in many, many firms. I would submit, however, that training sales managers is harder than training other managers; and that it matters more.

Kurt and I pulled up from the research findings to speculate on this question: Why is training sales managers harder? Our thoughts are available below in the webcast excerpt (Sales Management Association members can view the full webcast archive here). In a nutshell:

  • Salespeople are harder to manage. They are often paid to be independent actors, an autonomy they value and even seek out. They may therefore be less warm to group think, management initiatives du  jour, or close supervision.
  • Sales teams are distributed. Direct salespeople are often not within arm’s reach of management. This forces managers to improve communication quality and leverage non-direct media (e.g., phone, web meetings), and consistent management processes.
  • Salespeople are highly focused on achievement, and are held accountable as such. The lights are brighter, the stakes higher, and the rewards are greater than in other firm functions. On top of that, they’re competitive.
  • The sales function is a change-intensive environment. Disruptive sales organization change now seems pervasive. Managers must therefore be adaptable and nimble.
  • Sales managers are harder-pressed to develop their direct reports. The need to improve salesperson performance is a critical skill for managers, who must manage up low-performers up fast, and maintain constant team improvement to meet productivity goals.

Our list is likely not half-complete. What would you add? Be sure to check out the full webcast archive (for Sales Management Association members) for more detail on our research on Developing Sales Managers.


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