The 7 Traits of Highly Effective First-line Sales Managers

There is a common assumption made by most sales leaders that by hiring the best sales talent available they will generate an improvement in their overall sales performance. And to some degree, there is some truth in this.

by Tim Knight, CMO, CloudApps 

The thinking is simple. Remove the deadwood from the team. Identify top sales talent to target, hire them and then get them on-boarded as quickly as possible. Job done. Albeit a reasonably expensive hire-and-fire version of ‘job done’. And albeit somewhat flawed thinking.

If the goal is to improve sales performance, then there is one critical success factor that is too often overlooked. And that is the effectiveness of the first-line sales managers that this new talent will report into.

This group of managers alone can have the biggest swing effect on sales performance and yet are quite often ignored. They can be responsible for making average sales folks perform well above their ability or conversely leave top sales talent tearing out their hair in frustration.

At the very root of the problem is a situation many of us will have seen. One where top performers in the sales team, who are also decent corporate citizens, are actively encouraged to ‘take the step up’ into sales management. Hence, extending the illogical belief that being good at selling automatically prequalifies you as a good sales manager.

Let’s draw a comparison with the world of sport. Just because you were a great football player it doesn’t automatically follow that you will perform well standing on the side-lines acting as the team’s manager. The diminutive Italian wizard Gianfranco Zola will probably be remembered as one of the world’s finest ever players. Not so his ability to gain success as a manager.


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Why is this? Let’s take a look at the skills required to be a good first-line manager.


1. Coach, coach, coach:

This is a key skill requirement. Yet how many companies teach their first line sales managers to coach? I would bet very few. Looking one step further, how many companies furnish their first-line managers with empirical data that highlights where individual sales reps need most coaching help? I suspect considerably less than ‘very few’.

Only now are progressive front-line sales managers being afforded the mechanisms that allow them to scale their coaching in real-time, through electronic means. This coaching can be paced to deliver results that are realistic for the current stage of development that the rep has reached.

Further, these managers are finally being equipped with a data-driven picture of how each rep is performing against key metrics that span the pipeline. Some reps love closing but struggle to fuel their pipeline. Others like the thrill of ‘getting the door open’ but are easily bored by the process required to drive the deal forward. These metrics serve to quickly identify where each rep needs help the most and are ultimately used to drive highly targeted coaching.


2. Run effective pipeline review & forecasting sessions:

You could probably class this as an extension of the coaching point made above. But instead of the 1:1 ‘sales skills’ coaching inferred in the first point, this refers to ‘opportunity specific’ coaching.

This skill set allows the first-line manager to delve deep into a deal to really get under the skin of its true health.

These sessions afford an effective manager the opportunity to coach the sales rep on the diligent application of the sales process. After all a large investment will have been placed in understanding how and why ‘prospects’ turn into ‘customers’. The output of this investment is the corporate sales process. Adherence to it is the most likely contributor to individual sales success.

Deal driven coaching also presents the opportunity to drive the effective use of the chosen corporate CRM system. After all, it is again likely that significant further investment has been made in deploying the system to adequately support the sales process.


3. Understand sales reps and manage them appropriately:

Effective front-line sales managers recognise that high performing sales reps are likely to possess strong personalities. Balancing the need to get the sales rep to conform to the defined sales process and contribute as a good corporate citizen against the rep’s desire for autonomy is crucial.

We’ve all seen them, the lone wolves that are allowed to bring in deals that stoke their personal commission payments but ultimately unravel long after the sales rep has disappeared. These deals do not cultivate long-term customer success or profitable relationships.

Effective first-line managers will drive their sales folks to diligently follow the sales process and will monitor the true health of individual deals. Better still, they will learn from the habits of their top performers and tweak their approach and that of their team accordingly.


4. Leave selling to the sales reps:

Many first line sales managers have been top performing reps themselves before entering the world of sales management. They possess a strong instinct to participate directly in the sales cycle, believing this approach to be helpful. Sadly, the opposite is often true.

It is in a manager’s best interest, as well as the interest of their company, to ensure that they are coaching reps to their full potential. Even if this means that an individual sale does not go smoothly. In these cases, it is better to make it a learning experience, debrief with the sales professional, and move on.


5. Align salespeople with company goals:

Successful first-line sales managers will be good business managers, serving as conduits for information between headquarters and the field. This constant flow of information will keep activities of sales teams aligned with the core company goals.

They help their sales teams to turn on a dime. When new products are launched or company priorities change, they are able to motivate their teams to nimbly move in the new direction by clearly setting and measuring against the new marching orders.


6. Focus, focus, focus:

There are many distractions that eat into effective selling time. Admin tasks that suddenly seem incredibly urgent, existing customers with a needy relationship who aren’t particularly profitable or the desire to tend to numerous deals that are in reality being dragged unwillingly through the pipeline. These are just some of the distractions that a good first-line sales manager cuts through.

Strong sales managers keep their team and supporting resources focused at all times on the deals that are most likely to close within that period. They use data analytics to provide insight into the strongest deals and rally the whole team behind them. They watch these deals like a hawk to determine if any are veering off-track; identifying remedial actions for any that do.

Successful managers will coach their reps to qualify hard and early, keeping them focused on building a clean & healthy pipeline.


7. First-line sales managers are managers first and foremost:

In conclusion, while many sales leaders agree that first-line sales managers are among the most important roles in their sales organizations, these managers are also often among the least-supported sales roles in terms of management and guidance. But there remains an underlying issue even before you get to the point of worrying about the lack of support & training.

Too many companies take an approach to ‘promote our best sales reps and hope for the best.’ And here is where most of the problems originate from; we are hiring the wrong people for the job in the first place. People who were great as sales reps, but who simply don’t have the traits to succeed as sales managers.


Keen to learn more?

Why not download the 7 attributes of a modern-day sales team?


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