In corporate America it's standard operating procedure to promote the top sales performer into management despite the fact that it's common knowledge that many of those top performers struggle with leading and managing a sales team. What might not be common knowledge is why so many top performers struggle with the transition into management. If you're a top performer actively interviewing for a sales management role or have already received a promotion, you should understand the most difficult aspects of the transition into management and leading a sales team. To give you a dose of sales management reality, I’ve outlined the most six most common reasons why new sales managers fail.
Failure to Build Trust
Most new sales managers are so eager to get into their new role and prove their worth that they completely forget or neglect to establish relationships with their subordinates. Pretty ironic considering relationship building is what made many of these people top sales performers. Eager to dive in, they start by asking questions like:
- "Tell me about your territory"
- "Who are you biggest customers?"
- "Let me see your top prospect list"
- "Let's review your sales funnel"
- "Show me your best opportunities"
When new sales managers make the transition into management the first thing they should focus on is establishing trust with each member of their team. I remember when I first made the transition into management and began by sharing with my team all things that made me a top performer. After the first 30 or 60 days I realized nobody was really applying the ideas and advice I shared. To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. What I eventually learned is people don't care how much you know until they first know how much you care about them. If you're a new sales manager, do yourself a favor and kick things off by making it a sincere and genuine point of getting to know each team member on an individual basis and establishing trust with each. Be sure you get to know them, their family, background, education, career path, what motivates them, what demotivates them, what they do for fun and what drives them. You need to ask lots of questions and above all, make sure you listen! Just as importantly, let them get to know you. Be an open book, make yourself vulnerable and share with them your strengths, weaknesses, fears and dreams. Be humble, let them know about all of the silly mistakes you've made in your sales career. This will let them see you as human and not just their sales manager.
Overly Concerned with Being Liked, Not Respected
You've probably heard the saying "it's lonely at the top." While your first sales management position might not put you "on top" of the company organizational chart, over time it can feel lonely. When you make the transition from being a sales performer to a sales manager your former peers become your subordinates and the dynamic of those relationships change. You no longer sit in the pit of sales cubicles and shoot the breeze about current events but instead have an office so that you can have private, confidential conversations. You now participate in management meetings and are privy to management decisions that you once talked about-and probably second guessed-with your peers. In a sense, you have joined the dark side.
Its common for newly promoted sales managers to think, "I'm not going to be like the other sales managers. I'm going to be a "players coach". I "get it" and I have witnessed all the mistakes made by other managers." As such, your brain is unconsciously wired for you to be liked by your teammates, not respected. It's not your fault you're this way, after all, you're a top performing sales professional and top performers are usually well liked by their clients. Heck, you were probably trained to be this way. However, after years of leveraging your sales superpowers including your charm, witty sense of humor and ability to put prospects at ease to attract and retain customers you will soon discover that these skills no longer have the power they did as a sales professional. In fact, in your new role as sales manager they can actually work against you. As the manager, your job is not to make friends and be liked but rather, be respected. Leading teams requires the manager to make tough, often unpopular decisions so gaining respect requires a whole new skill set. Here are some tell-tales signs that a sales manager is more concerned with being liked then respected. They say things like:
- "I'm not going to use metrics to manage my sales people"
- "My sales reps don't need a sales process to follow"
- "Sales is all about the art of selling, not science, I'm going to let my reps sell however they're comfortable selling"
It's easy for people to think like this and make these types of comments because they've never been a sales manager. But I assure you, if your thought process is headed in this direction, you are going the wrong way.
Communicating Change, "Changing Sides"
Now that you're a manager you will be tasked with communicating changes in policy and standard operating procedures that were made from above. This may include things like the commission plan, sales territories, sales process and many more. But because you want your subordinates to like you, you will try to avoid conflict at all costs. More specifically, you will be conflicted over how to deliver messages that come from the top down. For example, suppose your CEO or VP of sales decides to change the commission policy and has tasked you with explaining the new plan to your team. As the sales manager you will want to address your team in such a way that they see and believe that you "get it" so when new managers communicate this change they often say things like:
- "I know, I don't know why they are doing this either...."
- "I liked the previous plan better myself..."
- "Let me see if I can find any wiggle room on this change...."
These statements of course are also examples of managers who are focused on being liked rather than respected. Unfortunately, when managers communicate like this they put themselves in a very precarious position. The decision was already made from above and the likelihood of a new manager changing it is slim to none. Instead, managers need to put a positive spin on the change because the team is going to respond to the change the way the manager does. If your team sees that you disagree with the change they will never buy-in. Instead, you might say something like "great news, we have a new commission plan coming out that is going to increase the upside and encourage you to focus on X." Presenting the change in this manner will make your team far more likely to embrace change.
Fear of Conflict
Why do managers, even those at the C-level, struggle to engage in open, honest and candid feedback and passionate debate? Why do they struggle to work through their differences and reach agreement? Isn't this what management is? Well, yes indeed it is, but it's not easy.
As previously mentioned, sales managers have a strong desire to be liked. They want their subordinates to think highly of them. For these reasons, even when they disagree with something, they often hold back with expressing how they truly feel as a defense mechanism to avoid conflict. In fact, many sales managers I’ve worked with are afraid that disagreements might turn into uncomfortable conversations that could lead to conflict and ultimately fracture relationships and team morale. So what do they do instead? They avoid the conflict and push those feeling deep down inside. The problem however is its not healthy. It creates additional stress and at some point those repressed feelings manifest, typically in some form of passive aggressive behavior that the sales manager is not even aware of. This is how sales managers quickly alienate their team and become frustrated in their new role.
As a sales manager you can't shy away from disagreements or conflict. You need to address the issues head on. This means not holding back with your subordinates. You also should make it your goal to create a "safe atmosphere" in which your employees feel comfortable engaging you in healthy debate and conflict. What I mean by that is, if you do something that bothers them, they should feel safe in being able to call you out on it without the fear of being reprimanded or fired. In fact, they should be applauded for their courage because they're actually doing you a favor. This is how top performing managers lead. They engage in healthy debate and they admit their mistakes and weaknesses and allow team members to engage them in conflict, even on the most sensitive topics.
Lack of Patience
Most organizations promote their top performing sales rep into management because the personality profile of these top performers is that of a "driver." They simply execute and get things done. The challenge however these top performers have when moving into management is they lack patience. When tasked with managing and coaching a rep in which the sales process, sales methodology or sales skills don't come naturally, they quickly lose patience and become frustrated with the rep and the process of sales coaching. If they don't work on improving their patience, they eventually stop coaching and holding team members accountable which delays new hire ramp up, all of which kills revenue growth.
Proactively Coaching Team Members
Many sales managers are reluctant to “micromanage.” As a top performing sales rep they never needed a morning "rah-rah" speech, daily reminders to complete their sales activities or active coaching from their manager. They're just wired to those things naturally. For these reasons (and fears of micromanaging and being disliked) most new managers don't want to get involved in their reps deals until they're "closest to the money," or about 80% to close. This is a problem because 90% of sales reps do need to be motivated, do need to be reminded of the tasks they need to complete, do need help with time management and will benefit greatly from regular, daily coaching. So if you are a new manager, don't ignore your reps, even your top performers. What you should Ignore however is the little voice in your head telling you "stop micromanaging" because you're not. Sit with your reps at the desk level, get into the details of their accounts, leads, deals and conversations and coach them. Give them the support they need to improve.
To overcome these and other sales management challenges and learn how to build a winning sales culture, download our eBook, How to Create a Culture of Accountability Through Coaching and Empowerment.