Over the past 12 years, the Sterling Chase team has coached hundreds of sales managers and sales leaders at all levels in all sizes of organisation around the world. We have often been asked what makes the difference between ‘average’ sales managers and the most effective sales managers we have worked with. To this end we have drawn up a list of seven critical habits that the most effective sales managers have developed and practice.
Those seven habits are:
1. Being Strategic
2. Hiring, Developing and Retaining the Best People
3. Knowing When to Manage, Coach and Lead – and Creating Leaders
4. Knowing the Numbers and Planning Backwards
5. Driving Incremental Gains in Quality and Quantity.
6. Forming Trusted and Valuable Relationships with Your Key Stakeholders
7. Being a Champion and Developing Champions
So, let’s look at each habit and explain what we mean in terms of how you can become a highly effective Sales Manager.
Habit # 1: Being Strategic
We can’t overstate the importance of this habit. In a previous article ‘The Sales Manager’s Dilemma – Too Busy to Get Better’, we observed that more and more pressure is being exerted on Sales Managers, in all sizes of organisations and across all industries, to:
- Take a short term view and deal with day to day challenges as they arise, rather than looking further ahead and building for the medium and longer term
- Be reactive to multiple unforeseen requests and demands from unhappy customers, problematic team members and other parts of the organisation that don’t know or care about what you or your team actually do
- Spend a significant amount of unproductive time analysing and explaining what’s wrong with their team’s performance, rather than fixing it
But to be effective as a Sales Manager, you need to get into the habit of creating the space to think, plan and act strategically. You should know where you want to get to in terms of results (on a team, individual and your own personal level) and make sure everything you do explicitly contributes towards moving yourself and the sales team towards your collective strategic goals. Try to spend at least 50% of your time on important strategic activities and as make sure that as much time as possible of the time that has to be spent on urgent tactical activities, also in some way, explicitly contributes towards you and your team getting back on track in terms of succeeding against your strategic plan. For instance, if your team gets an urgent request for a report on an area of the portfolio or the marketplace where sales are underperforming, you should aim to make sure that you and the team learn from the analysis of the problem and build a solution back into your sales strategy, ensuring that it also helps improve the overall sales performance.
Whether a task is considered urgent or not is down to individual outlook and mindfulness at the moment. However, highly effective sales managers get into the habit of making sure at least 50% of their own (and their team’s) activity is spent on proactively driving the development and implementation of the sales strategy (and the associated results) forward in a structured way. Of course this should happen with a sense of real urgency, but not in a way that causes the team (or you) undue stress because of unrealistic or unachievable deadlines. Urgency is one thing, but unrealistic deadlines and demands from other parts of the organisation won’t get you or your team to make the strategy a reality. It will also badly impair the quality of the decisions you make if you are always in ‘survival mode’. If you and your team can’t create the space to work on the important, non-urgent things that will make the future a more enjoyable environment.
You should also get into the habit of being ‘strategic’ in the way you decide what is important and what is not. An ‘acid test’ is that if the activity contributes directly to supporting your plan (or indirectly in terms of building goodwill with your clients and suppliers) then it should be considered important. If not, it shouldn’t be considered to be important and should be deprioritised. That goes for the tasks you set your team as well as the tasks you face yourself. However, remember you also have a responsibility to make your boss’s team strategy a success. Hence, your boss and your colleagues should be in the ‘key stakeholder’ mix but they should not take undue priority on your time or that of your team.
Habit # 2: Hiring, Developing and Retaining the Best People
Make sure you get, develop and keep the best people available. This habit is worth really working hard to get right and you must avoid putting up with sub-standard hires because ‘they were the best available’. Set the recruitment criteria in terms of skills, attitude, behaviours, experience and results then do everything you can to find, attract and keep people who fit the criteria. Be objective with your assessment and also trust your instincts. If something is not right about the person you are considering, understand what it is and the potential impact it could have, if it turns out to be a real problem. And remember to follow up references; and take second opinions seriously, especially if you feel you’re hiring with emotion rather than objective logic. An important hire will either become a strategic asset or a strategic liability, with the latter, not only adding no value to your strategy, but taking up a large proportion of your time in terms of coaching and directing, hence damaging your ability to make strategic progress.
Keeping good people is absolutely critical but you should also recognise that (particularly ‘millennial’) people will feel the need to move on at some time e.g. after a couple of years of great work in your team. Avoid being insecure about this or taking it personally. If you want to keep them longer, you have to understand what motivates them and give them clear progression paths towards their goals. You should also be actively developing some of your best people as the leaders of the future, if that’s what they want.
Habit # 3: Knowing When to Manage, Coach and Lead – and Creating Leaders
In a sales management role it is vital to put formal sales performance reviews in place and provide coaching sessions for all members of the team at least once every 4-8 weeks (and more often where needed). The reviews should objectively assess progress in terms of skills, behaviours, attitude, experience and results. The reviews should formally record:
- Recognition of areas of strength, progress from the last session and areas that still need a focus;
- Agreed improvement goals and enabling actions that will enable the required quantitative and qualitative standards of performance to be reached within a specific timescale.
‘Situational’ sales leadership skills allow sales managers to identify whether and when to manage, lead, train or coach for each specific dimension of performance. For instance, if someone in the team is great at creating qualified leads but not good at following up and closing, the sales manager should seek to understand why this is the case. It could be they are not following a defined process, they have not been trained effectively, they are not organising themselves effectively, have too much to do, or are not consistently applying the techniques and skills they have been trained in. If techniques or skills are the issue, they need to be trained and coached to improve. In our article, Sales Performance Coaching – a Critical Tool for Sales Excellence, we explained how sales coaching does not involve telling the sales person what to do (which is a particularly common pitfall for sales managers who consider themselves as having been good at selling). Coaching specifically requires avoiding all temptations to do this and instead, involves a process of ‘funnelling’ from open to closed questions to understand, qualify and agree:
- Current performance levels (as measured against an objective qualitative assessment framework and quantitative measures).
- Areas where performance needs to be improved, why and in what timescales.
- Causes i.e. what issues are actually hampering progress;
- Changes or interventions that will deliver the desired improvements.
- Specific actions that need to be taken (and timescales) to affect change and improvements in performance.
Just like in selling, carefully framed questions are a really powerful tool for influencing perceptions, intentions and actions. Its far more powerful to influence through coaching, rather than giving direction and telling people what to do. When you want to improve the performance of someone who has had the training, always start the interaction with your coaching ‘hat’ on and try to influence through the power of sales coaching.
You also need to develop and coach your people to be leaders i.e. leaders of their own and the team’s performance. You create leaders by developing your people’s competence and confidence in the way they proactively lead their own contribution to the team’s sales strategy and to the attainment of the team’s goals. As a highly effective sales manager you will be comfortable in your role and you will not feel threatened by your people becoming empowered to challenge you or even having their sights on your job. Show belief and confidence in your people and coach them well and they will reward you with new levels of improved performance (and a wider contribution to the development of the performance of the whole team).
Habit # 4: Knowing the Numbers and Planning Backwards
Just like all highly effective people, as a highly effective sales manager, you should (to quote Stephen R Covey),‘start with the end in mind’. Your planning should start with your team’s targets and the goals and should work backwards. An example of this is where a sales manager has to fill a gap of £10m by the end of the year and she knows each lead qualified has an average sale value of £50K and takes 12 weeks for the income to be realised by the end of the fiscal year. She then calculates backwards to identify that her team needs to close 200 of the leads before the end of Q3. However, there’s an average of 5:1 conversion ratio of qualified leads and an average sales cycle of 26 weeks. Hence, she knows that by the first quarter her team has to create 5 x 200 i.e. 1,000 new qualified leads. So she plans with her team how to:
- Create more than the required number of leads in the first quarter;
- Improve the average conversion ratio to better than 5:1;
- Shorten the average sales cycle to less than 26 weeks.
Hence as a sales manager, she has planned backwards from the sales goals to create urgency and focus from the beginning, rather than starting with current performance and building a list of improvement activities that make logical sense but may or may not get her team to deliver its goals
Habit # 5: Driving Incremental Gains in Quality and Quantity
Targeting improvements in quality as well as quantity is crucial. In the previous example of the sales manager needing her team to create and close £10m of incremental new business, the quality of the leads, the average sales cycle and the average sales order value are critical to a successful outcome. Hence any strategic initiatives that can improve the quality of the sales conversations the people are having with prospects in order to create, qualify and close leads is very important. If a small incremental qualitative gain in every interaction with the customer (e.g. in terms of developing and qualifying needs; creating urgency, following up, proposals submitted etc.), can be achieved, a major multiplying affect will be realised at the outcome.
Habit # 6: Forming Trusted and Valuable Relationships with Your Key Stakeholders
To be an effective sales manager, the relationships you develop will determine your success. You must take a proactively collaborative approach to building relationships with all of your key stakeholders. You should sell the mutual benefits to them of your plans for your marketplace and your plans for your team. Proactivity is crucial if you are to develop influential allies who will support you when you need help. You’d be surprised how much reactive sales management time is spent on tactical escalations and complaints. Its just true that most of these escalations and complaints occur because stakeholder teams are oblivious to the improvements the sales management team is striving to achieve and to the benefits those stakeholders will get in return once those improvements become a reality. If those stakeholder teams are engaged with your plans at the outset and if their goals are considered in those plans, they are far more likely to work with you to support your strategy and they are also far less likely to scream or trip you up if something goes wrong tactically along the way.
Habit #7: Being a Champion and Developing Champions
As a sales manager, the respect and goodwill you obtain from your team will make a huge difference to your overall performance. As a leader and manager you have to fight for them and they will fight for you. Managing by threat or manipulation is a completely lost cause in terms of the success you’ll have in your job and the success you’ll have in your career. You need to be authentic and make every effort to recognise the commitment and improvements they deliver (in terms of process, skills, behaviours and results) and become a champion for their cause. When you are implementing change, the ‘early adopters’ in your team who are the first to successfully develop and apply the behaviours and results you are seeking are your role-models. If you recognise them for their achievement, they will become your champions too. Remember, if your people have genuine problems outside of their own control that cause barriers to delivering the numbers, show empathy and support them in whatever practical ways you and the rest of the team can. This is the same with customers who are loyal to you and bring opportunities to you and your team. You should get to know your marketplace really well, you should know which of your customers spend the most money with your company and you should know those customers and channel partners that have stuck with your company through good times and bad. You should recognise them and be there when the going gets tough for them. You should also be a champion for your company and everything that represents the brand and the capability that will enable you to succeed.
Developing the Seven Habits of Highly Successful Sales Managers
Great habits come from learning and practice. With a commitment to developing these habits, they will quickly start to drive behaviours that ultimately become part become embedded in your sales management ‘DNA’.
Footnote: There’s also an overriding Eighth Habit of Highly Effective Sales Managers that will quickly result in greatness and differentiate you as a Sales Leader …..
Habit # 8: Positive Humility: Having Integrity and Being an Optimistic, Open, Present and Continuously Learning Professional
If a sales manager can develop and perfect all of the seven habits laid out above, we know from experience and a lot of research, that he or she will be highly effective and highly successful in the role. However, truly outstanding sales managers and sales leaders who are destined for the top, also have the ability to display all of these habits at the same time as having ‘Positive Humility’. This involves qualities such as: seeing the opportunity as well as the risk in every situation; being in the moment when faced with complexity and pressure; really caring about your people but being strong and objective when tough decisions need to be made; communicating effectively and with integrity; being humble enough to always seek and listen to feedback; and being truly committed to, and taking ownership for, a journey of life-long learning and honing of the seven habits.
How Sterling Chase can help you and your organisation
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