Become a better sales manager: 5 must-have skills


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Selling skills and management skills are two very different things. As entrepreneurs, it’s important we recognise this for our own development and that of our growing sales teams.

Thankfully, there are a number of skills that all great sales managers possess. These range from providing constructive feedback and bringing out the best in employees, to knowing how to hire the right people.

So here’s how you can hone these important skills, and take your sales to the next level.

1. They find the best people

A sales team is the growth engine of any business. Hiring right from the start can make or break a sales team, so it can make or break the company’s engine.

As the sales manager, you’re responsible for this engine room. It’s about knowing what makes a good salesperson – confidence, self-motivation, knowledge, conviction, for example – but also what makes a good team player. Sales employees are encouraged or discouraged by those around them.

How to find the best people

As entrepreneurs, you may not be able to pay the mega bucks to attract the top talent. But you can go to the source. This means campus recruiting, graduate days, and internships. You can then train and mould them into the right people for your team, without breaking the bank. If you already have a sales team, then get referrals. Nobody knows a salesperson like another salesperson.

Also make use of technology. There are plenty of online personality questionnaires that you can give candidates, while using video calls can let you shift through far more candidates from further afield than going face-to-face immediately.

2. They give constructive feedback

Great sales managers give immediate, constructive feedback. But it’s a challenge. We find it easy to say, “Great effort today, but next time think about how you can build better rapport.” But it’s much harder to say, “I noticed you were a bit distracted today. How do you think that looked to the customer?”

Giving useful feedback is about saying the hard stuff. Back in 2014, the Harvard Business Review published research into exactly this. After interviewing 899 professionals – half from the US, half from the rest of the world – 57% said they preferred corrective feedback to praise. This feedback enhances performance, clarifies expectations, and improves team relations. But as leaders, we tend to avoid giving it.

How to give constructive feedback

Remember to give immediate feedback on all aspects on the team’s performance. Kevin Kruse is the author of Really effective leaders have no rules. He explains that effective leaders often use the BIG acronym when giving feedback to make sure it is constructive. This means starting by mentioning the specific behaviour, then explaining the impact this has, before getting agreement for change.

3. They bring out the best in people

The author and motivational speaker, Markus Buckingham, once wrote that “Average managers play checkers, great managers play chess.” In checkers every piece does the same thing. But in chess there are multiple different pieces, each moving in its own way. You can’t win if you don’t understand and leverage the strengths of every piece. Managing a sales team is like this. Discover what is unique and useful about each person, then help develop it.

How to bring out the best in people

Different people have different selling styles. Great sales managers won’t force a one-size-fits all approach on their team, but will adapt the approach and style to suit the individual. Doing this will then also let you be strategic about where in the field you send people to get the best out of them.

4. They motivate

Inspiring the troops goes beyond a few quirky posters and quotes from Instagram. It links right in to what we said about bringing out the best in people.

Sure you can throw money at them, but unlike the many Hollywood movies, such as Jerry Maguire or the Wolf of Wall Street, not everyone is completely motivated by money.

Two professors in the US, Thomas Steenburgh and Michael Ahearne, have researched this extensively. They found that sales staff are usually made up of three groups. The majority are solid performers, but there are smaller groups of laggards (slower progress) and rainmakers (the stars). They found that these three groups are motivated by different things, and this is especially important for a compensation plan.

How to motivate

Steenburgh and Ahearne explain that “The key is to treat sales compensation not as an expense to rein in but as a portfolio of investments to manage”. To achieve this, identify and account for the differences in your team. Core performers are the largest group but often ignored. They respond well to competitions with prizes that give them an opportunity to actually win something.

5. They differentiate sales and business management styles
This is important if you’re more than just the sales manager, as entrepreneurs are. We began this article by explaining that sales skills and management skills are different. Well so too are sales management and business management styles. The sales department is a lot more cutthroat than others. There needs to be pressure. Your management style needs to take account for this. It requires a fine balance between pushy and understanding.

How to differentiate management styles

The first thing is to better understand the types of management styles – Authoritarian, Visionary, Pacesetting, Democratic, for example. Consider which one you are currently using for your business and whether it also works for your sales team. Books like The One Minute Manager and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter both discuss different types of management styles.

Becoming a great manager

Ultimately, becoming a great manager – whether in sales or elsewhere – takes time and effort. Few of us are naturally great at it. Be prepared to make a few mistakes, but learn from them. After all, this is perhaps the most important trait of any great manager.