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What makes a great Sales line manager?

The role of sales managers in driving performance is crucial. But what makes a great sales line manager? And why is this such an important question?

It might seem obvious that a good sales line manager will help drive performance, retention and employee engagement. However – have you ever stopped to consider the detrimental impact a poor sales manager might have on the performance of your business?

In our Sales Practice at Brand Learning, each of us has led sales teams and experienced both poor and great managers and their impact both positive and negative on a team. Based on our cumulative experiences we have concluded that all great sales managers are talisman; they have strong values, are able to show their human side, make brave decisions, stretch their team, value the contributions of others, admit they are wrong and operate at a cross-functional level.

In fact, our experience supports Brand Learning’s latest research which identified the three hallmarks of a great manager that enable them to drive their team’s performance and, ultimately, business growth:

  1. Role Modelling
  2. Guiding
  3. Stretching

Role Modelling

This is at the heart of how we learn from others, that’s why it’s important.

In sales, role modelling starts by continually demonstrating to your team why their work matters, and how they should go about doing it. Doing this well will mean your team learn new skills and unlearn other, perhaps detrimental ones.

I’m reminded of a day early in my sales career when I was just starting out as a Sales Representative for Johnson and Johnson. I’d spent time acquiring product knowledge, understanding the steps of a call and how to sell, but it didn’t actually come together until I spent a day in the field with my manager seeing how he spotted opportunities and adapted his style when talking to different customers. He not only role modelled what to do but also how to do it and showed me why it mattered to the customer and our business.

To kick-start your own role modelling as a sales manager, here are 5 tips to consider:

  • Demonstrate a strong sense of connection to what you and your team are working to deliver – for example, improving customer satisfaction or retention
  • Understand what skills your team need to develop based on the organisation’s defined sales competencies and ways of working
  • Demonstrate the key behaviours you want to see more of e.g. curiosity about understanding customer needs, tenacity in the face of tough customer situations
  • Create the right conditions for your team to flourish; encourage appropriate risk and failure to accelerate learning
  • Signal role-modelling so that others recognise it & see the impact. For example, ensuring that you follow the company’s way of negotiating during team based negotiations with customers.

Guiding

Effective guiding is the practice of nudging and steering your team to work through its challenges to deliver improved results. There are a number of factors at play including understanding the motivations and strengths of your team, designing a purpose into your working pattern, increasing the frequency and quality of feedback and using guiding questions.

Here are 5 behaviours you should demonstrate when guiding your team:

  • Take time to understand the personal motivations of the individuals in your team and how you can make the most of their strengths
  • Ask questions that focus the team on how they are working, questions that draw attention to more effective behaviours.
  • Increase the frequency and quality of the feedback you give to drive an improvement in performance
  • Recognise when your team feel overwhelmed and use guiding questions to help keep perspective and refocus on possibilities
  • Change your team’s habits – empower and collaborate to guide your team towards your overall team goals and purpose

At some point you may find some of your sales managers are actually trying to do the jobs of their teams or offering prescriptive advice on what to do and how to do it. It’s important to recognise that this is definitely not guiding and that it does not build the skills in the team.

Guiding means knowing where your team needs to be and what will motivate them personally to get there. Most importantly, you can use powerful questions to nudge, steer and guide them towards that destination. We know that, in sales roles, overcoming challenges can feel overwhelming for those new to key customer management, but powerful guiding questions and great quality, frequent feedback will help improve their performance.

Stretching

Stretching is about creating appropriate challenges for your team to maximise their development and deliver results - ensuring each member is developing their ‘out of automatic‘ thinking. The cycle of stretching, failing and then stretching again is an important one and will enable cognitive growth and ultimately an improved performance of your team.

Here are 4 things Sales Managers can do to stretch their team:

  • Challenge your team to think differently – change the way they see situations and perceive solutions. This will result in less assumptive behaviours and lead to an increase in potential. A good way to do this can be to get them to think about the customer’s perspective and seek alternative solutions.
  • Challenge your team to invest in relationships and collaborate across the business to generate different ideas on how to address challenges
  • Introduce new and more frequent opportunities and scenarios for your team members to try new things; working on key projects or temporary secondments
  • Encourage the team to take time to reflect on their learning from different situations, including providing each other with feedback and alternative perspectives. This will encourage a greater level of clarity and focus on what matters most

As a Key Customer Manager there are times when life becomes too automatic, because you’ve seen it all before. As a manager of KCMs or KAMs this can be a dangerous time. Why? Because they are not being stretched in their roles and things can get too comfortable, leading to a “copy-paste” approach and missed business opportunities. Great sales managers will make sure everyone in their team has the appropriate challenges to increase their confidence and boost results. Stretching is the application of the ‘test and learn’ approach to your sales team’s development.

One of my sales managers used to heartily promote stretching. I can hear his words now “I don’t mind you failing, but don’t fail that way more than once.”

Learn more about Growth Practices for Managers and download the toolkit here.

Find out how our Sales specialists make a real impact on the performance of people, teams and organisations in areas such as Field Sales Excellence, Leadership, Coaching and much more. 


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