The demise of the sales manager: Lack of leadership skills

24 May 2017 by Carol Luong

“High-performing sales leaders reported an overall average annual quota attainment of 105% compared to 54% for underperforming sales managers.”

The stats don’t lie — there is a direct correlation between sales leadership and sales performance. And yet, close to half of salespeople won’t reach their quotas this year, which arguably means that sales managers need to do serious evaluations of themselves. That is why we reached out to Deb Calvert, President and Founder of People First Productivity Solutions, and asked her to share some insights with the Leadfeeder sales community.

Deb Calvert

Deb has over 15 years of experience as a leadership program architect, sales productivity specialist and researcher. She is also a best-selling author, and a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge® and a Certified Executive Coach.

Below are 6 questions that we asked Deb to dig deeper into why sales leaders often fail and how to overcome the common challenges.

1. What are the key elements to running a successful sales team?

I think the most important element is to make this distinction — to successfully run a sales team, you have to simultaneously manage sales and lead people. Exclusively focusing on managing sales may get you to the numbers in the short term, but the long-term cost can be devastating to sales organizations.

Without leadership, sellers are expected to remain self-motivated, resilient, focused and aligned. They have to rely on themselves to learn, grow and innovate so they can keep up with changes in buying and new sales approaches. Without leadership, engagement and emotional commitment suffer. Research tells us this has a direct impact on productivity, customer satisfaction, top line revenue and profit margins.

2. And what are the key challenges that are preventing sales teams from achieving all of the elements you just highlighted?

Sales Managers are not taught or resourced appropriately. Many simply don’t know how to lead people. They aren’t being coached on soft skills or what it takes to boost and sustain high levels of employee engagement.

Not only that, but few Sales Managers have time to lead and develop and engage sellers. They are on a hamster wheel of constantly hiring and on-boarding new sellers because the old ones leave (due to lack of leadership, development and opportunity). These Sales Managers are doing the work of sellers because territories are open and new hires are fully ramped up. Add in the typical reporting, forecasting and other internal work heaped on Sales Managers and you’ve got the primary culprit that keep Sales Managers from being people-building leaders.

3. How do you suggest teams overcome these challenges?

Acknowledge that more of the same isn’t going to get you anywhere different. Sales organizations have to stop and change direction if they truly want to overcome these challenges.

Teach Sales Managers to be leaders and people builders and coaches. These are not natural-born skills or ones you readily pick up along the way. They require training and practice. Move non-essential work off Sales Managers’ plates and prioritize the work of leading and people building. Only then will the sales organization become stable enough to grow and sustain sales.

4. From an individual standpoint, why do you think that half of salespeople won’t reach their quotas this year?

They’re floundering. New hires barely get on-boarding training before they’re expected to produce. Veterans are finding that tried-and-true doesn’t work with increasingly emboldened buyers.

New hire training is often an information dump about every product, every feature and every process. New hires learn very little about their buyers and how the products they sell meet those buyers’ needs. They seldom get sales training because they were hired for sales experience.

Suddenly, they’re working directly with buyers. They aren’t getting much coaching, so any mistakes they make go unrecognized and uncorrected. They are scrambling to learn, to improve, to grow… But meeting activity standards and trying to make goal add pressure. Often, they work really hard but aren’t doing the right things to be effective.

Veterans externalize and blame their poor performance on buyers, unfair quotas, inflated prices and the like. They don’t receive and might not accept training and coaching. Many haven’t realized just how dramatically buying has changed and how selling needs to change, too.

5. You focus a lot on human engagement, but what about technologies? How does technology play a role in sales success?

While others focus on sales enablement, I focus on sales ennoblement. I champion buyers, sellers and sales managers. All three groups get short-changed when the emphasis is on AI, technology, enablement or other impersonal supplements to selling.

At the same time, I think the right technology — used in the right way and at the right time — can be a real boon to success. It should not be seen as a substitute, though, for the essentials of equipping sellers with strong relationship-building and selling skills. Nor should technology eat up so much of a sales manager’s time that it erodes time spent developing sellers. And, worst of all, technology should not interfere with relationships with buyers. Good technology is an extension of good sales practices and people.

6. How do you see sales evolving in the coming years?

Customer experience ups the stakes in B2C and B2B, too. Buyers want sellers to create value by creating meaningful and relevant experiences. This kind of value doesn’t come from the company or the product. It can only come directly from the seller. Our research shows that buyers want sellers to behave as leaders, not as sellers. Without seeing leadership modeled by their Sales Managers, many sellers will be unable to deliver the experience and differentiation buyers are looking for. But for sellers who do learn how to Stop Selling & Start Leading®, there will be a distinct advantage.

Want to continue the conversation with Deb? Connect with her via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or email.

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