I’ve heard several CEOs in the past few weeks make assumptions about sales management and I would like to set the record straight. In fact, I've heard them so much that they are starting to sound like those annoying song refrains that get stuck in our head from time to time. I must make this unwanted noise stop! But how? Here's an idea that might work. If these management refrains are in your head too, reading about them might be your cure as I hope writing about them will be mine. Let’s try it. Here are three good ones:
Refrain #1: Great sales managers are promoted from within the sales team.
That can happen and often does. However, the skill set required of a sales person is necessarily different than that of a sales manager. Dave Kurlan has written extensively on the required skills of sales managers. Most commonly, it is believed that sales people who are promoted internally to sales management know the industry, customers and experiences of the sales staff day to day. So they must be the best people to relate to and empathize with the sales team, right?
Well, not exactly. It might be counterintuitive, but empathizing with the sales team can get in the way. It is as important to challenge a sales rep as it is to challenge the customer. Many of their assumptions are born of their knowledge and experience with the company. Too much empathy might cause a manager to omit an important question that a less experienced manager might not have known "not" to ask.
Refrain #2: Sales managers are most effective when they know the industry.
Really?! Before I explain why this is a myth, let’s first point out that after assessing over 700,000 sales people (many of whom are sales managers), we now know that sales managers who come from outside the industry have a slight advantage over those from within. How can that be?
The reason is that the best managers have a toolbox which is independent of industry. Industry knowledge can skew their viewpoint and distract them from the essence of great sales management which should be focused on Coaching, Motivating, Recruiting and Accountability, among others specific skill sets. The latter three look like areas which might be independent of industry knowledge. But the coaching skill set has an aura that makes it seem like it must work better with experience in the industry.
So often, however, we at Kurlan & Associates coach sales people without any specific expertise in their industry because we're asking good questions and challenging their assumptions. For example, if a sales rep says that his prospect will improve his margins to 14%, an insider might think, "that's not so great in this industry." But we need to hear that from them. Maybe it's not true for them. I once sold a product to a distribution company that was not satisfied with less than 17%. They bought it, and they got their margin. My next call was to a similar company that said, "This looks good, I wouldn't be surprised if we could get eight, maybe ten percent." He was happy.
When coaching, we ask, what is the strategy for the call? What questions will be asked? Where do we think the customer might need the most help? After the call, we might ask, how did the call end? How did it get that far? Which steps in the process were missed? How are we going to do it better the next time? None of these questions are industry-specific. If you can accept this analysis, then you’re ready for the third refrain I've been hearing.
Refrain #3: The best sales managers lead by example and sell more than the sales people.
I was recently talking to a sales leader who was describing how much he learned from his first manager a long time ago. He said, “That guy sold more than all of us.” Here we are in 2013 and he still had the sense that the sales manager needed to outsell the team. I said, “You must have been selling Cutco knives or something like that. What was it?” And he said, “Encyclopedias.”
How similar is door-to-door book sales to what you do today at your company? The fact is that people are more specialized than ever. And in the age of inbound marketing, it’s no longer about getting Mrs. Jones to make you a cup of tea so you can tell her about your vacuum cleaner. Frank Belzer shows us why inbound leads are different and how you can prosper in this new environment in his new book, Sales Shift.
Today, selling is more sophisticated, sales conversations are more consultative, business is more complex, and the best managers are full-time leaders with no time for selling. And the best of the best spend fully half of their time coaching. We know from the data that 85% of all sales managers spend less than a quarter of their time coaching. Most aren’t even sure what coaching really means. Interaction is not coaching. Asking “How’d it go?” is not coaching. And coaching is not training. It's the hand-to-hand combat of real selling situations every day.
Are your sales managers too empathetic with the sales people? Can they relate to the put-offs and excuses a little too much? Do they know too much? Remember how many crimes Columbo solved by not knowing anything and by asking a lot of questions. On his way out the door, he'd pause, look a bit perplexed, and then ask one more seemingly innocent question. Do you know what impact your sales managers are having on the team? Maybe it’s time for a sales force evaluation to find out.