5 Habits of Great Sales Managers

Most sales managers come up through the ranks, bringing with them the long-engrained habits of a salesperson. The best sales managers, however, realize that the skills needed to succeed in sales management are different from those needed to succeed in sales.

Here are some of the instinctive selling skills that inhibit leadership effectiveness and five new management habits that must replace these sales instincts.

1. Sales managers embrace the role of leader

Jackie spent years developing into a stellar sales rep and was eventually promoted to sales manager. When I met her soon after her promotion, Jackie told me she was working harder than ever before—and yet her team’s results were mediocre at best.

I challenged her to think about what she was doing as a manager that she had also done as a salesperson. And she realized she was inserting herself into deals any time a big opportunity was on the horizon, or she would turn her attention to a rep who was way under quota, swooping in at the last minute to try to rescue endangered deals at the eleventh hour.

Neither of these approaches represents the best use of Jackie’s time. Salespeople are hired to sell; sales managers are hired to lead. Jackie had to learn how to guide her team without taking over the selling process.

2. Sales managers must refuse to be everyone’s problem solver

The best salespeople are proficient at solving customer problems. However, the most effective sales managers I know understand they cannot become the “problem solver in chief” for their team. They know that every time they do something for the sales rep, they are taking away time for work that only they can do (such as coaching the team).

Instead, when a sales rep approaches them with a problem, they ask the rep, “What have you done about it so far? What do you think ought to be done next?” It doesn’t take long  until their sales reps approach them this way: “Boss, I’ve got a problem and here are my best two solutions. I’d like to get your opinion.”

3. Great sales managers hold their team accountable for standards of excellent sales performance

The best salespeople I know have difficulty describing what exactly they do that makes them so successful. They just do it. But then they carry this lack of self-awareness into their role as sales manager.

Every time I start to work with a new client, I ask if I can review their job description for the sales position and any documented standards they have for sales performance. In nearly every case, what I see are “standards for not getting fired”—that is, the minimum level of performance a salesperson needs to keep their job.

In contrast, the best sales managers have clearly defined “standards of excellence” that they communicate to their team. They use these excellence standards to hold reps accountable for continuous improvement in their selling skills and their attitudinal qualities.

Great sales managers review the standards regularly with each salesperson, asking him or her to rate themselves on how they are doing, then identifying a critical few areas where the salesperson can improve.

4. Great sales managers are an “early coach” not a “white knight.”

Recently, a sales director asked me, “What can I do to help improve my team’s closing ratio?” I asked what she had done so far, and she talked about holding more pre-close meetings with sales reps to review all the steps and make sure the rep had done everything required up to that point. That’s what her manager had done with her when she was in sales….but now that she was in management the pre-close meeting wasn’t working.it hadn’t done any good.

I see this pattern a lot, which is why one of the most common complaints I hear from salespeople is about a sales manager or executive “riding in on a white horse” at the 11th hour to supposedly save the day and close the deal. The end result of this white-horse ride is often three-fold: white knuckles for the salesperson, a bigger discount for the customer, and lower profit for the company!

The most effective sales managers I’ve work with understand that the most opportune time to influence a prospect’s purchasing decision occurs early in the buying process, when the customer is defining their needs and shaping their vision of a solution.

Great sales managers focus on coaching their salespeople on early sales-cycle selling skills. That’s the best way to improve a salesperson’s win-rate.

5. Great sales managers constantly reinforce a focus on customer buying

Think about your company’s CRM tool or other mechanism for tracking a sales opportunity.  Invariably, the progress of each account is tracked based on what steps of the selling process the salesperson has completed.

My question is, “What’s happened to your customers?”

The best sales managers switch that formula around: they track progress of sales opportunities based on what actions the prospect has taken instead of, or in addition to, monitoring steps the salesperson has completed.

Instead of asking a salesperson, “Where are you with the XYZ account?” they ask, “What actions have been taken by the customer thus far?” And, “What action do you want the prospect to take next, and by when?” The answer to these questions provides sales managers with a better understanding of the true status of the sales opportunity. This is essential for improving the accuracy of a team’s sales forecast.

How do you stack up?

Did you see yourself reflected in any of these habits, whether on the plus or negative side? If you are not using these sales management habits on a daily basis, don’t despair. Jackie, the manager I mentioned in the first item in this list, is typical of most sales managers who were promoted from a sales position: they don’t naturally possess these sales management habits.

It takes work and discipline to get to a point where these “managerial habits” override your honed sales instincts. So if you’re not exhibiting all of these habits yet, pick one that you think will help you and your team the most and focus on that until it becomes second nature.

To identify the full range of skills needed to become an outstanding sales manager download my whitepaper: The Holistic Competencies Vital for Successful Sales Management

Kevin Davis

Kevin F. Davis is the author of The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness”, which was named the 2018 Axiom Business Book Award Winner, Silver Medal. Kevin is also the author of Slow Down, Sell Faster!”.