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Ann spent years developing into a stellar sales rep for her employer, a tech company. She had a well-earned reputation for producing results far beyond expectations. Six months ago, they rewarded Ann’s hard work by promoting her to the position of sales manager.
Now, Ann tells me she’s working harder than ever before—and yet her team’s results are mediocre at best. My words of advice to her and other new sales managers come from Sun Tzu (The Art of War), the great Chinese philosopher. He wrote: “Eventually your strengths will become a weakness.”
In her job as a sales rep, Ann developed and honed certain attributes that contributed greatly to her sales success. But now as she tries to become an effective sales manager, those instincts that worked so well in the past are holding her back because they are the polar opposite of what she needs to do to lead a team.
For example, when Ann was a sales rep, she was keenly focused on making the close and getting results.
Now, as a sales manager, that instinct causes her to pay the most attention to her reps when their deals are approaching the close. It is what I call the “über-closer” syndrome—a manager leaves a rep alone but then swoops in at the end to help close the deal and save the day.
Trouble is, that’s too late in the sales process for an effective sales manager to coach salespeople! The dollar amount of a sales opportunity—which reflects the urgency and extent of the customer’s needs and the customer’s selection criteria—are determined early in the sales process, long before the close step. How often do your salespeople make a smaller sale when the customer should have bought something larger?
Also, an über-closer sales manager can only provide evaluative-type feedback—comments that come after an event has happened. Reps perceive such comments as criticism, not coaching, because it doesn’t help them solve an immediate problem or prevent future problems.
Effective sales managers understand that their purpose is to develop the skills of their sales reps. To achieve greater results, therefore, they must do more coaching during the earlier phases of a sales opportunity: where high-value sales skills such as account penetration, diagnostic questioning and architecting the customer’s solution vision, are being applied.
I don’t want to sound too critical of Ann. Her reliance on prior skills is not unusual, especially for someone who was so good at what she did. One thing we know from behavioral research is that the most successful people have the greatest difficulty giving up the activities and competencies that made them successful in the first place!
Ann has learned that Sun Tzu was right. For her to become a successful sales manager she must become aware of how some of her sales strengths can now become a management weakness. She must develop a specific action plan that will help her focus on coaching early-sales-cycle sales skills. I’d advise her, for instance, to coach someone first thing every morning—before she checks email or makes phone calls. This ensures that coaching is proactive, not reactive. She also needs to document the development goals for each rep and follow up with them as appropriate.
These changes have many benefits. If a rep makes a mistake, Ann will recognize it sooner, while there is still time to put the deal back on track. She’ll start to see more better-qualified deals in her team’s pipeline. Also, she will start providing coaching and feedback to reps in a more timely and consistent way. Her comments are thus more likely to be seen as constructive and helpful. That helps instill a team culture of continuous improvement.
When Ann sees her team’s results start to improve, she’ll know that she has won this particular war with herself!