Sales Force Management is for Leaders (Not Closers)

Image of a man drinking from a coffee pot

Everyone who has seen the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross knows free coffee in the sales office is for closers. But what about sales force management? Is the top sales job for anyone who can close a deal? The answer, of course, is “no.” Sales force management is for leaders.

It is widely accepted that the role of any organizational leader involves defining and implementing winning strategies, optimizing resources, developing talent and creating enablers for higher growth and performance in addition to delivering results. However, as soon as we start talking specifically about sales managers, we almost always default to: “Oh, that’s the person in charge of driving orders and meeting quotas.”

This needs to change.

To be effective in today’s competitive environment, especially in the business-to-business space, sales force leadership needs to involve much more than simply managing the sales team. It should be about developing and leading a talent pool and taking advantage of best practices. It should involve using all available tools to make the sales team as efficient as possible while enabling it to implement the organization’s market positioning strategy.

As a result, the sales leader needs a combination of skills and knowledge that goes well beyond having product expertise and knowing how to sell. Knowing how to offer extra monetary incentives isn’t enough because this go-to easy solution isn’t always the best answer. Indeed, sales force leadership requires someone who knows when special incentives are really required and in what mix. It also requires someone who sees time and talent as resources. After all, one of the critical responsibilities of the sales force manger is to use their judgement to optimize resource allocation. In many organizations, the outside sales team, a high-cost resource, has turn-key responsibility from prospecting to delivering orders, and every step in between. This often doesn’t make sense. And when it doesn’t, sales managers should look at infrastructure systems and other less expensive resources to optimize overall order acquisition expenditures.

Simply put, sales force leadership requires market knowledge, customer knowledge, buying behaviour knowledge as well as process optimization expertise, internal political skills (to argue for infrastructure resources), coaching and development skills, the ability to gain incremental commitment from members of the team and motivational skills.

Unfortunately, the need for more leadership in sales doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I have about 50 books on sales in my office at the Ivey Business School, including more than a few that I highly recommend (such as the classic Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, and Strategic Selling, a lesser-known book by Miller Heiman). But if you pick any of these, you won’t learn much about what sales force management really requires because industry books tend to focus on how to sell, not how to effectively lead the thoroughbreds who already know how to close.

Every organization has different resources, cultures and structures, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution for optimizing a sales force to best help an organization achieve its goals. Nevertheless, sales force leaders understand they are in charge of a key strategic resource. Here are a few sample questions that your organization can ask to get started on the right path.

  • Is your sales force leadership comprised of people who excel at working through people, so the individuals on the team are successful rather than regularly diving in to help win critical opportunities and get results?
  • Do your hiring practices seek to identify the knowledge sets and skill sets that best allow the sales team to sync with other customer interface touch points (e.g. channel partners, the service group, account managers in other territories), and allow you to hire the skills and knowledge that are the most difficult and expensive to develop? Do you have an uncomplicated sales force compensation plan with a mix of fixed and variable compensation so the sales team’s self-interest is aligned with desired behaviour that supports the company marketing strategy?
  • Instead of simply setting rules and expecting compliance, does your organization proactively seek to gain commitment on behavioural improvements from sales team members, including ones who work from home or alone in the field?
  • To optimize the ROI on sales time investment for longer-term profitability, do you actively seek the optimal customer relationship and desired level of customer loyalty?

As things stand, a lot of sales managers inherit the way things are done, so they never think about aligning customer interactions across the organization or enabling the sales team to support the overall strategy in an optimal way. In other words, as a result of outdated perceptions of sales force management, a very expensive resource is often seriously under empowered.

So if your organization can’t respond positively to the questions listed above, it is time for someone to step up their sales team leadership. Seizing this opportunity to improve performance doesn’t necessarily require new management, just a new way of thinking.

And while you’re thinking about it, keep in mind that if your organization isn’t leading, it is really just competing for the marketplace version of the steak knives offered in Glengarry Glen Ross, instead of shooting for the Cadillac of market share positions.