Who’s Failing Whom? Developing Successful Sales Managers


by Frank Sarr

When a sales manager fails, how often do we hear management say: “His district didn’t make quota” or “She never grasped how we do things” or “He followed the wrong opportunities”….

But do these reasons really explain the situation, or is there a back story that we‟re not hearing?

Is Management to Blame?

In my experience, I have found that the real “failure” in many cases is not on the part of the sales manager, but actually on the part of their management, by failing in their responsibility to properly develop the sales manager. Most companies fail — to varying extents — in several key areas, which I describe below. I firmly believe that if these areas were addressed properly, those companies would soon see the tangible near-term benefits that drive long-term success..

  1. Candidate Selection Issues
    Typically, a sales manager is selected on the basis of a superior sales record and a gut-feel assessment of his/her personality traits. While that‟s all to the good, do they have the necessary skills to motivate others to sell, recruit new staff, coach under-achievers, and develop broad sales strategies, while successfully handling their day-to-day management and administrative tasks? The answer is… maybe. But if better selection techniques were in place, might not a better candidate have been chosen in the first place?
  2. A ‘Sink or Swim’ Mindset
    I‟ve seen many instances where management simply fills a slot with a convenient choice, believing that the new person will automatically assume the wherewithal and motivation to succeed. If not, the manager is terminated and someone else is dropped into the slot. This sink-or-swim approach not only sends the wrong message to the marketplace, its ripple effect lowers morale and can make even the best candidate think twice about stepping forward.
  3. Failure to Seize the Day(s)
    The first 90-120 days is a critical time in a new sales manager’s development. It is also a time where a new manager’s energy and desire to learn are at their peak. During this period, if management fails to deliver proper training to the sales manager, they’re failing the manager. Missing this window is simply a fundamental mistake.
  4. Second-Best Practices?
    Management fails when it doesn‟t equip sales managers with best practices that are inherent to sales management, regardless of industry. Oftentimes, these sales management best practices are confused with the ones necessary for individual selling, such as client retention, account penetration, pipeline development, etc. What is really needed is a firm grounding in areas such as coaching, motivation, team building, recruiting, and accountability.
  5. The Critical Mass’ Syndrome
    For a variety of reasons, mostly related to cost and travel, management often waits until there is a “critical mass” of new sales managers to provide them with training as a group. This approach fails for two reasons: 1) it doesn‟t provide everyone with the immediate training they need to get off to a fast start in their new position, and 2) it fails to address individual needs.

  6. A Wait-and-See Stance
    Many companies wait to invest in a new sales manager until he or she attains a certain level of success or tenure. I have found that trainees in this situation have low levels of buy-in, retain very little of what is presented, and generally view the activity as a boondoggle.

The need for a fresh look

The areas I have highlighted cannot be adequately addressed with a “business as usual” attitude. The solution certainly does not lie in traditional training courses. These fall short because of their high cost, generalized content, and lower than acceptable learning retention. Instead, what is needed is a new paradigm that incorporates the following elements:

  1. Technology
    The internet provides an excellent delivery mechanism for training purposes when used properly, and in conjunction with oral and written communication. It offers the advantage that the learner can work at his or her own pace and at a time that does not conflict with work schedules. For management, it solves the problem of the critical mass syndrome and provides a tool to measure progress. It also ensures that a uniform level of training is delivered to each location.
  2. Accountability
    In a traditional training course the instructor presents the material, answers questions, and the attendees leave with a binder that usually winds up on a bookshelf gathering dust. Is it any surprise that learning retention is low? What‟s needed is an increased level of accountability on the part of the trainee, where to pass the course they must go through a final certification process in which they provide an oral explanation of what they learned. I have found that when this type of final test is incorporated into the learning process, learning retention increases dramatically.
  3. Measurability/Feedback
    How often have we heard it said that it‟s difficult to know whether a training program really works? The solution lies in a training environment where each trainee is evaluated on a regular basis and reports are issued on their progress and achievements, such as performance in facilitated meetings and a demonstrated ability to implement learned skills.

To summarize, management must recognize that it is essential to play a proactive role in the development of new sales managers. It is equally important that new solutions outside the realm of traditional processes are an integral part of this process.

Frank Sarr, CLU, is President of Training Implementation Services, a company founded in 1990 to develop performance-focused learning systems for sales and other positions that have impact on bottom-line results.