In most organizations, the highest-performing sales reps are eventually promoted to management. But being a manager is a much different job than being a rep. You can be at the very top of your trade, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader.
I experienced this firsthand when I moved into management. I was good at sales, but I wasn’t really good at leading. You’re not taught that it’s a completely different job that operates in a gray area every single day. And that part of it is being a counselor, answering questions that don’t really have a right or wrong answer.
So then the question was, how did you become a manager that people wanted to follow and work hard for?
Throughout my 16+ years’ experience managing and leading teams, I’ve learned that the answer to this question relies on adopting three main pillars of successful sales leadership: listening, coaching, and supporting.
1. Listen to your employees
Engaged employees are critical to the success of a company. But reps aren’t going to feel committed to your business unless they feel heard and appreciated.
It’s up to you, as a manager, to listen to your team. Recognize their opinions and, if appropriate, act on their input. If you decide not to act on a rep’s input, make sure to clearly explain the reasoning behind your decision.
Whatever the case, demonstrate to your reps that their feelings and thoughts matter to you and the company. Employees who feel heard and appreciated are much more likely to care about their work.
Follow 1:1 best practices
1:1s are opportunities to help your reps grow. Of course, you can’t help employees achieve their goals if you don’t know what those goals are.
Listen to your sales reps to find out where they want to go in their career. What roadblocks are keeping them from being successful, and how can you help provide a solution?
Conduct 1:1s frequently—at least once a week—so that you can actively measure progress. Forward momentum will keep your reps from feeling stuck or apathetic. Just be sure your meetings stay productive by following these best practices:
Let the reps kick off the meeting. Give your employees the chance to provide their own feedback first. You’ll get an idea of where their head is at and where they want to go within the company.
Identify obstacles. Ask your reps what they think is holding them back. The more specific their answers, the easier it will be to develop a clear strategy of attack.
Brainstorm ideas or solutions to make sure your reps understand next steps.
Recognize achievements. Acknowledging employees’ wins plays a huge role in giving them a sense of belonging at work.
Provide opportunities to learn. Offer your employees opportunities to learn, such as shadowing a more seasoned rep or attending a sales seminar. Showing your employees that you’re invested in their future will make them feel appreciated and heard.
Avoid some of the more common mistakes managers make when it comes to 1:1s, such as continually canceling or rescheduling them. Not having time to meet with employees is the third most common complaint people have about their managers. It’s also the quickest way to make your reps feel like they don’t matter.
Remember, 1:1s are not just about passing down information or delegating tasks. You don’t need to schedule a private meeting just to assign work; 1:1s are your opportunity to speak with reps on a more personal level and hear their thoughts and opinions about work. Follow the best practices for productive 1:1s to keep employee engagement high and ensure that they feel heard.
The more you treat your reps like real people—and less like cogs in a machine—the more willing they’ll be to follow you into battle. In fact, recent studies show that 82% of employees would actually quit their job just to work for a more empathetic organization.
Showing compassion and empathy can be as simple as asking your reps how they’re feeling the first day back from a sick day, showing leniency with work hours when a family member is sick, or offering condolences after the death of a loved one.
Sometimes, hardship in a rep’s personal life can affect their performance. Show compassion for that rep by recognizing their hardship and offering support.
When it comes to a supportive and healthy work environment, a little bit of empathy goes a long way. Support your team to keep them engaged and loyal.
2. Be a coach, not a dictator
Part of being a good manager is being a good coach. Simply telling your employees what to do won’t help them learn or grow.
Focus, instead, on asking good questions and allowing your reps to come to the answers on their own. Encourage them to problem-solve by asking questions like, “What do you want to achieve?” or “What could you do right now?” or “What roadblocks do you face?” These coaching questions, combined with the following best practices, will teach your reps how to achieve growth on their own.
Give your team a tool playbook
You can’t expect your employees to perform their best if you haven’t given them the tools to do so. Make sure each individual sales team has the material and equipment they need to do their work efficiently and productively.
For example, sales development reps should have access to your organization’s prospect database, call scripts, and qualification criteria. Closing reps should have packaging, pricing, and product feature sheets. Don’t let your reps bring knives to gunfights. Give them the tools they need to win, win, win.
Set clear expectations
Never assume your employees know what to do, even when it comes down to the most rudimentary task or concept. What might seem like Sales 101 to you might be a foreign concept to a newcomer. Remember, not everyone is taught how to be a professional right out of college.
Be the coach your reps never had by setting clear expectations for every task. For example, don’t assume a new sales rep knows how to run a sales call. Give them clear guidelines about what they should say and how they should represent your company. With this guidance, reps won’t feel aimless: they’ll have a clear target for every task they complete, so they’ll know how to move forward.
Studies have shown that managers who reinforce a rep’s training in the field see four times the ROI they would from regular in-office training programs. Ride-alongs, where managers accompany field reps to their sales appointments, are perfect opportunities to take your training to the field.
There are two ways to conduct a ride-along, both with equally beneficial results:
Co-selling, where managers and sales reps work together to close the sale. The manager leads by example, giving the sales rep the chance to watch a seasoned expert in action. It’s an opportunity for you to set an example for your rep and put the lessons from your 1:1s into practice.
Observe only, where the manager silently observes the sales rep during their appointment. It’s a chance to take off your rep’s training wheels and see how they fare when they’re running sales conversations.
After these ride-alongs, provide feedback to reps and encourage them to reflect on the meetings. Asking employees for their input will push them to think critically about their client interactions—an essential skill for sales reps.
Regardless of which type of ride-along you conduct, remember to set expectations in advance. Be clear about whether you’re there to help close a sale or to simply listen and observe, so there aren’t any unwelcome surprises. Teach your employees what it takes to achieve their own growth so that they can be better coaches for the next generation in sales.
3. Support rising stars (and recognize falling comets)
Let’s face it: no one’s perfect. All of your employees are bound to make mistakes from time to time. But, occasionally, there are poor performers who either can’t change or are unwilling to. As a manager, it’s your job to support reps who have the potential to improve and to recognize the ones who are beyond your help. If you invest too much time in the latter, you’ll end up losing time and money to poor employee retention.
Seventy-nine percent of employees who quit their jobs claim that a lack of appreciation was a major reason for leaving. Considering it costs an average of six to nine months of an employee’s salary to find and train their replacement, there’s too much at stake to not recognize achievements.
Recognizing achievements doesn’t just improve employee retention—it also motivates the employee to work harder. One study found that “67% of employees would go ‘above and beyond’ their duties if they felt more valued and engaged.”
Celebrate sales reps who exceed their monthly quotas by offering them special rewards or naming them as “employee of the month.” In your next all-hands meeting, give a shout-out to reps who went the extra mile to help their peers. And for reps who have struggled to meet their goals in the past, make it a point to recognize their progress. Encourage your team to push for greatness by recognizing their potential to be great.
Don’t be afraid to address performance issues
Whether we like it or not, difficult conversations come with the territory of being a manager. But if you’re afraid to address performance issues with your sales rep, you’re only contributing to the problem by letting it continue.
Keep these conversations constructive by giving feedback that is:
Timely. The sooner you address an issue, the less “out of left field” your feedback will seem, and the fresher the event in question will be on you and your reps’ minds.
Given in private. Correcting an employee in public can be embarrassing, which leads to defensiveness and anger. Keep the conversation calm and controlled by having the conversation in private
Specific and actionable. Keep your feedback results-oriented by giving your employee steps they can take to improve their performance and set a deadline for completion. Most importantly, make sure there is a quantifiable way to measure success. Otherwise, you won’t know if your corrective feedback was helpful.
Prevent your team’s ship from sinking by having the tough conversation the minute you notice a problem with performance.
Recognize when it’s time to let go
It’s the responsibility of a team leader to help fill the gaps in a sales rep’s performance. That being said, you can only manage an employee so much. You have to know when the gap is too wide to fill and cut your losses early on.
Some people simply lack the innate intuition of a salesperson, such as the ability to “read a room.” The problem is, this isn’t a skill you can easily train. You need to be realistic about what you’re capable of coaching without being stretched too thin.
Ask yourself the following questions to determine if a rep’s performance issues are easily manageable or beyond your help:
Do they lack knowledge? Knowledge can be one of the more addressable challenges when it comes to performance issues. Product, competitor, and industry knowledge gaps can usually be filled with enablement. When evaluating performance, make sure you’ve already provided your team with these essential tools.
Do they lack courage? Sales requires one to ask uncomfortable questions and push back on clients in uncomfortable ways. For example, reps may need to ask for access to a C-level contact who will approve the project, or they may need to push back on legal terms your company cannot agree to.
Do they walk the fine line of empathy? Empathy is tricky. Not enough of it and your reps will misunderstand their client’s true motivations or misread how to position their solution to a C-level contact vs. their VP-level champion. But become too empathetic and reps might forget who they work for by favoring the client’s position over that of the company they work for.
Can they multitask? Sales requires one to spin many plates at once, whether that means managing a high volume of sales in an SMB or mid-market environment, or managing several LOBs and stakeholders in a complex enterprise sale. There’s no getting around the need to prioritize and organize your day. Reps who lack this fundamental skill may be beyond your coaching capabilities.
Leaders fill performance gaps, not canyons. Focus your efforts on the employees who have the potential and drive to excel, and recognize when reps are beyond your help.
Be the leader your reps would follow into battle
Becoming a great leader is a learning process. You have to figure out what drives your employees before you can inspire growth. Listen to your reps to find out what makes them tick.
Once you understand their motivations, you can give your employees the playbook for success. Set clear expectations, be the coach they need to overcome challenges, recognize when progress is made and when it’s time to let go, and celebrate the wins, both large and small.