Sales management 101: Definition, process, and strategies

Curious to know what sales management is all about? Here’s an end-to-end guide.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published November 20, 2020
Last updated January 24, 2022

When it comes to growing a business, your sales force is the tip of the spear that breaks through to the next level. And it’s the sales manager’s job to make sure the tip is sharp, strong, and pointed in the right direction.

A bad sales manager’s spear is dull, brittle, and poorly aimed. A dull edge won’t cut through, and a brittle material will break on impact. And that misdirected hit? It could land the company where it really doesn’t want to be.

Sales management certainly carries a lot of responsibility. It’s all about managing the people, techniques, and processes involved in your company’s sales operation. Whether you’re new to sales management or simply curious about the role, this comprehensive guide will answer all your questions. We’ll cover:

Let’s start with the basics….

What is sales management?

Sales management is the art of supervising sales representatives, guiding sales processes, and implementing strategies that enable you to hit your sales targets and grow your revenue.

With a disorganized and unhealthy sales management process, your business will never meet its selling potential. A strong sales management process, however, will allow you to sustain a productive, happy, and empowered workforce that meets or exceeds their quotas consistently.

What are the elements of sales management?

There are three key components of sales management: the people, the processes, and the numbers.

  1. Managing the people

    A solid sales management system is one that helps a company’s sales manager perform their duties in a way that’s organized and accountable but still human-centric.

    It shouldn't be forgotten that sales managers are people managing people. That means it’s always important to consider how your sales management process impacts your sales reps both emotionally and professionally.

    It’s always important to consider how your sales management process impacts your sales reps both emotionally and professionally.

    For instance, imagine you’ve set up an amazing training program for a new hire. But then you find out your new hire has a learning disability, and your program isn’t built to accommodate it. Rather than forcing your training program on the new hire, the human-centric component of sales management would suggest that you spend the time and energy repurposing your training program to suit the new hire’s learning style.

    Training, coaching, running successful sales meetings, and motivating sales reps to do their best work requires some serious skills and dedication. That’s why the best sales managers are great communicators, delegators, and listeners.

  2. Managing the process

    A well-built, data-optimized sales process will be able to run with little intervention. The sales manager shouldn’t be breathing down their agents’ necks and barking every step of the process in their ears. The steps should be clearly outlined and easy to follow so sales reps can guide their leads through the pipeline with as little friction—and micromanaging—as possible.

    The steps should be clearly outlined and easy to follow so sales reps can guide their leads through the pipeline.

    But if a problem arises, the sales manager must be prepared to jump in and solve it. It’s the sales manager’s job to recognize faults in the process or notice if the sales team isn’t implementing it correctly because of a gap in their training.

    Sales managers are constantly watching their operations and keeping an eye out for silos, bottlenecks, and time-wasting tasks in order to continue streamlining their sales process.

  3. Managing the numbers

    Everything from quotas, to revenue, to forecasting falls on the sales manager. This person needs to know how those numbers add up, how they got there, and what they mean. And if something goes seriously wrong, they must be able to explain it to the higher-ups.

    Everything from quotas, to revenue, to forecasting falls on the sales manager.

    A sales manager has to ensure that their team meets a specific target within a given time frame. They should be able to analyze wins—or losses—so the sales department can continue to drive profits forward.

What does a sales manager do?

Sales managers are expected to empower their reps in a variety of ways. Keeping a team focused and on task is a big part of the day-to-day. At the same time, managers need to nurture reps at each stage of their development, from fresh-faced new hires to experienced pros.

  • Build a strong sales force

    sales management force

    Sales management entails everything that comes with supervising a team of salespeople. It includes onboarding and training new reps, mentoring and coaching veteran staff on sales methodologies, monitoring individual performance, and (unfortunately) firing.

    A good sales manager will establish and maintain a satisfactory sales force. A great sales manager, however, will go even further. They’ll find salespeople who aren’t just good at sales, but also those whose tactics and personalities resonate with your ideal customer. They’ll make data-driven decisions when creating training programs so new hires can learn faster and start hitting their quotas sooner.

    A great sales manager, in short, is constantly looking for ways to make their sales team even better at selling for their company.

  • Create a step-by-step sales process

    sales management process

    A solid sales process is well laid-out and simple—or at least, as simple as it can be. Some sales processes can’t help but be complicated. If that’s the case, it’s the manager’s job to make it as efficient and streamlined as possible.

    Having a step-by-step sales process is like having a detailed map that’s clearly drawn and labeled to get you to your destination. It must be flexible, though—no process ever reaches its final form because businesses typically grow and change. If you introduce a new product, service, or territory, your sales manager should be able to adjust their process quickly so there aren’t any awkward or costly growing pains.

  • Implement the sales process

    sales management process

    There’s no point in building a strong sales process if your reps don’t have the tools to put it into action. If part of your process is tracking leads along your pipeline, for instance, then you need a tool that helps agents do that efficiently and effectively.

    Improvising tracking systems in spreadsheets only works for so long before it becomes overwhelming. Plus, it’s an invitation for data input errors. Instead of relying on sales reps to handle data entry, tools like automated lead generation can handle the job in much less time and ensure your data is accurate.

    Part of sales management is knowing which tools you might need to implement a successful sales process. When you can’t carry out the process the way it’s intended, you’ll never know if it’s the process that’s faulty or if it’s something else.

  • Set goals and monitor progress

    sales management goals

    A big part of sales management is knowing how to set fair sales goals. When establishing goals, you’ll need to take several factors into consideration, including your sales mix, regions, and talent.

    If you fail to take the company’s unique systems and needs into account when determining goals, one of two things will occur. One: You’ll set unattainable goals that cause your workforce unproductive stress. Or, two: You’ll set low-hanging goals that don’t meet the company’s selling potential. Finding the balance is key.

    Once goals are set and the reps are off to the races, the sales manager needs to monitor how close—or how far—sales reps are from crossing the finish line. A good sales management process will offer managers an organized way of tracking individual and team goals easily.

    Digital dashboards, such as the ones included with sales CRMs and other sales app platforms, are popular with managers for viewing real-time metrics and KPIs at a glance. These tools help managers course-correct quickly if they see a sales rep falling short of their target.

  • Evaluate the results…and then take action

    sales management results

    After the data is in, it’s time to look at the whole process and identify the weak spots. It’s like examining a race car after the big race to see which components failed to deliver optimal results, and then strategizing how to fix those components so they perform better in the next race. It also involves determining where you succeeded and figuring out how to repeat that success in the future.

    Part of what makes sales management a challenge is keeping a close eye on both the fine details and the big picture. The best sales manager will know how to find vulnerabilities in the process and how to strategize their solution. Whether it requires a change in personnel or a new piece of software in their sales tech stack, sales managers need to know how to examine the entire process, and then decide what changes might be needed going forward.

Sales and marketing management

Sales and marketing departments typically operate independently in their daily operations. But that doesn’t mean the sales manager shouldn’t be interested in what’s going on in marketing.

Marketing and sales need to support each other’s work. After all, if the marketing team isn’t bringing in high-quality leads, it’s going to hurt the sales reps’ targets. And if the sales team isn’t sharing data about who their most profitable customers are, the marketing team won’t know what type of audience to target with their messaging.

A sales manager should be able to foster collaboration and improve communication between marketing and sales to meet overall goals. They should also be able to identify and break down information silos that are keeping valuable data from teams that really need it.

Tips for a better sales management process

Be confident but flexible

The sales process isn’t a sacred text that must be followed to the last punctuation mark. You should be confident that your sales process is optimized for your current environment. But if there’s a change to that environment—whether internal or external—the sales manager must not only be flexible enough to change it, but also have a plan for how to do so.

Invest in the right technology

Sales management involves many moving parts. The best way to create a streamlined process is to use sales software that helps you stay organized and act quickly. Spreadsheets, records, official documents, and calendars are easier to manage than ever with the right computer program. By taking a dozen steps out of the process—and reducing the chances for human error—your sales team will be better equipped to repeat the process consistently and correctly.

Think of the customer

With so much to do, it’s easy to forget the most important piece of the puzzle: the customer. A good sales management system is one that closely examines the target buyer in order to gain a deeper understanding of what will provide them with the best value. The better a sales manager knows the customer base, the easier it is to create a process that closes deals.

Don’t stop learning

There are tons of resources out there for sales professionals wanting to learn more about their craft. And sales management is no different. Continuing your education enables you to sharpen your skills, widen your perspectives, and spot trends before your competition does.

Sales management strategies

There are various reasons why a salesperson might be underperforming. It’s the sales manager’s job to figure out how to lift a struggling sales rep or team out of their slump. In these situations, it’s best to have a strategy that’s optimized to produce results.

Whether you’re a new sales manager or looking to refresh your skills, here are some effective sales management strategies to help lead your staff to success.

Get to know your team

Don’t keep your sales reps at arm’s length. A workforce feels more supported when their managers take the time and energy to learn certain things about them. Small acts like remembering birthdays, acknowledging personal and professional milestones, and showing empathy with hardship go a long way in building a strong and dedicated team.

Don’t be afraid of new technology

The world of sales is currently flooded with new tech toys. But don’t let the sheer volume of options scare you away from finding the right one for you. Sales software can save your team massive amounts of time and streamline their workflow, enabling your sales process to move forward smoothly and with as few errors as possible.

Offer one-on-one coaching

Coaching helps salespeople keep their skills sharp and their perspectives open. It’s a low-stakes chance for them to practice and evaluate their sales techniques, as well as an opportunity for you to familiarize yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of individual sales reps.

Provide resources for learning

You can tell your sales reps to continuously develop their professional skills. But you’ll find more success by making it easy for them. Give your sales staff lists of highly rated books or publications, send videos of lectures or seminars that are relevant to your sales process, or share your favorite inspirational sales quotes.

Recognize and celebrate the wins

Yes, salespeople like commissions. But they also want recognition for their skills and efforts. You don’t have to bring out the fireworks every time someone seals a big deal. A simple one-on-one chat and personal congratulation can be just the kind of positive reinforcement a sales rep needs to go out and do it all over again.

Perform a regular audit of company culture

It’s important to make sure your company culture is one that allows every sales rep to work safely and at the top of their game. But like your sales process, your company culture isn’t set in stone. As times change, you need to make adjustments if any part of your culture causes harm or discomfort to your staff.

Keep up appearances

Employees sometimes mirror their manager’s behavior. And if your energy is constantly dark, heavy, unpleasant, or even just too quiet, it can have a detrimental effect on the whole team. Display the kind of energy you want your salespeople to have. And, of course, be the type of manager you would want to have.

Encourage healthy competition

Salespeople are naturally competitive. There’s nothing wrong with tapping into that quality in order to motivate them to push towards higher targets. (Just make sure things don’t get ugly.) Have a plan, keep it simple, and monitor your more aggressive sales reps.

Talk to marketing—and then keep talking.

You’ll never sell to your best potential if sales and marketing don’t collaborate. Sales and marketing should work together to generate leads, create content, and share customer data insights. Establish an open line of communication with marketing if you don’t already have one. If you do, gauge how open it really is. Chances are, there are things you can do to improve the flow of information between the two departments.

Look for the cracks (and have a plan for filling them)

Yes, sales managers should have an eye on the big picture. But they should also have a method for checking in on the minute details. Customize a daily dashboard report that shows you the latest numbers so you can spot negative trends the moment they appear. You don’t have to leap into action the moment you see a slip, but it’s good to know where they are and when they started. That way, you have time to prepare a plan of action.

Provide productive feedback

Sales reps almost always want more feedback. But it’s the kind of feedback you give and the way you give it that will determine whether they reap any benefits from it. Talk about their strengths first, and then examine how those strengths can be applied to improve in an area where they’re falling short.

Monitor progress regularly

After you’ve provided feedback and established a plan for improvement, you need to check in regularly to ensure their performance is heading in the right direction. If the shortcoming mattered enough for you to mention it, it should matter enough for you to monitor it until it’s corrected. Once it is, make sure to acknowledge it to the sales rep. If you don’t, your rep might feel like you don’t appreciate or notice their efforts—or worse, they might think the issue was never actually an issue at all, and go back to their old habits.

The best sales management books

Here are four must-read sales management books for anyone looking to develop their skills and build a stronger sales force.

Cracking the Sales Management Code: The Secrets to Measuring and Managing Sales Performance

Authors: Jason Jordan & Michelle Vazzana rating: 4.1/5 stars

This book is the essential operating manual for sales management. Cracking the Sales Management Code breaks down the traditional wisdom of sales management and dives deep into the science behind it, making it an invaluable learning tool for sales managers who take a scientific approach to their work style.

Sales Management That Works: How to Sell in a World That Never Stops Changing

Author: Frank V. Cespedes rating: 4.2/5

Harvard Business School professor Frank Cespedes delivers a straightforward, research-based guide to sales management. Cespedes attests that there’s a lot of misleading information out there, and sales managers are at risk of making decisions based on assumptions or hype. He aims to show sales professionals how to tell the difference between good and bad data and how to make decisions that align with their goals and strategies.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Author: Daniel H. Pink rating: 3.9/5

This book isn’t specifically about sales management, but it’s a valuable resource for sales managers looking for ways to motivate their teams. Drive asks the question, “What motivates people?” and then draws on four decades of scientific research to answer it. Daniel Pink offers several compelling ideas for how human motivation works, which sales managers can use to devise new sales motivation tactics.

Eat Their Lunch: Winning Customers Away From Your Competition

Author: Anthony Iannarino rating: 4.1/5

Anthony Iannarino acknowledges the world of sales as the dog-eat-dog world it is. But instead of encouraging a bloodthirsty approach to survival, he takes a different stance. He advocates taking steps with customers that build trust in order to win them away from the competition. The book is full of ethical strategies for surviving in a zero-sum game and cultivating a mindset that’s built for selling.

Getting a grip on sales management

Sales managers have a lot to focus on—not just the bottom line. So much training, strategizing, and collaborating goes into closing deals, and sales managers oversee it all.

No one ever said sales management was easy, but you shouldn’t make it any harder than it has to be. See how you can simplify the art of sales management with a free trial of Zendesk Sell.

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