Cocking Up My First Sales Management Role – Lessons Learned

Sales management mistakes

Working for a PLC during my early thirties I landed my first role in managing a sales team. I’d been with a company they acquired, had a good track record of hitting my numbers and delivering new name accounts. That seemed to qualify me as the logical candidate to take on the leadership role. Ah… that common fallacy that a good salesperson will make a good sales manager!

No interview, no assessment just a new title, a pay rise and a much, much bigger number to deliver…. oh and a team of around 20 sales people to lead. Bring it on I thought, I’m sure I’ll do a great job.

I quickly discovered that I had an awful lot to learn. Here are some of the top lessons I learned… by finding out the hard way.

Process is key

As a salesperson I’d always been a bit of a maverick, was resistant to any form of ‘management’ and followed my own (seat of my pants) process – kind of making things up as I went along. It worked for me at the time but it certainly wasn’t a replicable model.

It’s strange now to think that a PLC with a total sales team of around 150 had no defined sales process, but that’s the way it was. This meant that each sales person sold in their own unique way, making it very difficult for me to coach and develop them. It also made it difficult for me to forecast and proactively address problems because I had no defined system for breaking down a sales person’s pipeline of opportunities and looking at whether they were focusing on the right activities that would lead to success.

There were no quick fixes here. Identifying some powerful frameworks (such as Holden’s PowerBase Selling, Lore’s Strategic Account Management & Facilitative Selling), rolling out training, getting it embedded and developing our own sales management toolkit were some of the answers.

Get the Right People on the Bus

Not all sales people can actually sell. This is an obvious lesson to me now, but as a first time sales manager I hoped that with enough effort and coaching, any salesperson could be successful. I now know that it’s the small minority who possess the right attributes that consistently exceed targets. Regrettably a very significant percentage of the sales population will never consistently achieve targets no matter how much training and support you provide them. Trying to achieve your region’s aggressive growth targets with a sales force of journeymen is like trying to push water uphill.

Take Decisive Action

In my early period as a sales manager, I had a tendency to let sales people underperform without any real repercussion. This was partly due to the fact that I didn’t know how best to manage failing sales people and partly because I don’t like firing people. However I quickly realised that accountability is a very powerful lever. A sales force that is not held accountable for meeting its targets is a sales force that won’t regularly meet its targets.

Recognising this, I understood that I needed to take more decisive actions. If a salesperson was behind target I would work with them to make sure they were taking the right actions that would lead to success. However if they couldn’t deliver the right results or the right behavior, I parted ways and found another sales person who would. A bit of bad luck is one thing, but bad habits could not be tolerated.

Wining Culture

As a sales person I struggled during my first six months or so, but eventually found my feet and developed in myself a habit of success. As a sales manager I assumed that a culture of success would therefore naturally develop over time.

I had it backwards though. To achieve success, a sales leader has to actively create a winning culture. This was somewhat of a revelation for me at the time. When the team uses the language of success, behaves in ways that lead to success, help each other be successful, expects to be successful, and has a low tolerance for failure, success is far more likely.

I’ve learned a lot since then – stuff that might have prevented me losing my hair. What are some of the sales management lessons that you have learned?

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