Articles providing practical, field-tested advice to sales professionals.

Location: Houston, Texas, United States

Sunday, April 03, 2005


The credulity that a sales manager’s chief function is to “stimulate” his men is exposed in this article as archaic and ineffectual. The discussion examines the proper role of a sales manager and the growing complexities he must face in managing and training a sales force.

A well-known politician once noted in the margin of his speech: “Yell loud here – the argument is weak.”

Apparently he found it easier to increase the volume of his voice than the validity of his argument. And unfortunately, the same principle too often has held true for managers charged with increasing the effectiveness of sales forces.

Deeply ingrained in the “lore” of the sales manager is what I call the “enthusiasm prejudice”, the naïve assumption that all that is needed for effective salesmanship is a considerable store of enthusiasm. This drastically underrates the needs of today’s salespeople, whose job grows more difficult and demanding as the scope of business and technology broadens.

Historically, sales managers and marketing executives have sought ways to promote this magical brand of enthusiasm as the great panacea for sales ills. In so doing they have ignored other more important responsibilities to their people and their companies. The result… they have too often fallen short of good sales production by failing to offer salespeople qualified, effective supervision.

A study reported in the Harvard Business Review (“Sales Management in the Field”) clearly illustrated the importance of sound sales supervision. In the study, a national association maintained careful records on the careers of 100 salespeople who were assigned at random to competent and less-than-competent local managers.

These salespeople were given a battery of tests when hired and graded “A” or “B”. After several years, an examination of the personnel records revealed that salespeople who worked for competent managers had a much greater chance for success than their unfortunate brethren with incompetent superiors. Specifically, 48% of the “A” salespeople succeeded under good supervision; only 27% under poor supervision. Correspondingly, “B” salespeople with good supervision had nearly five times as much chance for success as their counterparts with poor supervision. Moreover, a “B” salesperson with a strong manger had the same chance as an “A” salesperson with a poor manager.

The same research association, analyzing salespeople turnover statistics for a large national company, sent questionnaires to over 650 salespeople – both “survivors” and “terminators”. It was found that dissatisfaction with local supervision was the single most important reason for salesperson termination.

The author of the Harvard Business Review article pointed out cogent problems in the area of tradition sales management:

My study of the activities of 150 field managers shows that field managers are most skillful at personal selling, trouble shooting, running an office, maintaining satisfactory customer relations. On the other hand they are weak when it comes to developing and supervising and devising local sales strategy… The local managers are in fact super salespeople instead of administrators.

Thus, the author says, selection and training of field sales managers has become one of the most acute problems facing top management.

Despite stated misgivings, many sales executives promote men to management primarily on the basis of selling ability. There are a number of reasons for this practice. In the first place, many executives have not spelled out the requirements for management and thus rely on one obvious attribute, salesmanship. Such a measure is simple and easy to defend. Moreover, the fiction ahs grown up in this environment that any attempt to change the system would damage morale.

The author further points out that the jobs of selling and management are not the same and do not call for the same skills. Competence as a salesperson is no guarantee of management potential. Therefore, the atmosphere and attitudes surrounding selling have never been conducive to the development of effective sales managers. It would almost appear that by some grand design, business has set out to thwart the manager’s efforts.

In research reported by the American Management Association, it was shown that:
  • Over half of the sales managers surveyed had never read a job description of what they were supposed to do;
  • 78% of these sales managers were dissatisfied with their training or had never received any specific training to equip them for their roles as sales managers;
  • Only 1 out of every 33 companies surveyed had any kind of company sponsored sales managers training program.

Nonetheless, sales managers are expected to take firm hold of their new duties and responsibilities as managers and perform at a top level… with little or no training and frequently without really knowing what their responsibilities are.

On examining these responsibilities carefully, one finds that they require a great deal more than pumping up the enthusiasm of their salespeople with sales contests, trips to Bermuda and pats on the back.

The sales manager must be able to select, train, motivate and manage his salespeople, a group of men who historically have peaks of emotional ups and downs. He must help his salespeople develop better work habits and attitudes, practice new presentation procedures, learn new product adaptations and develop additional skills.

Frequently the local sales manager is responsible for creating favorable buying attitudes among customers through good-will activities, the image he creates of his company through his personal contacts, by his use of advertising and other promotional materials, and by his assistance in handling of the final terms of sales.

The local manager helps contribute to the salesperson’s development of good work habits, more effective use of time, call preparation and record-keeping procedures.

Another important responsibility for the sales manager is his role as liaison between his salespeople and top management. He must be an effective link between them, both administratively and for communications.

The sales manager must also make sure that detail work, like record keeping, which the typical salesperson tends to neglect, is well planed and executed so that it becomes an asset to better selling and better overall business management. (A management consulting firm reviewed the record keeping and reports required from one national company’s salesperson and found that it would take each man approximately 100 hours a week to provide properly all information requested.)

The manager’s first and most important job, however, is to understand his people… to develop them, to train them, and to assure himself, his people and his company that each is performing at the top of his capabilities. To do this effectively, he must be willing and able to face his people’s problems squarely.

The National Sales Executive Digest surveyed several thousand salespeople in an attempt to discover their “most secret thoughts, feelings and frustrations” about their careers in selling. The results of the survey are good guidelines for the sales manager to follow in pursuing his responsibilities. Among the three most frequent needs stated were the following:
Specific methods for improving sales - not what to do but how to do it;
A complete understanding of the principles and techniques of salesmanship – and how to apply them in day-to-day selling;
Training in capsule and digest form. Readable, educational material – short, explanatory, illustrated, believable.

The first answer suggests the salesperson wants a coach in his sales manager… a person who can show him “how to do it” rather than a cheerleader urging him on from the sidelines.

In interviewing hundreds of salespeople throughout my career as a sales trainer and consultant, I have found this to be absolutely true. The salesperson wants answers that help him understand specifically step-by-step how he can improve his sales… answers with which he can identify and to which he can relate his own personal experience. All too often, his sales management has provided only a modicum of encouragement and some general indication of what it wants done.

In stating that they need a “complete understanding of the principles and techniques of salesmanship,” the salespeople indicated they want to use in their day-to-day efforts all the components of effective selling. They seek a meaningful understanding of the why and wherefore of selling.

The salesperson needs a procedure that incorporates the elements of good salesmanship much as the pilot has a check list and the architect a plan. The frequent compliant of the salesperson is that his management, failing to provide this, leaves him searching for guidance but with nowhere else to turn.

The salespeople surveyed also indicated a desire for “training in capsule and digest form… explanatory, illustrated, believable”. This brings us to the question, “CAN SALESPEOPLE BE TRAINED?” and the corollary, “HOW EFFECTIVE IS SALES TRAINING?” Basic as it may seem, the answer to the first question is an emphatic “Yes,” if the subject is trainable, and “Certainly” to the second, if the training is professional in the real sense.

In our training programs over the past eight years, we have checked our results carefully, using control groups as a basic reference, and we have established beyond doubt that people with the proper aptitudes will show sales increases when taught what to do and more specifically, how to do it.

The results obtained by our students make ours a most gratifying profession. Letters in our files indicate salespeople doubled and tripled their sales after working with us… selling the same products in the same territories at the same prices. The only variables they perceived were their new-found skill and knowledge.

There is little doubt left in our minds that the right sales training program can increase sales volume greatly. It only stands to reason that the salesperson with the proper aptitudes, knowledge and skill will sell more than his counterpart not equally gifted and trained.

Because of the prevailing reliance on the importance of enthusiasm as the motivating force, a great deal of sales training has really been little more than pep talks cloaked in respectability. The really important - and difficult - segments of training, such as motivation of the customer to buy, have been partially or wholly eliminated.

A spokesman for the nation’s largest industry said that a good sale breaks down in a 30-60-10 ratio… 30% of a salesperson’s time should be spent discovering the problem and presenting an answer, 60% in motivating the prospect to want what you are selling, and 10% to close or complete the transaction.

If this is true, why do we not spend proportionate amounts of training time in these areas? The question must be asked, “Why do we fail to devote 60% of our training time to learning specifically how to “motivate the prospect to want what we are selling?”

Could it be that management is not sure how to do this and, so, with an irresolute bow to the salesperson, continues to talk in the familiar terms of product knowledge, of nuts and bolts, of charts and graphs, of anything but what is truly meaningful to the salesperson 0 how to sell?


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