A sales manager should take on the role of coach and mentor to the sales staff. In fact, one of the key leadership qualities that every leader needs is the ability to help other people become successful, says Rick Johnson, Ph.D., owner of CEO Strategist LLC, a consulting firm located in The Villages, Fla.

A sales manager must also be frank and fair, says Maurice Dixon of Dixon and Associates, an Edina, Minn.-based consultancy.

“You can’t climb all over people and expect them to respect you,” he says.

Salespeople need honest assessments of their performance, so the manager must take an objective view of the staff. This can be especially challenging if the sales manager is a former salesperson from the same company.

In addition to a strong command of product knowledge and industry trends, the sales manager must develop good relationships with industry reps. Those reps, whether independent or manufacturers’, should be tapped to provide training and demonstrations, and on occasion assist with sales calls.

“Those reps, if they’re used right, can be of help to you,” says Dixon.

Promoting Or Hiring Outside

To find a good sales manager, generally speaking, a firm is better off promoting from within.

“You’re dealing with a known quantity with a proven track record,” says Douglas Fink, president of Pennsylvania Paper & Supply Co., in Scranton, Pa.

Such a person understands the culture and processes well, and tends to get up to speed faster.

Johnson agrees that it’s best to promote from within, but says that assumes a distributor has invested in the training, education and development of its sales staff.

“If you haven’t done that,” he says, “you more than likely will have to go outside.”

Promoting your best salesperson to a management position may not always be best for the company, however.

Consider first the financial impact of pulling your best salesperson off the street.

“Sometimes the salespeople are so effective in their jobs that to promote them could lead to financial losses,” Johnson says.

Plus, some newly promoted salespeople can’t adjust to the management position. Salespeople have an inherent need to be liked, says Fink. Managing entails making decisions for the good of the company, even if those decisions aren’t popular with the staff.

Hiring from outside also has its advantages, says Fink. The new person can bring a fresh set of ideas to the position and change the dynamics of the firm in a positive way.

“Depending on where the business is in its history and marketplace, there’s a time for both,” he says. “There’s a time to promote from within, and there’s a time bring in fresh blood from outside.”

The new sales manager’s attitude plays a large part, as well. If the person takes a team approach to the position, he or she can be successful, however, Fink cautions against hiring outside the industry because the learning curve is too great.

Sometimes promoting a salesperson causes hard feelings among the sales staff. In those cases, the new sales manager may be lacking in leadership skills, says Johnson.

“If you promote someone and you have a lot of animosity and problems, that person obviously wasn’t demonstrating the kind of leadership qualities necessary to become a manager,” Johnson says. “The salesperson truly can become the sales manager, he would’ve displayed those qualities long before becoming promoted.”

Those with sales management potential exhibit that while in sales roles, and it is evident to others, Johnson says. For example, the person acts like a leader, and is sought out by other salespeople for advice.

Animosity could also be an indication that the salesperson is struggling. Generally, if salespeople are doing well and making money, they’re satisfied. An unhappy salesperson could be trying to blame the sales manager for a lack of success.

“It’s much easier to blame someone else than to blame yourself,” Fink says.

Ongoing Training And Mentoring Crucial

Transitioning from a salesperson to a sales manager, the sales manager must first concentrate on managing, says Johnson.

“If you’re going to be the sales manager, you’ve got to manage the sales force,” he says.

It’s OK to stay in touch with the major accounts and help out during a transition period, but trying to be both a salesperson and a manager affects both tasks, Johnson adds. Sales managers typically have the necessary selling skills, but they need to learn how to lead, coach and mentor. Have the person attend seminars and other programs to brush up on leadership skills as well as learn how to be a better coach and mentor. If resources permit, the distributor should consider hiring an outside coach to mentor the new sales manager.

Those firms that invest the time and resources in developing their employees, will either find the talent onboard or realize early on that they need to go outside. Sadly, in difficult times some companies cut education to save money.

“That’s the last thing they should be doing,” Johnson says.

Without training, managers easily get frustrated and will even quit after a short time there.

“And many, many times the sales management end gets short changed,” says Dixon.

How To Manage The Sales Staff

Effective sales management also requires process and structure. The manager must work closely with the sales staff to set goals and action plans. All this must be documented so both the salesperson and the manager can track performance and develop new strategies as needed. Thus, regular territory reviews are critical to ensure that the area is tapped to its full potential. In essence, the sales manager is partnering with the sales rep.

A plan must be in place, says Dixon, especially for newer salespeople. Their activity should be reviewed on a weekly, and even perhaps daily basis. Managers need to be flexible with veteran salespeople, who tend to be more successful and established. Still, managers should expect some kind of report from each salesperson. Doing so helps keep them on their plans.

“It’s the old story of plan your work and work your plan,” Dixon says.

Salespeople understand the need for paperwork, so managers shouldn’t be focused only on call reports, Johnson says. They should help their salespeople become more successful within their given territories. Managers must also be willing to help.

“Let the salespeople know that you are there to help them grow,” Dixon says.

If the salesperson is struggling, the sales manager should try to determine what’s going wrong and why. However, the sales manager must hold his or her staff accountable. It starts with planning.

“Planning what you’re going to do, where you’re going, and what you’re going to do when you get there,” Dixon says. “Then do it.”

What Salespeople Are Looking For In A Manager

Leadership ability and trust are key to developing a good relationship with sales reps.

“If salespeople are going to deliver loyalty to someone, they’re going to want it in return,” Fink says.

Sales managers must work together with their sales staff, sharing ideas and working toward a common goal. Arrogance will offend sales reps, too.

“In many cases they know the business better than the sales managers do,” Fink says.

Managers must also stand behind and support their salespeople.

“That doesn’t mean you give away the store,” Johnson says. “What it does mean that you have a concern for their feelings, their thoughts, their ideas. And you look out for them.”

Thomas R. Fuszard is a business writer from New Berlin, Wis.