The greatest challenge for most distributors is finding and keeping top sales talent.

As one company president put it, “sales solves all problems.” Distributors see their sales reps as the vital cog in their customer relationships and the key to growth and profitability.

In today’s hyper-competitive environment, operational efficiency and high service levels are just the ante to play the game. Sales effectiveness is the market differentiator.

Recognizing this fact, distributors invest heavily in their sales force. In addition to tangible outlays for training and technology, companies devote substantial organizational resources to improving sales performance.

Senior executives get personally involved in hiring and compensation. Human resources departments create targeted recruiting and development programs.

The goal of these efforts is to win the sales talent quest: to attract and retain the best sales reps available, leaving rivals to compete with second-string players.

All this human resource activity is certainly commendable, but real-world experience shows that it is unlikely to be effective without sound sales management.

When it comes to bottom line impact, we have found that sales managers are the fulcrum for broad-based, sustained sales success. The manager with whom sales reps interact on a daily basis has the most influence on their performance, and this influence is especially strong in larger organizations.

We could fill pages with true tales of sales management impact. For instance, one division of a national distributor consistently achieved the highest growth in the company, until its sales manager was promoted to corporate headquarters.

With its leader gone, the group’s performance quickly dropped to below average for several years. During this time, the company implemented a new sales compensation plan and conducted extensive training on best practices, but the division’s numbers continued to sag.

When the manager returned to the division in a more senior role, he quickly addressed the sales management issues and restored the division to its top position.

Our work with hundreds of distributors has reinforced this message over and over.

Sales management is the real competitive differentiator. Why? Because strong sales management provides leverage.

Investing in a sales rep gets results from one territory. Investing in a sales manager offers the potential for improvements in all the territories that report up through him. Consider the following:

• Managers determine retention.
The old saying “people don’t quit their company, they quit their boss” is true. Compensation is certainly a factor but with most companies paying similar market wages it’s hardly a differentiator.

Like everyone else, sales reps work for recognition from others and the feeling that they are making a difference. Good managers feed these emotional needs and keep good talent happy.

• Managers drive performance.
All reps, regardless of their raw talent level, work best at the point of optimum tension. If a job is too easy they coast, become bored and start to wonder about greener pastures. If it is too demanding they become resentful and shut down, perceiving that success is not possible regardless of effort.

While many companies attempt to manage this balance with the pay plan, it really requires careful sales management.

• Managers are local.
In ancient China, local warlords reminded their minions that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”

Initiatives and incentive plans issued from headquarters are generally blunt instruments with weak enforcement mechanisms. Even compelling programs will quietly die in the field unless branch and sales managers continuously reinforce them and tailor them to local conditions.

Sales Management
In the course of our re-engineering projects, we are often amazed by the level of delusion regarding corporate dictates. Headquarters staff will assure us that there is 100 percent compliance with a program that reps in the field have never even heard of.

I know what you’re thinking. If the key to sales performance is good management, doesn’t this just push the talent quest up one level in the organization chart?

If anything, this only creates a bigger headache, because strong sales and branch managers are even harder to find than talented sales reps. But before you get too discouraged, recognize that sales management is a discipline that can be learned. Great sales reps may be born, but great sales managers are made. There is a proven set of sales management practices for distribution.

Historically, distributor sales managers have had to learn about these through trial and error. Most training courses, books and programs are generic and focused on sales skills rather than management practices. To fill this critical void, we have written a new book that is dedicated to the sales management role. It is published by the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors (NAW) and titled “The 5 Fundamentals for the Wholesale Distribution Sales Manager.” The book is based on our firm’s extensive experience, working in the trenches with hundreds of wholesale-distributors and manufacturers.

This experience tells us that sales and branch managers face two critical hurdles in their day-to-day roles. First, they are typically overwhelmed with their duties.

They fight fires with customers, juggle the competing demands of their staff and try to meet the constant stream of requests from corporate headquarters.

Second, they often do more work than they manage. Obviously, these two issues are inter-related. A manager who is consumed with taking customer orders has no time for mentoring a sales rep. But there is more to it than just task overload and time management.

Sales managers are often high performing sales reps who get promoted. Because many companies lack development programs and supporting infrastructure, these “accidental managers” must learn the job on the fly. They are frequently uneasy in their new role and quickly distracted back into their old comfort zone. They often continue to have some direct account responsibility in addition to their management duties — no prize for guessing which one gets top priority at the end of the month. One manager summarized it by saying “I only really feel alive when I’m back out on the road, meeting customers.”

The first step in addressing this situation is to recognize that sales and sales management require very different skills. Once this is clear, the manager can work on developing these new skills.

Fortunately, as we said earlier, the following attributes are generally more “learnable” than the somewhat innate talents that make a good sales rep:
• Individual contributor
• Maverick who takes the initiative
• Gets satisfaction from personal accomplishment
• Focused on specific goals
• Succeeds by working harder and smarter
• Puts the customer first
• Leader and visionary
• Team builder who makes trade-offs
• Gets satisfaction from others’ accomplishments
• Balances multiple goals
• Succeeds by prioritizing and delegating
• Puts the company first

Task overload hints at the reason for limiting our book to five fundamentals. Whittling it down to five key issues forced us to get clear about what was truly essential, as opposed to merely important.

It would have been very easy to create a list of the hundreds of things that good sales managers should do, and exhort readers to “just do it” like so many self-help books.

To some extent this is exactly the approach taken by most companies. But, taking this “more is always better” approach is a fundamental mistake.

If everything is top priority, then nothing is top priority. Without clear and limited objectives, the company’s performance is no longer driven by strategy, but by the personal priorities and triage skills of individual managers. Even worse, task overload contributes significantly to the challenge of recruiting strong managers. It’s hard to find people who are good at coaching, accounting, computers, marketing and 10 other skills. It’s even harder to keep them when they are constantly trying to fit 16 hours of work into the day.

The “5 Fundamentals” is about focusing on the most important tasks, and using management practices and systems to get more out of each day. It shows how to win the sales talent quest by leveraging the sales manager role.

Steve Deist ( is a partner specializing in sales management and strategy at the Indian River Consulting Group. IRCG is an experienced based firm specializing in sales execution and marketing channel optimization. Started in 1987 by J. Michael Marks, IRCG has specialists who consult with distributors and suppliers to make the changes necessary to maintain competitive advantage. You can contact IRCG by calling 321-956-8617, or visit for more information.