Want success in sales? Look to the middle

A firm’s mid-level managers are vital in driving day-to-day sales performance. Photo/File
A firm’s mid-level managers are vital in driving day-to-day sales performance. Photo/File 

To build a great company, it’s important to have strong executives leading the sales organisation.

But just like the military, where talented top officers can’t make up for weaknesses in the ranks of front-line leaders, it’s a firm’s midlevel managers who are vital in driving day-to-day sales performance.

First-line sales managers (FLM) are the most critical players in a sales organisation because they serve three important management roles.

People manager: They build, lead and reward a team of salespeople.

Customer manager: They participate appropriately in the sales process to drive success with key customers.

Business manager: They act as a conduit for information flowing between headquarters and the field to keep sales force activity aligned with company goals.

Here are some common mistakes that FLMs and what sales leaders can do to avoid them.

As people managers, weak FLMs: Hire the wrong salespeople, feed the chickens but starve the eagles by spending too much time with low performers, manage by results only and demand improvement without coaching.

They also take credit for the team’s successes rather than giving others recognition.

As customer managers, weak FLMs fail to put customer needs first, and take over customer relationships themselves rather than letting their salespeople take the lead.

As business managers, weak FLMs: Spend too much time on low-value activities just because they’re urgent or within their comfort zone, and put off important tasks that keep headquarters and the field aligned.

Most of these mistakes are the result of selecting the wrong person for the FLM job — usually someone who was a great salesperson but who doesn’t have the characteristics to succeed as a manager.

Most successful salespeople are driven by a strong motivation for personal achievement.

Zoltners is a professor emeritus of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He and Sinha are co-founders of ZS Associates. Together with Lorimer, they are the authors of Building a Winning Sales Management Team: The Force Behind the Sales Force.