January 31, 2017


Today we are thrilled to share with you a guest post written by Kevin F. Davis, founder and president of TopLine Leadership. His insight on all things sales and sales team-related is incredibly valuable and relevant to SalesDrive blog readers.

Read his thoughts below.


Why Great Salespeople Often Fail as Sales Managers

One of the biggest frustrations I hear over and over again from Sales VPs or Directors is the high number of peak performing salespeople who never achieve the level of success that everybody expected they would once they are promoted into management.

These failures are costly to everyone: Upper management loses a great salesperson and gains a mediocre manager. The top-rep-turned-manager who is used to success can get demoralized. And an entire sales team witnesses a successful peer become an ineffective boss.

There are a number of factors that contribute to why great salespeople so often fail as sales managers. The core issue is that the natural sales instincts that most great salespeople possess—the things that made them so successful—can cripple their effectiveness as sales team leaders.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at two examples.


Sales Instinct #1: Be the player

When a great sales rep meets with a customer, he or she likes to be like the quarterback on the field, in control, calling the plays and turning a difficult situation into a big win.

But what happens when a successful rep carries that “be the player in control” instinct into a management role? Answer: the manager continues to be the player.

For example: When a manager joins a sales rep in a customer meeting … and at the first sign that the rep is in trouble, the player-manager jumps in and takes over. It’s as if the manager is saying to the rep, “OK, you can shut up now.”

Taking control this way sends a message to the customer that your sales rep is lousy and that you don’t trust your own people. It also demoralizes the salesperson.


Better Leadership Mindset: Become an observer

For a great sales rep to become a great sales manager he or she must learn to do a lot more observing. That applies to all situations in a sales office, but is most important when it comes to sales calls.

As painful as it might be to observe a salesperson making mistakes on a sales call, the successful leader bites his lip, resists the temptation to jump in, and talks with the rep afterwards. He teaches and coaches so the salesperson can grow their skills.

My first year in sales, many years ago, I was awkward—and a slow learner. But my first sales manager, Guy Campbell, must have seen some potential because he invested a lot of time in coaching me. When Guy joined me on a customer meeting, I noticed he had a habit of pulling out a coin and placing it in the palm of his hand.

I didn’t think anything of it until about three years later when I was promoted to sales manager in another office. Soon after, I ran into Guy at a corporate meeting and asked him why he always put a coin in his hand when he was out in the field with me.

He responded, “Well, Kevin, when you were a rookie rep, you were not very good. But I knew that in order for you to learn and improve I needed to keep my mouth shut. I couldn’t jump in and take over every time you got in trouble. The only way I could keep silent was to squeeze that coin. The worse and worse you did, the harder and harder I squeezed. I needed to create a point of personal pain that was greater than the pain I felt watching you screw up a meeting!”

I’ve carried Guy’s wisdom with me for many years and, mentally at least, squeezed a lot of coins in my day. Based on my own experience as a salesperson and manager and my observations (as a consultant) of sales managers over the past two decades, I can state unequivocally that this switch from player (sales rep) to observer (sales manager) is the hardest change all sales managers face. It takes a strong will to keep yourself from doing what you know you do better than everyone else on your team, and even the most experienced sales managers are prone to backslide to their sales instincts if they aren’t vigilant.


Sales Instinct #2: Avoiding Conflict

Another sales rep instinct that managers tell me they struggle with all the time is the desire to avoid conflict. They were taught as salespeople to avoid conflict with the customer by designing their sales processes and presentations to prevent objections before they come up. In that way, great salespeople are actually rewarded for avoiding conflict.

When that great rep becomes a sales manager, it feels quite natural for them to continue avoiding conflict. But when a manager avoids confronting the problems with salespeople, those problems simply don’t get dealt with. And before you know it, you’re tolerating mediocrity on your team. The last impression we want our salespeople to get is that their poor behaviors are acceptable!

In every sales manager training that I deliver, I ask sales managers, “How many of you have a performance problem with a sales rep that is just unacceptable, and you know you need to address the situation?” Everyone raises their hand. Then I ask, “How long have you known this?” The answer I hear is often months, and occasionally years. Clearly, many sales managers have tremendous difficulty confronting an under-performer, and so they keep putting it off.

The simple truth for sales managers is that your team is only as strong as your weakest performer. You can say all you want to about sales performance, but your actions speak louder than words.

Everyone on your sales team looks at the lowest producer as the minimum level of sales production necessary to stay on your sales team.

When you fail to address a sales performance problem you send a message to everyone else on the sales team – that you tolerate mediocrity.


Better Leadership Mindset: Early, positive confrontation

Before you have this “positive confrontation” conversation, jot a few notes down next to the following checklist so you are properly prepared:

What aspect of this person’s performance (and/or skills and attitude) is unacceptable? Be very specific about what the person must change. Be prepared to provide examples.

Why has the person not been performing up to expectation? As the sales coach, you must assess the performance problem. Is it the rep’s lack of skill, a lack of will or both? During the meeting, ask questions to either confirm or disprove your analysis of the situation. You never know what might come out here. I once had a salesperson break down in tears in my office about his marital problems.

Why should the person make these changes? Remember that Skill + Activity = Sales Results. All too often sales managers, when communicating expectations to the team, focus on the outcome expected (sales quota) rather than the inputs necessary to achieve the outcomes, and the importance of each step in that process. When you explain “why” a certain task must be accomplished with a certain amount of quantity or quality, you are also explaining why it cannot be avoided.

What should the consequences be if the salesperson does not make these changes? Another conversation with the manager? A written warning in their personnel file? Termination? You must be prepared to explain in very clear terms exactly what will happen if the changes are not made.

A phrase we like to use in our sales management seminars is that what you don’t confront, you condone. An effective leader learns how to deal with problems head on.

We also like to say that positive confrontation speeds up success or failure. If a rep is having a problem that you can help them solve, then dealing with their poor behavior sooner rather than later will help them turn around their results. If you realize that the rep’s problems can’t be fixed—or the rep doesn’t want to put the time and effort into improving—then you know that you need to talk to your HR department and put a de-hire plan in place.

So why is it that so many great salespeople fail as sales managers? Science tells us the most successful people are the ones who have the greatest difficulty giving up doing the things that made them successful in the first place. To become a great sales manager requires a completely different set of skills from selling. You’ll need to work hard to replace your sales rep instincts with new, more powerful leadership mindsets and then take your team to the top.

Kevin F. Davis is the founder and president of TopLine Leadership, which has provided sales and sales management training to leading corporations around the globe. He is also the author of the new book, The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness (March 2017) and Slow Down, Sell Faster!.