What Great Sales Bosses Do

The 7 habits of highly successful sales managers

Written by Lesley Young
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Ask a bunch of experienced sellers what makes for a great sales manager, and you’ll get a pretty pedestrian checklist: he has to be able to communicate; she needs to be enthusiastic; he has to really like people. But ask those same sellers about the best practices of sales managers—the day-to-day habits that separate the sheep from the goats—and you’ll get a far more useful earful of specific behaviours.

Proven sellers who’ve gone on to teach sales management have identified these seven good habits of the best. You can use this list to benchmark the performance of your own sales manager. That’s well worth doing, because the difference between a good company and a great one often boils down to the quality of the sales management.

  1. The best sales managers spend a lot of their time on their A performers, some on their Bs and none at all on their Cs. Successful sales managers don’t bother trying to manage unproductive salespeople, which pulls them away from their stars and never pays, says Andrew Wall, owner of the Milton, Ont. franchise of Sandler Training, a sales and sales-management training firm. B performers, he says, “are either coached up or coached out.” As for the Cs? “Good sales managers shoot the stragglers,” advises one no-nonsense sales authority.

    Using the stick to manage sales reps never works, and using the carrot only does sometimes, says Wall, because As and Bs are intrinsically motivated. “That’s why great sales managers don’t €˜motivate,'” he says. “They engage and challenge.”

  2. The best sales managers regularly observe their sales team in action. Many managers spend less than 20% of their time listening in on sales calls or observing them in person, says Tim Magwood, founding partner of Fusion Learning Inc., a Toronto-based sales-training firm. He says managers should spend 40% of their time on this, and strive for 50%, because it’s the best form of coaching. But a manager will have enough time for this only if her boss eases up on other expectations, and if she streamlines her own administrative tasks.

    Top sales managers make this practice a priority rather than a last-ditch resort for struggling reps, says Herb Mac­Kenzie, chair of Brock University’s marketing, international business and strategy department and author of Sales Management in Canada: “It gives them one-on-one face time with sales reps before and after sales calls, which ultimately builds better relationships.”

  3. The best sales managers build engagement by sharing company sales information with their team. The top managers realize their reps will be more effective if they grasp how what they do contributes to the firm’s success. They therefore share information such as revenue figures and departmental sales performance. “Sharing as much company sales information as possible with staff builds trust, and empowers staff to use the information to make more sales,” says MacKenzie.

    Good salespeople will use the information to devise their own tactics to execute the firm’s sales strategy, says Steven Rosen, founder of Star Results, a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based sales-management coaching service: “Their personal success, à la a sense of ownership, is all the more sweet.”

  4. The best sales managers have a simple and clear sales plan. Yes, this should be a basic part of the job. Even so, it ranks among the best practices of only the elite, says Magwood. Fusion’s research shows that just 60% of sales teams have a strategy of any kind to guide their daily actions.

    Although there’s no hard data on how many sales plans are simple and clear, no doubt few meet the standard that Magwood recommends: “The best plans are no longer than one page, and they contain maybe 15 points, including the goals, visions and tactics per quarter.”

  5. The best sales managers make everyone’s sales numbers public. This isn’t about shaming poor performers, says Chuck Bean, president of Baxter Bean & Associates Inc., a Calgary-based sales and leadership training consultancy. (That’s just a bonus.) Rather, it’s about encouraging healthy competition within your team.

    From his days managing a sales team of 180, Bean recalls the benefit of circulating everyone’s performance numbers: “The best salesperson was only 2% to 3% above budget. When everyone saw that, they realized they had a chance and thought, €˜Hey, I’m gonna beat this guy.’ And John—that was his name—thought, €˜Uh-oh, I’ve got to do more sales to stay ahead.'”

    Great sales managers also know that public forms of recognition are equally important. “Salespeople have giant egos, and our egos need to be fed,” says Magwood.

  6. The best sales managers reach out to clients to develop realistic sales forecasts, set individual goals and check results daily. “There’s a big difference between sales forecasting and budgeting,” says Bean. Companies do budgeting infrequently—say, annually—and use it to set their revenue and profit goals. Based on that, firms then set their expenditures. They do forecasts more often and base them on clients’ actual budgets, financial performance and purchasing activity. That’s why forecasts are usually more realistic than budgets.

    The best forecasts come from a deep understanding of clients. This requires taking the time to build personal relationships with clients that go deeper than the occasional round of golf. A good sales manager teaches his team that building a sense of trust with clients makes them more likely to share information, such as the size of their budget, when they’ll make a budget decision and who you’re competing against.

    Similarly, sales managers should set targets individually, and with the same degree of understanding for each rep, says Bean. “In successful organizations, sales managers measure results daily,” he adds.

    They also use sales-analytics software from such suppliers as Oracle, Teradata, NetSuite and, says Linda Orr, director of the Fisher Institute for Professional Selling in Akron, Ohio. She says managers can use these tools to, say, help them understand clients’ buying processes and carefully define market segments so managers can assign sales reps appropriately to each key customer group: “Good sales managers know that sales is a science, not an art.”

  7. The best sales managers use sales meetings to inspire, engage and troubleshoot—not just to recap sales numbers. The average sales meeting isn’t very productive, says Magwood: “There’s too much communication about what’s going on, and not enough enabling and motivating.” Great sales managers run a 10-minute workshop at each weekly meeting on, for example, how to position a product or handle rejection, adds Magwood.

    Top-notch managers also meet one-on-one with each sales rep at least once a month, using these meetings to review overall activity levels and high-priority opportunities, and to focus on the big picture.

    “Good sales managers ask questions like €˜How would you rate yourself out of 10?’ or €˜How challenged or stressed are you?'” says Magwood. “Enabling salespeople to see the forest for the trees stimulates the kind of thinking that high performers need to do in order to be more productive.”

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