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3 Traits of Successful First-Line Sales Managers

They may be less visible than other sales officers, but first-line sales managers—the mid-level managers responsible for driving day-to-day sales performance—can be among the most critical players in a larger sales organization.

According to Andres A. Zoltners, professor emeritus of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and PK Sinha and Sally E. Lorimer, collaborators with Zoltners on Building a Winning Sales Management Team: The Force Behind the Sales Force, the best first-line sales managers live three key characteristics in their successful service to sales organizations. We examine these key traits, identified by the authors this month at the Harvard Business Review.

They understand salespeople and manage them wisely.

Successful first-line sales managers are good people managers, building, selecting, managing, rewarding, and leading a team of salespeople.

According to sales consultant Katherine Graham-Leviss, successfully managing a sales team begins with recognizing that high-performing salespeople generally have strong personalities. While this social and verbal aggression can help them close deals, it can also make them difficult to manage under a more methodical, analytical, or process-oriented approach. “Great salespeople generally want freedom,” notes Graham-Leviss. “They want autonomy.”

They leave sales to the sales reps (most of the time).

Strong first-line sales managers will participate directly in the sales process on occasion to ensure results with key customers, but only when appropriate.

The right time for managers to step into deals directly may come less often than many managers think, according to David J. DiStefano, president and chief executive of Richardson Consulting. This is understandable, given that most sales managers enjoyed successful sales careers before being promoted to management.

But it’s often in a manager’s best interest, as well as the interest of their company, to ensure that they are coaching reps to their full potential, even if this means that an individual sale does not go smoothly.  “Make it a learning experience, debrief with the sales professional, and move on,” writes DiStefano.

They align salespeople in the field with company goals.

Successful first-line sales managers will be good business managers, serving as conduits for information between headquarters and the field. This constant flow of information will keep activities of sales teams aligned with company goals.

As business-to-business strategy consultant Christine Crandell writes for Forbes, two of the most important alignments for sales teams are with a company’s marketing and customer service departments, respectively. While marketing understands the customer journey from initial trigger to purchase, as well as sought outcomes, customer service and support understands customer objectives and demands post-purchase. “Consistency builds trust,” Crandell writes.

First-line sales managers are managers first and foremost

While many sales leaders agree that first-line sales managers are among the most important roles in their sales organizations, these managers are also often among the least-supported sales roles in terms of management and guidance. According to Jim Ninivaggi of SirusDecisions, when it comes to overseeing first-line sales managers, too many companies take an approach of “‘promote our best sales reps and hope for the best.’”

According to Zoltner, Sinha, and Lorimer, most problems with first-line sales managers don’t derive from a lack of support or training. Rather, they stem from hiring the wrong people for the jobs in the first place—people who were great as sales reps, but who don’t have the traits to succeed as sales managers. Poor sales management hiring decisions, in turn, can lead to bad hires for individual sales reps, a disastrous outcome. When it comes to first-line sales managers, the authors note, the aphorism holds true: “First-class hires first-class, second-class hires third-class.”