Why Good Salespeople Don’t Make Good Sales Managers

It seems like such a great idea. Sandy is a top sales producer. You have an opening for a sales manager to help others do the same. Someone suggests, “Why don’t we promote Sandy to manager? A promotion will reward Sandy for good work and send a statement to the rest of the employees that ‘work makes you free.'” Twelve months later, Sandy is working for a competitor and the sales team is in a major sales slump. What happened? When Past Performance Does Not Predict Future Performance We all knew Sandy was a good producer. Sales reports showed continuous improvement and consistent performance. Sandy was a model cold-caller who could also establish strong relationships with customers. Everything was SO perfect! Why did Sandy fail? In many situations, past performance is a great predictor of future performance. It is the reason why we call references, examine W-2 reports, and conduct behavioral interviews. If the candidate has a record of accomplishment in the past, they should be successful in the future. Yes? Think again. Assuming past information is completely accurate (a major assumption), the only thing past performance indicates is whether the person produced successful results in a specific job. It does not accurately tell us:

  • How these results were achieved (pillage and plunder?)
  • Whether the person also has skills for a future position requiring different “hows”

Although we often think past results provide enough evidence to base a decision on, quality promotions and hiring decisions require knowing whether a person can perform the deeper and broader “hows” required of the new position. For example, I know of one salesperson who became a star salesperson in her third year. Great selling skills? No. She called on a client precisely when the client was planning a huge training project. Two years later, the salesperson was at the bottom of the pile. In another example, the salesperson was a great closer and climbed to the top of the ranks account by account. Five years later, she was history. She offended every client she sold, consistently under-quoted and over-billed, and left a trail of customer service problems in her wake. In a third example, a skilled successful trainer persuaded his manager to move him into sales. He knew clients, could do stand-up presentations and was very skilled on his feet. Eighteen months later, he was back delivering workshops. He didn’t have the right AIMS (attitudes, interests, and motivations). “How a job is done” is more important than “what is accomplished” because it describes how the results were achieved. A person with a great set of “hows” may not always draw attention to themselves, but they always have the right stuff to succeed in the long run. Back to Our Application As we mentioned before, if a past job did not require the same competencies as a future job, then past performance tells us nothing about future performance. Compare, for example, the requirements for Sandy’s job as a salesperson and job as a sales manager:

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Competency Area Salesperson Sales Manager
Mental Ability Applied to a few clients Applied to all clients and all salespeople
Planning Ability Applied to a few clients Applied to all clients and all salespeople
Interpersonal skills Persuasion, cold calling, customer service, fact-finding Coaching salespeople to persuade, cold call, serve customers, fact-find
AIMS Associated with personal accomplishments Associated with coaching and developing others

A sales manager is not supposed to be a super-salesperson. Sales managers are one-step removed from the client. But because they were once great salespeople, many sales managers find it easier to play the “watch and do what I do” game. However, a sales manager who steps in and does the selling robs the salesperson of a very valuable learning opportunity. A sales manager who insists on selling is like a coach who insists on being a player. If an organization wants to reward someone with a management position for great performance, then it is a better idea to change their title instead of their job responsibilities. Smart Enough? In addition to having to endure the pain of letting the salesperson “earn or burn,” a good sales manager also has to manage more details, identify the strengths and weaknesses of each salesperson, and keep up with the status of many different clients. This means the intellectual demands of management are significantly greater than for individual contributors. As people move into management positions, intellectual demands become more intense, problems more abstract, and decisions more complicated. In fact, when we study senior-level jobs, it seems like the executive does not “do” anything. That’s because these jobs are so complicated and intangible, they have few short-term benchmarks to measure results. Individual contributors can generally measure results every month, direct managers every quarter, mid-level managers annually, and senior managers every two to five years. Planner? Ever try to herd cats? Organize pre-schoolers? All those little animals going off into dozens of different directions. Salespeople are notorious for being disorganized. Sales managers do not have the same luxury. The sales manager is responsible for developing and managing activities of people who don’t want to be managed or developed. This takes an unusual person ó someone who is naturally organized, but not overbearing or micro-managing. How About Interpersonal Skills? Managers often have to leave behind their old persuasive skills and become better questioners and fact-finders. This may sound simple, but my own experience evaluating sales and management candidates shows most people are better “tellers” than “askers.” And people who start “telling” before they have done enough asking are usually wrong. Coaching skills are a major part of first-line management. Big deal? You bet! Ever wonder why every leadership program you ever attended has a different definition for leadership? That’s because there is no single effective form of leadership ó just one that “flexes” and accommodates each unique relationship with each follower. Slow followers need more help. Fast trackers need less. It all depends on the person. A manager who does not know how to flex with the occasion and accommodate to the subordinate will always be ineffective. All About AIMS Of course, now that we have someone who is smart enough, a great planner, and a skilled coach, we still have to be sure he or she likes being a manager. Salespeople get kudos and recognition. Sales managers usually stand behind the curtain. A person who wants and needs immediate feedback usually makes a better salesperson than a sales manager. A person who likes immediate personal rewards and high income usually makes a better salesperson than sales manager. A person who prefers direct action instead of working “through” others usually makes a better salesperson than sales manager. Salespeople who do not enjoy the responsibility of a management title ó just the “prestige” ó are a walking management disaster. Recommendations and Fixes I always hate this part. Nothing is easy about implementing effective HR solutions and a “free advice” column is always worth every penny you pay for it. Anyway, here are 20 years of expertise reduced to a simple checklist:

  • People need to abandon the idea that successful sales = effective management. It never worked, does not work, and never will work. We all know this. We see it all the time.
  • Managers need to know how to sell, not be the best at selling.
  • Managers need more “smarts”, better planning, different interpersonal skills, and different AIMS than individual contributors do. A smart person evaluates these skills before making a promotion.
  • Past performance cannot accurately predict future performance when future performance requires more and better skills.
  • Find an expert to evaluate future management candidates. It will pay for itself with the first good promotion.
  • By the way, clinical and counseling psychologists are great at treating sick people, but they usually know as much about job skills as a dermatologist knows about cardiology. (You have lovely skin, Mrs. Abbott. I’m sure those pesky heart attacks will subside right after we exfoliate your pores and dry-out those oily patches).


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