Shot by Both Sides

In today’s business world, everyone perceives themselves to be busier than ever, have more demands than ever, and maintain less control over the pace at which everything operates. In any company with a sales team (i.e. the majority), this feeling of being overwhelmed, distracted, and always playing catch-up is particularly acute among sales managers.

Why? Well, let’s examine the reality of the role for a moment. To start, most sales managers are thrust into their positions after being a successful salesperson. But as we know only too well from sports, the best players don’t always make the best managers.

Is this approach entirely wrong? Not at all. What is wrong is that most companies neglect to do the following essentials: properly profile competency, nurture talent, and train the best prospects among their sales ranks for a role that’s very different than what they’re used to doing. Instead, many newly appointed sales managers are given some cursory “training” and perhaps some “mentoring” from an established sales manager or leader (both of who, in reality, are too busy to ever really do it effectively). So, in essence, this pivotal and critical role within an organization is left to sink or swim, and the attrition rates, as a result, are quite staggering. In fact, research has consistently shown that the average tenure of B2B sales leaders is 18 months. Yes, a year and a half on average!

So why is there such turnover in sales management positions? Besides a lack of proper nurturing, selection processes, and post-selection training, there are many reasons why sales managers fail and, as a result, are let go or get burnt out and leave.

In modern sales managements, for example, there’s a direct point of conflict between sales managers and salespeople. The conflict is caused by sales managers’ obsessions with data and beliefs that the more data companies collect from the frontlines, the better their decision making will be. This also applies to many of the marketing professionals those managers collaborate with to support the sales team. While this is, on the surface, a noble aspiration, it’s one that often discounts the reality that salespeople operate in. So, the new sales manager has to try and enforce using a technology platform that was selected by the organization because it promised to deliver data, reports, and analytics; however, the platform often fails to deliver on its promise because of lack of adoption or correct usage. This same sales manager probably used to be one of the salespeople who disliked the system, didn’t use it, or didn’t update it properly. Oh, the irony of it all!

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The second point of inherent conflict exists between the sales manager and marketing. Suddenly, marketers are no longer simply coming to “sales and marketing alignment meetings” with a calendar of email marketing campaigns or other “traditional” activities that most salespeople depend on to get leads. Instead, they’re also talking about inbound strategies, content marketing, and how salespeople need to build personal brands and increase their social footprint.  The sales manager sits there with the voices of his salespeople echoing in his head shouting, “More leads, more leads!” He feels like another crutch has just been kicked away. He has to face an often incredulous sales team and tell them that email campaigns are being reduced but that they’re going to establish professional LinkedIn profiles and Twitter accounts.

So, here we have the new sales manager mandated by management to deliver sales results and show progress by supplying more accurate forecasting and pipeline management. Although he feels like marketing just left him high and dry without a reliable lead flow, like anyone who starts a new position, the new sales manager goes about the task with the zeal of a recent convert and becomes the data police. His erstwhile peers in the sales team are now hounded by him to update the CRM system, spreadsheet, or whatever management tool his company uses. Again, the irony isn’t lost on the individual salesperson, nor on the newly minted sales manager. And so, the clock starts ticking on that average 18 month tenure.

The sales manager’s precious time is consumed with chasing data input, validating that data, running reports, reconciling reports, and trying to explain anomalies, which requires additional investigation and more reports. Despite all of this frenetic activity, the heavy focus on data reporting rarely results in any meaningful improvement. Forecasts are still inaccurate; pipelines fluctuate widely; targets are missed; everyone is frustrated. Management begins losing faith in their new appointment, marketing is frustrated that the sales team has not implemented any of their recommended social selling tactics (even though they constantly complain about lead flow), salespeople resent being constantly berated over what they see as valueless data entry, and the poor sales manager—who was once celebrated as a top producer—is  now feeling deflated and isolated (or to quote alt-punk band Magazine “shot by both sides”).

What typically happens next is the following: The sales manager, in effort to overcome the negatives, decides that the antidote is to close more deals, which will hopefully result in some good revenue news that will cure all. Again, on the surface, this makes sense. But what usually happens is that the sales manager starts to parachute into late-stage deals, marginalize the salesperson, or even completely push them aside and go into “super-closer” mode. While this can sometimes have a short-term positive impact on a few deals, it has the more medium and longer-term effect of demotivating salespeople and neglecting the overall health of the pipeline, which results in less quality leads coming through.

Pity the poor sales manager. Sales results haven’t improved, data accuracy hasn’t improved, and morale in the sales team has plummeted, and relations with marketing are at an all time low. So, is it any wonder that somewhere in the first 18 months either he or senior management (or even both) start looking at an exit strategy?

If companies want to break this cycle, they have to stop the madness. They have to reexamine the role of the sales manager and properly train him to bring added value to his team. This will only be achieved when organizations take away the focus from “manage” and put it on “coach.” When companies agree on what data  is most important rather than on how much data they’d like to get, that  focusing on a few high-impact activities is better than having a scattered focus on a multitude of activities, that sales and marketing alignment is best achieved by a mutual understanding of (and alignment with) the buyer’s buying process, and that there’s an inherent conflict between sales managers and salespeople that needs to be replaced by a dynamic, mutually beneficial partnership, then the cycle will end.


John Golden is author of Winning the Battle for Sales and Social Upheaval: How to Win @ Social Selling and chief strategy officer of CRM provider Piperlinersales.

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