Leading up to Dreamforce this year, I blogged on five deadly trends that we see in sales management:

1.     Inspection versus coaching

2.     Lack of common language

3.     Data overload

4.     Sales role specialization

5.     High demands on sales managers

It occurs to me that there’s one more important trend I should mention – a historically troubling trend that has actually begun to reverse direction in the past several years. This is the decades-long trend of ignoring sales managers from a training and development perspective.   

Sales training has been around for more than a century.  In fact, as early as the 1890’s, John Henry Patterson at National Cash Register (now NCR), had an entire school dedicated to training his salespeople.  And so it went from the 19th century into the late 20th century, when companies like IBM and Xerox developed legendary training programs for their frontline sellers. But for frontline sales management, school was never really in session.

This was a difficult reality, because it created a sad state of affairs in sales… Millions of sales managers around the world forced to figure out for themselves how to manage their teams.   Unlike managers in other parts of the corporation, sales management had no foundational knowledge like the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or Total Quality Management methodologies that their finance and operations peers enjoyed.  Instead, sales managers were trapped in a pattern of trial-and-error management, which yielded inconsistent management and even less consistent sales results.

Finally in the 21st century, companies began to realize that sales managers are not only critical to elevated sales performance, but they have been a woefully neglected population.  But this created a little bit of a chicken-or-egg situation with regard to training programs – historically low demand for sales management training had left a void of great sales management content.  Of course, there’s plenty of generic coaching and leadership training out there, but little that addresses the things sales managers actually do between Monday morning and Sunday night… Help their reps find, pursue, and win new deals. So why is it that there has been so little focus on equipping and training sales managers to succeed?  Honestly, we don’t know, but we have a couple of thoughts on the matter.

It could be the widely held assumption that if you promote a star salesperson to manager, they will inherently know how to recreate their success in others.   Of course, we all recognize now that promoting star sellers into management positions has no guarantee of success.  This is because salespeople can succeed if they excel at one or two things, like uncovering customer needs or matching those needs to their products, but sales management is a very complex role.   The most successful managers we know are jack-of-all-trade types, whose skills run a mile wide and deep enough to get by.  Simply stated, assuming that star salespeople will make star managers is a losing management strategy.

Another limiting factor could be the logical assertion that training front-line sellers is the most direct way to improve sales performance.   While probably true, it is not the only path to boosting sales performance.  We know many companies that have trained and re-trained their sellers only to realize little incremental improvement.  On the other hand, we have worked with companies where the sales force’s productivity improved dramatically after training their sales managers.  For one of our clients, the salespeople’s close rates improved from 25% to 37% over the course of 12 months without ever training a single salesperson.  They simply trained and coached their sales managers, which had a powerful indirect impact on sales performance.

So why was sales management been neglected for more than a century when it is such a huge lever for improving sales performance?  We don’t know, but we’re happy to see the trend reversing.  Training and development professionals are finally shining a light on sales management, and the results are proving that management training is every bit as powerful as sales rep training was before it.   So let’s end the frustration for the millions of sales managers around the world who are surviving through trial-and-error.  Let’s help them learn what to do between Monday morning and Sunday afternoon.  Sales manager school is now in session. 

Jason Jordan, one of the sales world's most prominent thought leaders, is now a Salesforce Sales Community contributor. This community is a new collaborative networking group for sales executives sharing best practices and innovations in sales leadership. We encourage all Salesforce customers to join Jason and other top sales thought leaders in the new Salesforce Sales Community.

About the Author

Jason Jordan is a founding partner of Vantage Point Performance, a global sales management training and development firm, and co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code. Jordan is a recognized thought leader in the domain of business-to-business sales and teaches sales and sales management at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. For more information, visit www.vantagepointperformance.com.

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