One of my favorite quotes comes from the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “Eventually your strengths will become a weakness.” Nowhere do I see this lesson more clearly than when a great sales rep is promoted into sales management, and never succeeds as well at managing as they did at selling. The reason is tied to Sun Tzu’s insight: the instincts and habits that made a salesperson successful are often the exact opposite of what they need to succeed in sales management.
Here are three examples of sales rep strengths that turn into weaknesses when they become sales managers.
Every sales rep is taught to be persistent. “Never give up” is the rallying cry to keep their spirits up. That kind of tenacity is very valuable in salespeople; it makes them persist and wins more deals.
But when a sales manager decides to never give up on their reps — especially low producers — it can potentially damage the team. I know for a fact this happens all the time because whenever I ask a group of sales managers “Is there anybody on your team that you wouldn’t have hired if you knew back then what you know now?” About 90% of them raise a hand.
Then I ask, “How long have you known this?” Answers vary from a few months to, in some cases, a few years.
To illustrate why “never giving up” is a poor management practice, consider how your less productive reps think about the worst producer on your team. Answer: job security. They’re pretty sure they won’t be the next person let go as long as there is someone worse than them on the team. I’ve found this to be true even in companies with dispersed workforces, as salespeople still talk with each other, and know what’s going on across the team.
It’s important to establish a standard method for evaluating performance and enforce it equally. If poor performers repeatedly fail to improve, cut your losses sooner rather than later.
I’ve rarely met a sales manager who wasn’t promoted up through the ranks. As a successful rep, they felt like they were masters of their own destiny. Most wanted to be left alone so they could do their magic without a manager watching over their shoulder.
It’s natural that when those star salespeople become managers, they take a hands-off approach to the rockstar sales reps on their team. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
There are two problems here. First, if you leave a rockstar alone, they’ll often turn into a prima donna — self-centered and demanding with a rules-aren’t-made-for-me attitude. Research has shown this can be toxic to an entire sales team.
Second, a sales manager is bypassing an opportunity to create a positive role model for the team if they fail to coach a rockstar. A rockstar fully engaged with their team can become what I call a “bell cow” — someone who sets a positive example for the rest of the team.
Either way, sales managers should not take a hands-off approach with their most successful reps. Instead, they should consistently enforce standards and make sure the more accomplished reps share their insights with teammates. That’s the best way for the entire team to improve.
In the numerous sales management webinars I’ve delivered recently, 30% of the audience said they struggle most with their instinct to avoid conflict. In their time as sales reps they were, in a way, rewarded for avoiding conflict. For example, the best salespeople design presentations to prevent objections from coming up.
As sales managers, the instinct to avoid conflict translates into a manager who is reluctant to have difficult conversations with underperforming sales reps. Before they know it, they’re tolerating mediocrity on their team.
“What you don’t confront, you condone” is a phrase I repeat often in my workshops. The last thing you want your salespeople to think is that poor behaviors are acceptable. It’s key to help sales managers remember that the sooner problems are addressed with a rep, the less negative emotion is involved in resolving it. By avoiding the problem, they’re allowing it to fester and get worse.
Leading and managing a sales team requires a different mindset and skillset than selling. The examples I’ve given here are all instances where managers who act on their sales rep instincts create a poor atmosphere on their team. Research has shown that having just one person with a bad attitude can demoralize the entire team.
All sales managers want to be as great at managing as they were at selling. To do that, they have to continue working on the way they approach managing and make sure their sales rep instincts don’t turn into sales management weaknesses.
“The instincts and habits that made a salesperson successful are often the exact opposite of what they need to succeed in sales management.”