Do the Best Sales Reps Make the Best Sales Managers?

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Most of us are aware of the Pareto Principle. Not to be confused with the Peter Principle – where employees are promoted to their level of incompetence. The Pareto Principle is the 80/20 rule and it applies to selling in that 80% of the productivity will come from 20% of the sales people. It is from that 20% where we find a pool of candidates to promote to sales management.  

This 20% is intuitively good at their job. They naturally understand the nuances of political navigation, strategic literacy, objection handling, building competitive preferences, probing for pain, and negotiating for value.  However, generally speaking, the 80% do not have this intuition. They need training, coaching, messaging, and process to help them win a complex sale.

This is why I love working with new sales managers! They are fantastic practitioners of their company’s sales process, tireless workers, and can pick apart the competition with surgical precision.  They also have a tremendous track record of success which provided them their opportunity for advancement. From my observations, the natural career path of most sales managers is one of internal promotion from the field.

When the 20% are promoted to manage the 80%, the process begins as such.  Being the eager leaders that they are and with fresh revenue production pressures, new managers hit the ground running. Without direction to do otherwise, new managers resort to what they do best – selling.  Their first instinct is to take ownership of ALL of the deals in their new territory. It is so apparent to them what needs to be done and yet their direct reports seem to be doing the wrong things. The 20% fail to understand why selling doesn’t come as intuitively to the 80% as it does to them.  Oftentimes, the new sales manager takes on the mantra, “if you want something done right, you do it yourself.” After all, that attitude worked so well for them when they were a rep.  

Over a short period of time, the new manager becomes the de facto new sales rep on every qualified opportunity in his/her territory.  This has a terrible impact on the team because the direct reports are getting no coaching and they have been relegated to a sales assistant on their own deals.  The impact is even worse on the new sales manager because eventually the enthusiasm for their new job fades into 80 hour work weeks and airport layovers. Disillusionment sets it in. They haven’t learned any new management skills but have taken on much more responsibility.  They begin to wonder if they are an example of the Peter Principle.

I see this cycle in many sales organizations. A-players are recruited, promoted, burned out, and leave.

How do we break this cycle? First, it should be the company’s responsibility to bring the new sales manager into the fraternity of leadership.  New sales managers need a beginner’s course for management just as they had when they became a new sales rep. Second, we need to realize the skills that make a good sales rep are not the same of a good sales manager. Good sales managers realize that they need to scale, coach, cultivate, and lead; not parachute in on every qualified opportunity.  They understand that the profession of sales is more foreign to their direct reports so they document the best practices that move a sale along the process.  They train their reps on how to handle a discovery call, give an effective presentation, and build a business case for their solution. Not do it for them. Good Sales managers coach every deal in their territory – they don’t cover every deal. 

To answer the question, do the best sales reps make the best sales managers, the answer is yes. If new sales managers understand that they weren’t promoted to use their skills to close more deals, they were promoted to coach their direct reports on how to be more like them.

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7 Responses

  1. being a good sales rep does not make u a good manager per se.
    being a good sales rep means having empathy and being able to manipulate but also being friendly.
    In general mangers need these skills so you could say good sales reps have an advantage in being because they are used to getting their way. But needing a certain harshness is also needed as a manager.

  2. I have been one those sales reps promoted to sales manager and it took several months for me to comprehend how to get it “all” done. I think the biggest challenge for me was that I was teaching the reps my process but they did not have to do it exactly as I had done it. I learned that as long as they did not venture too far off the path of process it was ok. Being the control freak that I am, it was difficult to watch sometimes. The sales reps appreciated the freedom and encouraged them to sell more.

  3. On a recent NCIS television show, Gibbs had Tony run the team on a case Tony had originally messed up. At one point Gibbs gave a detailed analysis of the situation and was told, “That was more that you usually say in a week!”

    His response was that as the leader, his job was not to tell the team what he thought.

  4. I worked for an organization with 1200 sales reps and 200 sales managers in my division alone. Although superstar reps would always be offered the first opportunity for promotion (if they wanted it), they very frequently were not superstars as managers.

    It was quite common for middle-of-the-road reps., folks who were consistent performers but rarely award winners, to make the best managers.

    I’ve never analyzed why, but I believe it comes down to the fact that the superstars worked by instinct and often had no idea why they were successful. As a result, they find it difficult to understand why others fail (or succeed) and how to pass on their skills to their teams.

    The non-superstars became consistent performers by keeping a positive attitude, exercising discipline, and a employing a repeatable process, all of which they could pass on to their teams when they became managers..

  5. The problem with a star salesperson becoming a manager is the focus must change from the customer to the direct report. The complexity is the direct report should have the same goals as the manager. but often they do not. By definition they are not star performers so they have different motivations. This is where the disconnect occurs.

    The tendency for the star is to concentrate on just the 20% of his clients that produce the 80% of revenue. But in today’s corporate environment, the manager does not have that luxury. They must get the 80% of the direct report’s production up or they must be replaced. And this is where the manager’s skill set falls short; they do not know how to recruit, train, nurture and develop because their history is to ignore the 80%. Thus we are left with a shrinking sales force, frustrated experienced reps who are being asked to do more with less, and managers that only know who to fire and replace, or do it themselves. Is it any wonder that the only improvements result from moving offshore to reduce costs or the infrequent serendipitous innovation that allows even the inexperienced to achieve massive sales growth.

    The solution is middle management training. The ideal organization will treat training as a necessity at all levels within the organization. And it must be implemented immediately. As we know, it costs 4 times as much to acquire a new customer (salesperson) as it does to retain a current one.

  6. This issue was the inspiration for my book “Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager.” Companies are infamous for “promoting” their top sales person into management with the thought that if they put six people underneath the top rep, they get six times the sales. This rarely happens.

    Companies fail to recognize that this isn’t a promotion, it’s a job change. That means that they have to evaluate the candidate on the scope of the job and be prepared to train, mentor, and manage the new manager so they, and their team, are successful.

    My book is designed for the sales people working for managers who are not equipped to help them so that they can be successful when sales architecture is not provided for them.

  7. I fully agree with your observations. I was a sales rep and then became a manager. I also have worked with several managers who grew in ranks. The skills required to be a manager are quite different from those of a rep.

    If the new manager is not trained, nor has the quality to lead a team, it is a disaster. He cannot be everywhere closing the deals. His team gets moralized as the manager is getting into their shoes. The manager soon gets burnt out.

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