The Role of Sales Leadership in Driving Change on the Front Line

This post originally appeared here in the Training Industry blog.

It is common knowledge that front-line sales managers are the key to creating change in the behavior of sales people. It makes perfect sense that changes in sales manager practices lead to desired changes in salesperson practices; however, there are other powerful forces at play which impact this vital interrelationship. Front-line sales managers live in a chaotic world. They are in the middle of a plethora of pressures from their bosses, from their teams, as well as from the other functions within the organization such as marketing, sales ops, HR, etc. So how does the behavior of a sales manager’s boss–the manager of managers–impact the sales manager’s effectiveness?

Control Freaks?

First, let’s examine what is important to the sales manager’s manager or sales leader. Sales leaders are inherently a bit insecure for a very important reason. The further they get from the action on the front line, the less they really know about front-line execution. This lack of knowledge keeps the leader up at night and the lack of real control over field execution creates a tremendous appetite for data. The more data is available to the sales leader, the more secure they feel. Data most often comes in the form of pipeline updates or forecasts. Forecasts give the perception of insight. If the sales leader knows what’s going to close, that means the sales leader knows what’s going on! Or does it? This is actually a false sense of control.

Forecasting’s Shortcomings

A sales forecast is typically a very short-term window into sales performance; however, the amount of effort required by the sales manager and the sales team to produce and continually update a forecast is immense. All of that effort is typically expended at the expense of selling time. Forecasts are necessary and organizations need them, but they don’t help sellers sell more stuff and they don’t help sales managers manage and coach more effectively. So how can sales leaders actually enable better sales execution? How can they actually help front-line sales managers be more effective? They can help sales managers focus on the activities that lead to sales results and on the things managers can actually manage – and then make sure that focus is effective.

Manageable High-Impact Activities

Since all sales activities are not equally important, it is vital for sales managers to focus on those critical few activities that matter most. Let’s call those “high-impact” activities. For a front-line sales manager to be effective, they must ensure that execution of those high-impact activities take place effectively. So what does this have to do with the forecast? Not much; however, it has everything to do with seller-manager conversations. To the degree that sales leaders put as much emphasis on helping sales managers have better coaching conversations with sellers about high-impact activities, those sales leaders actually encourage and enable better sales execution.

Sales Coaching to the Rescue

Sales coaching matters.  However, the details around what sales managers coach, how they coach, and how often they coach, matter most.  And, this is where sales leaders can provide assistance. They can help front-line sales managers establish the right rhythm for coaching conversations with their salespeople. Once a rhythm is established, sales leaders must ensure the conversations are effective. This requires a dramatic shift of focus for the sales leader away from, “Give me the forecast,” to “Let me help you coach more effectively.” The shift is vital and has tremendous impact.

To summarize, sales leaders must help sales managers:

  • Identify those seller activities that are most high-impact
  • Help front-line managers establish the right rhythm of coaching conversations
  • Provide feedback to enable sales managers to effectively coach sellers on what is most important

When sales leaders do these three things, sales execution improves. When sales execution improves, sales leaders, and everyone down the line, enjoys better performance.