Understanding (and Overcoming) the Fatal Flaw of Sales Management

Sales, like other functions, is managed by metrics, and sales ops leaders work hard to design dashboards so that everyone, from the sales leader to the individual seller, understands how they are performing relative to their goals. However, when leaders become overly focused on these reports and the metrics contained within them, they can get in the way of effective sales management.

To illustrate this point, imagine for a moment that you’re a golfer who wants to improve your game. You’re tired of your buddies beating you every weekend and you decide to hire the pro at the local golf club for some lessons. On the day of your first lesson, you head down to the golf course, shake hands with your new coach, and eagerly await his golfing wisdom.

Now imagine that the conversation goes like this:

You: Hi there. I’m looking forward to you helping me improve my golf game.
Coach: Great! You know, the way to become a better golfer is to lower your score.
You: I know, that is why I hired you. How do I do that?
Coach: I suggest you practice more. The more balls you hit here will lower your score. And the lower your score, the better your game. Let’s touch base in a few weeks to see how you’re doing.
You: Um, okay…

Would you pay this person for their services? No, of course not. The coach didn’t add any value. He didn’t offer any advice on what you could do to achieve the result you were after. He only focused on the result itself – your score.

Think this kind of conversation would never happen? Think again, because many of your front-line managers fall victim to this approach when interacting with their sellers.

When managers are preparing to meet with their salespeople, they are likely most concerned with one thing: is this sales person on target to hit their quota? So when they meet with their sellers, they tend to focus their time and attention on that result (e.g., is this seller behind? By how much?).

However, as with the fictional golf coach above, this is incredibly frustrating for the seller. Knowing where they stand relative to their target doesn’t help them in any way toward reaching that target. The seller wants to know what they can do to hit their goal, not how well they’re performing.

Sales managers need to understand this fatal flaw in sales management: the more they focus on the result, the less likely it is that their sellers will achieve that result. Results can be easily measured but they are impossible to manage.

If you see your sales managers in this picture, what can you do? Based on our ongoing research and work with clients, we recommend that sales ops leaders solve this widespread challenge using the following three approaches:

(1) Bring in Sales Management-focused Training. Many sales mangers enter the job (likely having been promoted into the role) with certain tendencies that need to be corrected. To address this, managers need to be equipped with the right set of skills to transform and improve the quality of their interactions with their sellers.

Most critically, managers need to know how to focus on more than results. They need to know how to identify the correct High-Impact Activities (a term we use with sales managers) for their sellers. These High-Impact Activities are those that can both be measured AND managed. And, if selected correctly, they will help that seller hit their goal.

With this capability, sales managers can more effectively manage their sellers by providing them a much clearer path to hit their number.

(2) Improve Internal Reporting. CRM does a tremendous job collecting and reporting data, and these reporting capabilities are pretty overwhelming for your sales managers. With this in mind, sales ops leaders should build capabilities into the CRM system that enable their sales managers to quickly ascertain whether their salespeople are executing their High-Impact Activities. If they’re not, then managers can seek to understand why. And if they are, managers can determine whether they are helping to get that seller to goal.

By building these capabilities into your CRM system, you will not only transform the system into a coaching tool (which is the brass ring for many sales ops leaders), you will also encourage a higher level of CRM adoption and utilization.

(3) Re-focus Sales Leadership. The final step is to ensure that senior sales leadership is on board with this new approach. It’s no good doing (1) and (2) if all sales managers hear from leadership is, “revenue, revenue, revenue!”

Sales ops can play a critical role in educating sales leadership on what they can do to support and enable sales managers beyond focusing on results. Sure, revenue will be on the table, but that needs to be supplemented with an equal focus on how that sales manager is supporting his or her sellers on the execution of their High-Impact Activities. This balance will send a strong signal that while revenue is important, focusing sellers on the right activities is even more critical.

Revenue will always be a focus in sales – that will never go away. The problem is that because revenue is so easily (and frequently) measured, many leaders believe they can manage it. They can’t. They can only manage the activities that lead to increased revenues. In fact, the more managers obsess about results, the less likely they are to actually achieve them.

It’s time we change the conversations sales managers are having with their reps. It’s time for managers to set aside the rep’s results and instead focus in on the specific activities the rep can control to improve those results. By implementing the three changes above, sales operations leaders can equip their sales managers to more effectively manage their teams, and overcome the fatal flaw of sales management.