The Big Picture

Are your salespeople missing their goals? The problem might be the manager.

I’ve worked to turn around many struggling sales forces during my career. More often than not, the problem wasn't that the sales team was "bad." It was that the team was poorly managed. These poor sales managers were degrading the sales teams' morale and efficiency—and most of them didn't even realize it. Here are some the worst mistakes sales managers make. Avoid these sins at your company, and you’ll see everyone’s numbers go up.

Sin No. 1: Making surprise visits.

One of the most exasperating situations for a sales rep is when a manager drops by with little warning. The manager does this hoping to see the rep in a “natural state”—how he or she works without the boss watching. But the problem with this tactic is twofold. For starters, it distracts the rep and degrades his or her performance. In other words, the rep won’t be laser-focused on executing the day’s plan, and the manager won’t get a true picture of that rep’s ability. Second, unexpected visits send a message to reps that the manager doesn’t trust them—and that is a sure-fire relationship killer.

Sin No. 2: Meeting with reps’ customers unannounced.

When I was a sales rep, I once had a sales manager meet with a long-term customer in my territory without my knowledge. I found out a week later, not from my manager but from the confused customer. This customer considered it poor business etiquette that my manager hadn’t informed me of his visit, and that hurt the customer's confidence in the company.

Sin No. 3: Breaking promises.

Of all attributes, trustworthiness is the most important in a sales manager. Sales managers should always keep their commitments, be consistent in the way rules are applied, and keep themselves informed about the daily challenges reps face. That will go a long way in keeping the trust of the sales team.

Sin No. 4: Treating all territories the same.

When a sales manager focuses on numbers alone, he or she can give reps the impression that all territories have equal potential. But there are almost always other influences that give one territory an advantage over another, and the manager must acknowledge these. For example, if a territory already has existing influential customers that will make new customer acquisition easier. Conversely, it’s harder to gain new customers in territories where there are few current users. And there are other factors that can come into play. For instance, if a new rep is replacing a salesperson of dubious reputation, the new rep will need to overcome the customer’s existing negative perception of the company. Good sales managers will recognize and acknowledge that not all territories are equal.

Sin No. 5: Showing favoritism.

All sales reps want to believe they have a fair shot at succeeding. When a sales manager gives more concessions, attention, or rewards to some reps over others, he or she degrades the team’s morale. This is a mortal sin, because morale is vital to the success of any sales team.

Sin No. 6: Requiring unnecessary paperwork or reporting.

Paperwork and reporting should serve one goal: closing sales. But many sales managers forget this, to everyone’s detriment. At one company, we found that reps were spending 10 percent of their time obtaining corporate approval on sales quotes. To reduce this, we set up a pricing matrix that allowed reps to directly quote the customer. We soon found that freeing up this 10 percent of the reps’ time generated a 20 percent growth in sales, with no increase in workforce cost. The lesson is clear: unnecessary reports and paperwork are a drag on sales production.

Sin No. 7: Setting unrealistic goals.

A sales team must perceive that all goals as reasonable and attainable. If the sales manager sets those goals too high—or too low—it signals to the sales team that the manager is not in touch with the market. It’s difficult for reps to respect and have confidence in managers like that.