Sales Management is the Hardest Job in Sales

By Jeb Blount, author of People Follow You: The Real Secret to What Matters Most in Leadership

Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal. – Vince Lombardi

Sales Managers have the hardest job in sales. Why? Sales Managers bear 100% of the responsibility for the performance of their sales team yet receive little glory for their efforts. In most cases sales managers earn less than their top salespeople. Yet, the best sales managers work longer hours, endure more stress, and have greater responsibility than the salespeople they manage.

Making things worse is the fact that salespeople are harder to lead and manage than any other employee. They are emotional and often irrational people who demand attention. Because salespeople are essentially in jobs where rejection is the norm, sales managers are often called upon to be coaches, mentors, mothers, fathers, and sometimes therapists in order to keep their troops motivated, focused, and delivering on sales goals. If this isn’t hard enough sales managers are often put in the position of shielding their salespeople from corporate policy wonks, accountants and operators who have absolutely no understanding of the psychology of salespeople.

It is a wonder why any sane human being would voluntarily choose to be a sales manager. Though each year thousands of sales professionals give up their sales roles and accept the promotion. They move into new offices and proudly stare at their newly printed business cards with little understanding of what it takes to actually lead salespeople. Ill prepared to perform the job of sales manager a high percentage of these newly minted sales leaders are demoted or fired within 18 months.  Unfortunately the sales profession is a grave yard littered with the corpses of failed sales managers who had they embraced one important principle might have gone on to become superstars . . .

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Leadership Principle #1

In sales leadership one principle stands above all: You need your people more than they need you. Another way of saying this is that you get paid for what your salespeople do, not for what you do.

If you only internalize one lesson about leadership, make this the one. A basic understanding that you need your people more than they need you is the single most important leadership lesson you will ever learn. In our leadership seminars, we spend more time on this principle than any other concept. Why? Because until you get this—and I mean really make this principle part of your heart and soul—you cannot be a great sales manager. No exceptions.

Who Is More Important: You or Your Salespeople?

Consider this. It is Monday morning. You get to the office early, ready to start the day. As soon as you sit down at your desk, the phone rings. Mary calls in to say she is going to be out sick today. A few minutes later Ralph calls to remind you he will be on vacation. Then Ernie calls to say a relative died and he needs to fly to Cleveland to go to the funeral. One after another the calls come in, until suddenly you find yourself alone in the office; no one is coming in today. How would you fare?

Most sales managers when faced with this question answer that they would probably make it through Monday okay. So we follow that up with Tuesday—you show up but no one else does. How about Wednesday and Thursday? What if you came in each morning but the people who worked for you did not. How would you be doing by Friday?

You know the answer and so do I. No sales. Your business would be in shambles, your boss would be knocking down your door after getting your sales report, and you would be miserable.

But what if on Monday morning all of your salespeople showed up to work and you didn’t? Would sales come in? Absolutely. The fact is, even if you went on a two-week vacation, and all of your people showed up each day, things would likely be just fine. The work would get done.

One of the core traits of ineffective leaders and bad bosses is that they believe that they get paid for the things they do. These bosses range from the arrogantly self-centered to workaholics to micromanagers. They believe, at the core, that they are more important, smarter, and more competent than the people working for them.

Sales Managers Get Paid For What Their People Do

When you get your next paycheck, take a close look at it. The money that was deposited in your bank account was a direct result of the work your salespeople did. You were rewarded for their performance or nonperformance—not yours. To tell yourself anything different is an outright denial of the facts.

As a sales leader, if your salesperson succeeds, you succeed. If your salesperson fails, you fail. So it follows that your job is to position your people to win. You must create an environment in which they can succeed, develop their skills, leverage their talents, and remove roadblocks so that they sell. You need them more than they need you. Anything that you do that impedes their success hurts you!

Take Dave, a director of sales with seven salespeople on his team. Dave constantly demanded insignificant reporting on virtually everything. Each time he asked for a report, it took his people away from sales activities that generated revenue. One of his salespeople said, “He drove me over the edge of insanity. I’d be on my way to see a customer, and he’d call me wanting a report on something stupid right then, like it was the most important thing in the world.”

What happened to Dave? Dave’s goose was cooked because the talented people he had inherited when he took the job quit. He eventually lost a great job and thousands of dollars in incentive bonus because instead of helping his people succeed he became a roadblock to success.

Far too many sales managers never learn this lesson. The single most important leadership principle is this: You get paid for what your people do, not what you do. You need your people more than they need you.

Jeb Blount leadership Expert
Jeb Blount is the founder of SalesGravy.com and  a leading expert on leadership and human behavior. He helps companies, teams, and individuals transform their organizations and accelerate performance through intense focus on interpersonal relationships.  He is the author of five books including People Follow You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Leadership, People Buy You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Business, Sales Guy’s 7 Rules for Outselling the Recession, Business Expert’s Guide to Small Business Success and Power Principles.  To learn more call 706-664-0810 x102 or email carrie.martinez@peoplefollowyou.com.

30 Responses to “Sales Management is the Hardest Job in Sales”

  1. Jessica Velasquez says:

    Amen

  2. Alan says:

    Thanks Jeb, so true. Oh to go back 15 years and point that out to my (then) chief nob. All I wanted to do was sell. He wanted pretty reports to package for upstairs. Am still adhering to “lead or follow but stay out of the way!”

  3. to add to what you already stated, I find that (after working in sales for several different companies) sales managers in general- do not know how to manage themselves
    – look for reasons to make themselves look good to upper management instead of supporting their group
    – play the “cya” game too much, ie: take a chance on a new account, give them some credit, work with them to help their business grow and if they have any class they will help you build yours

    • Jeb Blount says:

      Mike – that is the whole point of People Follow You. The relationship between managers and their people is at an all time low (according to recent University level studies) for exactly the reasons you state. When managers behave this way they lose trust. Without trust there can be no leadership.

      Managers must wake up to the fact that they get paid for what their people do.

  4. Scott Smith says:

    I believe as the leader of the sales team my job is not to be the boss, but to eliminate any and all problems the sales staff has so they can do their jobs more effectively, and to create a positive environment for them to work in.

  5. Bill Truxal says:

    Folks,

    I am a Sales Director for a Foodservice Sales Independant company and have been at this for 27 years with a lot of success. The Article on the Hardest Job in Sales is right on the money. If you do not develop and recruit the right people, it can be an extremely painful existance. However, I have been blessed with good mentors, a great family, and have a passion for what I do and share,

    Just wanted to let you know, it is a Great Life!

    Thank you,

  6. Hank Huvaere says:

    As a Sales Manager who has been on the other side of the fence for many years I agree with all that was said in the article. I am fortunate to remember the frivolous things previous Sales Managers have asked of me and I work hard to clean a clear path of success for my staff. Doesn’t always happen but I understand that my job is to help make them successful for the overall benefit of the company.

  7. Bill says:

    The next time your manager calls you to “check up on you” just ask him, “What did you do today to help me make more money?” Most managers won’t have a clue how to answer and will be dumbfounded that you had the audacity to ask THEM that question(egomaniacs= most poor sales managers). Two other issues: 1. Fatal mistake of companies taking a superstar sales performer and making him/her THE Manager! Although expeience is important, selling and sales management require two totally different skill sets. 2. Poor structure of compensation between the sales manager and their salespeople.

  8. Guy Huttlin says:

    I was told a long time ago that a Sales Manager’s main job was to make heros not to be heros. I’ve tried to live that all my sales management career. If the first place you look when the sales rankings come out is for your name, you have it wrong. Help you people to the top, and your name will be up there with them. To use a sport analogy, if the team is failing, the coach is the first to go. Learn what your people are all about and make them the best they can be.

  9. Ted Hollo says:

    When I think of the hours spent in doing reports for sales managers whose main function was to justify their existence to upper management, it still is a lingering irritation. I remember one instance when a manager wanted me to drive back to the station in the middle of the sales day, 45 minutes away, to enter a sale for a flight that wasn’t going to start for several days, just so it could “hit her numbers” for that day. Yes, she was eventually let go.

  10. Sara Campe says:

    Being at that 18month mark of a new (inside) sales manager, I appreciate the information and will take this to heart. The last thing I want to do is to inhibit or stand in the way of my team being able to do their best! Thanks for the lesson!

  11. Greg Manjak says:

    I had a former sales manager tell me years ago, that if you want to get to the top, then you must run interference for your sales team and give them a clear road to success. If you can do that, then your sales team will bring you to the top along with them!

  12. Barry Parker says:

    This is my 10th year as sales manager of a 42 year old remodeling company. I have found that I’m more effective as a psychologist than as a sales manager. Each of my sales staff is unique in that 1 on 1 sessions are more effective than group meetings trying to keep my 7 motivated.
    You are correct when you say that compensation is solely based on my sales reps’ production. However, I enjoy grabbing a lead or 2 every week not only to keep myself sharp and up to date in selling skills, but it also just about guarantees a healthy check more times than not. It’s ironic though that my average day consists more of administration duties than sales leadership.
    Great article! I always look forward to your weekly email. Very creative. It makes all of us here better at what we do!

  13. The best sales manager I’ve ever had was a 70 year old woman who had the energy and optomism of a twenty-somthing. Here are a few of her points of wisdom:

    “My job is selecting top talent, beating up marketing to support you, coaching and inspiring you to win.”

    “Don’t major in the minors.”

    “I’ll always be there to mow the grass in front of you.”

    “Who are you that they are who they are?”

    “You may be able to teach a sheep to climb trees but it’s easier to hire a squirrel.”

    Relative to recruiting & hiring: “No matter how much mayonaise you stir in, if you start out with chicke shit, you don’t end up with chicken salad.”

  14. J MacDonald says:

    In the end, a sales manager is a middle manager, which is what the corporate world is eliminating . So when I see a sales manager , I know he isn;t there as a coach or mentor. He is there as a hatchet man. Firstly , to trim the bonuses and commisions. Secondly, to trim the sales force by amalgamating the inside guy and the outside guy. What he is there to do is fire the outside guy, then ride the inside guy to go out and see customers.

    • Jeb Blount says:

      I think this is an awefully cynical view of Sales Management. My experience is just the opposite. I’ve worked with Fortune 500 and and start-up companies and I find great and dedicated sales managers everywhere. Can they be better? Of course. However, to say that sales managers in general are just “hatchet men” is really missing the mark. Most sales leaders work harder and longer hours than their reps and many make less money. I wrote People Follow You because I believe that leaders of all stripes can improve. I think perhaps you have had bad experiences that are clouding your view and I hope you will give leadership another chance to win your trust.

  15. Great piece here Jeb. It is easy as a manager to get tripped up in the enforcement of operational doldrums to the salesman to prevent chaos and headaches throughout the chains in the organization. However, which is the greater headache; having to deal with protocol woes as a result of sales or having no sales at all? We have a motto scribed across our main hallway at our organization and it reads: “The only job we can’t do is the one we can’t sell.” The last thing I want to be as the manager is a stumbling block to that endeavor. Thanks again!

  16. Nikhil Deshpande says:

    Hi, I am 32 year old fellow from India, into sales profession, and I would like to say that these are
    Great views and 100 % hitting on the realities of Sales/ Sales Management I have experienced till date.

  17. Graeme Young says:

    Sales Managers can and are effective if they care, if they lead , if they train and give opportunity to their sales people, I have a sales manager who after 4 years in sales is the highest selling sales person in the team , his clients speak for him, of him, what he says he does and delivers on time, in the printing industry we are doing it tough in a very competive market, very little difference between companies, except for the sales person, the bettor the sales person, the bettor the sales are, add a top sales manager who cares and leads and you have a top team who will achieve.
    ps. the company sales budget actuals is above target to date.
    Cheers
    General Manager

  18. Pat LaVoie says:

    I’ve been in Sales Management for 30 years. I agree with Jeb’s point that “you need your people more than they need you.” And I think it is important for sales managers to accept that….HOWEVER…it is critical that Sales Managers do not let that evolve into a need for the Sales Reps to be your friends.
    Do not sell them on your value. The Sales Manager must create and maintain a healthy psychological distance from Sales Reps. He/She cannot shrink from being THE BOSS.

  19. Shea says:

    I agree with most that! A Sales Manager’s job is to lead by example not with selling themselves but by showing how and when to sell. lead with your enthusiasm and team building abilities not by being a selling Sales Manager but by taking them out and leading them to a Sale! Be a mentor not a friend,huge difference! Be a leader not a co leader!Finally always be there for them and stick up for your team, after all you built it!!! They always work hard for a person that is on there side morally and ethically!!!!

    Warm regards

  20. Michelle says:

    Great article. I once worked for a company where my sales manager’s style was to micro manage people. I am a “roll up your sleeves and get the job done” kind of gal. I spent more time during the day handing in report rather than selling. When she left the company the President asked me what I expected from my new Sales Manager. I told him to put my target on the board and don’t call to check up on me unless I was below target. I was the top sales rep within the year.

  21. Brian says:

    When I became a Sales Manager, one of the first things I did was get rid of the reports. My arguement to ownership was that the only report that mattered was Sales Orders and Invoices. The sales staff was so relieved to be held to only one standard of performance, sales increased 30% that year. For the past four years, ALL of my sales people have made more than me and I’m proud of that!

    • Jeb Blount says:

      Love to hear this. The best sales managers are proud when their salespeople earn more than they do. You’ve proven that when you move things out of the way of good people, they perform at high levels.

  22. Estanislao says:

    Hi Jeb,
    Thank you for sharing your insights with us. You’ve covered a subject that’s crucial for any leader. I’ll remember your message in the future – As a leader I need my people more than they need me.

    Sinceresly,
    Estanislao Chapel

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