This article covers the key issues in the successful management of salespeople, including specific strategies to improve sales force productivity. You’ll also find books, seminars, and trade shows related to sales management.


Today’s turbulent economy has spurred a number of changes that affect the ways that sales managers manage, train, and motivate their sales forces.

Perhaps the most important trend is the tension created by corporate downsizing and the increasing need of customers for stronger relationships with suppliers. Thus, while sales managers must contain costs, they must also increase the sales force’s ability to cultivate relationships and gather strategic information.

Sales training budgets are being slashed, too, reducing the ability of sales managers to communicate goals, product benefits, strategies, and resources.

Meanwhile, sales cycles are decreasing dramatically. Many companies are adopting time-to-market as a key measurement of success, and this begs shorter order response times and faster customer service. Historically, sales forces didn’t concern themselves with such issues. While sales force automation helps to solve part of the problem, truncated sales cycles continue to intensify the pressure on sales managers.

Customers are also demanding more personal, quality-packed service from companies and salespeople. Sales managers can no longer afford to have salespeople serve merely as order-takers. They need to use them as tools to learn customer needs and gather intelligence on competitors. Such value-oriented relationships are difficult to foster, if severe budgetary restraints are applied by corporate financial officers who often don’t understand the full impact of cutting sales force size and resources.

As markets shift, sales managers find themselves managing several channels of delivery. Salespeople have to become jacks of many trades. Experts agree that the company of tomorrow will deal with between six and ten channels of distribution and that sales managers will be responsible for having them work together effectively.


Effective sales managers will be able to adapt to the changing marketplace and manage and motivate their troops. The two most important traits such managers will have are:

Strong leadership. Successful sales managers are “change managers” able to take the largest possible percentage of their existing work force and provide them with the education, motivation, and supervision to do new things in new ways.

Thorough marketplace knowledge. The best sales managers stay on top of their markets. They upgrade their knowledge by attending trade shows and seminars and studying educational tapes and books (see Self-Study/Courses and Books). They improve their grasp of people skills, marketing, technology, management, networking, and presentations.


Strategy-minded sales managers are constantly on the attack, addressing customer problems, sales training, and motivational concerns. Here are the key elements of successful sales management:

Vision. The give-me-a-purchase-order method of selling has been consigned to history. Sales managers must lead by identifying ways to create value for their customers. “Need selling” is the rule in today’s marketplace.

Identify competitors’ advantages and outline your company’s strengths and weaknesses in dealing with customers. This will enable you to form a vision based on reality. Examine your company’s role in the customer’s buying cycle. In face-to-face interviews, learn how you might work with customers as a partner and then pass the message along to your sales force. Develop value-added services and programs based on the information.

A strategic sales plan. Leaders who understand the big picture must be able to specify the best sales opportunities and how the sales force will go after them.

A strategic plan should include a review of the competencies required of salespeople to execute the plan. For example, a sales manager may develop a list of 20 traits and skills salespeople must possess, including personality factors, interpersonal skills, industry expertise, accounting skills.

Effective managers can identify those competencies that support their plan. For example, a company might focus on consultative selling, first getting customers to see the benefits of an initial study and later providing them with ideas to solve problems. The value-added tools might include a proprietary database to be used as a diagnostic tool.

Before you can create a strategic plan, you need to know how customers want to work with your company. Will they rely on you simply as a supplier, or do they want you to work with them on strategic development? Spell out the skills that salespeople must have to fulfill the needs requested by customers.

No strategic plan should be drafted without the participation of the sales force. Present your sales plan to customers and then fine tune it. Your salespeople will react much more readily to an approach that has already proven successful in the field.

Base your training strategy on specific needs. Once you have a strategy, you have to make sure everybody in your sales operation buys into it. Training should spell out paths of success for each individual on the sales team.

Develop a relationship-oriented management style. In relationship-oriented training, top sales managers shift their focus from reviewing to planning. They put most of their effort into sitting down with people to help them plan crucial calls. According to industry studies, successful sales managers spend roughly three times as much time doing this as do their less successful counterparts. Studies of successful sales managers also point to a heavy emphasis on coaching, one-on-one time spent developing skills needed for strategic planning and selling.

Updated compensation plan. With more people sharing corporate accountability, sales managers need to measure and reward their sales force for their impact on profit, not gross sales. Leading-edge companies recognize that their salespeople can have a big impact on price, product mix, discounts, and transportation allowances.

Many companies use new criteria that reinforce quality customer relationships. For example, they track customer satisfaction or number of contacts within an account. They base pay primarily on performance measures, eschewing gross sales and opting for sales contribution dollars and taking into consideration discounts, allowances, transportation, overhead, and gross profit dollars before advertising.

Customer-retention has become another important measurement now that companies realize that keeping a customer is less expensive than hunting for a new one.

Team-oriented compensation plans are also gaining momentum. Traditionally, the company rewarded the salesperson for closing the sale on his own. But today it’s difficult for one person to close mega-dollar sales. Corporate consolidation means there are larger companies with fewer suppliers serving them. It takes a sales team to handle a big customer, including marketers, logistics people, merchandising people, and distributors.

Strong motivational skills. Sales managers must know how to stroke and stoke the drive and passion within each salesperson. Top managers understand that a sales force is made up of individuals. They also understand that money isn’t always the key driver. Experts point out that the number one motivator for salespeople isn’t money, but independence and recognition.

Understanding of empowerment. Empowerment is as much a corporate attitude as it is a process. Top managers are adopting an attitude that says, “I hire adults. I’ll give them marching orders and strategies, and they then understand that they’re going to work as professionals. I’ll monitor the situation and give them help when they need it.”

Effective managers prefer that salespeople make most key decisions. Empowerment means setting precise parameters. For example, they advise salespeople that they know their customers as well as anyone, and only if certain types of decisions need to be made should they bring in the sales manager.

Adopt an attitude of trust. Teach salespeople how to make the proper decisions. Set limits on such things as credits for taking product back or travel and entertainment. Spell out these limits in a printed guide that formally reinforces the limits of empowerment.

Targeted incentive programs. Formal incentive programs-group incentive trips, merchandise-catalogue awards, President’s Clubs-remain popular. But sales managers will need to adapt such programs to answer business realities. Achievement awards must be based on what today’s salespeople want, and goals must be those that are realistic.

In addition, incentive programs need to focus not only on a salesperson’s personal productivity, but on the contributions of all people and all channels involved in the total sales effort. Not only should programs cut across all channels of the company, they have to include more quality-oriented measures, such as time spent with customers.

Group travel remains the most popular award for top performers, with individual-travel awards, gift certificates, and merchandise also high on the list. But leading-edge companies are tapping the power of nonfinancial incentives also, including plaques and clubs. Insightful sales managers realize that most successful people are motivated not only by trips and prizes but by the opportunity to become part of an inner circle. Many of today’s sales programs feature winners who are consulted by senior company officials and who are playing a bigger role in corporate decision making.

Define incentive program objectives, including the specific products and behaviors that are targeted.

Know whom to promote. Ambitious salespeople often want to have the opportunity to move into management when they would probably do best staying in sales. If you are faced with such an individual pressing for advancement, be honest and express your concern. In the case of top performers, make sure they get recognition within the organization as well as an open-ended compensation program that enables them to earn even more if their sales increase. Make them mentors who help bring along juniors. Make sure that these salespeople feel valued for who they are so that they don’t feel the continual need to improve their status.

Understand automation. If your company doesn’t have a contact management software program for its salespeople, it’s probably much less productive than it could be. Sales automation allows you to keep track of who your customers and prospects are, and makes it easy to communicate with them. These programs can automate letter-writing and faxing, generate sales reports, and pinpoint geographic or industry sales opportunities. They’re easy to use. Start with a simple program such as Symantec’s Act. Data kept in a simple contact-management program almost always can be exported to a more elaborate program later on.

Take The Headache Out Of Employee Recognition Programs