I was in the depths of a major depression.  As a third year sales person with a good company, I was doing well, and was on my way to becoming the top sales person in the nation for that company.  But business had slowed down a little, and I didn’t have my usual number of proposals out for consideration.  So, I wasn’t as busy as usual.  As my activity slowed, I began to worry about my territory.  My doubts and concerns increased to the point where I had thought myself into a real depression, stuck on the question of “What’s the use of trying?”  The more negative my thoughts became, the less energy I had.  My lack of energy led to fewer and fewer sales calls, which of course, led to less activity.  And that led to more depressing thoughts.  I was caught in a powerful downward spiral.

It was then that I caught a glimpse of what a professional sales manager is like.

Ned Shaheen was my boss — a sales manager of the highest caliber.  He could see the symptoms of my sour state spilling over into everything I was doing.  So Ned intervened.  He arranged to have lunch with me, and listened patiently as I rambled on and on about my problems, my doubts, my concerns, and my lack of activity.  Finally, after I had dumped all my depression and negative thoughts on him, he looked me straight in the eye and said, with all the authority and resolve of someone who is absolutely sure of what they are saying, “Kahle, that’s enough.”

I was stunned.  I was expecting empathy, an understanding shoulder to cry on.  Instead, I got a simple, straightforward mandate.  Ned knew me well enough to cut through all the fluff and come right to the heart of the matter.  He said, “That’s enough.  That’s enough feeling sorry for yourself.  That’s enough thinking all these negative thoughts.  That’s enough laying back and not working as hard as you’re used to working.  Stop it.  You’re better than all this.  Stop it right now, today, and get your …..  back to work.”

He saw my situation clearly.  And he provided me the direction I needed.  That conversation turned me around.  I left my depression and negativity at that lunch table, and started back into my job with a renewed sense of the possible.  A year later I was the number one sales person in the nation for that company.

What made the difference in my performance was the skillful intervention of an astute and professional sales manager.  He made the difference in my job performance, and that made a difference in my standing with that company.  And that made a difference in my career.  And that lead me to my current practice.  It’s entirely possible that I would not be doing what I do now, speaking and consulting with sales forces around the world, if it weren’t for his timely intervention.

The role of sales management

All of us have become what we are, at least in part, to the impact other people have had on us  —  some positive and some negative.  A professional sales manager is gifted with a rare and precious opportunity — the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the lives of his charges.  I so value the role that Ned played in my career, that the last paragraph on the “Acknowledgment” page of my first book reads, “Finally, I must make special, post-humus acknowledgement of the contribution made by Ned Shaheen, the best manager I ever worked for.  It was Ned who, years ago, urged me to ‘write the book…'”

So what does this have to do with being a “Professional Sales Manager?”  During my 25+ years of sales experience and 16 years of experience as a sales consultant and sales trainer, I’ve encountered many sales managers.  Some of have been good, many mediocre.  But Ned was the best sales manager I ever met, much less worked for.  He serves as a model for me.  We can learn a number of lessons from him.

Lessons…

First, Ned knew the difference between the job of a sales person and that of a sales manager.  He had been a great sales person — like many sales managers around the world — and had been promoted to sales manager.  Yet he knew the job of sales manager and sales person are completely different.  A sales person is responsible for building accounts and making sales.  A sales manager, while ultimately responsible for the same results, understands that his/her job is to achieve those means through other people.  A sales manager builds people, who in turn build the business.  Sales people focus on selling; sales managers focus on building sales people.

As a sales person, I could comfortably take Ned into any account, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn’t try to take over the presentation or usurp my relationship with the customer.  I knew Ned was more concerned with me than he was about any one sale.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case with less professional sales managers.  At one point in my sales career, I labored under a sales manager of lesser competence.  He thought of himself as a super sales person, whose job it was to take over the sales call.  We, the sales people who worked for him, thought of him as a “bull in a china shop”.  He was so intent on showing us what a great sales person he was that he pressured our customers to the point of making them very uncomfortable, causing tremendous damage in every account he encountered.  We sales people would talk on the phone together in the evenings, devising and comparing strategies to keep him out of those accounts which were important to us.

Ned knew that a sales person was essentially a loaner, an individual who did most of his/her most important work by themselves, while a sales manager was a coach, whose only success derived from the success of his team.  A sales manager’s best work is always done, not with the customers, but with the people he/she supervises.

He also clearly understood that a sales manger is a manager.  As such, his relationship with the executive management of his company is different from that of a sales person.  A sales person can sometimes get away with taking an independent attitude, regularly criticizing his company’s decisions and performance.  A sales manager is part of that management of which he formerly could have been so critical.  He must be more loyal to the company, more sensitive to the direction provided by his superiors, and more supportive of the company’s efforts to do things that may not be immediately beneficial to the individual sales people.

Even though Ned respected my relationships in my accounts, he also understood that a sales manager has a responsibility to know and be known by each of the major accounts.  He represents “management” to those accounts, and needs to be on a first name basis with the key customers.  Ned, like every good sales manager, was able to manage that without detracting from my standing in the account.

One of the responsibilities of the professional sales manager is to know and be known by all the key customers within the accounts of all his/her sales people.  The visit by a sales manager is almost always seen positively by customers.  It flatters them, makes them feel important, and gives them a contact in case they have a problem with a sales person, or in case the territory is vacant for a while.

Not only did Ned understand the difference between sales and sales management, he also understood that there was a great difference between being an average sales manager and an excellent one, and he knew what it took to excel at his position.

Ultimately, a sales manager is measured by the results achieved by his people.  Sales, gross profits, market share, key product selling, — all these typical measurements of sales performance are also one of the rulers by which a sales manager is measured.  But there is more.  In addition to the traditional sales measurements, a sales manager generally has broader responsibilities, and more sophisticated measurements.  For example, he may have a budget for which he/she is responsible, some goals for sales person turnover, or other more sophisticated directions for his company.

So, an excellent sales manager, like a great soccer coach, is ultimately measured by his numbers.  It doesn’t matter how empathetic he is, nor how his players respect or like him, if year after year he produces a losing team.  So it is with a sales manager.  Ultimately, an excellent sales manager produces excellent numbers for his company.  In the five years that I worked for Ned, my own territory grew by US $1 million a year, and the branch for which he was responsible grew from about US $6 million to about US $30 million.

While that is one of the ultimate measurements of success for a sales manager, there are other indicators that can be of equal importance.  It’s not unusual for a sales manager to operate in a market that is shrinking, or preside over a geographical area or market segment where the company doesn’t measure up, and sales increases are extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve.  With that in mind, the way in which the sales manager creates those numbers and the impact he/she has along the way, is a powerful measure of the sales manager’s achievements.

Ned was excellent at one of the key competencies of the professional sales manager — he had an eye for talent.  He knew how to hire good people.  After all, he hired me!  Over the years, I watched him take his time, allowing a sales territory to go vacant for months, if necessary, while he waited for the right person to bubble up through his pipeline.  Only one of his hires didn’t work out — which gave him an incredible winning percentage.

A professional sales manager understands the importance of making the right hire, is always recruiting in order to keep the pipeline of prospective sales people full, and spares no expense to make sure the person he hires meets all the necessary criteria.  When I was hired, I went through four interviews, and a full 10-hour day of tests with an industrial psychologist.

With all the time he took to make sure he was hiring the right person, Ned confided in me one day that, “It is more important to fire well than it is to hire well.”  He went on to explain that hiring sales people is an extremely difficult task, and that even the best sales managers fail at it frequently.  Therefore, it was important to recognize your mistake quickly, and act decisively to fix it.

A professional sales manager, then, understands that when it is clear that a sales person is not right for the job, he acts quickly, kindly, and decisively to terminate the individual, allowing both the individual and the company an opportunity to find a better match.  Acting quickly to terminate a sales person who isn’t working out is both good business as well as good ethics.  To allow a mediocre situation to fester to the detriment of the company, the sales person, and the customers is to persist in a dishonesty.

Understanding that he works only through his sales people, and that he has the opportunity to make a great impact on his people, a professional sales manager makes it his business to know his people.  Ned spent days with me in the field, talking not only about business, but also working at understanding the person I was, as well.  He’d arrange to meet me for breakfast or lunch regularly, even if he wasn’t spending the day with me.  He wanted to get to know my wife as well, and paid close attention to her opinions.  Several times over the five years, we went to dinner with him and his current girlfriend.  I could never stop in the office without being expected to sit in his office and talk about things.  And, of course, there was the annual pig roast at his house, where all his sales people and their families were invited to spend a fun day while the pig roasted over the spit.  I was always a person to Ned, never just a “sales person.”

Because he took the time to get to know me, he was equipped with the knowledge of exactly how to best manage me.  And he always saw the potential in me, and was ready to correct me when necessary.  In the first year of my employment, I was earning the reputation among the inside customer support and purchasing people of being  difficult and demanding .  I was a hot-shot superstar who didn’t take their feelings into consideration, and came into the office and dumped work on them.  Ned let me know that my ways needed to change.  At first, I didn’t pay much attention.  My numbers were too good for anybody to be concerned.  So Ned let me know a second time that I was going to have to change.  The situation was so acute, that the operations manager was lobbying to get me fired!  Guided by his firm hand, I swallowed my pride, adopted a more humble attitude, and bought all the customer service reps a six pack of premium beer as a gift.  My stock inside the company sprung up dramatically, my ways corrected, and my future assured.

A professional sales manager guides and corrects his charges in order to help them achieve their potential.

Ned never stopped learning.  He would often tell me about seminars he’d attended, books he’d read, or ideas he’d picked up by talking with other people.  He knew that he never “knew it all.”  So it is with every professional sales manager.  A real professional never stops learning.  He understands that the world is changing rapidly, continually demanding new skills, new ideas, and new competencies from him.  At the same time, his sales people and their customers are changing also.  So, he understands that he has a challenge to continuously grow and improve, to learn more and become better at his job.  Sales management isn’t just a job, it’s a challenge of a lifetime of improvement.

One more observation.  Understanding that a professional sales manager is only successful when his charges are successful, an excellent sales manager supports, encourages and gives his sales people the credit.

It was the fourth year of my tenure, and Ned was lobbying for me to be awarded the “Sales person of the year” award.  It was given not only for sales performance, but for more subjective things – supporting the company’s objectives and ethics, getting along with other people in the company, etc.  The award was a great honor, and extremely difficult to win.  Each sales manager nominated their favorite sales person, and lobbied for one of their charges with the company’s executives, who made the final choice.

The annual awards banquet was held at an exclusive country club, where the men wore tuxedos and the women formal evening gowns.  When dinner was done, the speeches were finished and the lesser awards announced, it came time for the big one, the one I wanted.

The climate was tense and expectant.  The entire room silent as the time approached for the announcement.  Then, as the company president announced my name, it was Ned who thrust his fist in the air and shouted “YES!”

The photograph that hangs on my bedroom wall shows me shaking hands with the president and accepting the award.  Look carefully and you’ll see Ned standing proudly in the background.

There is a song that I find particularly moving.  Perhaps you know the words made popular by Bette Midler.  It goes like this,

It must have been lonely there in my shadow…                                  Without the sun upon your face

            I was the one with all the glory

            You were the one with all the strength.           

            I can fly higher than an eagle

            Because you are the wind beneath my wings.

Want to excel as a sales manger?  Want to be a true professional?  Look at your job as a unique opportunity to impact others, to select, correct, support and encourage your sales people, to achieve your company’s objectives by becoming a positive force in their lives.  It’s not a job, it’s a mission.  Be the wind beneath their wings.

And perhaps, one day, fifteen years from now, someone will write about you.

********************************************************

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The days of learning to manage by trial and error, or mimicking the way you were managed, are long gone.  There is a better way.

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