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Graham Scrivener

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A great sales team depends on a strong first-line sales manager


Graham Scrivener looks at the precarious perch of a first-line sales manager and the importance of leadership development to help them to balance the complexities and demands of their role and turn them into high-performing bosses. 

The role of a first-line sales manager is a juggling act. They have to close sales, coach and motivate their team to be customer-relationship specialists, and know how to develop and execute a successful sales strategy. The pressure is on their shoulders as the success of the sales department is largely dependent on how well they can handle these multiple priorities.

But being able to deliver the many demands of the role isn't something that comes naturally for everyone. Our research has found that few first-line managers are able to do the job successfully if they haven't had help in developing their leadership skills. Some sell well but forget to  grow their sales people. Others learn to balance coaching and selling but ignore the need to work to a strategy.

Unfortunately 58% of people move into management without any leadership experience. Most managers are promoted based on the strength of their technical ability and not their people skills. Few are given any training and development when they're in the role with spend on first-line leaders much lower than managers at other levels. This is despite 60% of first-line managers being responsible for managing 80% of the workforce and 80% of their job involving people-related tasks.

With the right training and support, a great sales manager knows how to lead, develop, motivate and mobilise their team against the goals of the business to improve performance, increase sales cycles and boost average order values.

The three most important skills a sales manager needs to master are:

Being the model salesperson

Good managers help land the big deals and model the skills they want their team to use. With most sales managers promoted on their technical ability, this is a skill many are able to master effectively but the key is remembering that behaviour must be linked to the culture of the organisation and how the company expects business to be conducted.

Coach and motivate

Having a leader that's able to sell well may be encouraging but it's not enough to develop a successful sales force. Taking time to coach individuals is something many managers struggle with because of the time pressures of the job. But it's vital for an engaged and motivated workforce that is equipped with the best skills to do a great job in today's challenging economic conditions.

"Great leaders know that the way they behave impacts on the workplace climate, which affects motivation and performance."

The finest leaders can manage and teach. They take time to shape their team to be customer-relationship specialists so they can demonstrate value beyond pricing, thus separating them from the competition. They have strong communication skills and are accomplished at providing feedback in a way that evaluates and inspires. They spending several minutes a day chatting informally with their team and hold meetings to clarify the team's performance against set business objectives.

Great leaders show staff how to get better results. They respond positively to all ideas and they recognise success publicly.

The best managers acknowledge the limits of people's abilities setting challenging yet realistic goals and they respect the pressure and constraints that each one faces by knowing their workloads and client schedules. They offer for others to take the lead at times whilst encouraging teamwork by providing opportunities to help solve business problems and to share ideas and best practice.

In short, great leaders know that the way they behave impacts on the workplace climate - how it feels to work in the organisation - which affects motivation and performance. Our research has found that the way a manager behaves shapes 70% of the working environment, driven by how they engage with their workforce.

But, with only 30% of employees feeling fully engaged at work and a third claiming their manager hardly or never bothers to talk to them, it appears that many first-line managers and sales managers are struggling to shape workplace climate effectively, impacting the productivity of the team. But building and maintaining a positive climate is a skill that needs to be taught and developed but once shown, most managers master it well. 


Developing and implementing a sales strategy is one of the biggest challenges most first-line managers face but it's a skill worth investing in. A strategy will help mobilise the team effectively so they  deliver against the corporate goals and get the best outcome for the sales department and the business. 

A great sales leader can devise a strategy that aligns to the company objectives whilst meeting customer needs and providing competitive advantage. It sets out how the sales organisation will achieve its goals, and highlight the tactics that will be used. Then the manager has to mobilise the sales force effectively to deliver the tasks and ensure they're all working towards the same outcomes.   

Regular meetings can help check that the strategy is on track but managers need to know how to use this time well - by sharing ideas, successes and raising issues. Running training clinics are another great way to develop the team whilst reinforcing skills that contribute directly to the sales strategy but again, managers need to know how to lead these otherwise they're soon be perceived as a waste of time.  

And a really good strategist will think beyond the sales department and collaborate with other teams and departments that could impact on their customer relationships and consider these processes within their strategy. For example, a deal may cut across the sales, legal and credit departments.

Much rides on the success of a sales manager: if they perform well then the business benefits from a cracking sales team that brings in high revenue. But companies need to recognise the complexities of a sales manager's role and equip them with the right leadership skills. Only then can they reap the rewards of a truly great sales leader.

Graham Scrivener is managing director of Forum EMEA, a global leader in leadership development and sales performance training. For more information on Forum visit


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